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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 56

Psalms 56

THE Psalmist, hard pressed by men, raises himself in faith to God, and implores his help, Psalms 56:1 and. Psalms 56:2. He expresses the firmest confidence in God, whose word and promise he has for himself, Psalms 56:3 and Psalms 56:4. He paints the malice of his enemies, who continually annoy him, and pursue after him, with the design of taking away his life, Psalms 56:5 and Psalms 56:6. He begs of God the overthrow of these malicious ones, and for himself deliverance, which he cannot but confidently expect, because God watches with tender love over his people, Psalms 56:7 and Psalms 56:8. He receives the assurance of being heard, loudly celebrates this precious word of God, in which he had found an interest, dedares anew his confidence in God as mightily strengthened thereby, and already in spirit sees his enemies giving way, Psalms 56:9-11. He concludes with the promise of joyful thanks for the glorious deliverance, which faith contemplates as already provided.

The whole Psalm runs its regular course in strophes of two members. Only in the representation of the certainty of being heard the strophe extends itself into three verses. The triumphant joy bursts the vessel, which was too narrow for it. That Psalms 56:10 and. Psalms 56:11 only on this account run into each other, appears from their relation to Psalms 56:4.

In the superscription, To the chief musician of the dumb dove among strangers, a secret of David, when the “Philistines seized him in Gath,” the occasion of the Psalm is first given figuratively and then in plain terms. The על denotes, as so often in the superscriptions of the Psalms of David, comp. on Psalms 22 the object of the Psalm. The dove is an image of defenceless innocence. That by it we must think only of the Psalmist, is clear from a comparison of the immediately preceding Psalm, Psalms 56:6 and Psalms 56:7: “Oh that I had wings like a dove, then would I fly away and dwell, far away would I fly,” ארחיק , etc. comp. also Psalms 74:19, where Israel is described as the turtle-dove of the Lord. אלם occurs also in Psalms 58:11, in the sense of becoming dumb. In what sense the Psalmist calls himself a dove of dumbness, a dumb dove, is evident from Psalms 38:13, where he marks his passive and resistless innocence under suffering by the words: “And I as a deaf man hear not, I am as a dumb man, who opens not his mouth.” רחקים is a second gen. governed by יונת . The dumb dove is described as one that dwells afar—so, and not of the distant place, is רחקים to be explained, comp. Psalms 65:5,—because the Psalmist finds himself far from home among enemies. The designation מכתם , secret, for, song of secret, mystical subject, comp. on Psalms 16, is especially justified by Psalms 16:9-11, where the Psalmist boasts of a divine revelation, which had come to him in the secret depths of his inner man. This emblematical part of the superscription, any other signification of which (most: after the “dove of the far terebinth,” with the arbitrary change of אלם into אֵ?לִ?ם ) is disproved by the paral. passages already referred to, contains the proof of its composition by David, since only from the poet himself could such a poetical superscription be expected, since it was precisely David whom it became to prefix such emblematical superscriptions to his Psalms, and since every one of the very peculiar words is found again in the Davidic Psalms—the dove in Psalms 55 which certainly not by accident, our Psalm immediately follows—the superscription was to derive its explanation from it—the being dumb in Psalms 58 the far dwelling in Psalms 65 the secret in Psalms 16.

The second part of the superscription is to be regarded as an explanation of the first part. The Philistines are the far dwelling, David seized by them the dumb dove. The history is given in 1 Samuel 21. David fled, as he no longer found security in his fatherland, to the Philistines. Alone there he waited for his new danger. He, the conqueror of Goliath, was conducted as a formidable enemy before the king, and only by an artifice delivered his life. In vain does de Wette attempt to bring the superscription into conflict with the narrative in 1 Samuel. There, he alleges, it is not stated that the Philistines laid hold of David. But he has in this overlooked the certainly but small בידם in 1 Samuel 20:14, in their hand, q. d. where they held him.

