THIS and the following have been called "twin psalms." They begin with the same words, are nearly of the same length, and have each a refrain which divides them into two portions. Formally, the chief difference between the two is that Psalms 56:1-13. has an epilogue, or appendix (Psalms 56:12, Psalms 56:13), after the second refrain, to which there is nothing correspondent in Psalms 57:1-11. Both psalms were written under circumstances of great distress, and the tone of thought in them is very similar. Each begins with complaint, and earnest prayer for deliverance, while each ends with praise and triumph.
The present psalm has a very complex heading, or "title." First, it is addressed, like most of the other psalms of this book, "to the chief musician," or "precentor." Then it is said to be "On the silent dove of far off regions." Thirdly, it is called "Michtam of David," which some explain as "a golden psalm composed by David." And fourthly, the occasion of its composition is declared to have been "the seizure of David by the Philistines in Gath." David's authorship may readily be accepted, for the psalm is, as Ewald says, "one of the most beautiful in the Psalter." And the occasion is not to be lightly set aside; since, although no seizure of David by the Philistines of Gath is mentioned in 1 Samuel, such an event is quite conceivable; while no compiler or editor of a late date would have ventured to interpolate such a fact into the accepted history of David. The "silent dove" is, no doubt, David himself, who had wished for "the wings of a dove" (Psalms 55:6), and was compelled to be silent while he was in captivity.
Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; literally, man panteth after me—like a wild beast after his prey. The contrast is sharp between "man" (enosh, "weak man") and God (Elohim, "the Mighty One"). He fighting daily oppreseeth me; rather, all the day long is he fighting and oppressing me.
Mine enemies; literally, my watchers—those who keep a continual guard over me. If David had been seized and made a prisoner by the Philistine lords, this expression would be very appropriate. Would daily swallow me up; rather, pant after me all day. For they be many that fight against me. The "lords of the Philistines'' were, doubtless, "many;" they seem to have, all of them, opposed themselves to David (1 Samuel 29:2-9). O thou Most High. This rendering is now generally abandoned, since marom ( מָרוֹם), "height," is nowhere else used in this sense. Dr. Kay, Hengstenberg, and the Revised Version render "proudly;" Professor Cheyne, "with high looks."
What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee; literally, the day when I am afraid. When the day comes that I feel fear stealing over me, by an act of will I (even I, weak as I am) will put my trust in thee (comp. Psalms 7:1; Psalms 11:1; Psalms 18:2, etc.).
In God I will praise his word; rather, through God; i.e. "with God's help, by his grace," I am ready to praise whatever sentence he pronounces, whatever flat goes forth from him. In God I have put my trust (so again, Psalms 56:11). This is at once the refrain and the keynote of the psalm. In all dangers, in all troubles, whatever happens, whatever seems to be impending, the psalmist will never relinquish his trust in the Almighty. I will not fear what flesh can do unto me. This is the true martyr spirit. Compare our Lord's words, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
Every day they wrest my words; rather, all the day long. they wrest (or, torture) my words. They seek to give my words an evil meaning, and so to misrepresent me to Achish, their king. As Canon Cook says, "This description is singularly applicable to David's position among the envious nobles at the court of Achish Still, it does not speak of his having been actually arrested, and does not, therefore, seem to have suggested the inscription." All their thoughts are against his for evil. They are entirely bent on doing the psalmist some hurt. What they really seek is his life (Psalms 56:6); but, short of that, they would gladly do him some mischief.
They gather themselves together, they hide themselves; or, "they gather themselves together; they set an ambush." They mark my steps, when they wait for my soul; literally, they, even they, mark my steps; i.e. they themselves, grand as they are, condescend to be spies, and track my footsteps.
Shall they escape by iniquity? Shall they escape God's judgments, the psalmist asks, by their iniquity? Assuredly not. God will prevent such an escape. In thine anger cast down the people, O God; literally, the peoples; i.e. the heathen generally, to whom David's enemies, the Gittites, belong. Though assured that they will not escape, the psalmist, to make assurance doubly sure, prays that they may not.
Thou tellest my wanderings; i.e. thou, O God, takest account of my wretched wandering life (1 Samuel 21-30), and notest each occasion when I am forced to move from one city, or cave, or wilderness to another. Put thou my tears into thy bottle. Take also note of my tears—let them not pass unheeded. Rather, gather them drop by drop, and store them, as costly wine is stored, in a flask. The thought, thus dressed in a metaphor, was, no doubt (as Professor Cheyne observes), "Store them up in thy memory." Are they not in thy book? i.e. hast thou not anticipated my request, and entered an account of every tear that I have shed, in thy book of records (comp. Psalms 69:28; Psalms 139:16)?
