"Be Merciful to Me, O God, for Man Would Swallow Me Up" (Psalms 54-57) July 27-31
Psalm 54 is the third maskil of David out of four in a row. Neginoth in the superscription, which may be part of the postscript of Psalm 53, is probably correctly rendered in the NKJV as "stringed instruments" (and in the next superscription, which may be part of the postscript of this psalm).
Psalm 54 begins a cluster of seven prayers of David for help against enemies and betrayal at the center of Book II of the Psalter (Psalms 54-60). Note in going through these psalms that the main weapon of the enemy in most of them is the mouth. We earlier read Psalm 54 in conjunction with the account of the event mentioned in the superscription-when the people of Ziph informed Saul that David was hiding in that area (see the Bible Reading Program comments on 1 Samuel 23:15-29; Psalm 54).
These informants put David's life in danger, as Saul was out to kill him. So David prays for God to save him by His "name" (verse 1), meaning everything God's identity implies-who He is and what He stands for. He further asks God to vindicate him (same verse)-the context here meaning either to prove David right for trusting God (by God coming through for him) or to prove David, though a fugitive, in the right (by saving him and judging his enemies).
The "strangers" who have risen against David (verse 3) apparently refers to the Ziphite informants. And the "oppressors" seeking his life (same verse) would seem to refer to Saul and his officers. None of these, David says, are following God.
In verses 4-5, David declares his confidence in God to help him and his supporters and to punish his enemies. He prays, "Cut them off in Your truth." The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "The resolution of the prayer lies in the conviction that God is just. He will not permit his children to suffer without vindication. The imprecation [or curse] is not vindictive but expressive of trust in divine justice. Evil must be repaid. The people of God believed in the boomerang effect of sin: 'Let evil recoil [i.e., come back on those who perpetrate it]'" (note on verse 5).
Trusting in God's deliverance, David says he will "freely sacrifice" to God (verse 6)-or "sacrifice a freewill offering" (NIV). This refers to a peace offering (see Leviticus 7:11-18; 22:18-30; Numbers 15:1-10), "given only when the worshipper wanted to say an extra-special thanks to God for his gracious, saving love" (George Knight, Psalms, Daily Study Bible Series, comments on Psalm 54).
God's name, hearkening back to verse 1, is good-and worthy of praise (verse 6). Verse 7 may mean that deliverance has come in the midst of the song's composition, though it perhaps more likely means that David has foreseen it clearly. Rather than including the NKJV's interpolated words "its desire," a better sense might simply be "My eye has seen what will come upon my enemies."
Psalm 55 is the last maskil of David in a sequence of four. As before, the word Neginoth in the superscription, perhaps part of a postscript to Psalm 54, is probably correctly translated in the NKJV as "stringed instruments."
David cries out to God in this song about many enemies acting against him, though his focus is on one in particular. The psalm addresses the pain of being betrayed by a friend-one David knew well who even worshiped God at the tabernacle alongside him (verses 12-14). Besides being painful on its own, a betraying friend is an enemy with vital knowledge-an adversary particularly adept at causing harm and inflicting pain. David addresses both elements here when he says, "If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him" (verse 12, NIV).
The friend having "broken his covenant" (verse 20) could mean an informal one of friendship or a formal oath of loyalty to David as king-perhaps part of an oath of office. The man's loyalty and slick speech, David says, were a pretense-all part of a calculated plan to stab him in the back (verse 21).
David doesn't name the friend, but many believe the person meant here was his counselor and prime minister Ahithophel, who betrayed him in joining and essentially directing Absalom's rebellion (see 2 Samuel 15-17). Further, many see a connection between Psalm 55 and Psalm 41:9: "Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." However, Psalm 41 also concerns an illness that befell David-and there is no record of him being ill when Absalom rebelled (though, as pointed out previously, it is not hard to imagine that his deep depression could have made him physically sick). It could be that Psalm 41 and Psalm 55 concern two different friends at different times-or that both concern the same friend but not Ahithophel. In any case, these two psalms are certainly linked by theme if not by occasion. That being so, we should recall that Psalm 41:9 is quoted in the New Testament as a prophecy of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. The betrayal in Psalm 55 would seem to prefigure this as well, as many have recognized.
The NKJV translates David's prayer in verse 15 as: "Let death seize them; let them go down alive into hell"-that is, not just the one treacherous friend but others who were set against him also. In no way does this refer to people descending into a burning hellfire and remaining conscious. Rather, the word translated "hell" here simply means, as the NIV renders it, "grave." In using the word "alive," David could conceivably be calling for what happened to Korah and the other rebels against Moses in the wilderness when the earth opened up and swallowed them-whereupon they were instantly killed. Yet it seems likely that he simply means for their deaths to come while they are in full vigor and not after they have lain on their sickbeds in old age. David later expresses his belief that this will happen when he says near the end of the psalm, "Bloodthirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days" (verse 23).
How are we to understand David's call for death on his enemies, as it may seem very unchristian in light of Jesus' instruction to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors? One book explains regarding such imprecations (callings for curse or judgment on others) in the psalms: "These invocations are not mere outbursts of a vengeful spirit; they are, instead, prayers addressed to God. These earnest pleadings to God ask that he step in and right some matters so grossly distorted that if his help does not come, all hope for justice is lost.
