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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
Psalms 56

 

 

Verse 3-4

Psalms

FEAR AND FAITH

Psalms 56:3 - Psalms 56:4.

It is not given to many men to add new words to the vocabulary of religious emotion. But so far as an examination of the Old Testament avails, I find that David was the first that ever employed the word that is here translated, I will trust, with a religious meaning. It is found occasionally in earlier books of the Bible in different connections, never in regard to man’s relations to God, until the Poet-Psalmist laid his hand upon it, and consecrated it for all generations to express one of the deepest relations of man to his Father in heaven. And it is a favourite word of his. I find it occurs constantly in his psalms; twice as often, or nearly so, in the psalms attributed to David as in all the rest of the Psalter put together; and as I shall have occasion to show you in a moment, it is in itself a most significant and poetic word.

But, first of all, I ask you to notice how beautifully there comes out here the occasion of trust. ‘What time I am afraid, I will put my trust in Thee.’

This psalm is one of those belonging to the Sauline persecution. If we adopt the allocation in the superscription, it was written at one of the very lowest points of David’s fortunes. And there seem to be one or two of its phrases which acquire new force, if we regard the psalm as drawn forth by the perils of his wandering, hunted life. For instance-’Thou tellest my wanderings,’ is no mere expression of the feelings with which he regarded the changes of this early pilgrimage, but is the confidence of the fugitive that in the doublings and windings of his flight God’s eye marked him. ‘Put thou my tears into Thy bottle’-one of the few indispensable articles which he had to carry with him, the water-skin which hung beside him, perhaps, as he meditated. So read in the light of his probable circumstances, how pathetic and eloquent does that saying become-’What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.’ That goes deep down into the realities of life. It is when we are ‘afraid’ that we trust in God; not in easy times, when things are going smoothly with us. Not when the sun shines, but when the tempest blows and the wind howls about his ears, a man gathers his cloak round him, and cleaves fast to his supporter. The midnight sea lies all black; but when it is cut into by the oar, or divided and churned by the paddle, it flashes up into phosphorescence, and so it is from the tumults and agitation of man’s spirit that there is struck out the light of man’s faith. There is the bit of flint and the steel that comes hammering against it; and it is the contact of these two that brings out the spark. The man never knew confidence who does not know how the occasion that evoked and preceded it was terror and need. ‘What time I am afraid, I will trust.’ That is no trust which is only fair weather trust. This principle-first fear, and only then, faith-applies all round the circle of our necessities, weaknesses, sorrows, and sins.

There must, first of all, be the deep sense of need, of exposedness to danger, of weakness, of sorrow, and only then will there come the calmness of confidence. A victorious faith will

‘rise large and slow

From out the fluctuations of our souls,

As from the dim and tumbling sea

Starts the completed moon.’

And then, if so, notice how there is involved in that the other consideration, that a man’s confidence is not the product of outward circumstances, but of his own fixed resolves. ‘I will put my trust in Thee.’ Nature says, ‘Be afraid!’ and the recoil from that natural fear, which comes from a discernment of threatening evil, is only possible by a strong effort of the will. Foolish confidence opposes to natural fear a groundless resolve not to be afraid, as if heedlessness were security, or facts could be altered by resolving not to think about them. True faith, by a mighty effort of the will, fixes its gaze on the divine Helper, and there finds it possible and wise to lose its fears. It is madness to say, ‘I will not to be afraid!’ it is wisdom and peace to say, ‘I will trust, and not be afraid.’ But it is no easy matter to fix the eye on God when threatening enemies within arm’s-length compel our gaze; and there must be a fixed resolve, not indeed to coerce our emotions or to ignore our perils, but to set the Lord before us, that we may not be moved. When war desolates a land, the peasants fly from their undefended huts to the shelter of the castle on the hilltop, but they cannot reach the safety of the strong walls without climbing the steep road. So when calamity darkens round us, or our sense of sin and sorrow shakes our hearts, we need effort to resolve and to carry into practice the resolution, ‘I flee unto Thee to hide me.’ Fear, then, is the occasion of faith, and faith is fear transformed by the act of our own will, calling to mind the strength of God, and betaking ourselves thereto. Therefore, do not wonder if the two things lie in your hearts together, and do not say, ‘I have no faith because I have some fear,’ but rather feel that if there be the least spark of the former it will turn all the rest into its own bright substance. Here is the stifling smoke, coming up from some newly-lighted fire of green wood, black and choking, and solid in its coils; but as the fire burns up, all the smoke-wreaths will be turned into one flaming spire, full of light and warmth. Do you turn your smoke into fire, your fear into faith. Do not be down-hearted if it takes a while to convert the whole of the lower and baser into the nobler and higher. Faith and fear do blend, thank God! They are as oil and water in a man’s soul, and the oil will float above, and quiet the waves. ‘What time I am afraid’-there speak nature and the heart; ‘I will trust in Thee’-there speaks the better man within, lifting himself above nature and circumstances, and casting himself into the extended arms of God, who catches him and keeps him safe.

