Psalm 56 is dominated by the theme of the enemy. The writer is David. He has been anointed by Samuel and has proven his anointing in his defeat of Goliath and in many other military campaigns. But the continual success of David begins to make king Saul jealous. And so he conspires to kill David and thus begins David’s period as a fugitive (the context also of Psalm 63: 1 Samuel 20ff). It is not difficult to imagine how David must have felt at this time. It was the anointing of God that had made him successful and it is now because of this anointing that David is persecuted. Saul’s intent is to reverse the process of David’s ascension to fame, ultimately by killing him (vs. 6), but it seems from this psalm that Saul was doing a good job at slandering David and dirtying his reputation with all kinds of lies (vs.5). Saul could not have otherwise raised his army in pursuit of David. David was popular and the mind boggles to imagine the work of Saul to blacken David’s name. For David the injustice is nearly unbearable. He faces death everyday from his own people. It is interesting to note the parallel here with David’s greater son Jesus who for like reason was also slandered, falsely accused, and was the subject of a murder conspiracy. And all this by his own people.
So now that David is an enemy of his own people he really is on his own. Imagine this. Where does he go? We should remember that just before this period he had been carrying out military campaigns against his neighbours so he is not going to be popular there. The fact that he ends up by running to the Philistine town of Gath indicates that he is pretty desperate (1 Sam. 21:10ff). In Gath David is taken before the king and it seems that the officials were hinting to the king that this man is dangerous and probably should be imprisoned or killed. So David acts like a madman to prevent the king from regarding him as a threat, and it works. The degradation that God allows David to be plunged into here is heartbreaking. He is hated by all and so he has to act mad and degrade himself before his enemies just to stay alive. It was bad enough that he had to be there in the first place but to be ridiculed now by the philistines ‘ I think that this would have been one of the hardest times in David’s life. There is no surprise then in the fiery indignation that is expressed in the words ‘bring down the nations’ (vs. 7). How could God watch his anointed being slandered and hunted down by his own people and ridiculed by his traditional enemies? David calls on God to be angry at this situation. He calls on God to not allow them to get away with what they have done. Destroy them all! This seems harsh but let it be noted here that David is not out of line in what he is praying. David has covenant sanction to pray these things. The covenant rule was that whoever curses those whom God has blessed will be cursed. David knew his anointing and he knew that he had a right to call on God to destroy these nations in his anger. But note also that the brunt of the imprecation is not directed at a named individual but on the nations, on evil regimes. The philistines represented an anti-covenant and anti-God regime and they were to be seen as much a threat as the serpent was in the garden of Eden. This is why God had demanded the destruction of the Canaanite nations in the first place. God knew that they would lead his people into idolatry. No doubt David, as he lived amongst the philistines witnessed the full extent of their idolatry and this would have given him further cause for anger. If we are to take into consideration the words of Paul in Ephesians 6:12 then we should see these nations as willing servants of the same one who deceived Adam and Eve in Eden. The imprecatory psalms are, in a sense, ultimately directed to ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (see the article provided here on ‘the enemy psalms’). This is also the case when we take the imprecation of this psalm as including the regime of Saul. We should remember that Saul’s jealousy had made his heart home to an evil spirit and indeed the text indicates that it was the evil spirit that was driving Saul to kill David (1 Sam. 19:9). Hence what Saul’s pursuing army represents here is the will of Satan to kill the Lord’s anointed. David refused to hate Saul himself. He had a couple of opportunities to kill Saul but refused to do so (1 Sam. 24, 26). And when Saul did die in battle David mourned his death (2 Sam. 1:17ff). So we must take the imprecation here as a more general imprecation. It is that God would bring down the regime that represents the will of Satan against the Lord’s anointed (see Psalm 2).
In the midst of David’s cries he expresses his confidence in God (vss. 3-4). His confidence is that because he trusts in God no harm can come to him. To trust God is to evoke the covenant principle that none who trust in God will ever be let down. David’s confidence is evidence of his faith. He believes that God will deliver him simply because he is trusting in Him. This is quite an amazing statement: ‘what can mortal man do to me?’ (vss. 4 & 11). If we take this as a question the answer could be: ‘mortal man can in fact do you a lot of harm to you!’ After all, David’s enemies were ‘ everyone. The whole world, it seemed, was his enemy and yet he still can ask rhetorically, ‘what can mortal man do to me?’ believing that his trust in God is a shield that all the armies of the world could not break. Notice also what David specifically has in mind as he trusts in God: ‘God’s word’ (vss. 4 & 10). It is God’s word that compels him to trust. Paul said that faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17) and this is David’s testimony here. He was a man who loved the scriptures (Psalm 1:2) and his habit of meditating day and night on God’s word gave him a faith to be reckoned with.
I note a third emotion present in this prayer along with the confidence and the indignation ‘ it is lamentation, and beautifully expressed in vs. 8. David prays that God would record his tears on a scroll. He is like a lawyer calling on the jury to note a piece of evidence that would compel a verdict. ‘Note down my tears,’ says David. This in itself, he believes, is sufficient to move God to action. And David knew God well. He knew that his tears would echo in heaven and it is this section that therefore leads into a renewed declaration of confidence which brings the prayer into a wonderful declaration of praise.
The line, ‘by this I will know that God is for me’ (vs. 9) acts as a last appeal. David knows that God is for him but he wants God to demonstrate his faithfulness to this basic covenant promise afresh. Already here however there is the full grown certainty that this will happen. The movement of this prayer is notable and much can be learnt about the experience of prayer itself from it. As David prays things happen in his heart. By the manner of his praying, by his appeals, he builds a case before God. This is how God calls us to pray. It is not just asking for something. Prayer is not important as a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Prayer is the process of covenant relating. We relate to God by hearing his word, taking his promises, praying them back to him, appealing to his mercy and love, calling on him to note our feelings and so forth. In this process we build a level of trust in ourselves that compels God, by his own promises (remember that God has bound himself by a covenant oath in relation to his people), to answer according to his will. Hence as we come to the end of the psalm David speaks as though the prayer is already answered. He gives thanks to God in advance for the answer (vs. 12). His faith is truly the substance of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1). The last few lines are, I think, the crowning glory of the psalm and one of my favourite lines from the psalms: ‘For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life’ (vs. 13).