Psalm 56

Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me;
all day long an attacker oppresses me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many attack me proudly.

–Psalm 56:1-2 (ESV)

If there’s a single psalm in the entire Psalter that can adequately summarize the spiritual warfare of the Christian life, it just might be Psalm 56. The inscription above this song informs us that it was composed by “David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.”  In his perpetual flight from King Saul, David personally knew how it felt to be oppressed by an attacker all day long.  Yet in Psalm 56, he immediately answers his own cry for help with these words, which constitute one of the most poignant refrains in the entire book of Psalms:

When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?

–Psalm 56:3-4

All through his suffering, David knows full well that his enemies will not escape from their crime—“In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!”—and, more importantly, he knows that God is his advocate.

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
Then my enemies will turn back
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me.

–Psalm 56:8-9

Confidently anticipating deliverance, the psalmist can end his lament with these words of worshipful gratitude:

I must perform my vows to you, O God;
I will render thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
yes, my feet from falling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life.

–Psalm 56:12-13

In some of our songbook’s best examples of good psalmody, Psalm 56 is beautifully rendered in two settings from the Psalter Hymnal.

103, “O God, Be Merciful”
104, “What Time I Am Afraid”

Although slightly archaic, both of these settings (which form a complementary pair) are nearly flawless versifications of Psalm 56. Number 103 treats the first nine verses of the psalm; number 104 appropriately repeats vv. 3 and 4, then concludes the psalm with vv. 10-13.  If greater textual clarity is needed, “what time” in stz. 2 of 103 could be changed to “but when,” and “wrest” in stz. 3 could be replaced with “twist.”  Number 104 is a little trickier to modernize, since the phrase “what time” opens the first stanza.  A word of explanation from the pulpit could possibly be in order here.

Both tunes in the Psalter Hymnal are excellent choices.  INVITATION is traditionally associated with the hymn “Come to the Savior Now” (number 410), but its mellow melody line and tonal stability make it particularly appropriate for Psalm 56.  But far surpassing this tune is the next, HOLY GUIDE.  In a rare and beautiful specimen of harmonization, all four parts rise slowly from the depths to an uplifting half cadence at the end of the first line, then gradually fall back to their starting point.  In its entirety, this melody is almost reminiscent of a sigh—like the contented sigh of the believer who has cast all his cares upon Christ.

One Christian high school choir gave an incredibly moving performance of this selection from the 1912 Psalter (preceded in this recording by “The Tender Love a Father Has,” from Psalm 103).  The video is embedded below.

Have you been trampled on all day long?  Do many attack you proudly?  Whether we face opposition from the devil, the world, or our own sinful flesh, as Christians we are forced to fight against our enemies daily.  The battle is long and hard; sometimes it even feels hopeless.  In times like these, we need to return again and again to the refrain of Psalm 56:

In God, whose word I praise,
in the LORD, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me?

–Psalm 56:10, 11

The concluding verse of this song is a wondrous summary of our salvation, as well as a confident declaration that God will finally conquer every last enemy: “For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

If I could give you just one admonition, it would be this: Memorize Psalm 56.  Read the text, learn the music in the Psalter Hymnal, sing it every day, teach it to your children as a lullaby—however you want to go about it—but memorize this psalm and refer to it often.  It will uphold and encourage you every day of your life.

In its exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What does the sixth request mean?”  And its comforting answer (Lord’s Day 52, Question & Answer 127) is rich with the themes of Psalm 56:

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil means,
By ourselves we are too weak
to hold our own even for a moment.
And our sworn enemies—
the devil, the world, and our own flesh—
never stop attacking us.
And so, Lord,
uphold us and make us strong
with the strength of your Holy Spirit,
so that we may not go down to defeat
in this spiritual struggle,
but may firmly resist our enemies
until we finally win the complete victory.

This we know, that God is for us.

–MRK

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