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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Psalms 59

Verse 1

PSALM 59

A PRAYING SAINT AGAINST AN ARMY

SUPERSCRIPTION: FOR THE CHIEF MUSICIAN; SET TO ALTASHETH.

A PSALM OF DAVID. MICHTAM; WHEN SAUL SENT; AND THEY WATCHED THE HOUSE TO KILL HIM.

Leupold expresses perfectly our full confidence in this superscription. "We give full credence to the heading as being historically reliable and as actually reflecting the situation out of which the Psalm grew."[1] "The whole character of the Psalm is Davidic; and the 'title' has more intrinsic weight than the conjectures of critics, especially critics who all disagree with one another."[2]

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND (1 Samuel 9:11-18)

David's victory over Goliath of Gath made him popular with the people who sang, "David hath slain his tens of thousands; and Saul has slain his thousands"! Saul's jealousy was strongly kindled against David. He promised David his daughter Merab for wife, but then gave her to another. Then Saul learned that Michal loved David, and hoping to get David killed, he promised him Michal provided David would go out and kill 200 Philistines. This David promptly did and was soon married to Michal, thus becoming Saul's son-in-law.

Saul's hatred of David grew worse. Twice he tried to murder David by casting his spear at him, but David remained unharmed. Then Saul tried to get Jonathan to slay David, but Jonathan refused. Jonathan warned David that Saul was determined to kill him.

Then came the incident that resulted in this psalm. Saul sent a detachment of his army to surround David's house and to kill him next morning. David's wife Michal aided David's escape by letting him down from an upper window, and then placing a dummy made of a teraphim and a pillow of goat-hair in David's bed.

Next morning, when the men demanded to see David, Michal said, "He is sick." Saul sent and demanded that they bring David in his bed in order that Saul might kill him; and when the deception was discovered, Saul demanded to know of Michal why she had allowed David to escape; and she excused herself by saying that David had threatened to kill her.

Of all the psalms dealing with David's difficulties with Saul, this is the very earliest. As Delitzsch stated it, "This is the earliest of the Davidic Psalms which are dated from Saul's persecutions."[3]

"The Psalm divides into four parts, two of them terminated by the word "Selah," and the other two by refrains."[4] These divisions are (1) Psalms 59:1-5; (2) Psalms 59:6-9; (3) Psalms 59:10-13, and (4) Psalms 59:14-17.

Psalms 59:1-5

"Deliver me from mine enemies, O my God:

Set me on high from them that rise up against me

Deliver me from the workers of iniquity,

And save me from the bloodthirsty men.

For, lo, they lie in wait for my soul;

The mighty gather themselves together against me:

Not for my transgression, nor for my sin, O Jehovah.

They run and prepare themselves without my fault;

Awake thou to help me, and behold.

Even thou, O Jehovah, God of hosts, the God of Israel,

Arise to visit all the nations:

Be not merciful to any wicked transgressors, (Selah)"

"Set me on high" (Psalms 59:1). This is often translated either "protect" or "defend," thus giving us four one-word prayers in this first verse. These are "deliver, protect, deliver, save!" These urgent repeated cries for God's help emphasize the dramatic nature of the crisis David faced. He was one man, alone, hated, pursued, proscribed by the king, condemned to death without a trial, and an entire army at the disposal of his chief enemy had been commissioned to kill him. Hopeless? No indeed; God was with David!

"From mine enemies" (Psalms 59:1). Who were all these enemies of David?

"Saul became his enemy through jealousy; Saul's partisans took sides with him against David; he had enemies at the court of Achish; there were enemies in his own family; even his son Absalom hated him; even one of his counselors, Ahithophel betrayed him; and besides these, there were foreign enemies on all sides: Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Amalekites, Syrians, Mesopotamians, etc."[5]

As we have frequently noticed, many of these psalms deal with hatred, opposition, oppression, injustice, slander, violence, etc., encountered by one who trusts God and looks to him continually for deliverance from implacable enemies on all sides. "The constant recurrence of this note in the Psalter is doubtless intended to provide a large measure of comfort and encouragement for the various circumstances of trial to which the godly are exposed."[6]

"Workers of iniquity" (Psalms 59:2). David here pleads for deliverance because of the character of his foes. (1) They are evil workers (Psalms 59:2); (2) they are bloodthirsty men (Psalms 59:3), and (3) David has never wronged any of them.

