George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalm 54

1. Structure

Prayer against the Ziphites, that God would save him from their treachery

Confidence that He would do so

Thanksgiving that He has done so

This psalm closely follows the experiences of 52 and 53 (14):




54:6, and


2. Maschil

There is nothing in the text which particularly emphasizes “Understanding”. So the emphasis here must be on the lessons to be learned from the extreme circumstances in which David found himself. This is a personal psalm, dominated throughout by personal, singular pronouns. In effect, the psalm says: ‘Learn from contemplation of my experience, as I also learned.’

3. Subscription

Neginoth (see Psa. 3, Par. 4) signifies “to strike”, as in affliction; it is also related to “stringed instruments”. The combination of these two meanings suggests that God’s people should “rejoice in tribulations”. This is quite obviously relevant to David’s situation here.

4. Historical setting

A Psalm of David, when the Ziphims came and said to Saul, “Doth not David hide himself with us?” The moderns seem determined to disallow the relevance of the main title of the psalm. Yet there is unimpeachable accuracy about the two occasions pointed to. Keilah (1 Samuel 23) and the Ziphites (1 Samuel 26) were in the same barren wilderness east of Hebron, called Ziph (Josh. 15:55; 1 Sam. 23:14,15,19; 26:1,2).

1 Samuel 23: David saved Keilah (men of his own tribe) from the Philistines, but then found himself, with his men, in a walled town. To Saul this was a splendid opportunity to capture or kill David — it was so much easier than hunting him in the open wilderness. And the men of Keilah, mindful of what had happened at Nob (1 Sam. 22:18,19), were disposed to seek Saul’s friendship by betraying David to him (23:7). Divine counsel by Urim and Thummim saved the situation (vv. 9-12). David had no desire to be encircled, because the last thing he wanted was to have to fight against “the Lord’s anointed”. And so (directed by divine counsel?) he cleared out.

What helps to explain the attitude of the men of Keilah is the fact that they were Calebites, as also were the men of Ziph (1 Chron. 4:16,19). Their disreputable link with Nabal (see 1 Sam. 25) evidently counted for more than their honorable descent from the courageous and faithful Caleb. The men of Ziph likewise attempted a betrayal (23:19); had it not been for the providence of God (23:27) they would have succeeded.

1 Samuel 26: Despite their previous unsuccessful attempt, the Ziphites were not averse to trying the same evil tactic again (26:1), this time being thwarted by David’s courage and faith in God’s promise.

Thy strength undoubtedly included the encouragement offered by the beloved Jonathan, during this great trial (1 Sam. 23:16-18).
For strangers are risen up against me. Men of David’s own tribe behaving as “strangers”! (For this word sarim some manuscripts substitute zedim, “proud ones”, which requires the change of only one letter in the Hebrew. Thus the RSV and NEB: “insolent men”. This change is suggested by Psa. 86:14, but seems unnecessary — since “strangers” yields a very reasonable meaning.)

And oppressors seek after my soul. Saul and his retainers, men like Doeg.

They have not set God before them. The words clearly imply that as men of Israel they should have done so. This, above all else, was the great flaw in Saul’s character. “The fool hath said in his heart [not in so many words], There is no God” (53:1). Saul had become a practical, if not a professing, “atheist”! He even uses the names of God (1 Sam. 23:7,21), but such speech is empty and meaningless. On Saul’s lips, Holy Names are dry and lifeless and even contemptible.

Selah. God the great “Rock” of refuge, and the One to whom David gladly offers sacrifice (v. 6).
Behold, God is my helper. The open sign of this was the presence of high priest Abiathar with the ephod (1 Sam. 23:9-12,14,16).

The Lord is with them that uphold my soul. David’s 600 fellow-outlaws (1 Sam. 23:13), as well as Jonathan (vv. 16-18) and Abiathar the son of Ahimelech (v. 6).
He shall reward evil unto mine enemies. David knew that this had been pronounced through Samuel: 1 Sam. 15:28,29. But he knew also, and he always showed by his own actions, that to God alone belonged vengeance (1 Sam. 24:6,12; 26:8-11,23; Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19).

Cut them off in thy truth. The word commonly refers to God’s covenants of promise, as already implied in 1 Sam. 16:13.
I will freely sacrifice unto thee. Is it possible, also, that — having Abiathar with him — David offered sacrifice at a makeshift altar in the wilderness? By the word freely, a “freewill offering” is intended here (Exod. 25:2; 35:29; Lev. 7:11-18; Num. 15:1-10), as distinguished from an offering which one is bound to pay, as by law.
For he hath delivered me out of all trouble: and mine eye hath seen his desire upon mine enemies. This verse was probably added, very fittingly, in later days when David became king in Jerusalem, and when he appointed this psalm for worship at the sanctuary there. (See alternate rendering, next paragraph.)

5. Messianic reference

Judge me (i.e. vindicate me) by thy strength. Hear my prayer. The Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane? The word strength suggests Gabriel, through whom Jesus was strengthened: Luke 22:43.
Strangers... oppressors. Both Gentiles and Jewish men of power were glad to collaborate against the Son of God. A common theme in the Psalms: see notes, Psa. 2 — pointing forward to Acts 4:25-28.

They have not set God before them. A biting indictment of men who were the chief priests! Yet it is totally, devastatingly accurate.
Them that uphold my soul refers to the disciples who “continued with me in my temptations” (Luke 22:28).
He shall reward evil unto mine enemies. Jesus the Judge has the right to say this. It happened in A.D. 70.

Cut them off in thy truth. The New Covenant — God’s “Truth” — did cut them off from their high spiritual privileges.
I will freely sacrifice. One offering of limitless benefit, which opened the way for God’s “free” gift of righteousness by grace (Rom. 3:24; 5:18,21; 6:23).
For he hath delivered me out of all trouble. True in a limited sense of David. But completely and utterly true of Jesus.

Mine eyes hath seen (“his desire” is in italics!) upon mine enemies. Jesus the Judge, not Jesus the Avenger. ‘I have looked upon my enemies.’ Not so much in triumph as in solemn resignation:

“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them (cp. v. 14), bring hither, and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27).

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