The subject of the Psalm is in perfect accordance with the superscription. In the highest degree characteristic is Psalms 56:8: “thou numberest my flight.” The Psalmist accordingly found himself on the flight, and indeed in a wearisome, highly peculiar, very rarely occurring situation. The trait is the more significant, as the reference to the people and its sojourn in exile, which has been defended by many, is refuted by Psalms 56:12, which implies the existence of the worship and temple. The exile must therefore have been a mere personal one. That the Psalm was composed when death was threatening, appears from Psalms 56:6 and Psalms 56:13. The expression in Psalms 56:5: “they wrest my words,” receives an admirable comment from the history of David, who, in the face of his protestations of innocence, was declared by Saul and his retainers to be a traitor. So also the expression in Psalms 56:7: “in wickedness they seek deliverance,” applies well to the circumstances of David, since the wickedness, which Saul and his company exercised toward David, was nothing more than an attempt to avert the judgment suspended over him and his house.

The ascription of the Psalm to David, and the correctness of the superscription, is confirmed by the agreement it presents with the following Psalm, likewise composed by David, according to the superscription, during the Sauline persecutions, which is so great, that even Hitzig and Ewald conclude from it, that they had one and the same author. Both Psalms begin with the entreaty: be gracious to me, and the peculiar word שאף is common to them, Psalms 56:1-2, Psalms 57:3; common also is the lively motion, the brisk and fresh style which we meet with in so many songs of David, especially of the Sauline period.

The reasons are very unimportant, which have been alleged against the correctness of the superscription. De Wette thinks, that it is of itself suspicious, that this Psalm and Psalms 34 had, according to the superscription, the same occasion. But the situation in the two Psalms is throughout different; here David prays for help in the midst of danger, there he gives thanks for it as already obtained. Then, it is maintained, that in the representation which the Psalmist gives of his enemies, one could not recognize the inhabitants of Gath. But who would say, that the representation has respect to these alone? The Psalmist has rather, as this lay in the nature of the thing, Saul and his company pre-eminently before his eyes, to whom also belonged what he had to suffer from the people of Gath. Ewald would conclude from Psalms 56:4-5, Psalms 56:10-11, that the author was a prophet; but only the latter passage belongs to that head, as it alone treats of an internal revelation of God; and also from this the supposition of Ewald would by no means follow; else all the Psalms must have been composed by prophets, for it is a rule, that their authors glory in internal revelations from God, through which they obtain the assurance of being heard. Nay, the passage is conclusive against the prophetic origin of the Psalm. For where the prophets receive such revelations, there these have in the rule a general reference; but here the word of the Lord comes to the Psalmist in regard to his private affairs; it belongs entirely to the category of the words of which P. Gerhard speaks: His spirit utters to my spirit many a sweet word of consolation, how God administers help, etc.

Besides, the superscription is not to be understood so, as if David had composed the Psalm at the time indicated precisely as it exists here. We are to refer to that only the substance, comp. on Psalms 34 etc.

