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To the chief Musician upon Jonath-elem-recho-kim, Michtam of David, when the Philistines took him in Gath.
There is no cause to question the correctness of the title which assigns this psalm to the time and perils of David’s sojourn at the court of Achish. 1 Samuel 21:10. It was a bold and hazardous policy which led him to take refuge with a heathen king, an enemy of Israel, whose champion David himself had slain in single combat. But the mad fury of Saul seemed to make it necessary. His stay, however, was short. The conspiracy of the courtiers threw him into the greatest danger, and he was glad to escape with his life, though it was by strategy. At a later period King Achish gave David Ziklag, a village in the south of the Philistine territory, where he dwelt secure from Saul, and from the intrigues of the Philistine court, though exposed to the Bedouin robbers of the desert. This psalm should be studied in connexion with Psalms 34, , 142. The divisions are four, the first and third ending with a refrain. Psalms 56:1-4 give utterance to his plaintive prayer and abiding trust in God; Psalms 56:5-7 tell the wary and malicious methods of the conspirators; Psalms 56:8-11 present the true characteristic of the author, the most childlike sensibility in his appeals to God, blending with a heroic faith Psalms 56:10-11 being the refrain of Psalms 56:4, with some enlargement; Psalms 56:12-13, the profession of the vows of God, with praise for deliverance.
Upon Jonath-elem-recho-kim Concerning the silent dove among strangers. Furst thinks this to have been the title of an old poem, after which the psalm was to be sung; but it is better to regard it as enigmatical, denoting the subject of the psalm, that is, David himself, who was now as a silent dove in a far-off land.
When the Philistines took him “When the Philistines seized him,” or held him prisoner. So אהז , ( ahhaz,) imports. He was evidently a prisoner when he feigned himself mad, and thus obtained release. 1 Samuel 21:13.
In Gath One of their five principalities, and the native city of Goliath. It was a rich and powerful city, but the site has long been lost. Dr. J.L. Porter, however, with much probability, identifies it with the ruins of Tell-es-Safieh, on the borders of Judah and Philistia, ten miles east of Ashdod, and about as far south-east of Ekron.
1. Nothing can surpass the tenderness and earnestness of David’s call for help. Man (Hebrew, frail man) would swallow me up Literally, has panted for me. The word denotes the hard breathing which is the effect of anger or eager desire, or of exhaustive pursuit, as of a beast of prey on the scent of his victim a panting eagerness to devour. Such were David’s enemies So Psalms 57:3.
Fighting daily Giving the idea not only of danger unintermitted, but of continuance.
2. Mine enemies Literally, my watchers, namely, the conspirators.
Swallow me up Have panted for me, as a ravenous beast; same word as in Psalms 56:1.
They be many It would seem from the sequel of the history, (1 Samuel 27, 29,) that Achish, the king, favoured David, but was overpowered by the number and influence of his enemies.
O thou Most High מרום , ( maroom,) is nowhere else in Scripture translated as a title of Deity, and should not be here. The word means a high place, as Isaiah 22:16, and figuratively a high office or dignity, and adverbially, in a bad sense, loftily, proudly; my enemies fight against me from a high place, or, they fight loftily, stately, as Psalms 73:8. In the Hebrew territory David had Saul and the government against him; here, in Philistia, the nobility and lords of the nation. Gath was the city of the giants, David’s mortal enemies, of whom he, as already mentioned, had killed Goliath, and of the four surviving, one was Goliath’s brother, 2 Samuel 21:19. They all subsequently fell by the hands of David and his officers. 1 Chronicles 20:0. He might well complain that those who sought his life were numerous and in high places, or of a lofty spirit.
3. What time I am afraid The history informs us, “David… was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath.” 1 Samuel 21:12.
I will trust in thee Never was childlike confidence in the moment of danger more beautifully illustrated. Here was his refuge, his tower of strength. There is no absurdity in supposing fear and trust to coexist; for, as Calvin says, “Experience shows that hope, there in fact, really reigns where some portion of the heart is possessed by fear. When it has been smitten with fear, hope sustains and props it up.”
4. In God I will praise his word God’s “word,” here, probably refers specially to that spoken by Samuel when he anointed him, 1 Samuel 16:13; and also probably at Ramah, 1 Samuel 19:18, by which David became the promised king of Israel. The phrase “in God I will praise,” etc., is equal to by his help, or through his grace, I will praise, etc. His faith held firmly to the word of promise against contradictory appearances.
What flesh can do What all mankind can do. When the word “flesh” is thus figuratively and genetically used, it always takes the adsignification of weakness, mortality. The same word occurs Psalms 56:1. The Hebrew punctuation places the text thus:
In God I have confidence,
I will not fear;
What can flesh [frail man] do to me?
