George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalm 56

1. Structure

1, 2.

3, 4.
Trust in God

5, 6.

Trust in God

Praise and thanks for deliverance

2. Titles

Michtam (Psalms 16, 56-60) signifies to cut or engrave (Jer. 2:22), or write (Exod. 17:14) — and hence to cause to remember. The six Michtam psalms are thus memorial psalms, of a very personal nature. They all have the hope of the resurrection as a common theme (16:10,11; 56:13; 57:3; 58:10,11; 59:16; 60:5,12).
Al-taschith (the subscription) is straight Hebrew for “Destroy not” (it is the subscription of Psalms 56, 57, 58, and 74 also). This is not inappropriate, for in each case the psalmist is in a tight corner and is praying for his life. This exact phrase comes in 1 Samuel 26:9, and tempts the expositor to read the psalm against that background. (Compare also Deuteronomy 9:26: “Destroy not thy people”; and Isaiah 65:8: “Destroy it — i.e. the cluster of grapes, or the remnant of Israel — not”.) But, beyond question, the entire tone of it fits 1 Samuel 21:10-15 much better (see next paragraph, and notes on Psalm 34).

3. Historical setting

        When the Philistines took him in Gath.

For man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me. Saul’s hunt for David at this time must have been much more intense than the history suggests. However, the very fact that, with the courage of despair, he thrust himself into such a hostile environment as the Philistine court of Goliath’s hometown (1 Sam. 21:12) tells a story of low morale verging on panic (see also in Psa. 34). From the moment of his arrival at the court of Achish, David was subject to suspicion and incessant scrutiny (v. 2).
O thou most High. Marom is not the usual title (which is Elyon). This has suggested the NEB’s slight emendation: Appear thou on high, or, as RV and RSV, proudly. If this is correct, the prayer was answered: Psa. 34:6,7.
Fear... trust. At Gath, David betrayed a strange mixture of desperate fear, self-reliance, and trust in God, expressed in this psalm and in Psa. 34.
Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil. They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul. What a six-fold catalogue of descriptions of his enemies!
Thou tellest my wanderings. When the complete list is compiled from 1 Samuel 21 through 30 it makes an impressive catalogue.
For thou hast delivered my soul from death. Clearly these verses were added in deep thankfulness, when David had come through with a whole skin.
Praises = todah, “thank offerings” (RSV), as in Lev. 7:12, and/or songs of gratitude, as in Psa. 26:7.

Thy vows are upon me, O God. These vows were probably made when things were at their very worst (1 Sam. 21:13). “Binding upon me are thy vows” (Delitzsch; cp. NEB, NIV).

4. Messiah

It is well to recognize that there were times in the experiences of Jesus when human weakness in the face of fierce opposition, and danger from implacable enemies, had an intensely depressing effect on his spirits and tried his personal faith to the limit. It was crucial to the divine purpose that Jesus was “tempted in all points like as we are” (Heb. 4:15).

Daily is the key word here. There was no let-up in the hostility and plotting against him.
I am afraid... I will not fear. Is not the same oscillation in spiritual temperature characteristic of all sons of Adam?
They wrest my words. Deliberate dishonest misrepresentation of all the words of an adversary (cp. 2 Pet. 3:16) is the universal ploy of politicians and all such. “They stretch his (Jesus’) testimony about himself upon the ‘rack’, forcing upon it a false meaning and wrong inferences” (Delitzsch).
They mark my steps, when they wait for my soul (my life). Deliberate attempts on the life of Jesus (at least 15 separate times: see H.A. Whittaker, Bible Studies, pp. 2-5). And it may confidently be presumed that other efforts of this sort do not even get a mention in the gospels. For my steps read (literally) my heel, with reference to Gen. 3:15 (and see Psa. 41, Par. 5).
Shall they escape by iniquity? Wicked but clever men often manage to array law and authority on their side, as a cloak for their malice. Thus the “many” of v. 2 and the “people” here!

Cast down the people, O God. The words are difficult, for the Hebrew word am is that which hundreds of times refers to Israel. Can this be an abbreviation for the rulers of Israel? — meaning (1) Saul and Doeg, David’s enemies, and (2) the chief priests and Herod, set on destroying Jesus. Yet it stands true that because of the rejection of Jesus, the people of Israel were cast off, for two millennia.
Thou tellest my wanderings. The almost ceaseless three and one-half years of preaching by Jesus, going from place to place, up and down the land of Israel, with nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58).

