Psalm 56

A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath.

This psalm begins a series of Michtam psalms, running from Psalm 56 to Psalm 60, all of which are by David. The only other Michtam psalm is Psalm 16, also by David, which we have already studied. As explained in The Companion Bible Appendix 65, the word “Michtam” comes from the Hebrew word “Katam,” which means to cut in or engrave. In the Septuagint, the word used to translate Katam is connected with the words engraved on a sepulchral monument, and we can see in the Michtam psalms the idea of death and resurrection. The reference is to a graven and therefore permanent writing. Since most writing is not graven, this indicates its importance. It is “set in stone,” as our figure of speech would have it.

According to The Companion Bible, the King James Version translators derived Michtam from Kethem, meaning “Gold,” and make Michtam to mean “precious” or “hidden away.” This is also possible. Less sensible is the derivation on “Blue Letter Bible” online, which derives it from “Katham,” to be stained or defiled. This makes no sense at all. We would prefer The Companion Bible suggestion of “Graven,” meaning an important Psalm and one having to do with death and resurrection.

The question arises as to what episode in David’s life is referred to by this psalm. It is possible that this took place during David’s flight from Saul to Gath, as recorded in I Samuel 21:10-22:1. Yet if so, we would have to imagine details that are not found in I Samuel, for the record there is that he went to Gath and to Achish the king willingly, hoping he would take him in and shield him from the jealous wrath of King Saul. There is no mention of him being captured at that time. Yet if that is not what is referred to, then of course we have to imagine an episode which is not even mentioned in the book of Samuel. This is not at all far-fetched, for multiple psalms refer to events in David’s life that are not recorded for us in the history of either Samuel or Chronicles. As Rotherham points out in his Studies in Psalms, David would have earned the enmity of the inhabitants of Gath by his killing of Goliath, who was himself from Gath. That they might have succeeded in carrying out a plan to capture him at some point in his career is a very real possibility. At any rate, whatever the exact circumstances were, David is in their hands and in their power as he writes this psalm.

1. Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up;

David calls on God to be merciful or gracious to him. He requests this in light of the fact that mortal men wish to swallow him up. They desire his death, and so he looks to God as his source of help.

Fighting all day he oppresses me.

Rotherham suggests that this means a warrior guard is oppressing him all day. This would certainly make sense, for one does not have to fight to oppress a prisoner.

2. My enemies would hound me all day,

The idea here, as both Rotherham and The Companion Bible make it, is of watchers or observers. Again, this speaks of those who watch David as he is a prisoner in Gath. These guards watch him and hound him all day.

Yet at the same time we cannot help but see echoes of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ in this psalm, as so many of the psalms refer not just to the psalmist’s day, but to events in the future as well. The Lord Jesus was constantly being watched by His enemies, as we know, and they were often trying to fight against Him and trap Him in His words. Thus these words could apply to Him, David’s Son and David’s Lord.

For there are many who fight against me, O Most High.

There are many of these who are battling against and oppressing David. “O Most High” is not the usual Hebrew ‘Elyon, but rather a word meaning lofty or exalted. Thus this could speak of the lofty status in Gath of those who were fighting to destroy David.

3. Whenever I am afraid,

We can fully understand why David would be afraid, as he is a captive prisoner and realizes that he is surrounded by men who wish his death.

I will trust in You.

David’s fear was understandable, yet that does not mean that he is going to simply wallow in it. He states that when he is afraid, he will trust in God. This is a good thing for all of us to do when we are afraid, no matter what it is that we fear. We can know that whatever the problem, God is bigger, and is able to deliver us.

4. In God (I will praise His word),

In God David will praise His word. What exactly he means by this is a bit hard to grasp, except that perhaps he means that even in such dire circumstances his confidence in God will give him the courage to praise His word, even while imprisoned and surrounded by enemies.

In God I have put my trust;

David has placed his confidence in God. It is God Who will get him out of this jam, if anyone will.

I will not fear.

Because of his trust in God, David will not fear. This is quite a determination, considering his circumstances! Yet David knew that God was with him, and that He had many promises yet to fulfill in his life. In light of this, he could certainly be confident in God’s deliverance.

What can flesh do to me?

What can men who are mere flesh do to David, one who is chosen and protected by the LORD? The answer is not much. And we know that this is true, for David escaped from this captivity unscathed. God truly was with him.

5. All day they twist my words;

David, it seems, is being questioned as a prisoner, and his words are being analyzed and twisted to mean something they did not mean by these who are dead set against him and anxious to destroy him. If there was a linguistic difference between Israelites and Philistines, it could be as well that they were mistranslating his words to mischaracterize them.

