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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 56

 

 

Verses 1-13

Psalms 56:1-13

THE superscription dates this psalm from the time of David’s being in Gath. Probably his first stay there is meant, during which he had recourse to feigned insanity in order to secure his safety. What a contrast between the seeming idiot scrabbling on the walls and the saintly singer of this lovely song of purest trust! But striking as the contrast is, it is not too violent to be possible. Such heroic faith might lie very near such employment of pardonable dissimulation, even if the two moods of feeling can scarcely have been contemporaneous. Swift transitions characterise the poetic temperament; and, alas! fluctuations of courage and faith characterise the devout soul. Nothing in the psalm specially suggests the date assigned in the superscription; but, as we have already had occasion to remark, that may be an argument for, not against, the correctness of the superscription.

The psalm is simple in structure. Like others ascribed to David during the Sauline period, it has a refrain, which divides it into two parts; but these are of substantially the same purport, with the difference that the second part enlarges the description of the enemies’ assaults, and rises to confident anticipation of their defeat. In that confidence the singer adds a closing expression of thankfulness for the deliverance already realised in faith.

The first part begins with that significant contrast which is the basis of all peaceful fronting of a hostile world or any evil. On one side stands man, whose very name here suggests feebleness, and on the other is God. "Man" in Psalms 56:1 is plainly a collective. The psalmist masses the foes, whom he afterwards individualises and knows only too well to be a multitude, under that generic appellation, which brings out their inherent frailty. Be they ever so many, still they all belong to the same class, and an infinite number of nothings only sums up into nothing. The Divine Unit is more than all these. The enemy is said to "pant after" the psalmist, as a wild beast openmouthed and ready to devour; or, according to others, the word means to crush. The thing meant by the strong metaphor is given in Psalms 56:1 b, Psalms 56:2; namely, the continual hostile activity of the foe. The word rendered "proudly" is literally "on high," and Baethgen suggests that the literal meaning should be retained. He supposes that the antagonists "held an influential position in a princely court." Even more literally the word may describe the enemies as occupying a post of vantage, from which they shower down missiles.

One brief verse, the brevity of which gives it emphasis, tells of the singer’s fears, and of how he silences them by the dead lift of effort by which he constrains himself to trust. It is a strangely shallow view which finds a contradiction in this utterance, which all hearts, that have ever won calmness in agitation and security amid encompassing dangers by the same means, know to correspond to their own experience. If there is no fear, there is little trust. The two do coexist. The eye that takes in only visible facts on the earthly level supplies the heart with abundant reasons for fear. But it rests with ourselves whether we shall yield to those, or whether, by lifting our eyes higher and fixing the vision on the Unseen and on Him who is invisible, we shall call such an ally to our side as shall make fear and doubt impossible. We have little power of directly controlling fear or any other feeling, but we can determine the objects on which we shall fix attention. If we choose to look at "man," we shall be unreasonable if we do not fear; if we choose to look at God, we shall be more unreasonable if we do not trust. The one antagonist of fear is faith. Trust is a voluntary action for which we are responsible.

The frequent use of the phrase "In the day when" is noticeable. It occurs in each verse of the first part, excepting the refrain. The antagonists are continually at work, and the psalmist, on his part, strives to meet their machinations and to subdue his own fears with as continuous a faith. The phrase recurs in the second part in a similar connection. Thus, then, the situation as set forth in the first part has three elements, -the busy malice of the foes; the effort of the psalmist, his only weapon against them, to hold fast his confidence; and the power and majesty of God, who will be gracious when besought. The refrain gathers up these three in a significantly different order. The preceding verses arranged them thus-God, man, the trusting singer. The refrain puts them thus-God, the trusting singer, man. When the close union between a soul and God is clearly seen and inwardly felt, the importance of the enemies dwindles. When faith is in the act of springing up, God, the refuge, and man, the source of apprehension, stand over against each other, and the suppliant, looking on both, draws near to God. But when faith has fruited, the believing soul is coupled so closely to the Divine Object of its faith, that He and it are contemplated as joined in blessed reciprocity of protection and trust, and enemies are in an outer region, where they cannot disturb its intercourse with its God. The order of thought in the refrain is also striking. First, the singer praises God’s word. By God’s gracious help he knows that he will receive the fulfilment of God’s promises (not necessarily any special "word," such as the promise of a throne to David). And then, on the experience of God’s faithfulness thus won, is reared a further structure of trust, which completely subdues fear. This is the reward of the effort after faith which the psalmist made. He who begins with determining not to fear will get such tokens of God’s troth that fear will melt away like a cloud, and he will find his sky cleared, as the nightly heavens are swept free of cloud rack by the meek moonlight.

The second part covers the same ground. Trust, like love, never finds it grievous to write the same things. There is delight, and there is strengthening for the temper of faith, in repeating the contemplation of the earthly facts which make it necessary, and the super-sensuous facts which make it blessed. A certain expansion of the various parts of the theme, as compared with the first portion of the psalm, is obvious. Again the phrase "all the day" occurs in reference to the unwearying hostility which dogs the singer. "They wrest my words" may be, as Cheyne prefers, "They torture me with words." That rendering would supply a standing feature of the class of psalms to which this belongs. The furtive assembling, the stealthy setting of spies who watch his steps (lit. heels, as ready to spring on him from behind), are no new things, but are in accordance with what has long been the enemies’ practice.