My tears: John 11:35; Luke 19:41; Heb. 5:7. Other Psalms references: 6:6; 39:12; 42:3; 69:10; and 116:8.
When I cry unto thee, my enemies shall turn back. Illustrated in Gethsemane by the cry to the Father, followed by John 18:6: “As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground” (cp. also Psa. 27:1,2; 35:4; 40:14).
In God... in the Lord. The secret of victory.
Thy vows are upon me (22:25). But vows are to be discharged in the presence of God. Hence the immediate ascension of Jesus after his resurrection (John 20:17).
That I may walk before God in the light of the living. Here nearly all the modern versions have: the light of life (cp. John 8:12). For light as equivalent to life, see Prov. 29:13; Psa. 13:3; 36:9; John 1:4; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:8; etc.

5. Other details

Man... mine enemies would daily swallow me up. As in Psa. 57:3. The word shaaph signifies to pant, desire, or thirst for blood — as a wild beast of prey (Job 5:5; Isa. 42:14; Amos 2:7). The cognate verb shuph, however, may signify to bruise or crush with the foot (as in the well-known Gen. 3:15). Hence the LXX and RSV have “trample on”.

Daily = “all day long” (RSV).
Note the ABBA structure here.
I will praise his word, which is to be magnified even above His Name (Psa. 138:2).

I will not fear what flesh can do unto me is quoted in 118:6, and that in turn is quoted in Heb. 13:6. Like David, the Christian Jews in the first century were narrowly watched by their enemies among their fellow countrymen, and their words and actions made the excuse for reprisals (vv. 5,6). Like David, they were finally forced to flee their homeland.
They gather themselves together: Psa. 2:2.

They wait for my soul. Contrast David (and Jesus) waiting upon God.
LXX reads: On no account wilt thou save them.

Cast down should probably read weigh out (in judgment).
Wanderings (nodh: Gen. 4:16) and bottle (n’odh): a play on words.

Tellest (saphar) and book (sepher): another word-play.

Thou tellest (countest) my wanderings. All of David’s (and Christ’s) travels, even if relatively insignificant, are assuredly noted and remembered by God. For the same general idea, see Matt. 10:29,30: “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

Put thou my tears into thy bottle. According to some authorities, “lachrymatories” (or tear bottles) are still found in large numbers in ancient tombs. They were apparently used to collect the tears of the mourners at the graveside, and then stored away with the body (Thomson, The Land and the Book, pp. 103,104).

Others, however, deny any reference to such bottles, and suggest that the allusion here is to the custom of putting into bags, or small leather flasks, articles of value for safekeeping (cp. Luke 12:33: “Provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not”) (Freeman, Bible Manners and Customs, p. 224). Thus, ‘O Lord, treasure up my tears as something of great value’.

Tears and bottle come together again, quite interestingly, in the account of Mary Magdalene’s anointing of the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:37,38). From the bottle came precious ointment, but from the repentant sinner came even more precious tears. And so it is with us: the greatest gifts we can bring to our Saviour are our faith, our re-pentance, our devotion, our love, and even our tears.

Are they not in thy book? God’s “book of remembrance”, or “book of life”: 69:28: 87:6; 139:16; Mal. 3:16; Exod. 32:32; Dan. 12:1; Isa. 4:3; Ezek. 13:9; Phil. 4:3; Luke 10:20; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27; 22:19.

The figure of this divine recording was not unrelated to the practice of earthly monarchs. In the court of the Hebrew kings was a “recorder”, and “the chronicles of the kings” was the daily record of the events of each king’s reign. It was a settled principle that those who served the king in a special capacity or in an extraordinary manner would receive an adequate reward. But they were not necessarily rewarded at once; sometimes they seem to have waited years before their special service was finally compensated (Est. 6:1-3).
God is for me. This is picked up by Paul in Rom. 8:31: “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
I will not be afraid what man can do unto me, because man can have no power at all, except it be given him by God (John 19:11).
For thou hast delivered my soul from death. Quoted in Psa. 116:8.

Notice the three distinct prayers, having to do with:

(1) Past: “For thou hast... ”

(2) Present: “Wilt not thou deliver... ”

(3) Future: “That I may... ”

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