Psalm 59 God’s Steadfast Love as an Alternative to the Dog-Eat-Dog Worldview

Battle between Cimmerian cavalry, their war dogs, and Greek hoplites, depicted on a Pontic plate

Psalm 59 God’s Steadfast Love as an Alternative to the Dog-Eat-Dog World

<To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.>

1 Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me.
2 Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty save me.
3 Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD,
4 for no fault of mine, they run and make ready. Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!
5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil. Selah
6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips — for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”
8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision.
9 O my strength, I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.
10 My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.
11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield.
12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,
13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob. Selah
14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.
16 But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.
17 O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.

Many of the Psalms in this section of the psalter are attributed to the time when David’s life is continuously under threat from his king and father-in-law Saul.[1] These desperate pleas to God, which can fit a number of circumstances that people encounter in a world, are an underutilized portion of Psalms. They are perhaps overlooked because they may appear too vengeful for some Christians, but they point to a resilient faith in the reality of God’s steadfast love in the midst of a world of dogged opposition. The psalmist trusts that God’s protection will allow them to see their opponents punished for their unjust violence they have done and will vindicate their continued trust in their God which allows them to opt out of the dog-eat-dog mindset of competitive violence.

God is the one who must deliver the psalmist from their situation. The psalm is a series of imperatives directed at God: deliver, protect, deliver, save, (1-2) rouse, come, see, awake, spare none, (4-5) make them totter, (11) and consume (twice in verse 13). Immediately the psalmist begins with an impassioned appeal for God to save them from dire circumstances that are created by enemies who are conspiring against them. These evil working and bloodthirsty ones continually create a world of conflict and violence for the poet despite their innocence. The psalmist emphasizes their innocence by utilizing the three major Hebrew words for ‘sin’[2] and declaring they are without fault, transgression, or sin. This three-fold appeal to the psalmist innocence is followed by a three-fold titling of God: LORD (the divine name of God) God of hosts (a militaristic image of God as the leader of armies) and God of Israel (the God of the chosen people). God is one who can be called upon by name, and yet has the power to aid in conflicted situation, and is also the God who stands with the chosen people in the midst of the nations. The psalmist trusts that the God that they call upon is able to save and deliver them from this world of trouble created by their persistent and unjust enemies.

The metaphor used in this psalm for the enemies is dogs. They prowl like a pack, and they wound with their words. They continue to prowl the city and utter their threatening howls which inform the poet that there is no time when they are free of their presence. These enemies consider themselves strong but all their growling, prowling, and howling ultimately evoke laughter from God. In Psalm 52:6 the righteous laughed at the foolish and violent enemies, but here it is God who laughs at these violent ones who take themselves and their power so seriously. Their strength when compared to the protective and sheltering strength of the God of Israel or the liberating strength of the God of Hosts is laughable, and their boasts are hollow. The faithful and innocent one trusts that God’s steadfast love (hesed) will ultimately be the final word and will put these dogged opponents in their place.

This prayer comes from the perspective of one who is struggling in an unjust world and is calling upon God to act decisively against their oppressors. Perhaps one of the reasons this Psalm is seldom used is the desire for vengeance against one’s enemies and there is some danger when those in a privileged position view themselves as oppressed and use that narrative to justify their own actions of oppression. Yet, in the Psalms the actor who restores the oppressed one to justice is always God. Here the psalmist wishes not for a quick removal of the enemy, but a staggering but not fatal blow where the enemy becomes the unwitting example of God’s justice that is not quickly forgotten. As Bellinger and Brueggemann can say appropriately, “even in its most confident faith Israel can be honest about its resentments and its hope for vengeance and retaliation.” (Brueggemann 2014, 266) The psalmist is maintaining their innocence and committing themselves to God’s steadfast love and justice.

This psalm again confronts us with the distance between the world as it is experienced by the psalmist in this moment of their life and the world as it should be under the steadfast love of God. As J. Clinton McCann can aptly summarize the world the psalmist experiences, “What we end up with is a dog-eat-dog world, a culture of cut-throat competition in which we’re convinced that no one will look out for us if we don’t look out for ourselves.” But the psalm points to “a deeper reality, an alternative world, which is drive not by the lust for power but by the power of love.” (NIB IV:914) In the belief of the psalmist, we may begin with the need for deliverance from the dog-eat-dog mindset of competitive violence. The final words in this psalm and in worldview of the psalmist is God’s steadfast love (hesed). The wise live their lives oriented towards this deeper reality where the lust for power will be proven foolish and the power of God’s steadfastlove will endure.

[1] The superscription refers 1 Samuel 19: 8-17 when Saul has David’s home watched and Michal (David’s wife and Saul’s daughter) helps David escape and deceives her father.

[2] NRSV translates these words as ‘transgressions,’ ‘sin,’ and ‘fault’ in verses three and four.

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