Again, this reminds us of our Lord Jesus Christ. He too spent a night as a prisoner of His enemies, and they too were anxious to destroy Him. When they put Him on trial, they twisted His words in order to condemn Him. What happened to David here happened to Him as well.

All their thoughts are against me for evil.

They are thinking about David, plotting and scheming against him to bring calamity upon him. The Hebrew word ra’a, translated often as “evil,” basically means “calamity,” not wickedness, as we would usually think of it. In this sense, cancer is an evil or a car accident is an evil. Thus it was evil they were thinking about to bring it on David.

6. They gather together,

These wicked ones gather together in order to do harm to David. Perhaps this refers to his capture, if indeed this is not the I Samuel incident, but rather one wherein he was actually caught and taken captive by the Philistines of Gath. If this was after he was on the run from Saul, David’s thoughts may have also expanded beyond his imprisonment to think of all his enemies, like King Saul, who tried to ambush him and sought for his life at this time.

They hide, they mark my steps,

These ones who would bring calamity on David hide themselves and then mark David’s steps. Again, this sounds like an ambush, and not like the time when David simply went to King Achish to seek refuge.

When they lie in wait for my life.

He describes these enemies as lying in wait for his life, again sounding like an ambush that had caught David. Yet at the same time, this again reminds us of the Lord Jesus Christ, Whose enemies were constantly and secretly watching Him in order to attempt to capture Him, either in His words or physically, as they ended up doing. He too had enemies just like this.

The New King James Version reads that these men lay in wait for his “life.” Yet in the Hebrew, “life” is the word nephesh or “soul.” The soul here is put for the whole person, and for them to seek David’s soul is indeed for them to seek his life. Yet it is good if we recognize the word “soul” here to realize better what the word means when it is used by the Bible, and also to show us that souls can be both sought and taken.

7. Shall they escape by iniquity?

Though it is David who was caught in an ambush and captured, he expresses confidently that it is his enemies who shall not escape. And it is because of their iniquity that these men shall themselves be caught.

In anger cast down the peoples, O God!

He now calls upon God to act in anger and to cast down all these peoples who fight against Him and His chosen King of Israel. This was an appropriate prayer for the time, for indeed someone who seeks the life of God’s anointed deserves His anger. Yet this is not an appropriate prayer for today, for God now is not acting toward any people in anger, but rather is restraining His anger and acting toward all people in grace.

8. You number my wanderings;

The idea here is not so much of numbering, for wanderings cannot easily be numbered (unless one wanted to record the actual distance wandered), but rather of recording. God has recorded David’s fugitive wanderings. This is perhaps even truer than David knew of at the time, for we know that David’s wanderings are now recorded in God’s Book, the Bible, in the book of I Samuel. Yet what David had in mind was probably more that God had paid attention to his wanderings and that they were all recorded in His mind as a permanent witness.

Put my tears into Your bottle;

This appears to refer to an ancient custom in that part of the world of collecting one’s tears in a bottle to show how much one had mourned. Many such bottles are found in ancient tombs in that part of the world. David refers to this in urging God to put his tears in His own bottle, to keep them as a record in His own mind of how much sorrow David has gone through because of men such as this.

Are they not in Your book?

He also states that his tears are in God’s book. This is an example of Hebrew poetry repeating the same idea in two different ways, so this is also saying, as the last line did, that David wants God to keep a permanent record of his tears and remember them. Yet it is interesting that this request has been quite literally granted, for many of David’s sorrows have been recorded for us in the books of Samuel, and others not recorded historically there are hinted at in psalms like this one. David’s sorrows have quite literally been recorded in God’s book, the Bible, and their record there is indeed permanent, for heaven and earth shall pass away, but His words shall not pass away (Matthew 24:35). Thus David’s sorrows are, indeed, permanently recorded.

9. When I cry out to You,

David now expresses confidence in God: that in the very day he cries out to Him, God will be on his side to foil the schemes of the enemy.

Then my enemies will turn back;

David now pictures himself safely escaping from his enemies. He describes them being forced to turn back themselves lest they become the ones in danger. Of course, this would be when David makes it back to his own territory and to his own people and troops. It is his enemies who will be forced to turn tail and run at that time.

This I know, because God is for me.

David is confident that this will take place, because he knows God is for him. How could he think otherwise? First of all, he had been anointed as the next king by God’s appointed prophet, priest, and judge, Samuel himself. Then too David had experienced Jehovah’s powerful help and deliverance multiple times before this, and so he knew from experience that Jehovah was indeed for him. Therefore his reasoning was sound: God would rescue him from this danger as well, for He had plans for David that did not include him being executed at the hands of the Gittites.

10. In God (I will praise His word),

Here we have repeated David’s refrain from verse 4. In God David will praise the things He has spoken. We can see the connection here: David knows God is for him because of the word he has received from God. When His word comes to pass, David will praise it, and David will praise it even now, when in terrible danger and trouble, as he anticipates that His sayings will come true, as they always do.

