Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 59

Psalm 59, like Psalm 57, is a psalm of David labeled as a Miktam and given the header “Do Not Destroy.” Again, Miktam is a mystery word that appears in only six psalms. Even though we don’t know what the word actually means, it suggests that the psalm possesses some distinguishing quality and that we should pay careful attention to it. The words “Do Not Destroy” are also mysterious. Some scholars suggest that this is a musical direction, telling the singers to use a particular tune. Others wonder if perhaps these words point to the psalm’s importance by ordering it to be preserved. 

The opening instructions also announce the context of this psalm: “when Saul ordered his [David’s] house to be watched in order to kill him.” The incident is described in 1 Samuel 19. David had just returned home from fighting the Philistines and putting them to flight. He was at Saul’s house playing music for him when, as verse 9 says, “an evil spirit” entered Saul (extreme jealousy perhaps), and Saul attempted to “pin David to the wall with a spear.” David dodged and fled, hurrying home to his wife Michal. Saul was not ready to give up. He sent messengers, spies really, to David’s house to keep watch and make sure that he didn’t leave, for Saul planned to kill him the next morning. Somehow Michal, who was Saul’s daughter, got wind of this plan. She told her husband that if he didn’t escape that night, he wouldn’t be alive the next morning. She quietly and carefully let David down through a window, and he ran off into the night. She then took an idol (some kind of statue of a household god perhaps), placed it in David’s bed, put a “net of goat’s hair” on its head, and covered it up. When Saul’s messengers came knocking at the door, Michal told them that David was sick in bed. Saul had already given the order for them to bring David to him so that he might kill his rival in person. The messengers, however, found only the idol. Saul was furious at Michal’s deception, but she backhanded nicely, claiming that David made her do it to save her own life. 

Psalm 59, then, is written when David is in his home, surrounded by Saul’s spies, in danger of death, and with no means of escape before Michal announces her plan. David focuses on four themes: a description of his enemies; what he wants God to do for him and why; Who God is to him; and what David will do for God. Let’s look closely at each of these.

First, David describes his enemies quite graphically. He is, after all, trapped and probably very frightened. He could lose his life at any moment. These enemies rise up against him (verse 1). The Hebrew verb is qûm, which suggests a sudden hostility, and certainly Saul’s rage is a sudden thing. One moment David is playing music for him. The next David is dodging his spear. These enemies are also bloodthirsty (verse 2). Both Saul and the messengers he sent are out to kill David,. They lie in wait for him, looking for the prime moment to move in and capture him (verse 3). David describes the messengers' boss as mighty and fierce (Hebrew ‛az), and certainly Saul the king is just that in his power and rage (verse 3). Saul’s spies prowl about the city, howling like dogs and bellowing. Their words are sharp like swords and threatening, and they are complacent in their role. “Who will hear us?” they think (verses 6-7). After all, they are messengers of the king. No one can question their actions. No one can stop them. They can prowl and howl all they want without fear of consequences. They can roam about the city like dogs seeking their food and growling if they do not get what they want (verses 14-15). No one will bother them. We can picture David, shut up in his house, listening to the enemies who surround him, perhaps peaking through a window at their sneaking and pacing. Does he hear their arrogant words, the sin of their mouths, their cursing and lies (verse 12)? He feels surrounded, trapped, like a deer by a pack of dogs. 

David’s fear pours out in prayer to God. “Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;” he cries, “protect me from those who rise up against me” (verse 1). The Hebrew word for “deliver” (which also appears in verse 2) is nâtsal, which has overtones of rescue, escape, and even being snatched away. The Hebrew word for “protect” is actually śâgab. It means to set a person securely on high, to lift a person up and make him inaccessible. David is asking, then, that God help him escape from this trap and that God take him away and set him safely in a high place that his enemies cannot reach. 

At the moment, however, David feels like God isn’t paying attention to him. “Rouse Yourself,” he cries out in verse 4, “come to my help and see!” Wake up, God! Pay attention! Look at what’s happening here! See how I am surrounded and trapped and threatened with death! Punish these people who are seeking my life! 

David prays for the punishment of his enemies, but he limits himself. “Do not kill them,” he tells God (verse 11). Why? “[M]y people may forget.” A quick end to these enemies wouldn’t teach the Israelites a strong enough lesson, David seems to think. The people need to see what can happen to those who sneak and plot and threaten. “...[M]ake them totter by You power,” he prays, “and bring them down.” The Hebrew word for “totter” is nûa‛. It suggests scattering, shaking in fear, reeling, and trembling. David wants to see his enemies as scared as he is. Then the people will know what happens to those who threaten God’s friends and sin by plotting and speaking evil. “Consume them in wrath,” he concludes. “Consume them until they are no more” (verse 13). May they receive the destruction they have planned for me, God. Then they will know that You are in control. 

God can indeed do this, David knows. How? David understands Who God is, at least as much as a human being can. God is the “Lord God of hosts, and God of Israel” (verse 5). He is the God of angels and men, of Heaven and earth. All things are within His grasp. All things fall under His power. He is the One Who can laugh at evildoers (verse 8), for they can never threaten or defeat Him. They will come to the ruin by their sin; they will meet with God’s wrath. They will not escape His power and majesty. 

God is all-mighty and far above men, but He is also very close to David. God is his strength and his fortress (verse 9). The word for “fortress” is miśgâb, which derives from śâgab (see above). It suggests a high place, which is an unassailable stronghold, a retreat that enemies cannot penetrate. David also calls God a shield to His people (verse 11). God stands between His children and their enemies, protecting them from attack. Further, God is the One Who will meet David in “His steadfast love” and will allow him to look upon his enemies “in triumph” (verse 10). David is sure that God’s love, mercy, and kindness toward him will never fade and that God will bring him to victory in the end. 

At the end of the psalm, David returns to these characteristics of God. He emphasizes God’s might and proclaims again that God is a fortress for him (twice) and “a refuge in the day of my distress” (verses 16-17). God is his strength, he reiterates, Who shows him “steadfast love” (verse 17). Even in the midst of grave danger, David trusts in God. He knows Who God is and what He is capable of doing. He reassures himself that God will not abandon him to his enemies but will show his power and love to rescue David and protect him from all threats and evil.

In return, David promises to respond to God with praise. “But I will sing of Your might;” he prays, “I will sing aloud of Your steadfast love in the morning” (verse 16). “I will sing praises to You...” (verse 17). David will give God His due. He will worship Him for Who He is and what He does, and he will not be quiet about it. No, he will shout out ringing cries of joy (Hebrew rânan), letting everyone know about God’s power and love. His distress will not overwhelm him, for he trusts in God to rescue him. Then he will sing at the top of his lungs in gratitude and love for the God Who will never let him go.

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