Verses 1-2

Ver. 1. Be gracious to me, God, for man snuffs after me, the devourer always oppresses me. Ver. 2. My adversaries snuff after me continually, for many devourers have I proudly. שאף to snuff up, in the manner of a wild beast, which greedily hunts after its prey to devour it, with the accus. of that upon which the greed goes, discovering itself in the snuffing. אנוש man with the subordinate idea of weakness, comp. on Psalms 8:5, points to the circumstance, how perverse it is, that the impotent should proudly and impiously lift himself up against those, who are under the protection of the Almighty, and how necessary it is for God to put down this perverseness. The sing. is used for the sake of giving prominence to this contrast between man and God, the impotent and the almighty, the opposition between the being and the doing of man, which God can by no means tolerate. לחם sig. not to contend, but to devour, comp. on Psalms 35:1, (the very peculiar expression occurs both times in Psalms which bear the signature of David,) and this the only certain meaning is here also specially recommended by the parallel snuffing. Calvin: “David, when he was brought to the king of Gath, was like a solitary sheep in the midst of two bands of wolves, since he was mortally hated by the Philistines, and his own countrymen raged against him.” The two expressions of snuffing and devouring appear to the Psalmist as so singularly fitted to move God to compassion regarding his desperate condition, that he repeats them in Psalms 56:2. לחם stands, as in Psalms 56:1, in the sig. of the noun, not: many devour me, but: many devourers are to me. מרום , prop. height, then here adverbially, loftily (Luther), comp. in Psalms 73:8: “out of the height, ממרום , they speak,” and Micah 2:3, where רומּ?ה likewise occurs adverbially; it forms the contrast to אנוש man. When the man of the earth, Psalms 10:18, comp. Psalms 9:19, who has his name from weakness, haughtily attacks God in his people, this is a prediction of his overthrow, and a strong call upon God to bring him down. John Arnd: “This is the way of all enemies, who, confiding in human strength, in external force and earthly might, are full of pride and insolence; but they, who commit themselves to God’s grace, are humble, confide in God, boast themselves not, for they know, that every thing depends on God’s grace, in which all believers are included, are secure against the rage and swelling of the enemies, overcome at last by patience, and see their high-minded adversaries overthrown.”

Verses 3-4

Ver. 3. When I am afraid, then trust I in thee. Ver. 4. God boast I, his word, upon God I trust, I am not afraid, what should flesh do to me? יום is not the accus. but nom.: day, then am I afraid. When the relation of itself is clear, it is often not distinctly expressed in the words. With אירא the יום stands in stat. constr. Ew. § 507. Hitzig’s artificial translation: at the time, that I should be afraid, is already refuted by Psalms 56:4. The אירא must still be used here not otherwise than there. How little reason there is for it, is shown by the remark of Calvin: “Fear and hope, indeed, appear to be opposite affections, which cannot dwell in the same bosom, but experience shows, that hope first truly gains the ascendant there, where fear holds possession of one part of the heart. For hope is not exercised when the mind is in a quiescent state, but is, as it were asleep; then, however, does it begin to put forth its strength, when it elevates the mind dejected by cares, soothes it when disquieted with trouble, sustains and fortifies it when seized with terror.” That the Psalmist was actually afraid, is clear especially from Psalms 56:1 and Psalms 56:2, where he vehemently cries to God for help. The fear which discovers itself there, is here supplanted by confidence. To boast in God, in Psalms 56:4, is q. d. to extol God, comp. Psalms 44:8, which parall. passage refutes the exposition of Ewald: through God praise I his word. The exposition: of God I boast myself, takes הלל in an uncertain signification. For דברו we must not supply ב from באלהימ ; we are rather to consider it as the common construction of הלל with the accusative. The word of God is by the context more exactly determined as the word of promise, comp. on Psalms 33:4. We are not here to think of an internal communication, assuring the Psalmist of divine help. For this, the holy Psalmist would not have received at the beginning; it everywhere forms rather the close, and with it the internal emotion reaches its end. Then Psalms 56:9-11 are especially conclusive against this supposition. It is there that the Psalmist first receives the divine communication. Just as little must we think particularly and exclusively of the promise of royal dignity, which had been conveyed to David by Samuel. So special a reference must not without urgent reason, be admitted into a song, which was destined for use in public worship, and the expression is also by much too general for such an allusion. We must hence understand by the word of God, all his promises, which had hitherto been given to the Psalmist, through the law, (comp. Psalms 119:25), through Samuel, through internal communications during his earlier history. This word of God, and God himself, who had therein promised to be his God, the Psalmist glories in as his firm shield, who is sufficient to protect him against the whole world. John Arnd: “As Saul and the potentates of this world boast of their hosts of war, their thousands of men, and their munition, I will glory in God’s word and promise, which are my warlike force, Thy fortress, and support; let them trust in their chariots and waggons, we shall think of the name of the Lord.” The Psalmist calls man flesh by way of contempt, because where there is corporeity there is no real strength, comp. Isaiah 31:3. “The Egyptians are men and not God, their horses are flesh and not spirit,” Isaiah 40:6. John Arnd: “He sets against each other the mighty God, and impotent flesh, which is as grass and as the flower of the field.”

