The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 56

Psa 56:1

SUPERSCRIPTION: "OF DAVID. A MIKTAM. WHEN THE PHILISTINES HAD SEIZED HIM IN GATH". "Michtam" sig "to cut, engrave (Jer 2:22), or write (Exo 17:14)", and hence to remember. The 6 "michtam" psalms are thus "memorial" psalms, of a very personal nature, having the hope of resurrection as a common theme (Psa 16:10,11; 56:13; 57:3; 58:10,11; 59:16; 60:5,12).

MEN HOTLY PURSUE ME... THEY PRESS THEIR ATTACK: Saul's hunt for David at this time must have been much more intense than the history suggests. The fact that he thrust himself into such a hostile environment as the Philistine court of Goliath's hometown (1Sa 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).

(NT) 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 spirit. It was crucial to the divine purpose that Jesus was "tempted in all points like as we are" (Heb 4:15).

PURSUE: As in Psa 57:3. "Shaaph" sig to pant, desire, or thirst for blood -- as a wild beast of prey (Job 5:5; Isa 42:14; Amo 2:7). The cognate verb "shuph", however, may sig to bruise or crush with the foot (as in the well-known Gen 3:15). Hence the LXX and RSV have "trample on".

Psa 56:2

PURSUE: As in v 1n; Psa 57:3.

IN THEIR PRIDE: AV has "O thou most High". From Heb "marom". Not the usual title (ie Elyon), thus suggesting slight emendation: "Appear on high", or "proudly" (RV, RSV).

Psa 56:3

AFRAID... 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.

Psa 56:4

I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT CAN MORTAL MAN DO TO ME?: Quoted in Psa 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.

Psa 56:5

THEY TWIST MY WORDS: (NT) Deliberate dishonest misrepresentation of all the words of an adversary (cp 2Pe 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" (KD).

Psa 56:6

THEY WATCH MY STEPS: (NT) Deliberate attempts on the life of Jesus (at least 15 separate times (WBS 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 (lit) my heel, with reference to Gen 3:15.

Psa 56:7

ON NO ACCOUNT LET THEM ESCAPE: "Shall they escape by iniquity?" (AV). 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!

BRING DOWN THE NATIONS: (NT) The words are difficult, for the Heb 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.

Psa 56:8

RECORD MY LAMENT: "Thou tellest my wanderings" (AV). Wanderings (nodh: Gen 4:16) and bottle (n'odh): a play on words. Tellest (saphar) and book (sepher): another word-play. When the complete list of David's wanderings is compiled from 1Sa 21--30 it makes an impressive catalogue. (NT) The almost ceaseless 3 1/2 years of preaching by Jesus, going from place to place, up and down the land of Israel, with nowhere to lay his head (Mat 8:20; Luk 9:58).

MY TEARS: Joh 11:35; Luk 19:41; Heb 5:7. Other Psalms references: Psa 6:6; 39:12; 42:3; 69:10; 116:8. All of David's (and Xt's) travels, even if relatively insignificant, are assuredly noted and remembered by God. For the same general idea, see Mat 10:29,30.

LIST MY TEARS ON YOUR SCROLL: "Put thou my tears into thy bottle" (AV). 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 (LB 103,104). Others, however, deny any ref 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 Luk 12:33) (Freeman, Bible Manners and Customs 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 (Luk 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 repentance, our devotion, our love, and even our tears.

"Prayers are instantly noticed in heaven. The moment Saul began to pray the Lord heard him. Here is comfort for the distressed but praying soul. Oftentimes a poor broken-hearted one bends his knee, but can only utter his wailing in the language of sighs and tears; yet that groan has made all the harps of heaven thrill with music; that tear has been caught by God and treasured in the lachrymatory of heaven. 'Thou puttest my tears into thy bottle,' implies that they are caught as they flow. The supplicant, whose tears prevent his words, will be well understood by the Most High. He may only look up with misty eye; but 'prayer is the falling of a tear.' Tears are the diamonds of heaven; sighs are a part of the music of Jehovah's court, and are numbered with 'the sublimest strains that reach the majesty on high.' Think not that your prayer, however weak or trembling, will be unregarded. Jacob's ladder is lofty, but our prayers shall lean upon the Angel of the covenant and so climb its starry rounds. Our God not only hears prayer but also loves to hear it. 'He forgetteth not the cry of the humble.' True, He regards not high looks and lofty words; He cares not for the pomp and pageantry of kings; He listens not to the swell of martial music; He regards not the triumph and pride of man; but wherever there is a heart big with sorrow, or a lip quivering with agony, or a deep groan, or a penitential sigh, the heart of Jehovah is open; He marks it down in the registry of His memory; He puts our prayers, like rose leaves, between the pages of His book of remembrance, and when the volume is opened at last, there shall be a precious fragrance springing up therefrom" (CHS).

ARE THEY NOT IN YOUR RECORD?: God's "book of remembrance", or "book of life": Psa 69:28: 87:6; 139:16; Mal 3:16; Exo 32:32; Dan 12:1; Isa 4:3; Eze 13:9; Phi 4:3; Luk 10:20; Heb 12:23; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27; 22:19. The fig of this divine recording is related to the practice of earthly monarchs. In the court of the Heb kings was a "recorder", and "the chronicles of the kings" was the daily record of the events of each king's reign. 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).

Psa 56:9

MY ENEMIES WILL TURN BACK: (NT) Illustrated in Gethsemane by the cry to the Father, followed by Joh 18:6; cp also Psa 27:1,2; 35:4; 40:14).

Psa 56:11

I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT CAN MORTAL MAN DO TO ME?: ...Because man can have no power at all, except it be given him by God (Joh 19:11). Also in v 4. Quoted in Psa 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.

Psa 56:12

I AM UNDER VOWS TO YOU, O GOD: These vows were probably made when things were at their very worst (1Sa 21:13). "Binding upon me are thy vows" (KD; cp NEB, NIV).

(NT) But vows are to be discharged in the presence of God. Hence the immed ascension of Jesus after his resurrection (Joh 20:17).

Psa 56:13

THAT I MAY WALK BEFORE GOD IN THE LIGHT OF LIFE: Here nearly all the modern versions have: the light of life (cp Joh 8:12). For light as equivalent to life, see Pro 29:13; Psa 13:3; 36:9; Joh 1:4; 1Jo 1:5-7; 2:8; etc.

SUBSCRIPTION: "FOR THE DIRECTOR OF MUSIC. TO THE TUNE OF 'DO NOT DESTROY' ": "Al taschith" (AV). The SUBSCRIPTIONion of Psa 56, 57, 58, 74. In each case the psalmist is in a tight corner and is praying for his life. This exact phrase comes in 1Sa 26:9, and tempts the expositor to read the psalm against that background. (Cp also Deu 9:26: "Destroy not thy people"; and Isa 65:8: "Destroy it -- ie the cluster of grapes, or the remnant of Israel -- not.") But, beyond question, the entire tone of it fits 1Sa 21:10-15 much better.

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