What do you do when you find yourself in hostile territory? Think, for example, of the apostle Paul in the Jerusalem temple, facing a murderous crowd so unruly that the Roman garrison had to take him into custody. The city was packed with Jewish pilgrims keeping festival, but under the watchful eye of Rome. It didn’t take much for the people’s simmering resentment of the Empire to boil over into rage.
Paul’s offense? First, he was falsely (and perhaps intentionally) accused of defiling the temple by bringing a Gentile into its inner court. Then, in making his defense before the crowd, he angered them further by saying that God had sent him — a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church! — on a mission to Gentiles (Acts 21:27–22:24). The Romans dragged Paul out of harm’s way and kept him in their barracks, but some of the Jews still conspired together to get Paul out in the open so they could ambush and kill him (Acts 23:12-15).
Such was the fury of the Jews against one of their own, for daring to suggest that God might care about their enemies.
Imagine, then, how a Jew might feel among hostile Gentiles.
. . .
Psalm 56 is another lament psalm, with all the elements we’ve come to expect. It’s a prayer offered directly to God, with a complaint about trouble and a plea for help. The psalmist’s enemies are portrayed as wicked, and this is given as the reason for God to intervene. And like many of the laments, the psalm ends on the note of thanksgiving and praise for God’s deliverance.
Like several of the surrounding psalms, this one also has a heading that links it to an episode in the life of David: “when the Philistines seized him in Gath” (NRSV). This seems to be a reference to a brief story in 1 Samuel 21:10-14. David is on the run from Saul, who wants to kill him. He flees first to Ramah, then to Nob, then to Gath.
Gath was the city-state where the Philistine king, Achish, lived (some interpreters suggest that “Achish” is a royal title rather than a personal name). It was also the home of Goliath, the feared Philistine champion whom David had felled with his sling. Although the heading of Psalm 56 says that David was “seized,” there’s nothing in the story that suggests this; it seems David went there of his own accord, probably because he believed Saul would give up the chase if he did (cf. 1 Sam 27:1-2).
Out of the frying pan into the fire. While David seems to have entered Gath of his own accord, that didn’t mean it was safe for him to do so. He had to be keenly aware of the fact that he was in possession of the slain Goliath’s sword (he received it in Nob in 1 Sam 21:8-9), though I imagine he kept it well hidden. The servants of Achish knew full well that David was their enemy. When they reminded the king of that fact, David became terrified and pretended to be harmless but insane.
That’s all we have of that episode, though David will return to Gath in 1 Samuel 27. Generally, scholars don’t take such headings in the Psalms literally, as if the psalm had actually written in Gath and then taken from David’s personal journal: Dear Diary, today I was really scared and had to pretend to be crazy…
Still, the scribe or scribes who arranged the psalms into a collection may have added the heading for a reason. Remember the story of David among the Philistines in Gath? Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine what it would be like to be surrounded by people who knew what you had done to their champion, Goliath — people who were frustrated that their king refused to do anything about it. Would they be whispering about you on the street corners? Would you know whom to trust? Imagine the situation, then read the psalm.
Sometimes, it may feel like everyone is against you. You’re surrounded by enemies, overwhelmed by troubles. What will you do? The psalmist laments to God and asks for help. But how do you make the psalmist’s move from lament to praise? Does God have to rescue you first, or are there reasons to praise him regardless?
Let’s see what Psalm 56 has to say about it.