Psalms 56:7 brings in a new element not found in the first part-namely, the prayer for the destruction of these unwearied watchers. Its first clause is obscure. If the present text is adhered to, the rendering of the clause as a question is best. A suggested textual correction has been largely adopted by recent commentators, which by a very slight alteration gives the meaning "For their iniquity requite them." The alteration, however, is not necessary, and the existing text may be retained, though the phrase is singular. The introduction of a prayer for a world wide judgment in the midst of so intensely individual a psalm is remarkable, and favours the theory that the afflicted man of the psalm is really the nation; but it may be explained on the ground that, as in Psalms 7:8, the judgment on behalf of one man is contemplated as only one smaller manifestation of the same judicial activity which brings about the universal judgment. This single reference to the theme which fills so considerable a part of the other psalms of this class is in harmony with the whole tone of this gem of quiet faith, which is too much occupied with the blessedness of its own trust to have many thoughts of the end of others. It passes, therefore, quickly, to dwell on yet another phase of that blessedness.

The tender words of Psalms 56:8 need little elucidation. They have brought comfort to many, and have helped to dry many tears. How the psalmist presses close to God, and how sure he is of His gentle care and love! "Thou reckonest my wandering." The thought is remarkable, both in its realisation of God’s individualising relation to the soul that trusts Him, and as in some degree favouring the Davidic authorship. The hunted fugitive feels that every step of his weary interlacing tracks, as he stole from point to point as danger dictated, was known to God. The second clause of the verse is thought by prosaic commentators to interrupt the sequence, because it interjects a petition between two statements; but surely nothing is more natural than such an "interruption." What a lovely figure is that of God’s treasuring up His servants’ tears in His "bottle," the skin in which liquids were kept! What does He keep them for? To show how precious they are in His sight, and perhaps to suggest that they are preserved for a future use. The tears that His children shed and give to Him to keep cannot be tears of rebellious or unmeasured weeping, and will be given back one day to those who shed them, converted into refreshment, by the same Power which of old turned water into wine.

"Think not thou canst weep a tear,

And thy Maker is not near."

Not only in order to minister retribution to those who inflicted them, but also in order to give recompense of gladness to weepers, are these tears preserved by God; and the same idea is repeated by the other metaphor of Psalms 56:8 c. God’s book, or reckoning, contains the count of all the tears as well as wanderings of His servant. The certainty that it is so is expressed by the interrogative form of the clause.

The "then" of Psalms 56:9 may be either temporal or logical. It may mean "things being so," or "in consequence of this," or it may mean "at the time when," and may refer to the further specification of period in the next clause. That same day which has already been designated as that of the enemies’ panting after the psalmist’s life, and wresting of his words, and, on the other hand, as that of his fear, is now the time of his prayer, and consequently of their defeat and flight. The confidence which struggled with fear in the closing words of the first part, is now consolidated into certain knowledge that God is on the singer’s side, and in a very deep sense belongs to him. This is the foundation of his hope of deliverance; and in this clear knowledge he chants once more his refrain. As is often the case, slight differences, mainly due to artistic love of variety in uniformity, occur in the repeated refrain. "Word" stands instead of "His word"; "man," instead of "flesh"; and a line is intercalated, in which Jehovah is substituted for God. The addition may be a later interpolation, but is probably part of the original text, and due to the same intelligible motives which prompted the occasional use of the great Covenant Name in the Elohistic psalms of this second book.

The psalmist’s exuberant confidence overflows the limits of his song, in a closing couple of verses which are outside its scheme. So sure is he of deliverance, that, as often in similar psalms, his thoughts are busied in preparing his sacrifice of thanks before the actual advent of the mercy for which it is to be offered. Such swift-footed Gratitude is the daughter of very vivid Faith. The ground of the thank offering is deliverance of "the soul," for which foes have "waited." "Thou hast delivered" is a perfect tense expressing confidence in the certainty of the as yet unrealised exercise of God’s power. The question of Psalms 56:13 b, like that of Psalms 56:8 c (and perhaps that of Psalms 56:7 a), is an emphatic affirmation, and the verb to be supplied is not "Wilt thou?" as the A.V. has it, but, as is plain from the context, and from the quotation of this verse in Psalms 116:8, "Hast thou?" The Divine deliverance is complete, -not only doing the greater, but also the less; and not barely saving life, but sustaining the steps. God does not rescue by halves, either in the natural or spiritual realm; but in the former He first rescues and next preserves, and in the latter He delivers from the true death of the spirit, and then inspires to glad obedience. The psalm crowns its celebration of God’s miracles of deliverance by declaring the aim of them all to be that their recipient may walk before God-i.e., in continual consciousness of His cognisance of his deeds, and "in the light of the living" or "of life." The expression seems here to mean simply the present life, as contrasted with the darkness and inactivity of Sheol; but we can scarcely help remembering the deeper meaning given to it by Him who said that to follow Him was to have the light of life. Whether any dim foreboding of a better light than streams from even an Eastern sun, and of a truer life than the vain shadow which men call by that august name, floated before the singer or not, we can thankfully interpret his words, so as to make them the utterance of the Christian consciousness that the ultimate design of all God’s deliverances of souls from death and of feet from falling is that, not only in ways of holiness here, but in the more perfect consciousness of His greater nearness hereafter, and in correspondingly increased perfectness of active service, we should walk before God in the light of the living.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 56:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-56.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, December 6th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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