November 4, 2015

Tom Lowe





(To the chief Musician on Jonath-elem-rechokim[1], Michtam, a Psalm of David.)


Theme: David’s Fear and Trust




Psalm 56 (KJV)


1 Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me.

2 Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High.

3 What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.

4 In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.

5 Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.

6 They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul.

7 Shall they escape by iniquity? in thine anger cast down the people, O God.

8 Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?

9 When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me.

10 In God will I praise his word: in the Lord will I praise his word.

11 In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.

12 Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee.

13 For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?






This psalm was written when David found himself in the Philistine city of Gath, fleeing from King Saul, and up to his neck in very hot water.  Achish, the king of Gath, had put David under arrest and was being pressured by his advisers to put him to death.  After all, this was the man who had killed their national hero, Goliath!  David pretended to be mad (crazy), hoping in this way to lessen the impact of these threats on his life.  All the time he was acting this way, his soul seems to have been directing its eyes towards God.  His faith was not strong enough to keep him from such a shameful disguise; but still faith was there.


The psalm follows the familiar pattern of a lament[2]. It was sung in corporate worship, and was set to the tune “The Silent Dove in Distant Lands.” It has the familiar subscription, “To the chief Musician.” The introduction tells us this is a “michtam” psalm, the first of five such psalms (56-60).  The word “michtam” literally means “to cut” or “to engrave.” The thought is that this is a permanent writing, and pictures that which is unmovable, steadfast, stable and enduring.  Evidently the Psalmist considered the psalm to be of great importance. 


As you read the poem, you will note that there is no single reference either to the Philistines or to the petty king of Gath.  The same poem might have been written to express the fugitive hero’s state of mind in a score of predicaments


This psalm is quite different from Psalm 55, where the troubles were caused by David’s family and friend; here they are caused by David’s foes.  There he was depressed, here he is optimistic.  Trouble is trouble, but where it comes from makes a difference.


Let us put ourselves in David’s place.  We picture him in a cell under lock and key in Gath, a prisoner in a foreign land, the home of the hereditary enemies of his people.  His life hangs on a thread.  Outside his cell the triumphant troops of the Philistines march up and down. They are reveling in their capture.  They have him at last, the young fellow who had slain their champion Goliath and as a result they had suffered a massive defeat at Elah.  Some of them, undoubtedly, had lost brothers, fathers, sons, friends in that battle.  Now they have David in their power.


David is encouraged as he remembers the mercy, mindfulness, and might of God.  That is a great way to face a hopeless situation.  Life is full of situations which are far beyond our limited powers to control: situations at work and at home, with our families, in our church, and in matters of finance, and in matters of our future.  In any case, God is able! For proof you need look no further, for David was able to extricate himself from the situation by feigning madness.  The Philistines forced him out of the city but did not harm him (1 Samuel 21:10-22:1).  Psalm 34 also came out of this experience in Gath.


In the midst of the peril and fear depicted in this psalm, David sent three requests to the Lord, and the Lord answered. The psalm can be divided into three parts; one for each request.

                          I)        Deliver Me from Death (vs. 1-4)

                       II)        Deliver Me from Stumbling (vs. 5-11)

                    III)        Deliver Me So I Can Praise You (vs. 12, 13)







David’s initial plea is for God to be merciful to him.  David’s foes had found him out.  He had forgotten, when he entered Gath, a solitary individual with a strong Judean accent and Goliath’s sword in his hand, that for years there probably had been a price on his head in Gath, and his description was posted everywhere.  It did not take long for the Philistines to recognize and seize him.


1 Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily [all day long] oppresseth me.


We can almost hear the tramp of their feet outside his prison cell, the regular pacing back and forth of the armed sentry.  We can picture the stream of men from the guardroom, coming down to make fun of David, just as years before they had made fun of Samson.  Their continual jabs and jibes were getting on David’s high-strung nerves.  All day long, David was harassed by the Philistines, who remembered that Israel sang his praises as a great military leader.  They pursued him like hungry panting animals, and David cried out for mercy— “Be merciful unto me, be merciful unto me; for my soul trusteth in Thee: yea, in the shadow of Thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.” (57:1; also see 51:1).  “Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me.” The double cry tells us that David has had about all he can take.  The record in 1 Samuel doesn’t record any physical attacks on David, but he heard a great deal of slander and his life was in danger.  David manifested both fear and faith as he cried out to God (Matthew 8:26; 14:30; Mark 5:6).  The refrain in verses 3-4 is repeated in verses 10-11 as David affirmed that God alone gives him the power to praise Him and trust Him.