"Not for my transgression ... nor my sin ... without my fault" (Psalms 59:3-4). This is a three-fold protestation of innocence on David's part. As Dummelow noted, this may not be taken as proof of David's being sinless in God's sight, but "Probably mean that he had done nothing to provoke the hostilities of his enemies."[7]

"The mighty gather themselves together against me" (Psalms 59:3). Spurgeon thought that this means that 'All' the mighty ones united against David. "No one of them was absent from the muster when there was a saint to be murdered. They were too fond of such sport to be absent."[8] We cannot say whether or not Spurgeon was correct in the application of this principle to the situation here; but well we know that such an attitude is very frequently that of the world toward the people of God.

"Arise to visit all the nations" (Psalms 59:5). This line has given commentators a lot of trouble. The usual explanation is that of Yates, "Although basically the lament of an individual, it has overtones which adapt it to national use also."[9] This is the third time that we have encountered this world-wide international element in the Psalms. (See Psalms 56:7; Psalms 57:9, and again here). Please see discussion of all these. It is an earmark of Davidic authorship in all three. Kidner pointed out that this international flavor even existed in that very early prayer in the life of David, before his victory over Goliath. He prayed, "I come to thee in the name of Jehovah of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied ... I will smite thee, and take thy head from off thee.., that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel" (1 Samuel 17:45,46).

"Here the picture widens as David now king (when this Psalm was written), applies the personal prayer to a larger situation, 1e., that of the nation."[10] Our own view differs from this in that we think the supposition that the psalm was written years after the event that prompted it, after David was king, is unnecessary.

Leupold also sustained this same view: At the very time when Saul's men were surrounding the house of David with the intention of killing him, the Philistines were also harassing Israel (it will be remembered that when David was in the cave of Adullum, Saul had to leave off the pursuit to repel an attack from the Philistines).

"Thus when David reflected upon his own distress (in this Psalm), he felt that when God took his case in hand, God would also, at the same time, deliver Israel from the attacks of the heathen."[11]

Thus the mention of "the nations" here is quite natural and understandable.

"God of hosts ... God of Israel ... visit all the nations" (Psalms 59:5). Three reasons are given here as grounds for David's prayer for God's intervention. "(1) He is the God of hosts, (2) He is the covenant God of Israel, and (3) He is also the God of all nations"[12]

This first paragraph ends with the word "Selah," which was probably some kind of a musical direction to the singers.

Verse 6

"They return at evening, they howl like a dog,

And go round about the city.

Behold, they belch out with their mouth;

Swords are in their lips:

For who, say they, doth hear?

But thou, O Jehovah, wilt laugh at them;

Thou wilt have all the nations in derision.

Because of his strength I will give heed unto thee;

For God is my high tower."

"Like a dog" (Psalms 59:6). David here compared his lurking enemies to scavenger dogs, which were the bane of ancient Oriental cities. Then the figure changes, and we see that these "dogs" are men continually speaking evil against David.

"They belch out with their mouth" (Psalms 59:7). This refers to the slanderous, obscene, and derogatory tales they were telling against David. Notice too that the final line here in Psalms 59:7 is blasphemous, indicating that they did not believe in God at all.

Throughout the psalm thus far, David pleads for God's deliverance on the following grounds: (1) the wickedness of his enemies (Psalms 59:2); the danger of eminent death to himself (Psalms 59:3); (3) his own innocence (Psalms 59:3-4); and (4) the profane atheism of his enemies (Psalms 59:7).[13]

"Because of his strength" (Psalms 59:9). Rawlinson pointed out that there is no "because of" in the original language (as witnessed by the italics). Several manuscripts here have "my strength" as in Psalms 59:17; and all the ancient versions have 'my strength.'[14] The RSV has, "O my strength, I will sing praises to thee; for thou, O God, art my fortress"; and this certainly seems preferable above the ASV.

This verse is a refrain, and the RSV here makes it conform exactly to Psalms 59:17 where the refrain recurs.

Verse 10

"My God with his lovingkindness will meet me;

God will let me see my desire upon mine enemies.

Slay them not, lest my people forget.

Scatter them by thy power, and bring them down,

O Lord, our shield.

