Psalm 56 is an example of a psalm in which the superscription tells us some historical context to go along with the psalm. In addition, this psalm suggests some of the way in which God preserves the emotions and information of the lives of believers in ways that are not often examined. Therefore, today, let us examine Psalm 56, both in light of its biblical historical context as well as its insights into the workings of God with regards to His believers. In doing so we may find surprising and unexpected understanding of the worth of suffering to those whom God loves.
Including the superscription, Psalm 56 reads: “To the Chief Musician, Set to “The Silent Dove in Distant Lands.” A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath. Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up; fighting all day he oppresses me. My enemies would hound me all day, for there are many who fight against me, O Most High. Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God (I will praise His word), In God I have put my trust; I will not fear; what can flesh do to me? All day they twist my words; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They gather together, they hide, they mark my steps, when they lie in weight for my life. Shall they escape by iniquity? In anger cast down the peoples, O God! You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book? When I cry out to You, then my enemies will turn back; this I know, because God is for me. In God (I will praise His word), In the Lord (I will praise His word), in God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? Vows made to you are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises to You; For you have delivered my soul from death. Have You not kept my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?”
Let us note both the context and the content of this interesting Davidic psalm. First, the superscription of the psalm comments that it is set to a tune entitled “The Silent Dove In Distant Lands.” This tune would appear to reflect the fact that David, while writing this psalm, was in Gentile Philistia, which while not a distant land geographically was distant in terms of its religious beliefs. There is almost a Christ-like sense of the dove (itself a sacrificial animal, like a lamb) refusing to speak up in its defense with trust in God’s providence. The psalm is additionally described as a Michtam. This word is described as being a ‘golden Psalm’ or being a certain type of tune, and there appears to be a mini-collection of this type of psalm in Psalms 16, 56-60 . As a note, all of the Psalms from Psalm 56-60 are set to other tunes (Psalms 57, 58, and 59 to “Do Not Destroy, and Psalm 60 to “The Lily Of The Testimony”), and Psalm 59 and 60 (along with Psalm 56) in this collection include useful information to place the psalm in a specific historical context.
Let us now examine the specific historical context of Psalm 56. It is found in 1 Samuel 21:10-15, which reads: “Then David arose and fled that day from before Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of him to one another in dances, saying: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?” Now David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behavior before them, pretended madness in their hands, scratched on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva fall down on his beard. Then Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is insane. Why have you brought him to me? Have I need of madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?”
Here we see one of the many occasions in the scriptures where David shows himself to be a talented thespian. Fearing for his life (we see shades of this in Psalm 56), David convincingly feigns madness so that Achish, instead of seeking his death as an Israelite threat to overthrow his rule, lets him go free. But the historical context shows a tension with Psalm 56. Psalm 56 seems to rely on trust in God, while 1 Samuel 21 shows David’s agency and personal responsibility. All too often, if we are not sensitive to the historical context, we may assume that trust in God means the refusal to act on our own while letting God do everything for us to show that He is for us. Instead of this pietistic view, an examination of the context of Psalm 56 shows that trust in God means doing all that we can and trusting on God to work His good will for us through our actions, claiming no credit for our success while still showing agency and personal responsibility nonetheless. Here we see an example of the faith mixed with works spoken of so highly by the Apostle James.
We also see a very curious reference to the fact that Achish king of Gath seems to understand something of David’s kingship. While David’s anointing as king by Samuel in Bethlehem was a private matter, David’s marriage to the daughter of Saul (Michal) as well as his command of the troops of the kingdom of Israel under Abner suggests that some aspect of his status as Saul’s successor was understood (at least in some vague sense) even by the Gentile neighbors of Israel. Like Saul, Achish’s servants correctly divine that the meaning of the song “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” refers to David as the successor to Saul. Nonetheless, it is also clear, since David had not actually been confirmed in the monarchy, that the word for king can therefore refer more broadly not only to rulers themselves but also heirs to the throne, as David was by being anointed king over Israel as a lad by God’s prophet Samuel.
Having thus addressed the superscription and the historical context of Psalm 56, let us turn to the content of the psalm itself, and see what relevance this “golden psalm” has for us today. Indeed, we may see five different parts of this psalm. The first and third parts discuss the behavior of the enemies of David. The second and fourth parts discuss the faith and trust of David, and the fifth part, a type of coda, expresses David’s commitment to pay his vows of gratitude to God (see 1 Samuel 22:21-23). And yet this fairly straightforward organization, the content of Psalm 56 itself richly repays our study, especially if we have enemies like David’s enemies were.
The first part of Psalm 56 comments rather dramatically on the behavior of David’s enemies: “Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up; fighting all day he oppresses me. My enemies would hound me all day, for there are many who fight against me, O Most High.” David’s enemies are compared to a greedy pit (like the grave) trying to swallow David up, oppressors (David’s enemies were representatives of corrupt Gentile and Israelite monarchs, clearly judged as oppressors by the biblical standard), and as ferocious hounds (dogs were not thought of very highly by the ancient Israelites as well, and were another animal associated with rapacious and exploitative monarchs). Here we see David pinpointing his enemies for their ferocity and seeking for God to provide him with mercy and peace.