David complains to God of the malice and wickedness of his enemies to show why he feared them, and that it was crucial for God to join the fight against them.  His petition, “Be merciful unto me, O God!” includes all the good we come to the throne of grace for; if we obtain mercy there, we obtain all we can desire, and we don’t need anything else to make us happy.  It is our best plea, yet it does not indicate our merit (value, worth), but rather, God’s mercy, his free rich mercy.  He prays that he might find mercy with God, for with men he could find no mercy.  When he fled from the cruel hands of Saul he fell into the cruel hands of the Philistines.  “Lord” (he says), “be thou merciful to me now, or I am undone (done for).” The mercy of God is what we may flee to and trust in, and in faith pray for, when we are surrounded on all sides with difficulties and dangers.


The word he uses for “man,” is important.  It is the word enosh—mortal man, man in his weakness.  It looked as though they held all the power; however, they were merely creatures of clay after all.  During David’s sojourn in Gath is the only time it is recorded he was afraid of man.  Being alone and away from his country would account for that.



2 Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High.


David senses their animosity toward him.  He had killed their champion in a fair fight, according to the rules of war and according to the special conditions Goliath himself had proposed.  The Philistines had put that out of their minds. All they could think of was their public humiliation at the hands of a teenage lad.  Thanks to David they had been routed by the despised Hebrews.  Now that they had the one that caused it in their hands, they intended to vent their hate and spite on him.


Over against their personal animosity David sets the name of his God “O Thou Most High!” It is a rather unusual name for God: It is not Elyon, the name for God usually translated in this way, but Marom—God the lofty or the exalted One.  David’s enemies were exalting themselves; David asks God to exalt Himself.  David could see beyond these barbarous self-important little men that sought to “swallow me up” (Oppressing me continually; v. 1): he could see the great God who was exalted and lifted up and lofty beyond any words he could employ.  He simply calls Him “Marom! Exalted One.”


Verse 3-4: so long as all goes well, so long as we have the circumstances of life under control, we may think we have little need to exercise faith.  However, David determined to put faith into practice. 


3 What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.


If this psalm is a true reflection of David’s experience in Gath, then he would have been both pursued by Saul’s army and slandered by his Philistine hosts (56:1-2). In addition, he would be running out of places to hide, so his fear is understandable.  Still he is able to maintain trust in God and realize that the Lord’s protection is sufficient.  Nothing can penetrate the protective hedge which he sets up around us, except by His permissive will.  This is why we can trust in God without a fear.  Fear finds its antidote in faith, for “in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me” (v. 4).



4 In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.


The sense of the clause, “In God I will praise his word” is either (1), I will praise or boast of the Lord’s word, or the Lord for His word. Or (2), with or by the Lord (i.e. by his favor or help) I will praise His word.  Or (3), as I humbly envision it: and there are many things to be praised and celebrated pertaining to God, His power and wisdom, etc., but above all, I shall at this time praise Him for His word.  And I will praise Him for His promises of protection and deliverance made to His people in all their predicaments, and especially for that promise of the kingdom made to me, for which I will now praise Him, because I am as sure of its accomplishment as if I already had it in my hand.  “In God I will praise,” not only His work which He has done, but His word which He has spoken; I will give Him thanks for a promise though it has not yet been accomplished.


“Flesh!”  That’s how he sums up all the armed and concentrated might of his foes.  “What time I am afraid,” says David (56:3), “I will not fear” (56:4).  “I will not fear what flesh can do unto me;” it is only flesh and cannot do much; it can do nothing other than by Divine permission. Just as we must not trust an arm of flesh when it is being used for us, so we must not be afraid of an arm of flesh when it is stretched out against us.  Also we should understand David’s fearlessness in the light of our Saviors words: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  David brought his fear into the presence of God and saw it dissolve before his eyes.  Mortal men on the one side, Almighty God on the other.  That was how David saw his current situation.  The source of courage is God’s word!  Nothing can defeat a man with faith such as this.



Verses 5-11: His enemies had not gone away.  They were still there, congregating outside his cell, mocking him, and telling him what they intended to do with him.  David encourages himself in God. 


Verses 5-7: David carefully weighs his present precarious circumstances against divine certainties.  There was no way he could perish in that Philistine prison because God had promised him the throne of Israel, and if he were to die there in Gath God would have broken His Word.  Unthinkable! 



5 Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.


They lied about him and they spied on him.  They conspired together to keep the pressure up.  If David attempted to defend himself or reason with them, they put words in his mouth to alter what he is really attempting to say.  It was a form of persecution which has been brought to a fine art in many countries today.  We call it brainwashing—bright lights, no sleep, continual threats, arguments, rants and tirades.  Sooner or later most people break down under this treatment (or mistreatment).  David simply told the Lord about it. 


“Every day they (evil men) wrest my words”; they misconstrue and pervert my most innocent expressions, and turn them into vicious slander, with which they may incense Saul against me.



6 They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul.


After the officers and officials had pondered how to get rid of me, “They gather themselves together,” that is, they met together to share their thoughts on how to deal with me.  Though there were many of them, and they had different interests, yet they united and joined forces against David.