In the LORD (I will praise His word),

Here we have another example of Hebrew poetry repeating ideas rather than sounds. The first part of the verse and verse 4 both said that in God David will praise His word. Now, this phrase says that in Yahweh David will praise His word. This poetically emphasizes David’s point in this verse, but it also underscores another important truth: the One Who is called God in the first line is called Yahweh in the second line. Clearly Yahweh is God and God is Yahweh. The two are clearly the same.

11. In God I have put my trust;

Captured and in this perilous state, David can still have confidence because he has placed that confidence in God.

I will not be afraid.

A captive and surrounded by those who wish his death, David is determined not to be afraid.

What can man do to me?

With God on his side, what can any man do to David? If God chooses not to allow it, then of course the answer is nothing. Thus David scorns the danger he is facing by the hands of these Philistines. No man can possibly act to destroy the promises of God, therefore no man will be able to destroy David. He is confident of this because he is confident in God.

12. Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God;

David, it seems, has made vows to God in anticipation of his deliverance. He will not be able to fulfill those vows unless he escapes from this danger. Yet his confidence is great that he will indeed escape, and so these vows he has made will be binding and he will pay them.

I will render praises to You,

David will not just render his vows to God, but also will render praises to Him. Again, David says this in anticipation of his deliverance from captivity and from the schemes of those who seek to put him to death. He is certain that he will see this deliverance, and knows that when that time comes he will have ample reason for praising God.

13. For You have delivered my soul from death.

David will praise God because He has delivered his soul from death. “Soul” here, the Hebrew word nephesh, is put for David’s whole person, which has been delivered from death. Yet notice here that David considers his soul in danger of death, and therefore as being subject to death. There is no idea of an “immortal soul” in the Bible, and David had no conception of such a thing. He knew that his soul could die along with the rest of him.

Have You not kept my feet from falling,

David also credits God with keeping his feet or legs from falling. Without God’s help, this captivity at the hands of the Philistines might have been the stumble that caused David to fall and brought all of his kingly hopes based on God’s promises to an end. Yet God did not allow this to happen, and instead kept him from suffering such a fate.

That I may walk before God

David has been spared from death so that he may continue to live out his life before God’s face. “Walk” here is put for David’s day-to-day activities. These would have come to an end had he died in this captivity to the Philistines. Yet now, since he lived, he could continue to live in the sight of God.

In the light of the living?

David will continue before God in the light of the living rather than in the darkness of death. Yet Bullinger in The Companion Bible suggests that this refers to resurrection life, tying it back to the word michtam in the first sentence as being the time when David’s life will be engraven or preserved by God perpetually, and not just until he died in old age, as he did in the past. That, too, will be a great deliverance, for God will not just deliver him from dying, but will deliver him from death after he has died by raising him from the dead. Praise God, those of us in Christ will experience that same kind of deliverance as well when the time comes.

Here we have something that we often encounter in these troubled-times psalms: a happy ending. This becomes difficult if we picture the entire psalm being written in the grim circumstances in which it was begun. It could be that David so anticipates his eventual deliverance that he writes about it, even while in the midst of trouble, as if it had already occurred. Yet it seems more likely that David, having begun the writing of a psalm in a time of trouble, later completed it at his leisure when the trouble was past. The title of the psalm would be true, then, of the original composition of the song, but the version we have would have been edited, completed, and no doubt perfected later.

It would seem unlikely that, while under extreme duress, David would work out satisfactorily a complete song, with music and all accompanying parts, that would not need editing later. The inspiration he received, which may have included the original words and perhaps even the basic tune, would not, in my mind, preclude allowing him to complete and perfect the psalm later. We cannot prove it for sure, however, but it seems to me that too many of these psalms end sounding like the trouble is past to just be a sign of David’s confidence at the time. It seems more likely that he did, indeed, complete these psalms after the trouble was over, and then wrote the words of thanksgiving and praise with which they end.

To the Chief Musician. Set to “Do Not Destroy.”

Again this psalm is to be a psalm performed for the public. Those who hear can all realize that, if they are captive and afraid, they can put their trust in their God as well.

The idea here is not “set to” Do Not Destroy, as if this was a tune that David’s wrote his lyrics to. There may well have been a tune this was sung to, but that is not what David is referring to here. This whole psalm is asking God to see to it that David’s enemies “do not destroy” him, as they wish to. Thus we can see how well this fits with Psalm 56 and its theme. These words should be in the postscript of this psalm, not in the prescript of Psalm. 57. This is important for understanding all these titles. Once understood, though, we can see it has much more to say about the psalm than just telling us it was written to a pre-established tune!