When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me; literally, in the day that I call upon thee.
In God will I praise his word; rather, through God (see the comment on Psalms 56:4). In the Lord (rather, through the Lord) will I praise his word. Professor Cheyne looks upon this as "a feeble Jehovistic interpolation, which interrupts the refrain." But other commentators see in it a certain force.
In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me. Repeated word for word from Psalms 56:4 (see the comment on that passage).
Psalms 56:12, Psalms 56:13
The psalm ends with an expression of thankfulness to God for the deliverance, which is so confidently expected, that it is looked upon as assured, and even spoken of as past (Psalms 56:13).
Thy vows are upon me, O God. The psalmist, under his affliction, has made vows to God; i.e. promises of thank offerings if God would come to his aid, and save him from his enemies. These vows he considers to be now due, and himself to be under the obligation of paying them. Accordingly, he announces his intention of speedily discharging his obligation—I will render praises (rather, thank offerings) unto thee.
For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling; rather, hast thou not delivered (Revised Version); or, surely thou hast delivered (Professor Cheyne). The psalmist views his entire deliverance as accomplished; nothing remains to be asked for. That I may walk before God in the light of the living; i.e. that henceforth I may be free from trouble, and walk before God in the clear daylight, no longer dwelling in darkness, but in "the light of life" (comp. Job 33:30; John 8:12).
Psalms 56:4, Psalms 56:10, Psalms 56:11
The expression and the result of faith.
"In God I will praise his word," etc. This is not a vain repetition or a mere poetic burden. The meaning is enlarged and strengthened. In Psalms 56:4 that Divine name is used which speaks of the Almighty Creator, "God." In Psalms 56:10 this is repeated, but that personal name is added which speaks of God's covenant and faithfulness, "in the Lord" (equivalent to "Jehovah"). Again, in Psalms 56:4 the psalmist speaks of man in his weakness—"flesh;" but in Psalms 56:11—"what man can do"—man in his utmost strength is defied to hurt one of God's refugees. Here is
I. THE EXPRESSION OF FAITH. "In God will I praise his word." The word of God is everywhere in Scripture the special object of faith, for this reason—that it is by his word, viz. his commands and his promises, that God enters into moral relations with us, and enables us to enter into such relations to him. Hence room not for mere vague faith, such as we might have in the Creator of the universe, the Almighty Ruler, the Author of our being; but direct personal trust, accepting and grasping God's word. The name "Jehovah" warrants this faith. The word of promise is chiefly meant. This faith is in contrast to all the causes and circumstances of fear and peril (Psalms 56:1, Psalms 56:2).
II. THE RESULT OF FAITH. "I will not fear." As love casts out the slavish fear of God—the fear which would drive or keep us from him (1 John 4:18)—so faith casts out the fear of man. Let the arrows fly like hail; behind "the shield of faith" (Ephesians 6:16) we are safe, not only from what "flesh and blood" can do, but from our spiritual foes (Ephesians 6:12). Illustrate from such passages as Genesis 16:1; John 6:20. Courage, therefore, is a duty. The courage of self-reliance belongs only to the strong, but the courage of reliance on God is within reach of the weakest. Man of the world, canst thou look the future in the face and say, "I will not fear"?
The experience of God's mercy a ground for hope.
"Thou hast delivered," etc. (Authorized Version). The Revisers have filled up the ellipsis in the Hebrew, "Hast thou not delivered?" instead of "Wilt thou not deliver?" The Hebrew has simply "not," with a word expressing a question. It is one of many cases where the instructed English reader may judge for himself, as well as the Hebrew scholar. Certainly the Authorized Version gives a much more full and harmonious sense, and accords with the analogy of Psalms 56:8—prayer founded on experience, following praise. Thus therefore we will take it—the experience of God's redeeming mercy a ground for hope, and a plea in prayer.
I. HERE IS THANKFUL ACKNOWLEDGMENTS OF GOD'S GREAT GOODNESS. The title, though no part of the psalm, gives (as in other cases) an ancient Jewish tradition as to the special danger from which David had been delivered. David had carried a dangerous trophy with him to the court of Gath—the sword of Goliath. The Philistine chiefs were prompt to point out who this fugitive was. A word from Achish would have avenged the giant's death. But "the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord" (Proverbs 21:1). David was soon breathing the free air of the desert, and looked back with a shudder of horror, but with an overwhelming sense of thankfulness (Psalms 56:3). Some of us can take up these words in their literal sense. You remember when the icy breath of death seemed to chill your blood; the gate of death seemed just ready to roll back on its noiseless hinges, and shut behind you. But God locked it fast. The good Shepherd led you through the dark valley, out into the sunshine. You are the living, to praise him. Others have no such special experience. But what is life but a series of escapes? What is health but the perpetual warding off of death; safety, but hourly deliverance?