My foes are cunning, they hide themselves,” they cover their intentions, so that they may effectively pursue them.  “They hide themselves” like a lion in his den.  The foes are described as wild beasts lurking for pray.  [The image is not uncommon in the Psalter.] They spy on me, either to pry into my most private activities, or in order to surprise me and harm me in some way (compare Psalm 10:8; Proverbs 1:11).  David literally had to “watch his step” in Gath, because he was a man under suspicion.  He had a target on his back and only the Lord could protect him.  David chose Gath because he thought it was the last place Saul would expect to find him, but when he made that choice, he was walking by sight and not by faith.  Faith is living without scheming.  David prayed that God would judge Israel’s enemies.


“They mark my steps,” which is to say, they are always watching me, observing everything I say and do with a critical eye, hoping that they may find something to blame me for, or an opportunity to criticize or entangle and destroy me.


“When they wait for my soul,” to wit, to take it away from me, by killing me.


Satan is a master at wearing us down.  Often we collapse because we are physically or psychologically exhausted.  The only hope we have is to make sure our anchor rests firmly under the blanket of God’s care and lovingkindness—then we can sing, “My anchor holds.”



7 Shall they escape by iniquity? in thine anger cast down the people, O God.


One translator puts it like this: “Pay them back for their malice!  Down with these men of power, O God, in anger!” David invokes the righteous anger of God against those who were breaking the laws of asylum and threatening His own anointed.  God is mindful of mine trials, says David. 


“Shall they escape by iniquity?”, he asks. They hope to escape God’s judgments (to get away with their evil) in the same way they escape men’s judgements, by violence and fraud, and with the assistance of injustice and treachery; but shall they escape?  No, certainly they shall not.  The sin of sinners will never be their security, nor will either their impudence or their hypocrisy bring them God’s support; God will in His “anger cast down” and cast out such people— “And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:3).  No one is so important, or so powerful that they cannot be brought down by the justice of God both from their dignity and from their confidence.  Who knows the power of God’s “anger,” how high it can reach, and how forcibly it can strike? 



8 Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?


The path to the throne was not an easy one for David.  He was in God’s school and God gives stiff exams.  He does not grade on the curve.  He puts those He intends to exalt to the sternest of tests.  David’s experiences as a fugitive found him often in despair, often in tears.  But God remembers his “tears,” God records his fears: “Thou tellest [recordest] my wanderings; put Thou my tears into Thy bottle[3]; are they not in Thy book?”  “When I cry unto Thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me” (v. 9).  The psalmist is confident that God has a particular interest in his every pain, even his every tear.


God has a “book” (in which all things are recorded) and a “bottle” to hold His peoples “tears,” both those shed for their sins and those shed for their afflictions.  This intimates that He observes them with compassion and tender concern; he is afflicted by their afflictions and knows their souls and adversities.  Just as the blood of His saints, and their deaths are precious in the sight of the Lord, so are their “tears,” not one of them shall fall to the ground; not one of them is unnoticed or forgotten.  “I have seen thy tears” (2 Kings 20:5). 


Here is an exquisite description of the tender, personalized care of our Lord.  He keeps a count of our “wanderings,” of our restless tossing during the night, of our fevered turnings from one side to another.  He cares so much about the details of our “tears” of sorrow that He can be asked to keep our “tears” in His “bottle” (“wineskin” is better).  This may be an allusion to an ancient custom of mourners, namely, preserving their falling “tears” in a small “bottle,” which was placed in the tomb of deceased friends, as a memorial to the survivors’ affection. In any event, God does keep a record of our “tears” in His “book,” just as Jesus later taught us that He numbers the very hairs of our heads.  The point is simply that God is aware of what we feel and how we suffer, and his records are accurate.


In verses 8-9, David reminded the Lord of the sufferings he had endured in exile, and then suggested that these sufferings qualified him to have his prayers answered and his enemies defeated. That would assure David that God is behind his cause (Romans 8:31-39).  Sleepless nights and many hours spent in torment and weeping are not endured in vain as far as God is concerned.  Suffering, as you might say, is capital invested with God, booked by Him and collected by Him (Weiser).



9 When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me.


What a map God had in Glory, the map of David’s meanderings up and down the promised land, with Saul’s bloodhounds ever baying at his heels!  David looked back over the past few years and was amazed.  The hunt had gone on so long and so relentlessly it had driven him, in a moment of panic, right into Philistine territory.  Not a single step was unmarked on that map.


Let us remember when our circumstances and our spirit seem to tell us that God is watching.  When we cannot sleep at night, when we pace the floor agonizing over a lost loved one, a wayward child, a threatened lay-off, God is watching.  He is mapping our own footsteps, gathering up our tears. 


