The first time, David and his followers are in the Wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. As always, Saul is seeking David’s life out of jealousy. The Ziphites see that there might well be something beneficial for them in this situation. They go to Saul, tell him where David is, and volunteer to serve as spies. They promise to deliver David to Saul, probably hoping to receive a nice reward. Saul and David play quite a game of cat and mouse before Saul is called away by a threat from the Philistines (see 1 Samuel 23).
A while later, having dealt with the Philistines for the time being, Saul returns to his pursuit of David. At this point, David spares the king’s life for the first time. During the hunt, Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, unaware that David and his men are hiding in the dark depths of that very same cave. David could kill Saul right there with no great effort. In fact, his men are encouraging him to do so. David refuses, saying “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed.” Saul had been given his position of leadership by God. He had been set apart in a special way by God. David recognizes this and understands that in harming Saul, he would be offending God. He is not willing to do that. So he cuts off a corner of Saul’s cloak. As Saul is leaving the area, David calls out to him. He bows down before him as a subject to his king and shows him the piece of cloak. Saul, knowing how close he has come to death and realizing David’s mercy, weeps. Grateful, he acknowledges, “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil...For who has ever found an enemy, and sent the enemy safely away? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day.” He knows now that David will certainly become king and requests that David extend mercy to his family. Then he returns home (see 1 Samuel 24).
The conflict with Saul could have been over right then. But it isn’t, and David has a strong feeling that it isn’t. He doesn’t return to Saul’s household. He doesn’t go anywhere near him. And indeed, a few chapters later, we read that Saul is once again after David. Again, too, the Ziphites have betrayed David, telling Saul where he is hiding. David also uses spies, so he knows exactly where Saul is camping. At night, when everyone is asleep, David and some companions enter Saul’s camp. Once again, his men encourage David to kill the king. Once again, David refuses. This time, he takes Saul’s spear and water jug and sneaks away. He will not harm the Lord’s anointed. From a safe distance, David calls out to Saul’s camp, waking everyone up and revealing, yet again, how close Saul has come to being dead. Saul, grateful again, promises never to harm David and asks him to return home. David knows better. He tells Saul to send someone over for the spear and water jug and then fades away into the wilderness. Saul returns home...for a while.
So where does Psalm 54 fit into this story? David has just learned that the Ziphites had betrayed him, either for the first or the second time. He offers up a prayer to God: “Save me, O God, by Your name, and vindicate me by Your might.” David understands that he is vulnerable. He is good at hiding, but he needs help because Saul is right on his heels, closer than even Saul knows. Only God can help him. Only God can save him and defend him from such an enemy. The Hebrew word for vindicate is dûn. Its range of meaning also includes to judge and to defend. David is asking God to recognize his innocence and protect him accordingly. He goes on to prove that innocence and good will by sparing Saul’s life...twice.
David asks God to hear his prayer. The verb for to hear is shâma‛. It implies an active hearing that leads to a favorable response.
He goes on to explain why he wants God to heed him: “For the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life; they do not set God before them.” The word for insolent is actually zûr, which means stranger. The Ziphites are descendants of Judah, just like David, but they are not acting like it. They are behaving like foreigners, not like children of Israel. The word also suggests a certain loathsome nature. These are violent men, ruthless, cunning. They are chasing after wealth and power, something a king like Saul can give them and something a fugitive like David cannot. They don’t care about God. He plays no part in their choices. They are motivated by the things of the world, so they betray David.
David, however, puts his trust in God. “God is my helper,” he proclaims. God upholds David’s life. He protects him, supports him, and sustains him in the midst of everything that is happening. David trusts, too, that God will serve up justice to his enemies. “He will repay my enemies for their evil,” he tells himself. Then he prays, “In Your faithfulness, put an end to them.” This sounds a little brutal to our Christian ears, but David lived long before Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Remember, however, that even though David prays this in anger, he often shows great mercy to his enemies, even to Saul.
David ends with a promise to God. In gratitude, he will offer a free-will sacrifice to God, something that is beyond the prescribed sacrifices, and he will give thanks to God’s great Name. The Name (i.e., God’s character, power, and glory) that will save him from his enemies. God has done so in the past, David remembers: “He has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.” He will do so again. God will not abandon David. Even when things seem bleak and desperate, even when David is pressed hard by his enemies, even when he is betrayed and threatened, he knows that God will bring him victory in the end if he continues to serve God and call upon Him in faith and trust, which is exactly what he does.