Psalm 54 A Cry for Deliverance

View of the Judean Wilderness, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve shared by Yuvalr under Creative Commons 3.0

Psalm 54

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is in hiding among us.”
1 Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.
2 Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth.
3 For the insolent[1] have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life; they do not set God before them. Selah
4 But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.[2]
5 He will repay my enemies for their evil. In your faithfulness, put an end to them.
6 With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good.
7 For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph[3] on my enemies.

This Psalm is a cry for help for deliverance from one’s enemies. This is the first of a series of prayers (Psalm 54-63) which are petitions for help from God and with the exception of Psalm 60 they are all individual prayers for God’s action on the psalmist’s behalf to deliver them from their oppressors. All of these prayers remain confident that God will help for the righteous one and God will repay the insolent ones with evil for their evil. The prevalence of these petitions for God’s action to deliver the righteous from the persecution of the wicked in the Psalter point to the formation of a practice of prayer which relies on God in the midst of crisis and the formation of a persistent hope which relies upon God’s promised justice in the experience of injustice.

The superscription of the Psalm places it shortly after the events in the superscription of Psalm 52 in 1 Samuel. Psalm 52 refers to the action of Doeg in 1 Samuel 21-22, while Psalm 54 refers to David’s time in the wilderness of Ziph in 1 Samuel 23: 15-28. The wilderness of Ziph is located within Judah, and the betrayal by some of the Ziphites revealing David’s presence in their region which brings King Saul into pursuit of David. Saul comes close to capturing David before the Philistines raid Israel and Saul has to act against an incursion by this external opponent. If the Psalm is read in the context of the superscription, then the enemy of David’s enemy becomes the means by which God delivers from trouble and the Philistine becomes the tool of God’s deliverance for the righteous from their own king.

The Psalm, although it never utters the name of the God of Israel, asks for God’s vindication by God’s name and might. To appeal to God’s name is to appeal to God’s reputation and character. The psalmist calls upon God to act like the God who hears the prayers of the righteous and listens to the words of they speak to God. The actions of the ‘insolent’ or ‘estranged’ one who is persecuting the righteous one and is seeking their life demand a God of justice to act (in the psalmist’s view) or the reputation of God is in danger.

The speaker remains confident is God’s identity as both a helper of the oppressed ones and the upholder of the life of the righteous. The enemy of the speaker of the psalm may indeed desire to end the life of the righteous one, but the psalmist trusts that if God stands with them then the oppressor is ultimately powerless. The poem, in Beth Tanner’s words, “states the flip-side of the golden rule. The one praying wishes that all of the harm the enemies have caused will be visited back on them.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 471) In return for God’s action on behalf of the oppressed the petitioner states they will offer a sacrifice and bear witness to the truthfulness of God’s character as expressed by the name of God. Perhaps, to the skeptical reader, this may look like an attempt to bribe or barter with God so that God will answer their prayers. A more charitable reading can see this response as an act of gratitude to God’s deliverance.

Another objection sometimes noted to Psalm 54 is the triumphal note of looking upon one’s enemies at the end. The Psalms are songs and prayers that deal with the experience of the life of the ones attempting to live righteously in an unjust world. Sometimes these prayers may seem unorthodox to Christians who have been taught that the life of faith is a docile and polite one or who view God as distant or unengaged. The Psalms engage in the difficult struggle of faith in a world of violence, cruelty, betrayal, and oppression and yet the judge and actor to restore justice is God. As Martin Luther King, Jr. would articulate at a speech given at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, “We shall overcome because the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” For both Dr. King and the psalmist, the one who bends that moral arc toward justice is God. For the faithful ones, those who attempt to bend the arc towards injustice will be repaid for the injustice they commit, and they will be seen by the righteous ones who continue to endure while the unrighteous fall.

[1] The Hebrew zarim can mean estranged or strangers or insolent. If the poem is read in the context of the superscription, and the oppressing one is King Saul, the word may be better translated ‘estranged’ as Beth Tanner suggests. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 471)

[2] The Hebrew nephesh here is often translated ‘soul’ but the Hebrew idea of ‘soul’ is not the same as the Greek idea of ‘soul’. In Hebrew this refers to the essence of life, not something that is detachable from it.

[3] ‘In triumph’ is not in the Hebrew, the Hebrew is literally my eye has looked upon my enemy.’ Nevertheless, the connotation in the poem is looking at one’s enemies from the position of having endured and standing triumphant. Most English translations that insert ‘in triumph’ capture this aspect of the poem.

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