The title of this psalm is To the Chief Musician. Set to “The Silent Dove in Distant Lands.” A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath. It is probable (though not certain) that The Silent Dove in Distant Lands was the tune to which this psalm was sung; some connect it with the theme, thinking it represents a dove in trouble even as David was in trouble.
Like Psalm 16 and the next four psalms, Psalm 56 is called A Michtam of David. The title Michtam is best understood as golden, though others think it is related to a word meaning to cover, implying necessary secrecy in a time of crisis.
The time when the Philistines captured him in Gath is recorded in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. It deals with the period between the visit to the tabernacle at Nob and David’s arrival at Adullam. David was alone, desperate, afraid – and not thinking too clearly.
A. Fear and faith in response to constant danger.
1. (1-2) Looking to the Most High for mercy.
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.
a. Be merciful to me, O God: David was in great and constant danger from many enemies – both the Philistines and Saul’s servants. He cried out to God, knowing that divine help could rescue him from any man-made threat. He appealed to the mercy of God, not relying on what he may or may not deserve.
i. “Instead of building up gradually to his complaint, the psalmist pours out his heart immediately.” (VanGemeren)
ii. Swallow me up: “The open mouths of sinners when they rage against us should open our mouths in prayer.” (Spurgeon)
b. There are many who fight against me, O Most High: On earth David was greatly outnumbered, so he looked for help from the God who is enthroned above. David knew the strategic value of high ground in battle; it made sense for him to look for help from the Most High.
i. “To set forth the indignity of the thing, he repeateth the same sentence again in the plural number, noting that there were not a few of them bitterly bent by might and main to mischief him, a poor forlorn, friendless man.” (Trapp)
ii. Adam Clarke understood O Most High in a different way: “I do not think that this word expresses any attribute of God, or indeed is at all addressed to him. It signifies, literally, from on high, or from a high or elevated place: ‘For the multitudes fight against me from the high or elevated place.’” (Clarke)
2. (3-4) Afraid and not afraid.
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?
a. Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You: The young man who killed the lion and the bear, who killed Goliath, and was a successful young captain in Israel’s army, did not deny the presence of fear. There were times when he was afraid. Yet he knew what to do with that fear, to boldly proclaim His trust in God despite the fear.
i. “He feared, but that fear did not fill the whole area of his mind, for he adds, ‘I will trust in thee.’ It is possible, then, for fear and faith to occupy the mind at the same moment.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Many do not serve God or speak a word in His name to others out of fear, and they wait for a time when they are no longer afraid to do so. David would counsel them, “I am sometimes afraid – but I trust in God and do what is right to do.” Don’t wait for the fear to stop before you do what is right before the Lord.
iii. “It is a sure sign of grace when a man can trust in his God, for the natural man, when afraid, falls back on some human trust, or he thinks that he will be able to laugh at the occasion of fear.” (Spurgeon)
b. I will praise His word: In the midst of the declaration of his trust in God, David calls attention to the praiseworthiness of God’s word. His trust in God was directly connected with God’s word. His trust wasn’t a blind hope or wish cast up to heaven; it was based on God’s revealed character and revealed promises.
i. We say we trust God, but how do we confidently know anything about God? We know it through His Word, through His self-revelation to us.
ii. “It might also be the case, however, that David is thinking specifically of the words of God that were brought to him by the prophet Samuel, assuring him that he would be king over Israel (cf. 1 Samuel 16:1-13).” (Boice)
c. In God I have put my trust; I will not fear: Trusting God has given David the momentum toward even greater faith. He began by trusting God even while afraid; with that trust rewarded, he can take a further step: I will not fear.
i. “First, the singer declares that in the hour of fear he will trust. Then he declares he will trust and not be afraid.” (Morgan)
d. What can flesh do to me: Our instinctive reply to this rhetorical question is, a lot of harm. We constantly hear of and experience great harm that comes from mankind. Yet in the context of David’s trust in the Most High, he realizes that with God for him, it doesn’t matter what man or men may be against him.
3. (5-7) The continuing danger.
