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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Psalms 56

 

 

Verses 1-4

The Heading (Psalms 56:1 a).

‘For the Chief Musician; set to Yonath elem rehokim (‘the silent dove of far off places (or ‘men’)’). A Psalm of David. Michtam; when the Philistines took him in Gath.

This is another Psalm dedicated to the Choirmaster or Chief Musician (the head of music). A Michtam may signify ‘a covering’ and thus a plea for protection (from the Akkadian katamu (‘to cover’). It has also been interpreted as ‘a golden Psalm’ (from chetem = ‘gold’). Michtam occurs also in reference to Psalms 16; Psalms 56-60. The tune ‘silent doves of far off places (or ‘far off men’) may originally have been the music composed for a Psalm celebrating the cultic releasing of birds to fly off to far off places (Leviticus 14:5-7). Or alternately of a Psalm celebrating escape from the turmoils of life (compare Psalms 55:6). The situation in life is described as being when the Philistines seized David in Gath (1 Samuel 21:10 ff.). At this time he had fled from Israel, possibly alone, and had taken refuge with Achish of Gath (that is in territory ruled by Achish) hoping to be unrecognised. But there he was challenged as to whether he was the successful Israelite commander who had had great successes against the Philistines. Being brought before Achish he escaped whatever fate might have been in store for him by feigning madness, subsequently fleeing back to Adullam where he built up his own fighting force.

Accepting the provenance stated it would appear that, having arrived in Gath after fleeing from the persecutions of Saul (Psalms 56:1-2), and hoping to be unnoticed, David’s footsteps were dogged by suspicious Philistines (Psalms 56:6). They clearly challenged him as to who he was (Psalms 56:5) refusing to accept his assurances, or that he was there in peace, and thus determined evil against him. The Psalm may well have been written while he was waiting for them to pounce, and praying in anticipation, with the final verses of the Psalm indicating that he had prayed through to a position of certainty concerning YHWH’s deliverance, even though it was yet future.

The Psalm stresses the Psalmist’s trust in God (Psalms 56:3-4; Psalms 56:10-11) and the powerful enemies whom he is facing (Psalms 56:1 a, 2, 5-7), and can be divided up into four parts:

A plea for God’s protection (Psalms 56:1-4).

A description of his enemies tactics as they close in on him (Psalms 56:5-7).

· An expression of his trust in God in the face of his enemies (Psalms 56:8-11).

· An expression of his gratitude for his deliverance (Psalms 56:12-13).

A Plea For God’s Protection (Psalms 56:1-4).

Psalms 56:1-2

‘Show favour to me, O God, for a human (’enosh) would swallow me up,

All the day long his fighting oppresses me.’

My enemies would swallow me up all the day long,

For they are many who fight haughtily (on high) against me.’

These verses may refer to the circumstances which forced David to flee to Gath, and thus be speaking of Saul’s attempts on his life. Alternately they may have in mind the attempts by the Philistines to seek him out whilst he was in hiding in a Philistine city.

Taking the first, and more probable alternative in view of the language, he calls on God for favour in view of the fact that a mere earthly man is seeking to swallow him up. He emphasises the continual attempts by his enemy (Saul or his erstwhile friend - Psalms 55), along with his men, to oppress him and ‘swallow him up’ (repeated twice for emphasis). These attempts have been occurring continually ‘all the day long’ (repeated twice for emphasis). He has never been able to relax. For his enemies are numerous and are behaving arrogantly towards him. They have set themselves up ‘on high’.

The repetitions stress how strongly he feels his situation, and how harassed he feels, as well he might for he has moved from being a power in the land to being a lone fugitive. But he is still confident in God, for whilst his enemies might think much of themselves, he recognises that they are mere humans.

Note the twofold patterns. ‘A human’ (line 1) contrasts with the fact that they have set themselves up ‘on high’ (line 4). All the day long (line 2) parallels ‘all the day long’ (line 3). There is a chiastic pattern. But ‘swallow me up’ occurs in lines 1 and 3, and ‘fighting’ occurs in lines 2 and 4. So there is also a consecutive pattern.

Psalms 56:3-4

The time when I am afraid,

I will put my trust in you.’

In God, I will praise his word,

In God have I put my trust,

I will not be afraid, what can flesh do to me?’

He assures God of how much he trusts in Him (repeated twice). When he is afraid it is to God that he will look, and as a consequence he will not be afraid. And this is because he has full confidence in Him. He had cause to be afraid, for the hand of Saul, and every man’s hand was against him. And even now as a fugitive in Gath he was in enemy territory. The Philistines had no cause to love him either. So he was beset on every side. But he was confident that God was greater than them all, and that He would help him. Why then should he be afraid. After all his enemies were merely flesh. On the other hand God was God, and he trusted Him and praised His promised word (possibly the word spoken to him by Samuel). Compare for this Psalms 56:10.

Note again the chiastic pattern. ‘Afraid’ in lines 1 and 5. ‘Put my trust’ in lines 2 and 4. ‘In God’ in lines 3 and 4.


Verse 5

‘All day long they wrest my words,

All their thoughts are against me for evil.’

So now that he is in Philistine territory David finds that he has not escaped from trouble. It still dogs him ‘all day long’. The Philistines are suspicious of this Israelite fugitive who has come among them, and they are questioning him and twisting his words. It is quite clear that they intend trouble against him. Their thoughts are against him. They are for evil and not for good.