When I (David) have no other weapons or men to use them, which is my present circumstance, my prayers shall be sufficient to overthrow my enemies— “Then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me,”to plead my cause, to protect and deliver me; and, if God be for me, who can prevail against me? “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?”  (Romans 8:31).



10 In God will I praise his word: in the Lord will I praise his word.


That which I (David) have already began to do (v.  4), that I promise I will do again and again, and I cannot sufficiently praise Thy goodness in making promises, and thy faithfulness in keeping them. It’s a great thing to rest on the promises of God in times of stress.  It has been said that there are some 30,000 promises in the Bible.  They may not all be for us but many of them are.  Seek them out. 


By repeating the shout of praise contained in verse 4“in the Lord will I praise His word”—the psalmist shows his great enthusiasm for the praise of God.



11 In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.


Frances Ridley Havergal had a useful spiritual exercise, guaranteed to strengthen faith.  She was blind, yet she wrote many of our great hymns.  She liked to match prayers with promises. David did the same. On one occasion David prayed: “Uphold me, according to Thy word.”  In answer he had these promises:  

  • I the Lord thy God hold thy right hand.
  • Yea, I will uphold thee.
  • He will not suffer thy foot to be moved.   
  • When thou runnest thou shalt not stumble. 
  • Yea, he shall be holden up. 
  • He shall keep thy foot from being taken. 
  • He will keep the feet of His saints. 

Seven promises in answer to one prayer!  Let us bank thus on the promises of God.  David did.


The confession of trust in verses 10-11 and verses 3-4 provides a frame of “I will not be afraid” (v.  11) around David’s petition.  He has no fear because he is confident that God will hear him (vs. 12-13).  Speaking as if his prayer has already been answered, David acknowledges that he now needs to keep the vows he made to God when he was in trouble.  God’s answer allows David to walk before God in the “light of the living” (v.  13), enjoying the full blessings of life.




Verses 12-13: God is so mighty that David can look upon his deliverance from the men of Gath as if it had already happened. 


12-13a Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death:


That word “delivered”is literally “plucked.”  The picture is graphic enough—that of a man being snatched away from surrounding danger.  In the light of this great assurance, David is mindful of some promises he has made to God: “I am under vows to Thee!” They were vows to render praises for the Lord’s deliverance.


“O Lord, my enemies planned my “death,” and I am in great danger,” said David, “but I am confident that thou wilt deliver me, because of thy promises, and my former experiences.”


It is easy to make promises to God in an hour of desperation, but what about paying them in the hour of deliverance?  “Lord, I’ll put You first in my life.  I’ll see to it that this or that work of Yours is adequately remembered in my tithes and offerings.  I’ll treat my family differently.” How quickly we forget!  David was happy in his soul.  Maybe that is why he wrote this psalm.  David’s greatest desire was to GLORIFY THE LORD, and this is why he wrote this psalm.  He had vowed to serve the Lord and he meant to keep his vow.  He had also vowed to present thank offerings to the Lord when his days of wandering were ended.



13b Wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?


He prays, “That I may walk before God,” that is, that I may please and serve and glorify Thee. Another translator renders it: “That I might live, ever mindful of God, in the sunshine of life.” He was well aware of the fact that he had run ahead of God in going down to Gath.  No matter what perils awaited him, in the future, he wanted to make sure that they were within that circle God had drawn around the promised land. 


David tells us here what he hoped for, that God would “deliver” his “feet from falling” either into sin, which would wound his conscience, or into the appearance of sin, which his enemies would distort and use to wound his good name.  “Those that think they stand must take heed lest they fall,” because the very best men stand no longer than God is pleased to uphold them.  We are weak [He knew he was weak.], our way is slippery, many stumbling-blocks are in the way, our spiritual enemies are working hard to thrust us down, and therefore, by faith and prayer we commit ourselves to His care. He needed God to watch over him.


“In the light of the living” is rendered, by one Bible commentator, as “in the sunshine of life.” “Light” is associated with life, darkness with death, throughout the Scriptures.


God answered David’s prayers.  He delivered him from death; he kept him from stumbling; and He enabled him to walk in a godly way and praise the Lord. Though still in enemy territory, he is enjoying the blessing of full salvation.  His life has been saved, and his feet kept from stumbling so that he might continue to “walk” in the presence of God in the “light” of life.






[1] Jonath-elem-rechokim (the dove of the distant terebinths) indicates the song having the melody with which this psalm was to be sung.  The Psalmist, with many enemies around him, casts himself on God’s mercy, and his confidence expresses itself in a twice-repeated refrain (vs. 4, 10).

[2] Lament: express sorrow, regret, or unhappiness about something

[3] “Put thou my tears into thy bottle,” possibly in the sense that the prayers of the saints are preserved in golden vials (Revelation 5:8), certainly it takes note of the Psalmist’s deep distress.