After opening with this catalogue of woe, David shows his trust in God: “Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God (I will praise His word), In God I have put my trust; I will not fear, what can flesh do to me?” Here we see that while David was afraid of King Achish and the Philstines of Gath, he mastered his fear through faith in God, showing trust in God and in His word (the praise of God’s word is a refrain in this particular psalm), as well as the repeated saying “what can man/flesh do to me?” Here we see David accepting that God is ultimately in control and that ultimately mankind cannot do any sort of lasting or eternal harm to people who have a right relationship with God. This confidence allows David to bravely face the dangers of life.
The third part of the psalm then returns to an examination of David’s enemies: “All day they twist my words; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They gather together, they hide, they mark my steps, when they lie in wait for my life. Shall they escape by iniquity? In anger cast down the peoples, O God!” Here we see that the behavior of twisting the words of others, conspiring together in secret and seeking to mark and attack (and evil seek the death of) God’s peoples equates to Gentile status and the judgment that such behavior is sinful. If we have enemies as well who twist our words, conspire together in secret (using false names even), who seek to destroy our reputations and even may seek our life, we therefore can judge them in the same way that David judged his enemies through these imprecatory verses, calling God’s judgment on the unrepentant wicked.
The fourth part of the psalm repeats David’s praise for the word of God, his trust in God, as well as his refusal to fear because mankind cannot do anything lasting and eternal to humanity, or anything at all apart from God’s will and permission, and also adds some other interesting elements: “You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle; Are they not in Your book? When I cry out to You, then my enemies will turn back; This I know, because God is for me. In God (I will praise His word), In the Lord (I will praise His word), In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Besides the repeated elements, including a threefold placing of his trust in the Eternal, we see some new ones that are worthy of some comment. David states that God numbers his wanderings–a reference that goes back at least to God’s “numbering” of the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness (see the book of Numbers), as well as pointing forward to Jesus Christ’s statement that God numbers the hairs on our head (see Matthew 10:30, Luke 12:7). Our paths are directed by God for His purposes, even when they take us to distant and remote locations. Interestingly, David then makes two comments about his tears. For one, he says that when he cries out to God his enemies will turn away because they will know God’s favor toward David–suggesting that God would visibly show that favor to David’s corrupt and wicked adversaries.
In addition, though, and let us spend a bit more time on this part, David expects God to put his tears in a bottle and save them, because he knows (somehow) that they are in His book. This is a puzzling and remarkable statement. We know that David’s sufferings (many of them at least) were ultimately recorded in the pages of scriptures, including the Psalms and parts of the former prophets (especially 1st and 2nd Samuel). Nonetheless, this does not appear to be precisely what David is referring to. David expects God to preserve his tears and record them in His book. We have some hints, at least, that God records our struggles and sufferings to record what blessings we are to receive for them. 1 Peter 3 and 4 suggest that if we suffer for righteousness’ sake we will be richly rewarded, and that we should not fear because it is for God’s glory, but that we should not suffer as an evildoer. Likewise, Revelation 20:12 suggests that in the Great White Throne Judgment that people will be judged by what is contained in books, possibly referring both to the moral standard of God contained in the books of scripture that we are to be judged by as well as the accounts of our deeds and lives that is recorded in heaven above. It may therefore seem curious that David wants God to record his sorrow and suffering, since most people would appear to want that forgotten. Nonetheless, to the extent that we suffer without our own fault, our suffering allows us to more greatly understand the entirely innocent suffering of Jesus Christ, and allow provides us some reward in heaven for enduring the shame of being righteous in an ungodly and wicked and corrupt world. Being righteous in such circumstances means suffering is unavoidable, and that suffering itself is an element of condemnation for those who oppress and torment the righteous and (comparatively) innocent and abuse their power and authority. We ought to take this judgment more seriously.
Pslam 56 closes with a coda concerning David’s vows of praises (and perhaps sacrifices): “Vows made to you are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises to You, for You have delivered my soul from death. Have You not kept my feet from falling, that I may walk before god in the light of the living?” Here we see that David, in return for safety, had made vows of praise to God. In part, these vows were paid for by the psalm itself, showing praise to God for his deliverance. Nonetheless, it is possible that there was a more literal vow payment as well, something that would have required the presence of a priest (1 Samuel 22:21-23) to properly value the vow according to the laws of God (see Numbers 30, Leviticus 27).
Here we see, in one fairly short and not particularly famous psalm, a host of profitable threads for Bible Study and thought. We see a powerful expression of faith in God, in the suffering of life among the wicked, in the relationship between works and faith, in hints about the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ as well as the condemnation of the wicked as well as the divine providence of working all of our steps and all of our suffering for the good according to God’s will. In addition, the psalm itself fits a clearly marked historical context that informs and deepens its significance for us today in our own lives. Let us therefore reflect deeply on Psalm 56 and keep it in mind, so that we might both find greater meaning in our wanderings and sufferings as well as greater confidence in the desire of God to preserve us in the light of the living.