Psalm 59

For my weekly quiet time this week, I’ll blog about Psalm 59 and its interpreters.  I’ll post the Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on select verses.

To the chief Musician, Altaschith, Michtam of David; when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him.

This refers to the events of I Samuel 19, when Saul’s men were surrounding David’s house to kill him, and David’s wife, Michal, helped David escape when she let David down through the window and hid an idol under his bed.

1Deliver me from mine enemies, O my God: defend me from them that rise up against me.

 2Deliver me from the workers of iniquity, and save me from bloody men.

 3For, lo, they lie in wait for my soul: the mighty are gathered against me; not for my transgression, nor for my sin, O LORD.

 4They run and prepare themselves without my fault: awake to help me, and behold.

 5Thou therefore, O LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, awake to visit all the heathen: be not merciful to any wicked transgressors. Selah.

Even conservative Christian commentators and preachers have puzzled over this verse.  Why would David ask God to visit the heathen—the goyim, or Gentile nations—-when those were not the people giving him problems in I Samuel 19?  The people giving him problems there were fellow Israelites, right?

Different solutions have been proposed.  John MacArthur appears to go on two routes.  First, he says that David wrote Psalm 59 when he was king and was involved in dealings with foreign nations.  The idea may be that David is considering the threats that Israel is facing from her foreign enemies and is thinking back to the time when his life was threatened by an aggressor, namely, King Saul.  Second, MacArthur states that David had the gift of prophecy, which (to me) implies that David wrote this Psalm when he was on the run from King Saul, and he foretold Israel’s problems with foreign enemies.

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says that David, as he suffers, is expanding his horizons: David prays not only for himself, but also for all who suffer from oppression and persecution.  C. Marvin Tate says that the idea in this Psalm is that the Psalmist wants God to show no mercy to all wicked people, whether they be foreign or domestic.

John Gill says that David here means that his enemies are behaving like the heathen in the way that they are treating him.  And the Jewish commentator Rashi supplies some words, proposing that David is asking God to judge the wicked according to the statutes of the nations.  I do not know entirely what Rashi means here.  Does he mean that David wants for God to judge his enemies according to the way that the Gentiles judge the wicked, or that David hopes that God will judge his enemies the way that God judges Israel’s foreign oppressors?  I think that the latter is more likely.

Two more possible solutions come to my mind, and I say this with the recognition that many biblical scholars do not associate the Psalms with the events of David’s life, but rather maintain that the superscriptions were added later.  I wonder, though, if interpreters who do apply the Psalms to David’s life have thought of these solutions: First of all, could Saul have used foreign mercenaries to surround David’s house?  Second, in a similar vein to the proposal of the Artscroll commentary, perhaps David during his flight was thinking of his own suffering at the hands of Saul, and also Israel’s insecurity at the hands of foreign nations.  While David was on the run from Saul, Israel experienced problems from the Philistines and the Amalekites, and David in I Samuel 27 and 30 defeats Amalekite aggressors.  The responsibility of the king was to defeat Israel’s foreign enemies, and David, even while he was on the run from Saul, was demonstrating his own suitability for kingship when he was concerned about Israel’s predicament at the hand of foreign enemies and (with God’s help) acted to defeat them.  Are there interpreters who have regarding Psalm 59:5 as a sign of such concern?

 6They return at evening: they make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city.

What I heard and read on a continual basis was that dogs in the ancient world were not pets, but were scavengers.  Indeed, many dogs were scavengers, and I think that the enemies here are being likened to scavenger dogs.  According to Marvin Tate, the image here is of dogs sleeping in their dens during the day and hunting for food at night.  But Tate also questions the blanket statement that dogs could not be pets in the ancient world, for he cites verses in which a dog was a companion (Tobit 5:16; 11:4; Matthew 15:27; Mark 7:28).  I think of Odysseus’ dog in the Odyssey, who faithfully waited for his master to return.

I agree with Tate that “They return at evening” is part of the scavenger-dog imagery.  Rashi, however, says that the idea here is that David’s enemies slander him before Saul during the day, then they return at evening to watch David’s house in order to kill him.  Regarding the phrase “and go about the city”, the Jewish commentator Radak says that Saul and his men are patrolling the city just in case David slips out of the house.  But David did slip out of the house, and he managed to escape from the city!  I guess Saul and his men were not patrolling the city that well!

 7Behold, they belch out with their mouth: swords are in their lips: for who, say they, doth hear?

 8But thou, O LORD, shalt laugh at them; thou shalt have all the heathen in derision.

Nelson’s Study Bible contrasted God’s derisive laughter at the heathen with God’s pleasure in his people (Psalm 147:11; Zephaniah 3:17).  I appreciated this point because I’ve heard preachers stress that God laughs—-at the fall of the wicked!  They’re usually seeking to refute the ideas of prosperity teachers, or to counter the notion that God is a heavenly Grandpa who does not care about our sins.  But, in my opinion, it’s important to see God as someone who is happy, and not just when the wicked are falling.  I also have issues with defining the wicked as all who do not accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, as many Christians do, for the Psalm portrays the wicked as schemers who love bloodshed.  Of course, I should take heed to myself that I never become like that, but I do not believe that most people (including non-Christians) fit that description.