Verses 5-6

Ver. 5. Always do they wrest my words, all their thoughts are, that they do me evil. Ver. 6. They gather themselves together, they lie in wait, they mark my heels, as they hope for my soul. עִ?צּ?ֵ?ב , vex, wrest, here and in Isaiah 63:10. When the Psalmist solemnly protests his innocence, as in Psalms 7:3-4, his enemies accuse him of hypocritical insincerity; Saul with his company, still constantly cry out against him, notwithstanding his protestations, as a traitor, and endeavour to make away with his life. Falsely many: they vex my affairs. The vexing can be poetically referred to the words, because they are in a sense inspirited, but not to the circumstances.—יגורו in Psalms 56:6, many expound: they are afraid; but that we must take it in the sense of gathering together, as it is unquestionably used in Isaiah 54:15, and Psalms 59:3, “for they lie in wait for my soul, they gather themselves together against me the strong,” appears from this last perfectly correspondent passage, comp. also Psalms 31:13. צפן elsewhere sig. to hide, Exodus 2:3, Job 14:13. We can either from the context supply the object: the snares, as indeed also in the Kal, in which it appears to have the meaning of waylaying, such an object must properly be supplied, comp. on Psalms 10:8,—or, we may also give to the Hiphil here the sig. of acting in covert, concealed, secretly to ensnare. The Masorites have, according to their custom, substituted for the Hiphil, the more common Kal. To watch the heels of any one, is q. d. to wait on him in all his steps and movements. In the last member literally: so as they hope my soul,—the soul the object of their hopes, q. d. as they hope to take my life from me, comp. Psalms 119:95, “the wicked have waited for me to destroy me,”—the Psalmist points to the ground of the waylayings of the enemy, to what gave life and zeal to their persecuting disposition; the watching runs exactly parallel to their hope of my entire ruin. כאשר , as in Psalms 51 supers., Numbers 32:14. Many expound: because they waylay my life. But קוה never signifies with the accus.: to waylay, always: to expect, hope for something. Besides the expression as they hope, etc., refers only to the immediately preceding member. This appears from the otherwise inexplicable המה . They gather themselves together, lurk, and indeed these perverse men have no other object in their zealous machinations, than to deprive the Psalmist of his life.

Verses 7-8

On the representation of the malice of the enemies, who have nothing less in view than the extinction of the Psalmist’s life, follows the prayer to the Lord, that he would judge them, and help the Psalmist in his great distress, combined with the undoubting hope, that he will do this. Ver. 7. From their wickedness they hope for deliverance, in anger throw the peoples down, God. Ver. 8. My fight thou numberest, put my tears in thy bottle, stand they not in thy book? The על in Psalms 56:7, indicates that, on which to them the hope of deliverance rests, its foundation. פלט is here as in Psalms 32:6, infin. nominasc. The objection, that if the discourse were of this hope, this would not have been so modestly represented, rests upon the false supposition, that the object of the hope was deliverance from the power of the Psalmist, instead of the impending divine judgments, comp. Isaiah 28:15, where the wicked say, “We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement, for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves.” Saul’s entire conduct against David proceeded on the endeavour to avert through his wickedness, trampling under foot all divine and human rights, the divine judgment, which threatened him with destruction. The exposition: in their wickedness shall they find deliverance? is to be rejected, as a question without any word of interrogation can only be introduced, when there is no doubt respecting it. In the second member, the Psalmist prays the Lord to disappoint the wicked of this conceit regarding their deliverance. His prayer properly directs itself only for judgment upon his enemies. But since the special agency of God in judging, is only an exercise of his general and all-comprehending agency, and faith in the former must have its root in the latter, therefore the Psalmist prays God to come forth as the Judge of the world, and to bring down all peoples opposed to him, and his enemies beneath his feet.