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!
a. All day they twist my words: The attacks against David were not only violent; they were also devious, with the twisting and distortion of his words and intentions. His many enemies constantly plotted against him for evil, hoping to lie in wait and kill David with a surprise attack.
i. “The unremitting pressure is the worst part of the ordeal. It was the first thing David emphasized: all day long…all day long (Psalm 56:1,2); and now he tells of it again (Psalm 56:5).” (Kidner)
ii. “The verb ‘twist’ is derived from a root that signifies a laborious, toilsome, unrewarding act. They plot so as to undo whatever the godly man has spoken and has planned to do right.” (VanGemeren)
iii. Twist my words: “This is a common mode of warfare among the ungodly. They put our language on the rack; they extort meanings from it which it cannot be made fairly to contain.” (Spurgeon)
b. Shall they escape by iniquity: David appealed to God’s justice. It wasn’t right for these wicked enemies to triumph over him. Whether they were the Philistines of Gath or Saul’s servants, David asked God to cast them down.
B. God’s sympathetic care for David.
1. (8-9) God noticed David’s misery.
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.
a. You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle: In this period of David’s life, before coming to Adullam Cave (1 Samuel 22), he was completely alone. This made him value the sympathy and care of God all the more, and he found great comfort in the thought that God noted his misery.
i. “The reason for hope in God’s justice lies in his divine nature and promise to vindicate his children. For this purpose the psalmist adds a personal note about the extent of his suffering.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Put my tears into thy bottle; regard, and remember, and pity them.” (Poole)
iii. “His sorrows were so many that there would need a great wine-skin to hold them all.” (Spurgeon)
iv. My tears into Your bottle: “Here is an allusion to a very ancient custom, which we know long obtained among the Greeks and Romans, of putting the tears which were shed for the death of any person into small phials, called lacrymatories or urnae lacrymales and offering them on the tomb of the deceased. Some of these were of glass, some of pottery, and some of agate, sardonyx, etc. A small one in my own collection is of hard baked clay.” (Clarke)
v. Spurgeon noted this practice and such ancient bottles, but believed that David made no allusion at all to this Roman practice.
b. This I know, because God is for me: This was the ground of David’s confidence. His wanderings and tears did not mean that God was against him. Instead he knew that God was for him, and would answer his prayer for rescue.
i. God is for me: “What can we possibly desire more, than this assurance, that, how many, or how formidable soever our enemies may be, yet there is one always ready to appear in our defence, whose power no creature is able to resist? ‘This I know,’ saith David; and had we the faith of David, we should know it too.” (Horne)
ii. God is for me: “Paul was to echo the triumphant end of this verse (or Psalm 118:7a), and cap it with ‘who is against us?’ (Romans 8:31).” (Kidner)
2. (10-11) Confidence in God declared again.
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?
a. I will praise His word: For the second and third times in this psalm, David declared the greatness of God’s word. This was how he knew that God was for him. It wasn’t just a wish, a dream, or a hope. It was well-grounded, because God said it in His word.
b. In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me: David repeated this phrase again, preaching confidence to himself. Because God was for him (confirmed by His word), David need not fear what man could do to him.
i. “When news came to Luther, that both emperor and pope had threatened his ruin, he bravely answered, I care for neither of them, I know whom I have trusted.” (Trapp)
3. (12-13) Fulfilling the vow.
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?
a. Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises to You: David referred to the sacrifice he would offer for the deliverance he knew God would bring. He was a long distance from God’s altar so the sacrifice could not yet be made; but in David’s heart it was already done, as was the anticipated rescue.
i. “So sure is he of deliverance, that, as often in similar psalms, his thoughts are busied in preparing his sacrifice of thanks before the actual advent of the mercy for which it is to be offered.” (Maclaren)
ii. Render praises: “Thank offerings can be a term for literal sacrifices (e.g. Leviticus 7:12) and for songs of gratitude (e.g. Psalm 26:7).” (Kidner)
iii. “Reader, what hast thou vowed to God? To renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanities of this wicked world, and all the sinful desires of the flesh; to keep God’s holy word and commandment; and to walk before him all the days of thy life. These things hast thou vowed; and these vows are upon thee. Wilt thou pay them?” (Clarke)
b. You have delivered my soul from death: On his way to Gath, in Gath, and on his way from Gath, David’s life was in constant danger. God and God alone delivered His life from his enemies, and kept his feet from falling.
c. That I may walk before God in the light of the living: David knew that this was why God spared his life. It wasn’t so that David could do his own thing or live unto himself. It was so that he could live rightly before God.
i. “Thus in this short psalm, we have climbed from the ravenous jaws of the enemy into the light of Jehovah’s presence, a path which only faith can tread.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “The fact that Jesus seems to have used the last words of Psalm 56:13 in John 8:12 makes us think of verse 13 in light of the deliverance Jesus brings to those who trust him and the ‘life’ as his gift of salvation by the Holy Spirit.” (Boice)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org