"These hard sayings are legitimate expressions of the longings of Old Testament saints for the vindication that only God's righteousness can bring. They are not statements of personal vendetta, but utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. The attacks that provoked these prayers were not just from personal enemies; rather, they were rightly seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah. Thus, David and his office bore the brunt of most of these attacks, and this was tantamount to an attack on God and his kingdom!
"It is frightening to realize that a righteous person may, from time to time, be in the presence of evil and have little or no reaction to it. But in these psalms we have the reverse of the situation. These prayers express a fierce abhorrence of sin and a desire to see God's name and cause triumph. Therefore, those whom the saints opposed in these prayers were the fearful embodiments of wickedness.
"Since David was the author of far more imprecatory psalms than anyone else, let it also be noted that David exhibited just the opposite of a vindictive or vengeful spirit in his own life. He was personally assaulted time and time again by people like Shimei, Doeg, Saul and his own son Absalom. Never once did he attempt to effect his own vindication or lift his hand to exercise what many may have regarded as his royal prerogative....
"Finally, these imprecations only repeat in prayer what God had already stated elsewhere would be the fate of those who were impenitent and who were persistently opposing God and his kingdom. In almost every instance, each expression used in one of these prayers of malediction may be found in plain prose statements of what will happen to those sinners who persist in opposing God" (Walter Kaiser Jr., Peter Davids, F.F. Bruce and Manfred Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 1996, comments on Psalm 137:8-9).
David, we should also remember, was a prophet expressing God's judgment. Furthermore, here in Psalm 55 he even seems to make allowance for repentance when he says that it is such people's lack of repentance that is the basis for their punishment: "God, who is enthroned forever, will hear them [i.e., the evil they say and do] and afflict them...men who never change their ways and have no fear of God" (verse 19, NIV).
Conversely, David has confidence that God will sustain His faithful people. He tells the righteous to "cast your burden on the LORD, and He shall sustain you" (verse 22). The apostle Peter later says the same in 1 Peter 5:6-7: "Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you."
Psalm 56 is the first of five Davidic psalms in a row bearing the title mikhtam (56-60). As explained in the Bible Reading Program comments on Psalm 16 (another mikhtam), the meaning of this word is uncertain. It may mean a writing or inscription-and could perhaps denote something first written as a poem (though we know from the examples here that these were set to music, at least at some point, and some express a desire to play instruments or sing). As noted previously, these mikhtams are all written in the face of great danger.
We earlier read Psalm 56 in conjunction with the account of David fleeing from Saul into Philistine territory and being taken into custody by the Philistines at Gath-the event mentioned in the superscription (see the Bible Reading Program comments on 1 Samuel 21:1-12; Psalm 56). This was immediately before David feigned madness to escape from the Philistines, after which he composed Psalm 34 in thanks to God.
David complains that his enemies are many and that they hound him all day (56:2). Having been on the run from Saul, it is likely that David was thinking a great deal about him and his forces and not just the Philistines-though they were certainly included.
David talks through his fears in prayer: "Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.... In God I have put my trust; I will not fear. What can flesh do to me?" (verses 3-4; compare the same basic refrain in verses 4 and 10-11; see also 118:6). It was fear of Saul that had driven David from Israel and into Philistine territory. So he was clearly learning some lessons here.
David then once more describes the actions of his enemies (Psalm 56:5-7) before again expressing trust in God to help him. The Nelson Study Bible says that "alternating passages of pain and faith are a characteristic of the lament psalms...[and] the poet typically complains about lies, the misuse of language, and deceit" (notes on Psalm 56:3-4 and verse 5).
Thinking about his life on the run and all his suffering, David knows that God is aware and keeps track of it (verse 8). David realizes God is for him-on his side (verse 9; compare Romans 8:31). God has been faithful to him in saving and helping him (Psalm 56:13)-and David will be faithful to God (verse 12).
Psalm 57 is the second in the sequence of five mikhtams here. We earlier read it along with the account mentioned in the superscription-when David "fled from Saul into the cave." Actually, David hid in a cave on two occasions we know of-once in Adullam (1 Samuel 22:1-5), the setting of Psalm 142, and once in the oasis of En Gedi (1 Samuel 24:1-7), which is evidently the setting of this psalm. In En Gedi, David in a miraculous circumstance spared Saul when he could easily have killed him and was afterward blessed with a period of respite. This was in answer to David's prayer recorded here (see the earlier Bible Reading Program comments on Psalm 57; 1 Samuel 24).
David cries out for mercy, trusting God will save him (Psalm 57:1-3). The imagery in verse 1 of finding refuge under God's wings as a young bird finds protection under the wings of its mother is also found elsewhere in Psalms (17:8; 36:7; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4).
As David fervently prays for help, he is not yet out of peril from those who seek to harm him (verses 4, 6). But he sees a new day dawning (verse 8). Note the repeated refrain of praise (verses 5, 11). And indeed, God would soon rescue him, as 1 Samuel 24 shows.
The end of Psalm 57 (verses 7-11), with its exuberant expression of joy and praise, is used in Book V of the Psalter as the beginning of Psalm 108 (verses 1-5), while the end of Psalm 108 is taken from Psalm 60, the last of the sequence of miktams here.