Comp. Psalms 7:7, from which parallel passage it is abundantly clear how unjustly it has been concluded from these words, that the Psalmist had here to do with the heathen, Psalms 59:5. The prayer of the Psalmist over his enemies is followed in Psalms 56:8, by one for his own deliverance. This takes the forth of confidence in the first and last member, which many have in vain sought to dispose of in regard to the first by an ungrammatical construction of the preterite in the sense of the optative; in the middle member it presents itself also after the form as a prayer, so that it is recognized even there, where it conceals itself behind the confidence. נוד sig. not to move about, but to fly, Psalms 11:1. Ewald, against the usage and the sig. of ספר , to number, would understand נוד of internal disquietude. There is no ground for this in the parallel tears. The flight and the tears stand related to each other as cause and effect, so that there is the closest connection between them. Such an one is certainly demanded by the play on the words נדי and נאדך . Nothing similar is ever found without deep meaning. Quite correctly was this connection perceived by John Arnd: “It cannot but happen, that such persecutions should make weeping eyes, for it is a sad thing to be counted as a sheep for the slaughter, as a curse and offscouring of the whole world, and a prey to the enemies, as matters go in the Turkish dominions, and to wander up and down in misery with women and children. But here lies a powerful consolation, that God gathers up such tears, and puts them into his bottle, just as one would pour precious wine into a flaggon, so precious and dear are such tears before God, and God lays them up as a treasure in the heavens; and if we think that all such tears are lost, lo! God hath preserved them for us as a treasure in the heavens, with which we shall be richly consoled in that day, Psalms 126:5.” On the last words: are they not, for, certainly they are in thy book, comp. Malachi 3:16.

Verses 9-11

The great turning-point now appears; the Psalmist, well prepared for it as the form of his prayer in Psalms 56:8 shews, receives the assurance of being heard. Ver. 9. Then must my enemies turn back, when I call; this I know, that God is to me. Ver. 10. God I praise, a word, the Lord I praise, a word. Ver. 11. On God I trust, I am not afraid, what man can do. The then in Psalms 56:9 refers to the expression: in the day when I call, q. d. then, when as now I call on the Lord, my enemies must give way, as I now see to be the case with joyful astonishment before my eyes, (those of the spirit.) That God to me, q. d. that I have him, comp. Psalms 124:1-2, Psalms 73:25, and consequently a helper and redeemer, shield and reward, Genesis 15:1. Falsely many: for me. In Psalms 56:10 the repetition marks the triumphing joy of the Psalmist, in regard to the assurance of being heard. There lies, however, in the “Jehovah” an ascent. The expression: a word, in distinction from: his word, in Psalms 56:4, is carefully to be observed. There the discourse is of the promises of the Lord in general, here of the word of promise, which sounded as it were, in the interior of the Psalmist.

Verses 12-13

The conclusion in Psalms 56:12 and Psalms 56:13, contains the promise of thanks. The Psalmist is so certain of his deliverance, that he considers every thing, which God has to do, as already done, and himself alone, as the one who is in arrear. Ver 12. My vows, O God, I owe to thee, I will pay thee thank-offerings. Ver. 13. For thou deliverest my soul from death, my feet from sliding, that I may walk before God in the light of the living. The על in Psalms 56:12, marks, as very commonly, obligation. The vows consist of offerings. To the kind, the vows, the Psalmist, however, adds the species, thankofferings. Before God, q. d. under his gracious observation, comp. Genesis 17:18. The light of the living is the clear day-light, which illuminates the earth, comp. Job 33:30. Elsewhere: in the land of the living, Psalms 27:13.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 56". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-56.html.