"Strange that a harp of thousand strings
Should keep in tune so long!"
The unfailing, unsleeping care of God's Fatherly providence does not strike and amaze us as do miracles; but it is no less wonderful (Lamentations 3:22, Lamentations 3:23). Every real Christian can read in these words a deeper and higher meaning. Deliverance from the death that parts soul and body is but a reprieve—perhaps brief. Death remains to be faced; and behind death, all that makes it indeed terrible. But to the believer in Christ the character of death is wholly changed. The outside show remains; dust must return to dust; the earthly tabernacle must be taken down. But the sting, the terror, the power, of death are gone. Christ has "abolished death" (2 Timothy 1:10) forevery one who can say, "Christ liveth in me." The coming of the last enemy shall be as though an executioner, axe on shoulder, entered the cell of a condemned prisoner. The axe is lifted—it falls, but only on the chain. The dark visitor takes the prisoner by the hand, and leads him into air and sunlight; and, lo! he drops his mask and jailor's garb, flings aside his blunted axe—he is the messenger sent to lead the pardoned offender into the King's presence. "Death!" the Christian may say; "grim sentinel at the gate of immortality; silent porter at the door of my Father's house; my flesh shudders at thee, but my spirit fears thee not. Jesus has conquered thee for me. Because he lives, I shall live also!"
II. PAST DELIVERANCE THUS THANKFULLY ACKNOWLEDGED FURNISHES AN ARGUMENT FOR HOPE, AND A PLEA IN PRAYER. "Wilt thou not," etc.? "I beseech thee to do so: I am sure thou wilt." It is an argument from the greater to the less; like St. Paul's in Romans 8:32. A remarkable and powerful argument, because based on the faithfulness of God's character and the continuity of his dealings. Can he awaken hope only to disappoint? If he has raised a soul from death, reconciled a sinner to himself through the death of Jesus, taught him by his own Spirit to pray, trust, love,—can he forget to be gracious? Impossible! Is it, then, impossible for a believer to fall—for a soul once saved to perish? Not only possible, but inevitable, if left to himself. But surely that is the wrong question to put. Will the Saviour forsake a soul that wholly trusts him? Christ's answer is given (John 10:28-30; 2 Timothy 1:12). This logic of taith the psalmist turns into the rhetoric of prayer. The arrows of prayer, feathered with praise for blessings already received, fly swift and sure: because those blessings are the earnest of others, failing which they would be useless (Philippians 4:6). May we apply this argument to temporal, earthly blessings as well as spiritual? Assuredly; provided always we bear in mind the ruling aim of God's Fatherly guidance. We are travellers, not tourists; our route must be chosen mainly, not for the pleasure of the scenery, but as the right road to our home. But when God led his people through the wilderness, he did not forget the daily manna and the water springs, the cloud by day and the fire by night (Matthew 6:31-33).
HOMILIES BY W. FORSYTH
Fear and deliverance.
Taking this psalm as David's, we may use it to illustrate two great truths.
I. "THE FEAR OF MAN BRINGETH A SNARE." (Proverbs 29:25.) The best of men are but men at the best. David was a man of splendid courage and generosity; but there were times when he grievously erred (1 Samuel 21:10-15). It was said by Dr. Arnold, "The fear of God makes no man do anything mean or dishonourable, but the fear of man does lead to all sorts of weakness and baseness." We may see here how the fear of man leads to failure in truth. When the thought of self is uppermost, we are apt to resort to our own devices. God's ways are too slow, so we turn to our own way. Children, through fear, will tell lies. We pity them and forgive. But, alas! we do not ourselves wholly put away childish things. Abraham prevaricated. David practised deceit. Peter denied his Lord. The fear of man also leads to the sacrifice of independence. Imagination working through fear exaggerates our danger. We become restless and impatient. Instead of bravely facing our foes, we shrink from the path of duty.
"He is a slave who will not be
In the truth, with two or three."
But, worse still, the fear of man may lead to failure in justice and generosity. We are apt to put ourselves first. To save our miserable lives is the chief thing. Rather than that we should suffer, we would let others suffer. Rather than that we should be put to shame, we would have our opponents "cast down." This is the mean, selfish spirit which Satan recognized as so strong in human nature, when he said, "All that a man hath will he give for his life."