Then, still further, these words, or rather one portion of them, give us a bright light and a beautiful thought as to the essence and inmost centre of this faith or trust. Scholars tell us that the word here translated ‘trust’ has a graphic, pictorial meaning for its root idea. It signifies literally to cling to or hold fast anything, expressing thus both the notion of a good tight grip and of intimate union. Now, is not that metaphor vivid and full of teaching as well as of impulse? ‘I will trust in Thee.’ ‘And he exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they should cleave unto the Lord.’ We may follow out the metaphor of the word in many illustrations. For instance, here is a strong prop, and here is the trailing, lithe feebleness of the vine. Gather up the leaves that are creeping all along the ground, and coil them around that support, and up they go straight towards the heavens. Here is a limpet in some pond or other, left by the tide, and it has relaxed its grasp a little. Touch it with your finger and it grips fast to the rock, and you will want a hammer before you can dislodge it. There is a traveller groping along some narrow broken path, where the chamois would tread cautiously, his guide in front of him. His head reels, and his limbs tremble, and he is all but over, but he grasps the strong hand of the man in front of him, or lashes himself to him by the rope, and he can walk steadily. Or, take that story in the Acts of the Apostles, about the lame man healed by Peter and John. All his life long he had been lame, and when at last healing comes, one can fancy with what a tight grasp ‘the lame man held Peter and John.’ The timidity and helplessness of a lifetime made him hold fast, even while, walking and leaping, he tried how the unaccustomed ‘feet and ankle bones’ could do their work. How he would clutch the arms of his two supporters, and feel himself firm and safe only as long as he grasped them! That is faith, cleaving to Christ, twining round Him with all the tendrils of our heart, as the vine does round its pole; holding to Him by His hand, as a tottering man does by the strong hand that upholds.

And there is one more application of the metaphor, which perhaps may be best brought out by referring to a passage of Scripture. We find this same expression used in that wonderfully dramatic scene in the Book of Kings, where the supercilious messengers from the king of Assyria came up and taunted the king and his people on the wall. ‘What confidence is this wherein thou trustest? Now, on whom dost thou trust, that thou rebellest against me? Now, behold, thou trustest upon the staff of this bruised reed, even upon Egypt, on which, if a man lean, it will go into his hand and pierce it: so is Pharaoh, king of Egypt, unto all that trust on him,’ The word of our text is employed there, and as the phrase shows, with a distinct trace of its primary sense. Hezekiah was leaning upon that poor paper reed on the Nile banks, that has no substance, or strength, or pith in it. A man leans upon it, and it runs into the palm of his hand, and makes an ugly festering wound. Such rotten stays are all our earthly confidences. The act of trust, and the miserable issues of placing it on man, are excellently described there. The act is the same when directed to God, but how different the issues. Lean all your weight on God as on some strong staff, and depend upon it that your support will never yield nor crack and no splinters will run into your palms from it.

If I am to cling with my hand I must first empty my hand. Fancy a man saying, ‘I cannot stand unless you hold me up; but I have to hold my bank book, and this thing, and that thing, and the other thing; I cannot put them down, so I have not a hand free to lay hold with, you must do the holding.’ That is what some of us are saying in effect. Now the prayer, ‘Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe,’ is a right one; but not from a man who will not put his possessions out of his hands that he may lay hold of the God who lays hold of him.

‘Nothing in my hand I bring.’

Then, of course, and only then, when we are empty-handed, shall we be free to grip and lay hold; and only then shall we be able to go on with the grand words-

‘Simply to Thy Cross I cling,’

as some half-drowned, shipwrecked sailor, flung up on the beach, clasps a point of rock, and is safe from the power of the waves that beat around him.

And then one word more. These two clauses that I have put together give us not only the occasion of faith in fear, and the essence of faith in this clinging, but they also give us very beautifully the victory of faith. You see with what poetic art-if we may use such words about the breathings of such a soul-he repeats the two main words of the former verse in the latter, only in inverted order-’What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.’ He is possessed by the lower emotion, and resolves to escape from its sway into the light and liberty of faith. And then the next words still keep up the contrast of faith and fear, only that now he is possessed by the more blessed mood, and determines that he will not fall back into the bondage and darkness of the baser. ‘In God I have put my trust; I will not fear.’ He has confidence, and in the strength of that he resolves that he will not yield to fear. If we put that thought into a more abstract form it comes to this: that the one true antagonist and triumphant rival of all fear is faith, and faith alone. There is no reason why any man should be emancipated from his fears either about this world or about the next, except in proportion as he has faith. Nay, rather it is far away more rational to be afraid than not to be afraid, unless I have this faith in Christ. There are plenty of reasons for dread in the dark possibilities and not less dark certainties of life. Disasters, losses, partings, disappointments, sicknesses, death, may any of them come at any moment, and some of them will certainly come sooner or later. Temptations lurk around us like serpents in the grass, they beset us in open ferocity like lions in our path. Is it not wise to fear unless our faith has hold of that great promise, ‘Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder; there shall no evil befall thee’? But if we have a firm hold of God, then it is wise not to be afraid, and terror is folly and sin. For trust brings not only tranquillity, but security, and so takes away fear by taking away danger.

That double operation of faith in quieting and in defending is very strikingly set forth by an Old Testament word, formed from the verb here employed, which means properly confidence, and then in one form comes to signify both in security and in safety, secure as being free from anxiety, safe as being sheltered from peril. So, for instance, the people of that secluded little town of Laish, whose peaceful existence amidst warlike neighbours is described with such singular beauty in the Book of Judges, are said to ‘dwell careless, quiet, and secure.’ The former phrase is literally ‘in trust,’ and the latter is ‘trusting.’ The idea sought to be conveyed by both seems to be that double one of quiet freedom from fear and from danger. So again, in Moses’ blessing, ‘The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by Him,’ we have the same phrase to express the same twofold benediction of shelter, by dwelling in God, from all alarm and from all attack:

‘As far from danger as from fear,

While love, Almighty love is near.’

This thought of the victory of faith over fear is very forcibly set forth in a verse from the Book of Proverbs, which in our version runs ‘The righteous is bold as a lion.’ The word rendered ‘is bold’ is that of our text, and would literally be ‘trusts,’ but obviously the metaphor requires such a translation as that of the English Bible. The word that properly describes the act of faith has come to mean the courage which is the consequence of the act, just as our own word confidence properly signifies trust, but has come to mean the boldness which is born of trust. So, then, the true way to become brave is to lean on God. That, and that alone, delivers from otherwise reasonable fear, and Faith bears in her one hand the gift of outward safety, and in her other that of inward peace.

Peter is sinking in the water; the tempest runs high. He looks upon the waves, and is ready to fancy that he is going to be swallowed up immediately. His fear is reasonable if he has only the tempest and himself to draw his conclusions from. His helplessness and the scowling storm together strike out a little spark of faith, which the wind cannot blow out, nor the floods quench. Like our Psalmist here, when Peter is afraid, he trusts. ‘Save, Lord! or I perish.’ Immediately the outstretched hand of his Lord grasps his, and brings him safety, while the gentle rebuke, ‘O thou of little faith! wherefore didst thou doubt?’ infuses courage into his beating heart. The storm runs as high as ever, and the waves beat about his limbs, and the spray blinds his eyes. If he leaves his hold for one moment down he will go. But, as long as he clasps Christ’s hand, he is as safe on that heaving floor as if his feet were on a rock; and as long as he looks in Christ’s face and leans upon His upholding arm, he does not ‘see the waves boisterous,’ nor tremble at all as they break around him. His fear and his danger are both gone, because he holds Christ and is upheld by Him. In this sense, too, as in many others, ‘this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.’


Verse 13

Psalms

A SONG OF DELIVERANCE

Psalms 56:13.

According to the ancient Jewish tradition preserved in the superscription of this psalm, it was written at the lowest ebb of David’s fortunes, ‘when the Philistines took him in Gath,’ and as you may remember, he saved himself by adding the fox’s hide to the lion’s skin, and by pretending to be an idiot, degraded as well as delivered himself. Yet immediately after, if we accept the date given by the superscription, the triumphant confidence and devout hope of this psalm animated his mind. How unlike the true man was to what he appeared to be to Achish and his Philistines! It is strange that the inside and the outside should correspond so badly; but yet, thank God! it is possible. We note,

I. The deliverance realised by faith before it is accomplished in fact.

You will observe that I have made a slight alteration in the translation of the words. In our Authorised Version they stand thus: ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death; wilt Thou not deliver my feet from falling?’ as if some prior deliverance was the basis upon which the Psalmist rested his expectation of that which was still to come. But there is no authority in the original for that variation of tenses, and both clauses obviously refer to the same period and the same deliverance. Therefore we must read: ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death: hast Thou not delivered,’ etc.; the question being equivalent to a strong affirmation, ‘Yea, Thou hast delivered my feet from falling.’ This reference of both clauses to the same period and the same delivering act, is confirmed by the quotation of these words in a very much later psalm, the Psalms 116:8, where we read, with an addition, ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.’

So, then, the Psalmist is so sure of the deliverance that is coming that he sings of it as past. He is still in the very thick of the trouble and the fight, and yet he says, ‘It is as good as over. Thou hast delivered.’

How does he come to that confidence? Simply because his future is God; and whoever has God for his future can turn else uncertain hopes into certain confidences, and make sure of this, that however Achish and his giant Philistines of Gath, wielding Goliath’s arms, spears like a weaver’s beam, and brazen armour, may compass him about, in the name of the Lord he will destroy them. They are all as good as dead, though they are alive and hostile at this moment. In the midst of trouble we can fling ourselves into the future, or rather draw the future into the present, and say, ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death.’ It is safe to reckon on to-morrow when we reckon on God. We to-day have the same reasons for the same confidence; and if we will go the right way about it, we, too, may bring June’s sun into November’s fogs, and bask in the warmth of certain deliverance even when the chill mists of trouble enfold us.

But then note, too, here, the substance of this future intervention which, to the Psalmist’s quiet faith, is present:-’My soul from death,’ and after that he says, ‘My feet from falling,’ which looks very like an anticlimax and bathos. But yet, just because to deliver the feet from falling is so much smaller a thing than delivering a life from death, it comes here to be a climax and something greater. The storm passes over the man. What then? After the storm has passed, he is not only alive, but he is standing upright. It has not killed him. No, it has not even shaken him. His feet are as firm as ever they were, and just because that is a smaller thing, it is a greater thing for the deliverance to have accomplished than the other. God does not deliver by halves; He does not leave the delivered man maimed, or thrown down, though living.

Remember, too, the expansion of the text in the psalm to which I have already referred, one of a much later date, which by quoting these words really comments upon them. The later Psalmist adds a clause. ‘Mine eyes from tears,’ and we may follow on in the same direction, and note the three spheres in which the later poet hymns the delivering hand of God as spiritualising for us all our deeper Christian experience. ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death,’ in that great redemption by which the Son has died that we may never know either the intensest bitterness of physical death, or the true death of which it is the shadow and the emblem. ‘Thou hast delivered mine eyes from tears’; God wipes away tears here, even before we come to the time when He wipes away all tears from off all faces, and no eyes are delivered from tears, except eyes that have looked through tears to God. ‘And my feet from falling’-redeeming grace which saves the soul; comforting grace which lightens sorrow; upholding grace which keeps us from sins-these are the elements of what God has done for us all, if our poor feeble trust has rested on Him.

How did David get to this confidence? Why, he prayed himself into it. If you will read the psalm, you will see very clearly the process by which a man comes to that serene, triumphant trust that the battle is won even whilst it is raging around him. The previous portion of the psalm falls into two parts, on which I need only make this one remark, that in both we have first of all an obvious disquieting fact, and then a flash of victorious confidence. Let me just read a word or two to you. The Psalmist begins in a very minor key. ‘Be merciful unto me, O God! for man would swallow me up’-that is Achish and his Philistines. ‘He fighting daily oppresseth me; mine enemies daily would swallow me up.’ He reiterates the same thought with the dreary monotony of sorrow, ‘for there be many that fight against me, O Thou most High!’ But swiftly his note changes into ‘What time I am afraid I will trust in Thee. In God I will praise His word’; that is to say, His promise of deliverance, ‘in God I have put my trust.’ He has climbed to the height, but only for a moment, for down he drops again, and begins anew the old miserable complaint. The sorrow is too clinging to be cast off at one struggle. It has been dammed out for the moment, but the flood rushes too heavily, and away goes the dam, and back pours the black water. ‘Every day they wrest my words; all their thoughts are against me for evil.’ And he goes on longer on his depressing key this second time than he did the first, but he rises above it once more in the same fashion, and the refrain with which he had closed the first part of the psalm closes the second. ‘In God will I praise His word; in the Lord will I praise His word.’ Now he has won the height and keeps it, and breaks into a paean of victory in words of the text.