Psalms 56:6

‘They gather themselves together,

They hide themselves,

They mark my steps,

Even as they have waited for my life.’

A group of Philistines have apparently got together. They are watching him continually. They try to remain unobserved, although to no avail, and they watch his every step. It is quite clear that they bode no good, and are waiting for his life. He had escaped from Saul only to find himself pursued by the Philistines. If at this stage they were already fairly sure that he was David, one of Saul’s most successful commanders (1 Samuel 21:21-22), we can understand why they were suspicious. But it seems that they were not absolutely sure of their ground. Later they would detain him and bring him before Achish, one of the five Philistine Rulers (1 Samuel 21:14), but by this time David, aware of his great danger, had begun to feign madness so that Achish dismissed him in contempt.

Psalms 56:7

‘Will they escape by iniquity?

In anger cast down the peoples, O God.’

In David’s eyes these men are accountable to God, and what they are planning is iniquitous. He feels that as a fugitive (and as the anointed of YHWH) he deserves consideration, and that all they are doing is make things worse for him. He had come in good faith and sought refuge among them. Did they think that they could escape any threat that he posed by failing to show hospitality and doing him harm? Was he not only one among many? To David’s pure soul this was not acceptable conduct, it was inexcusable (it was the opposite of what he would have done). And he calls on God in His anger against their perfidy to ‘cast down the peoples’, that is, all who are causing him trouble, whether Israelite or Canaanite or Philistine, and all who are like them. At present he sees the whole world as against him. Everyone has proved to be his enemy.


Verses 5-7

A Description Of His Enemies Tactics As They Close In On Him (Psalms 56:5-7).

These words could still refer to his enemies in Israel, but it seems more likely that they have his current situation in mind as a fugitive among the Philistines. When he arrived among them it would not be surprising if he was closely questioned, for it would be clear to them that he was an Israelite. The Israelites were no friends of the Philistines, although no doubt in times of peace they traded with each other, but the Israelites had been a subject people, and quite probably there were many Israelites living in Philistia. This the Philistines were not quite sure about David.


Verses 8-11

An Expression Of His Trust In God In The Face Of His Enemies (Psalms 56:8-11).

His confidence lies in the fact that he knows that he is the chosen of YHWH, that God is keeping count of his wanderings, and has stored up his tears. Thus he knows that God is ‘for him’, and that those who are opposing him are thus acting against God. He is sure that when he calls on God, God will turn back his enemies. He will thus trust in God and His promises and not be afraid.

Psalms 56:8-9

‘You number my wanderings,

Put you my tears into your bottle, are they not in your book?’

Then will my enemies turn back in the day that I call.

This I know, that God is for me,’

.

He is certain that God is keeping count of his wanderings, and will bottle up his tears, because He is keeping a record of them. (The ‘bottle’ would be a skin container such as was used for storing wine). He is sure that God is interested in, and has kept on record, every aspect of his life. (For God’s records compare Psalms 69:28; Psalms 139:16; Malachi 3:16). Thus his enemies need to be careful, for he is certain that when he calls on God his enemies will have to turn back because God is for him. Whatever happens, his enemies will not prevail.

Psalms 56:10-11

‘In God, I will praise (his) word,

In YHWH, I will praise (his) word,

In God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid,

What can man (adam) do to me?

His confidence lies in God, Who has given him a word, which he can praise; in YHWH, Who has given him a word, which he can praise. He is aware that he is one of God’s chosen. The word which he praises may be the word that he received from Samuel (his anointing by Samuel must have been accompanied by an explanation (1 Samuel 16:13), and he had then spent time with Samuel in Naioth after he had initially fled from Saul (1 Samuel 19:18-24)). Or it may be the Torah (the Law of Moses), an indication of his own commitment to YHWH’s covenant. Or indeed it could include both.

So his assurance and certainty lie in God, in Whom he has put his trust (compare Psalms 56:3-4), and thus he will not be afraid, for what can mere created beings (adam) do to him? His confidence in God is total.

The Psalm provides assurance to all true believers that they are in the hands of God, a God who keeps account of their wanderings and a record of their tears. They too, therefore, can enjoy the same assurance and certainty.


Verse 12-13

An Expression Of His Gratitude To God For His Deliverance (Psalms 56:12-13).

Having prayed through to total confidence in God David now gives thanks for the certainty of his deliverance. God has delivered him in the past and he is confident that God will go on delivering him.

Psalms 56:12-13

Your vows are on me, O God,

I will render thank-offerings to you,

For you have delivered my life from death.

(Have you) not (delivered) my feet from falling?

That I may walk before God in the light of life (or ‘of the living’).’

With these words David expresses his gratitude to God. He acknowledges the vows that he has made to God (your vows = vows made to you), and assures Him that he will render the appropriate thank-offerings. And this in the light of the fact that God has delivered him from death, and has prevented his feet from falling, with the consequence that he can still walk before God enjoying the light of life.

The words could have been written while he was still waiting to see whether he was to be called to account before the Philistines, the deliverance he refers to being deliverance from Saul. Or they could have been written after his final deliverance from Achish. Either way he rejoices in his deliverance which means that he can still walk before God ‘in the light of life’. ‘Life’ was often seem in terms of a lamp that was still burning, and David was aware that his lamp was still burning brightly.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 56:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/psalms-56.html. 2013.

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