II. GOD DELIVERETH HIS SERVANTS THAT TRUST IN HIM. (Daniel 3:28.) How naturally David turned to God in trouble! Circumstances moved him, but there was more—love constrained him. His heart went forth in clinging trust to God. Faith is the true antidote to fear. It lifts us out of the dust. It places us by the side of God. It fills our soul with peace and hope. Through trust we gain courage to face the foe (Psalms 56:6). Further, we obtain resolution to continue the conflict (Psalms 56:7-9). Taking hold of God's strength, we wax strong. All that is deepest and truest in our hearts calls upon us to be brave, and to quit ourselves like men. We are in the way of duty, and are able to say, like the king in the story, "Come on, come all; this rock shall fly from its firm base as soon as I." The experience of the past and the sure word of promise raise our hopes. We look to the future with confidence. In all our wanderings God watches over us. In all our weaknesses and sorrows God stands by us with tender compassion for our weaknesses, and with loving consolations for our sorrows. The victory will be with the right (Psalms 56:10-13). If God has begun a good work in us, he will carry it on to the end. He who has been our Refuge in the past will not fail us in the future. Therefore let us go forward bravely in the path of duty, not counting our lives dear unto ourselves, so that we may be found faithful to him who hath called us, and finish our course with joy.—W.F.
The first time we read of vows in the Bible is in Genesis 28:20, where it is said, "And Jacob vowed a vow." Sometimes vows were made at special times and for special purposes; but, in the deepest sense, God's people felt that to them life was a vow; at every moment and through all changes they were under the law of consecration to God. The words of the psalmist may be held as appropriate to the period of entering upon a new year. This is a fitting time—
I. FOR THANKFUL ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF GOD'S MERCIES. The eye is upon the past, and as the memory calls up God's deeds of love, the heart glows with gratitude. "I will render praises unto thee." How just and reasonable!—"For thou hast delivered my soul from death."
II. EARNEST PRAYER TO GOD FOR SPIRITUAL HELP. The future has its dangers. The biographies of good men, our own experiences, and the circumstances of our lot, warn us that we are liable to fall. In our weakness and fear we cry to God, "Wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling?" Fails are hurtful to ourselves and to others. Therefore our cry should be the more urgent to him who is "able to keep us from falling" (Jud Genesis 1:24). The deliverances of the past are a strong plea for deliverance in the future. As Cowper has said of gifts, we may say of deliverances—
"The best return for one like me,
So wretched and so poor,
Is from his gifts to draw a plea,
And ask him still for more."
III. RENEWAL OF OUR COVENANT ENGAGEMENTS. "Thy vows." It is well for us to consecrate ourselves afresh to God.
1. To walk before God.
2. In the light of the living.
Christ is the Living One (Revelation 1:18). The saints are the living (1 Thessalonians 5:10). It is in the light of Christ, and in fellowship with his people, that we can best fulfil our course here, and best prepare for the services of eternity. How sweet the light instead of the darkness! and how blessed life instead of death!—W.F.
HOMILIES BY C. SHORT
The struggle and victory of faith.
The contents of this psalm may be summed up as the struggle and the victory of faith.
I. THE STRUGGLE OF FAITH. He is in great fear and danger on account of the plots and wickedness of his enemies. They fight against him with the most dangerous weapons they can command. He does not seek to defend himself with counter plots such as they employed. What are his weapons? The one mighty weapon of trust in God.
1. In the merciful protection of the Almighty One. (Psalms 56:1.) In the power of God as contrasted with the weakness of man.
2. In the word of God's eternal promise. "When I am encompassed with fear, then do I trust and praise his faithful word" (Psalms 56:3 and Psalms 56:4).
3. In God's retributive justice. (Psalms 56:7.) That he will overturn and punish all evil doers.
4. In the tenderness and strength of the Divine sympathy. God counts his sighs, put his tears in his bottle, and records them in his book of remembrance.
II. THE VICTORY OF FAITH. (Psalms 56:9-13.)
1. And will put his enemies to flight when he calls upon him. (Psalms 56:9.) Of this he is triumphantly assured, even against all present appearances.
2. He knows that God is on his side. (Psalms 56:9.) God always on the side of the righteous, to protect them from all real harm. "If God be for us, who can be against us?"
3. He sees his salvation as an already accomplished fact. (Psalms 56:13.) Faith sees the future in the present, and the distant in the near (Hebrew Psalms 11:1).
4. He is thus filled with the spirit of praise and fidelity. (Psalms 56:12.) Will perform his vows and render thanks. "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even your faith."—S.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 56". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany