Psalms 56 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Psalm 56
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

If the title referring to an imprisonment of David at Gath is to be defended, it must be from 1 Samuel 21:10-15, on the supposition that the feigned madness did not succeed in its object, although the narrative gives reason to suppose that it did. The alternative of rejecting the inscription appears less objectionable. We have no clue, however, either to the person of the author or his time (beyond the general picture of danger and hostility), and the language rather gives the idea of large combined forces than of individual foes, especially in the prayer of Psalm 56:7. Probably the speaker is here again only the mouthpiece of oppressed and suffering Israel. The poetical form is irregular, but is plainly marked by the refrain in Psalm 56:3; Psalm 56:11.

Title—See Psalms 4, 16, Title.

Upon Jonath-elem-rechokimi.e., upon a silent dove of distant (places). Of the conjectures on the meaning of this Title it is in accordance with the conclusions accepted in other cases to take the one which makes it the first words of some well-known song to the tune of which this psalm might be sung.

To the chief Musician upon Jonathelemrechokim, Michtam of David, when the Philistines took him in Gath. Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me.
(1) Man . . .—Heb., enôsh, either as in Psalm 9:19, “mortal man,” or, contemptuously, “a rabble, a multitude.”

Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High.
(2) Swallow me up.—The root idea of the Hebrew word so rendered is by no means clear. In many passages where it is used the meaning given here by the LXX., “trample on,” will suit the context quite as well as, or even better than, the meaning, “pant after,” given in the Lexicons. (See Job 5:5; Isaiah 42:14; Ecclesiastes 1:5; Amos 2:7; Amos 8:4.) And this sense of bruising by trampling also suits the cognate verb, shûph, used only three times (Genesis 3:15; Job 9:17; Psalm 139:11). Symmachus also here has “bruise,” or “grind.” On the other hand in Psalm 119:131; Job 7:2, &c, we want the idea of “haste” or “desire.” Possibly the original meaning of “trample” may have passed through the sense of physical haste to that of passion. Or we may even get the sense of “greedily devouring” by the exactly similar process by which we come to talk of devouring the road with speed. The same verb is used in the next verse with an object.

Fighting.—Better, devouring. (Comp. Psalm 35:1.)

O thou most High.—Heb., marôm, which is here not a vocative, but an adverbial accusative, “proudly,” in pride.

What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.
(3) What time.—Heb., yôm, apparently with same meaning as beyôm in Psalm 56:10, “in the day.”

I am afraid . . .—No doubt the right reading: is, “I cry.”

In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.
(4) In God.—This verse, which forms the refrain (Psalm 56:11-12 are wrongly separated), is as it stands hardly intelligible, and the text is rendered suspicious by the fact that the LXX. read “my words,” instead of “his word,” and by the omission of the suffix altogether in Psalm 56:11, where the first clause of the refrain is doubled. The obvious treatment of the verse is to take the construction as in Psalm 44:8, “I praise God with my word,” i.e., in spite of all my enemies I find words to praise God.

I will not.—Rather, I fear not What can flesh do?

Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.
(5) Wrest.—Properly, afflict; and so some, “injure my cause.” But “torture my words” is intelligible.

They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul.
(6) They hide themselves.—Better, they set spies.

Mark my steps.—Literally, watch my heels. (See Psalm 49:5; Psalm 89:51.)

Shall they escape by iniquity? in thine anger cast down the people, O God.
(7) Shall they . . .—Literally, upon iniquity escape to them; the meaning of which is by no means clear. The ancient versions do not help us. If we adopt a slight change of reading, viz., palles for pallet, the meaning will be clear, for iniquity thou wilt requite them.

Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?
(8) Wanderings.—Rather, in the singular, wandering, which, from the parallelism with “tears,” must mean “mental restlessness,” the “tossings to and fro of the mind.” Symmachus, “my inmost things.”

Put thou my tears into thy bottle.—There is a play of words in the original of “bottle,” and “wandering.” We must not, of course, think of the lachrymatories, as they are called, of glass, which have been found in Syria (see Thomson, Land and Book, page 103). If these were really in any way connected with “tears,” they must have formed part of funeral customs. The LXX., “Thou hast put my tears before thee,” and Symmachus and Jerome, “put my tears in thy sight,” suggest a corruption of the text; but, in any case, the poet’s feeling here is that of Constance in Shakespeare’s King John

“His grandam’s wrongs, and not his mother’s shames,

Draw these heaven-moving pearls from his poor eyes,

Which heaven shall take in nature of a fee;

Ay, with those crystal beads Heaven shall be brib’d

To do him justice and revenge on you.”

Book.—As in Psalm 139:16. Some prefer “calculation.”

When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me.
In God will I praise his word: in the LORD will I praise his word.
In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.
Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee.
(12) Thy vowsi.e., vows made to Thee, but the form is most unusual. For the thought comp. Psalm 22:25; Psalm 50:14.

I will renderi.e., in fulfilment of the vows.

For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?
(13) Wilt thou not deliver?—Better, hast thou not delivered?

From falling.—Literally, front a thrust.

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