 9Because of his strength will I wait upon thee: for God is my defence.

 10The God of my mercy shall prevent me: God shall let me see my desire upon mine enemies.

In the Hebrew for this verse, the Hebrew for “my desire” is not there, and so the King James Version has supplied those words.  There are other translations that supply “vengeance”.  I liked what Christopher Wordsworth said in Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s Treasury of David: that God is making the Psalmist look on his enemies.  For Wordsworth, the Psalmist hopes to look on them, not with fear, but calmly, as did Stephen when he was being stoned (Acts 6:15).

 11Slay them not, lest my people forget: scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord our shield.

This has been a notorious verse within the history of biblical interpretation, for Augustine appealed to this verse to argue that the Jews’ subjugation was divine punishment for their rejection of Jesus, and that they served as a warning to God’s people of the ill consequences of unbelief.  Many Christians agreed with Augustine’s interpretation, to the point that they themselves sought to insure that the Jews were continually subjugated.  As G. Sujin Park notes, however, John Calvin departed from this view.  Whereas Augustine related Psalm 59 to Jesus’ passion, in which (according to the Gospels) the Jewish authorities and some of the Jewish people were key players, Calvin read it primarily in light of David’s predicament at the hands of Saul.  For Calvin, v 11 means that God does not destroy our enemies immediately, but he allows them to remain for some time so that we would continue to trust in God, rather than forgetting him.  Calvin’s interpretation, to a large extent, lacked the anti-Judaism that was characteristic of other Christian interpretations of Psalm 59.

I deplore the anti-Judaism of Augustine’s interpretation, as well as the horrible use that Christians have made of it throughout history.  But I thought that Augustine’s commentary on the Psalm, overall, had a profound homiletical point, once you take the issue of Jews and Gentiles out of the picture.  According to Augustine, God brought down the Jews because of their pride and their contempt for the Gentiles, but he exalted the Gentiles because they were viewed by God’s people, Israel, with disdain.  Augustine believes that both, however, should exalt Jesus Christ, the corner-stone.  When you take the whole issue of Jews and Gentiles out of the equation, you have what may be a valid point: that God gives us what we need spiritually, whether that be humbling or exaltation, but that we should all come together and keep our focus on God and his goodness.  That does not mean, however, that we should judge those going through a hard time (even ourselves) as people who are being humbled, or that we should oppress others, as if we are God’s instrument of judgment.

There have been different interpretations of Psalm 59:11.  A prominent one is that the Psalmist wants his enemies to survive in a state of abjection so that they could be an example to God’s people of the consequences of wickedness.  Some believe that the Psalmist desires that his enemies die a slow death, not a quick one.  A few interpreters, however, actually think that the Psalmist is hoping that God will keep the wicked alive because the wicked will not be aware of God when they are dead.  Is there hope here that the wicked will repent?

Although I like the concept of hope for the redemption of the wicked, I do not think that this is what is going on in Psalm 59.  In vv 11-13, the Psalmist appears to be hoping that the wicked will be destroyed, and that this will teach God’s people and the rest of the world about God and his standard of righteousness.  In v 11, he wants this destruction to be gradual, and Tate argues that the Psalmist is hoping that the wickedness of the wicked will prove to be their destruction.  I think that v 12 supports this.  In v 13, however, the Psalmist may be hoping that God will consume the wicked quickly.  Perhaps the Psalmist changed his mind, as he allowed his anger to take over, or he simply hoped that God would dispose of the problem swiftly, since the wicked were continually threatening the Psalmist’s safety.

 12For the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips let them even be taken in their pride: and for cursing and lying which they speak.

 13Consume them in wrath, consume them, that they may not be: and let them know that God ruleth in Jacob unto the ends of the earth. Selah.

 14And at evening let them return; and let them make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city.

Citing Meiri and Metzudos, the Artscroll commentary states that what we see here is the punishment fitting the crime.  Notice that this verse is like v 6.  The idea is this: In v 6, the wicked are prowling about hungrily, like dogs, hoping to devour the Psalmist.  That is their crime.  In v 14, the Psalmist hopes that the punishment of the wicked will include them prowling about hungrily, like dogs, only in an abject state in which they do not find satisfaction.  The punishment of the wicked is similar to their crime.

W.O.E. Oesterley, however, says something different.  His idea (if I understand him correctly) appears to be that the Psalmist is acknowledging that the wicked will continue to prowl about hungrily, but that the Psalmist has chosen in vv 16-17 not to focus on that, but rather to focus on God and God’s goodness.

 15Let them wander up and down for meat, and grudge if they be not satisfied.

 16But I will sing of thy power; yea, I will sing aloud of thy mercy in the morning: for thou hast been my defence and refuge in the day of my trouble.

 17Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing: for God is my defence, and the God of my mercy.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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