Noble words of a triumphant faith.
5. They wrest my words The word rendered “wrest,” means, fashion, shape; they shape my words to suit their purposes. The text implies that David had entered a defence of the innocent object of his visit, perhaps at different times, and as they were deficient in facts to convict him they sought occasion by torturing his language. Their thoughts Their devices.
6. They gather… together They assemble for evil counsel. The word also signifies a temporary sojourn, or residence, as Genesis 20:1; Isaiah 16:4; and it is not improbable that the chief men in the conspiracy had taken residence at Gath, for the greater convenience of concerted action. So the Septuagint: “They will dwell near, ( παροικησουσι ,”) followed by the Vulgate, inhabitabunt. The version of the Liturgy has it, “they hold all together.”
They hide themselves They lurk in ambush, either literally, or figuratively by deeply concealing their real motives.
They mark my steps Literally, they watch my heels. See on Psalms 49:5; Psalms 89:51, “reproached the footsteps,” (Hebrew heels,) etc.
This watching the heels, like a serpent beside the path, to seize from behind, denotes a malicious and dastardly surveillance of the private acts of one’s life.
When they wait for my soul According as they strongly hoped for my life. The idea is, their extraordinary methods, past and present, agree well with their eager hope to destroy David. The “when” simply marks the agreement of all the several parts of their conduct with each other, and their whole scheme with their bloodthirsty desire. “Wait” literally denotes strong hope. They assuredly hoped to be avenged on David for the death of Goliath, and as the candidate for the sovereignty of Israel.
7. Shall they escape by iniquity Shall they escape because of (as the reward of) iniquity? Here was the point of his concern, lest the wicked, despite their evil doing, should slide away and escape justice, and their success embolden men in sin, and the righteous lose faith in moral government. The fearful question seems negatived instantly, and he adds:
In… anger cast down the people The “anger” of God is always to be understood of his moral displeasure at sin, coupled with his judicial purpose to punish it. The violence with which he would have the sentence executed, (“cast down,” bring down with violence,) is for the end that men may see that their downfall was a divine judgment, and not due to mere secondary causes. “People,” here, is in the plural, (peoples,) and in this form, according to usage, applies to the Gentile nations.
8. Thou tellest my wanderings The word for “tellest” means the numbering and entering upon a roll, or book. To “number” his wanderings is to preserve a record of them as to times, places, distances, circumstances, with the implied idea that they were appointed, accurately measured, and limited. Compare “numberest my steps,” Job 14:16 and Job 31:4, where the same thought occurs. David comforts himself with the assurance that in God’s book was kept a faithful record of his fugitive life, and that it would not exceed the proposed limit.
Put thou my tears into thy bottle An allusion, probably, to the Oriental practice once universal of bottling the tears of mourners at funerals. Thus Van Lennep: “As the mourners are sitting around and weeping, the master of ceremonies presents each one with a piece of cotton wool, with which he wipes off his tears; this cotton is afterwards squeezed into a bottle, and the tears are preserved as a powerful and efficacious remedy for reviving a dying man after every other means has failed. It is also employed as a charm against evil influences.” The practice is still preserved in Persia. “Tear bottles are found in almost every ancient tomb.” Thus David, for the present, sobs out his grief in the bosom of God, who counts and remembers all his tears.
9. Here is the transition point of the psalm from sorrow and complaint to assured faith and praise.
When I cry He dates the flight, the “turning backward” of his enemies, at the day of his earnest outcry to God.
This I know He knew it by faith. God’s word had assured him by the mouth of Samuel, and his triumph is already a reality.
10, 11. The refrain of Psalms 56:4, with enlargement.
12. Thy vows are upon me He reaffirms all his previous vows. They are as sacredly binding here in Gath as in his own land in exile as in the congregation of the saints. This reminding God that he still held to his vows, leaves the fulfilment of the promises wholly depending upon the divine veracity.
I will render praises The form of speech offer thanksgiving is sacrificial, meaning praise or thanksgiving as a sacrifice, or, as in Hosea 14:2, “the calves of our lips.” See Hebrews 13:15. As the promise of “thank offering” immediately follows the mention of his vows, it is probably the votive offering which he promises, which was due after the condition of the vow had been met, and the blessing prayed for granted. This David waits for in faith.
13. Thou hast delivered The perfect tense of the verb refers to events past, as in Psalms 116:8. Upon deliverances already experienced he strengthens himself in God for the future.
Light of the living Opposed to the darkness of sheol, or region of the dead. But with prolonged natural life the divine favour, or spiritual life, must be connected, according to the common form of Old Testament speech, in making the temporal and visible the sign and pledge of the spiritual and eternal.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 56". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/