That is to say, pray yourselves into confidence, and if it does not come at first, pray again. If the consolation seems to glide away, even whilst you are laying hold of it, grasp it once more, and close your fingers more tightly on it. Do not be afraid of going down into the depths a second time, but be sure that you try to rise out of them at the same point as before, by grasping the assurance that in God, in His strength, and by His grace, you will be able to set your seal to the truth of His great promise. Thus will you rise to this confidence which calleth things that are not as though they were, and brings the to-morrow that is sure to dawn with all its brightness and serenity into the turbulent, tempestuous, and clouded atmosphere of to-day. We shall one day escape from all that burdens, and tries, and tasks us; and until then this blessed assurance, the fruit of prayer, is like the food that the ravens brought to the prophet in the ravine, or the bread and water that the angel awoke him to partake of when he was faint in the wilderness. The true answer to David’s prayer was the immediate access of confidence unshaken, though the outward answer was a long time in coming, and years lay between him and the cessation of his persecutions and troubles. So we may have brooks by the way, in quiet confidence of deliverance ere yet the deliverance comes. Then note,

II. The impulse to service which deliverance brings.

‘That I may walk before God in the light of the living’; that is God’s purpose in all His deliverances, that we may thereby be impelled to trustful and grateful service. And David makes that purpose into a vow, for the words might almost as well be translated, ‘I will walk before Him.’ Let us see to it that God’s purpose is our resolve, and that we do not lose the good of any of the troubles or discipline through which He passes us; for the worst of all sorrows is a wasted sorrow.

‘Thou hast delivered my feet that I may walk.’ What are feet for? Walking. Further, notice the precise force of that phrase, ‘that I may walk before God.’ It is not altogether the same as the cognate one which is used about Enoch, that ‘he walked with God.’ That expresses communion as with a friend; this, the ordering of one’s life before His eye, and in the consciousness of His presence as Judge and as Taskmaster. So you find the expression used in almost the only other occasion where it occurs in the Old Testament, where God says to Abraham, ‘Walk before Me, and’-because thou dost order thy life in the consciousness that I am looking at thee-’be thou perfect.’ So, to walk before God is to live even in all the distracting activities of daily life, with the clear realisation, and the continued thought burning in our minds that we are doing them all in His presence. Think of what a regiment of soldiers on parade does as each file passes in front of the saluting point where the commanding officer is standing. How each man dresses up, and they pull themselves together, keeping step, sloping their rifles rightly. We are not on parade, but about business a great deal more serious than that. We are doing our fighting with the Captain looking at us, and that should be a stimulus, a joy and not a terror. Realise God’s eye watching you, and sin, and meanness, and negligence, and selfishness, and sensuality, and lust, and passion, and all the other devils that are in you will vanish like ghosts at cockcrow. ‘Walk before Me,’ and if you feel that I am beside you, you cannot sin. ‘Walk before Me, and be thou perfect.’ Notice,

III. The region in which that observance of the divine eye is to be carried on.

‘In the light of the living,’ says the Psalmist. That seems to correspond to the first clause of his hope; just as the previous word that I have been commenting upon, ‘walking before Him,’ corresponds to the second, where he speaks about his feet. ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death. . . . I will walk before Thee in the light of the living’-where Thou dost still permit my delivered soul to be. And the phrase seems to mean the sunshine of human life contrasted with the darkness of Sheol.

The expression is varied in the 116th Psalm, which reads ‘the land of the living.’ The really living are they who live in Jesus, and the real light of the living is the sunshine that streams on those who thus live, because they live in Him who not only pours His light upon their hearts, but, by pouring it, turns themselves into ‘light in the Lord.’ We, too, may have the brightness of His face irradiating our faces and illuminating our paths, as with the beneficence of a better sunshine. The Psalmist points us the way thus to walk in light. He vows that, because his heart is full of the great mercies of his delivering God, he will order all his active life as under the consciousness of God’s eye upon him, and then it will all be lightened as by a burst of sunshine. Our brightest light is the radiance from the face of God whom we try to love and serve, and the Psalmist’s confidence is that a life of observance of His commandments in which gratitude for deliverance is the impelling motive to continual realisation of His presence, and an accordant life, will be a bright and sunny career. You will live in the sunshine if you live before His face, and however wintry the world may be, it will be like a clear frosty day. There is no frost in the sky, it does not go above the atmosphere, and high above, in serene and wondrous blue, is the blaze of the sunshine. Such a life will be a guided life. There will still remain many occasions for doubt in the region of belief, and for perplexity as to duty. There will often be need for patient and earnest thought as to both, and there will be no lack of calls for strenuous effort of our best faculties in order to apprehend what our Guide means us to do, and where He would have us go, but through it all there will be the guiding hand. As the Master, with perhaps a glance backwards to these words, said, ‘He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.’ If He is in the light let us walk in the light, and to us it will be purity and knowledge and joy.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Psalms 56:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/psalms-56.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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