For the sin of their mouth, and the word of their lips,

Let them even be taken in their pride,

And for cursing and lying which they speak.

Consume them in thy wrath, consume them so they shall be no more;

And let them know that God ruleth in Jacob.

Unto the ends of the earth. (Selah)"

"Let me see my desire upon mine enemies" (Psalms 59:10). "The words 'my desire' are not in the original (as indicated by the italics); and Spurgeon tells us that the Hebrew here means that, "David expected to see his enemies without fear."[15] This is only another example of instances in which 'supplied words' by the translators sometimes unintentionally change the meaning of the text.

"Lest my people forget" (Psalms 59:11). David's request here is that God would not slay his enemies at once, but subdue them, in order that their punishment might serve as an example to "my people." If God had destroyed his enemies at once, the people would soon have forgotten all about it.

"My people" (Psalms 59:11). This line seems to say that David, at the time of writing this psalm was already king, as some commentators suggest. We can hardly think of David, during the time when he was being pursued by enemies intent on killing him as speaking of Israel as 'my people,' although, of course, it was not impossible.

"Slay them not ... scatter them" (Psalms 59:11). This plea directed against the sudden and immediate death of his foes indicates that God surely has a use for wicked people. A woman once asked Adam Clarke, "Dr. Clarke, 'Why doesn't God just destroy all the wicked people and thereby put an end to sin?" Clarke replied, "My dear Lady, if God did a thing like that, there would not be enough righteous people left on earth to keep the lions and tigers from eating up the human race."

Kidner pointed out the following roles of wicked people on earth. "(1) God uses them as scourges (Isaiah 10:5f); (2) as tests of loyalty (Judges 2:22); (3) as hardeners (Judges 3:22); and (4), in this passage as object-lessons."[16] And to these we may add a fifth; (5) God uses one wicked nation to destroy another. "The king of Assyria," for example, was called God's razor (Isaiah 7:20); but later God used Babylon to destroy Assyria, etc."

Kidner also believed that this verse, "Inspired the line, 'Scatter her enemies, and make them fall,' in the British national anthem."[17]

"Sin of their mouth ... words of their lips ... cursing and lying" (Psalms 59:12). This emphasis upon the human tongue as an instrument of sin is amazing. The men charged here were murderers and assassins, also compared by the psalmist to a pack of vicious scavenger dogs; but here the sin singled out for emphasis was that of the tongue. This reminds us of the words of James, "If any man stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man" (James 3:2).

"Consume them" (Psalms 59:13). God's use of wicked men and nations to accomplish in some instances the will of God, which we noticed back in Psalms 59:11, does not obscure the ultimate intention of God to destroy the wicked. "Wait awhile" in Psalms 59:11, issues here as "Consume them."

As Dummelow said, "Zeal for God's glory is the one motive of the Psalmist's prayer, however vindictive some of his requests may appear."[18]

Verse 14

"And at evening let them return, let them howl like a dog,

Anti go round about the city.

They shall wander up and down for food,

And tarry all night if they be not satisfied.

But I will sing of thy strength;

Yea, I will sing aloud of thy lovingkindness in the morning:

For thou hast been my high tower,

And a refuge in the day of my distress.

Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing praises;

For God is my high tower, the God of my mercy."

"At evening let them return" (Psalms 59:14). The picture that emerges here is that of an extensive search carried on by Saul's detachment of soldiers, going about all over the city trying to find David. Their wandering up and down for food and searching all night trying to find it, is a metaphor taken from the behavior of scavenger dogs looking for garbage to eat; but, as Rawlinson noted, "David himself was the prey they were looking for."[19] If they could have found him, they would have devoured David as eagerly as a hungry dog devours his food.

"I will sing" (Psalms 59:16). Singing is the perpetual glory of the people of God. The Moslem shouts from his minaret, "To Prayer, to Prayer"; the savage beats his drum; but the Christians "sing"! Matthew Henry commented on the manner of David's singing.

"I will sing (Psalms 59:16)"

"I will sing aloud (Psalms 59:16)"

"I will sing in the morning (Psalms 59:16)"

"I will sing praises (Psalms 59:17)"

"I will sing unto God (Psalms 59:17)"

"I will sing of God's lovingkindness (Psalms 59:16)"

"I will sing of God's mercy (Psalms 59:17)"[20]

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 59". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-59.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.