Psalm 54

Behold, God is my helper;
the Lord is the upholder of my life.

–Psalm 54:4 (ESV)

David wrote Psalm 54 in the context of great personal danger.  He had just been betrayed by the Ziphites among whom he had been hiding (I Samuel 23).  Saul, who had actively been trying to kill David for some time now, was hot on his trail.  Understanding the personal context of David’s life as he wrote this psalm makes this psalm’s bold declaration of confidence all the more striking.  Betrayed by his foreign allies (“strangers,” verse 3), pursued by Saul and the army of Israel (“ruthless men,” verse 3), David still expresses courage and hope.

The psalm is divided into two sections by the selah after verse 3.  I’ve heard/read many theories about what the selahs in the book of Psalms are, but the one that I prefer (at least, it makes the most sense) is that the selah is a musical interlude between different sections of the psalm, an instrumental bridge.

Before the selah, in verses 1-3, David pleads his case to God, asking Him to “vindicate” and “save” him (verse 1-2), laying his situation before the Lord (verse 3).  His situation may seem hopeless, but David has full confidence that God will hear his prayer because of His Name (verse 1), which He has placed on David (I Samuel 16).

After the selah, in verses 4-7, there is a marked difference in tone.  Instead of pleading his case, David expresses his confidence, speaking of the defeat of his enemies as if it’s already a “done deal” (verse 5, 7).  The reason for this confidence is founded in the character of God – God is described as a helper, an upholder, as a deliverer (verses 4, 7).  The key adjectives used to describe God are “faithful” and “good” (verses 5, 6).

Verses 6-7 express David’s thankfulness to God, the response of a grateful heart to a great deliverance.  David is not bargaining with God (“if You deliver me from Saul, I will sacrifice to You”); rather he is expressing the natural result of salvation, a thankful heart freely offered (verse 6).

This psalm is applicable in a variety of contexts.  This psalm can provide fruitful meditation on the Passion of Christ, when He who is the Greater David was viciously betrayed by Judas (Hebrews 12:3) and yet went forward in confidence.  Jesus, assured of His final vindication, “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

It would also be well-suited for the believer to pray/sing with respect to our own struggles in this life.  The confidence of David is our confidence as well – and even more so because of Christ.  We may not struggle with pursuing armies or deadly betrayal, yet we daily fight against “the schemes of the devil… and spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:11-12).  Our daily battle with sin and temptation can be greatly aided by the confidence of this psalm.

Finally, this is a beautiful psalm to pray regarding those Christians who are being physically assaulted for their faith.  We can use this psalm on their behalf as we uphold them in our prayers.

99, “O Save Me by Thy Name”

Psalm 54 has only one selection in the blue Psalter Hymnal, paraphrased in 1832 by Lowell Mason (of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” fame).  The words do a good job of reflecting the content of the psalm (although the somewhat archaic use of “judge me in Thy might” in stanza 1 might need a bit of explanation to the congregation–“judge” here reflecting the concept of “vindicate me” in the psalm).  Stanzas 1 and 2 reflect verses 1-3 and stanzas 3-5 reflect verses 4-7.

The tune (BOYLSTON) is good, but probably unfamiliar to most congregations.  This is unfortunate, since this is our only selection of Psalm 54.  However, since the tune is Short Meter (SM), there are a variety of tunes to which these words can be sung.

Because of the dramatic change in mood between verses 1-3 and 4-7, the choice of tune should be determined by what aspect of the psalm you wish to reflect.  If one wishes to reflect the suppliant pleading of a distressed soul (verses 1-3), then GORTON (152, “Remember Not, O God”) would be a good fit.  If one wishes to reflect the bombastic confidence and thanksgiving of verses 4-7, then perhaps ST. THOMAS (479, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord”) would be an appropriate substitution.

If accompanying this psalm, try to reflect the change of mood.  Perhaps use a quieter, prayerful organ stop for stanzas 1-2, and then switch to a confident, brighter stop for the last three stanzas.  Maybe even include a selah of your own – a key change or short interlude – between stanzas 2 and 3, to reflect the change in mood.  If you’re arranging this song for a choir (or have an especially versatile congregation), maybe you could get really creative and arrange the first two stanzas in a minor key before switching to major for stanzas 3-4.

Psalm 54 is important, for it teaches us how to pray in desperate times, and also demonstrates the joy and confidence Christians may hold on to in those very times.  It covers a large range of the Christian experience in its seven verses – distress, deliverance, and delight (could one say an echo of “sin, salvation, and service?”), culminating in the gratitude of the redeemed heart:

My sacrifice of praise
to Thee I freely bring;
My thanks, O Lord, to Thee I raise
and of Thy goodness sing.

–JDO

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