Let's begin with the psalm's instruction line, which tells us that this is a “Miktam” of David “when he fled from Saul, in the cave.” Miktam is a mystery word; no one knows what it means. It appears in only six psalms, all of them “of David” and perhaps refers to a specific type of psalm. In any case, the word invites us to pay close attention to the psalm that follows, for if it is a rare designation, then we can deduce that we are reading a very special psalm. There is one more mystery word in the instruction, 'al tashchêth, which translates as “Do not destroy.” Some scholars speculate that this might be a musical cue, letting the leader or chief musician know that he is to sing the psalm to the tune of a song by that name. Others wonder if perhaps this indicates the psalm's importance or even refers to its context.
We can find that context in 1 Samuel 22 and 24. David was on the run, fleeing the murderous jealousy of Saul. He took refuge in the cave of Adulam and gathered about four hundred people to himself, those who were discontented, in distress, or in debt. People seemed to understand that they could turn to David for leadership and support. We'll see why as we look more closely at this psalm. One day, when David and the others were deep in the cave (either the one previously mentioned or another), Saul wandered in “to relieve himself,” as the text delicately notes. David could have killed him on the spot. Saul was alone, defenseless, and vulnerable. His men even encouraged him to do so, telling him that God had delivered his enemy right into his hands. David crept forward, but all he did was cut off a corner of Saul's cloak. Afterward, he felt guilty. “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,” David moaned. He proceeded to scold his men and forbid them to harm Saul in any way. After Saul had left the cave, David called to him from a distant, letting the king know how his enemy had spared his life. Apparently, David composed this psalm while he was hiding in one of these caves, avoiding and sparing Saul.
David develops an interesting structural pattern throughout this psalm. We can outline it as follows:
A – Prayer of assurance – what God will do for David – verses 1-3
B – Description of persecution – verse 4
C – Praise for God – verse 5
B – Description of persecution – verse 6
A – Prayer of assurance – what David will do for God – verses 7-10
C – Praise for God – verse 11
Let's look at each of these sections in detail.
The poem begins with a prayer of assurance in which David asks for God's mercy and outlines what God will do for him. “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,” David begins, “for in You my soul takes refuge, in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge until the destroying storms pass by.” A storm is swirling around David; he is hunted, and getting caught would cost him his life. He has nowhere else to turn except to God, Who stands as His refuge in this time of trial and exile. Like a baby bird, he will hide beneath God's wing, safe from the wind and rain of life.
David continues, crying to God, “Who fulfills His purpose for me.” God has a plan for David's life. David may not see it at the moment, as he is hiding out in a cave, but he knows it is true. Even in the darkness, he trusts that God will bring him light. Even when he can't see the path his life will take in the future, he is certain that God knows and that He will bring his life to its proper fulfillment and perfection (Hebrew gâmar).
God will do more than just secure David's future. He will also help him in the present. David proclaims, “He will send from heaven and save me, He will put to shame those who trample on me. God will send forth His steadfast love and His faithfulness.” God will stretch out from Heaven (Hebrew shâlach), sending His love and mercy (Hebrew chêsêd), His faithfulness, stability, truth, and reliability (Hebrew 'emeth). David's life is in an uproar at the moment. Only God is steadfast; only God is sure. God sends David what he needs to survive, mostly His great love. Further, David is certain that God will punish his enemies, those who pursue him, seeking to devour and destroy him. Notice that he allows God to take this vengeance; David does not presume to do so. He trusts in God to reproach his enemies.
The psalm now moves into a description of the persecution David has been enduring. He says, “I lie down among lions that greedily devour human prey; their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues sharp swords.” With poetic imagery, David emphasizes the danger of his situation. He is in the midst of beasts who wish to devour his life as thoroughly as a lion devours its prey. These enemies come after him with spears and arrows and with sharp swords to slay him.
Then, suddenly, in the midst of portraying his foes, David switches gears. “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens,” he cries out. “Let Your glory be over all the earth.” Even in the middle of persecution, David can, and does, spontaneously break out into praise. Recognizing God's splendor and honor, David raises Him up for all to see. He worships the God Who is above the heavens, so far beyond his wildest imagining, yet Whose glory is over all the earth. He is a God Who is both transcendent and imminent, and David worships Him in awe.
After his interlude of praise, David returns to describing his persecution. His enemies, he explains, “set a net for my steps...” They “dug a pit in my path...” They have laid a trap for David, hoping to catch him as their prey. But this has backfired. Instead of capturing David, they have fallen into their own snares. Why? As David says before, God will reproach these men. He will punish them for their injustice. They will feel His wrath. The effects of their sins will snag them as surely as they wished to ambush David.
With this realization, David begins to pray a new prayer of assurance, this time telling God what he will do for Him. “My heart is steadfast, O God,” he affirms, “my heart is steadfast.” David is settled in his ways. He will not turn away from God. He is firmly established, prepared, fixed, and rightly directed (Hebrew kûn). Further, David is ready to sing to God and to “make melody” to the Most High. Even in his suffering, he praises. “Awake, my soul!” he shouts. “Awake lyre and harp!” Even in a dark cave, he will compose a psalm, a prayerful song, a joyful acclamation. He will also give thanks to God “among the peoples” and sing His praises “among the nations.” He can't do so now, hidden away as he is, but he will do it. He will proclaim God to the whole world. Why? “For Your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; Your faithfulness extends to the clouds.” God is all-faithful. God is all-good. God is all-loving. God is everything to David, and he can't wait to tell everyone about it.
David concludes his psalm by repeating his exclamation of praise: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let Your glory be over all the earth.” In the worst possible situation, David praises. Be exalted, God in Heaven; shine Your glory on earth.