Psalm 56 Trusting God in the Midst of Trouble

Archaeological finds at Gath (Tell es-Safi) By Ori~ – Own work, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8945813

Psalm 56

<To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.>
1 Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me;
2 my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High[1],
3 when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?
5 All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil.
6 They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life,
7 so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
8 You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?
9 Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me.
10 In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise,
11 in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?
12 My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.

In God we trust was adopted in 1956 as the official motto of the United States and was placed on all government currency the following year. Yet, these official words of a community trusting in God have not prevented the people of the United States from being afraid. For the psalmist the statement, “In God I trust” is a statement which moves them from being afraid to a defiant stance of faithful endurance in the midst of suffering. The God of the psalmist is trustworthy and sees the strife of the righteous ones. Their tears have not been shed in vain, their suffering and strife are not meaningless because God has treasured them, and God will deliver them from their turmoil.

The superscription of the Psalm places it within the same time period as Psalm 52 but focuses on the brief narrative of David in Gath in 1 Samuel 21: 10-15. David has fled King Saul and goes to the King of Gath to attempt to find safety. The servants of the King of Gath wonder if they have a valuable hostage they can use, but David feigns madness, and the King of Gath sends him away. David finds himself unwelcome both in Israel and among the enemies of Israel. He is on the run and trying to survive. This time of uncertainty makes sense as a framework for this Psalm which focuses on trusting God in the midst of fear and the militaristic language of this poem could apply to David and his followers, but this psalm, like the rest of the psalms, can find meaning beyond the context of their superscription.

Like the previous psalm, there are several words that have caused troubles for translators and have produced multiple readings of individual verses, but the overall direction of the psalm is not in doubt. The complaint of the psalmist which is voiced in verse 1-2 and 5-6 revisits the common theme of this portion of the psalter, a righteous one oppressed by a group who cause them trouble. The militaristic language reflected in the complaint where the righteous one finds themselves trampled by warriors who oppose them. These ones opposing the righteous one is set against them. They are creating strife, watching their words and movements, seeking to injure their cause, and aligning their thoughts against them for evil. The righteous one finds themselves in a struggle against others in a time where they cannot rely upon other people.

This psalm pivots on the words ‘afraid’ and ‘trust.’ Both words appear three times in parallel with each other

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (3)
In God I trust; I am not afraid; (4)
in God I trust; I am not afraid. (11)

In this psalm, their trust in God is what moves them from fear to not being afraid. The trustworthiness of the LORD their God transforms their fear into fearlessness. The one sustaining them is God, the ones who oppose the righteous are mere mortals. As Paul would later echo, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31) The poet trusts that God is one who sees their situation and will deliver their soul from death. Their God not only knows about their sufferings but can measure the physical manifestations of that suffering. Their tossings are counted, their tears are bottled and recorded, and God will not continue to allow these offering of pain to go unanswered. The God of the people of Israel is one who has “observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” (Exodus 3:7-8) This God who the psalmist trusts will not allow their suffering to go unanswered.

The psalm ends on a confident note: they trust in God, they will perform their vows obediently, they will offer up offerings of gratitude, and they will walk before God. The psalmist may not be delivered by the end of the psalm, but they stand in the confidence that God will act, and they will be able to enter a future with gratitude for how God has delivered them. Their opponents may remain, but their fear is gone. They stand in a defiant trust in their God who hears their cries and delivers them, so what can a mere mortal do to them.

[1] The Hebrew marom here is problematic and led to very different translations. The NIV translates “many are attacking me in their pride”. While the NRSV sees this as a designation of God, hence the translation “many fight against me O Most High. Both translations can make sense in the context of the psalm.

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