What can they do to me?

Many people, it seems, love a good conspiracy theory. I suspect that it’s because, in one form or another, people like to be the hero of their own story, battling and defeating evil and injustice. If things aren’t going as expected, if your own best efforts aren’t winning the day…well, it can’t be that you’re misguided or fighting on the wrong side! It must be that there are powerful enemies working against you behind the scenes. They don’t have the guts to face you outright, but prefer to manipulate the levers of power from offstage, from the shadows. Cowards!

The wonderful and terrible thing about conspiracy theories is that they’re self-justifying. The absence of any solid evidence is taken as a sign that the truth is being suppressed, while any evidence against the theory is labeled as the propaganda of the conspirators.

This is circular reasoning of the highest order, driven by the need to be right. But as the saying goes: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t out to get you.

. . .

Psalm 56, as we’ve seen, has a heading that asks us to recall the story of David, on the run from Saul, trying to hide in the Philistine city of Gath. It was a measure of David’s desperation that he would go there; it was Goliath’s hometown, and the people of Gath recognized him. Even if King Achish refused to take any official action against him, it’s easy to imagine the people hatching their own secret plots. David had fled from a murderous king to a place where he was surrounded by people who would have been happy to see him executed.

This provides a narrative backdrop for reading the psalm, which begins as a typical lament about being surrounded and oppressed by enemies:

Be merciful to me, my God,
    for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
    all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
    in their pride many are attacking me.
(vss. 1-2a, NIV)

There is, it seems, a murderous conspiracy afoot:

All day long they twist my words;
    all their schemes are for my ruin.
They conspire, they lurk,
    they watch my steps,
    hoping to take my life
. (vss. 5-6)

The Hebrew seems to paint a picture of people gathering for a secret meeting. They hide themselves in the shadows and follow the psalmist from behind, tracking his movement, looking for an opportunity to pounce. Small wonder that the psalmist is afraid for his life and pleads for God’s intervention:

Because of their wickedness do not let them escape;
    in your anger, God, bring the nations down
. (vs. 7)

By the end of the psalm, God has delivered the psalmist from death, and the psalmist vows to present a thank offering (vss. 12-13). But along the way, even before his deliverance, the psalmist gives two other reasons for praise. We’ll look at the first one in this post, and the second in the next.

. . .

What does the psalmist do to alleviate his fear? In verses 3-4, he tells us, repeating the words in a slightly different fashion in verses 10 and 11. I don’t think the psalmist is just speaking off the top of his head and then repeating the thought in different words; rather, the structure of how he says it has something to teach us. Here’s the first of the two passages:

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
    In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?
(vss. 3-4)

The English preserves the word order of the Hebrew, which I believe is important. Note the use of the words (in English and Hebrew) “afraid,” “trust,” and “God,” which are then repeated in reverse. The structure, in other words is “fear–trust–God,” then “God–trust–no fear,” with the phrase “whose word I praise” at the very center.

This so-called concentric structure represents a movement from “afraid” to “not afraid” in a way that draws attention to the centrality of God’s word. The fearful psalmist reaches out in tentative trust to God — and God meets him in his word, possibly referring to older psalms of lament and deliverance. Trusting God and praising his word, the psalmist learns (perhaps gradually) not to fear, leading to the rhetorical question, “What can mere mortals (literally, ‘flesh’) do to me?”

The second passage is a near repeat of the first, but with important differences:

In God, whose word I praise,
    in the LORD, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can man do to me?
(vss. 10-11)

The first part of the earlier passage is gone. The psalmist leads with what before was the central phrase, and doubles it for effect, this time inserting the personal name of God; “in God” is reinforced by “in the LORD.” In my imagination at least, I read the first passage as more tentative and the second as more confident. The emphasis is not on fear, but fearlessness, which comes from meeting God personally in his word.

. . .

The psalmist, of course, is no fool. He knows perfectly well what “flesh” (vs. 4) or “man” (the Hebrew adam, vs. 11) can do to him; that’s why he was afraid in the first place. But God’s word puts things in perspective. Conspiracies are mysterious and frightening. To wonder, “Just how big is this thing?” only makes one more anxious. But the psalmist is reminded that God is bigger than any conspiracy, and God’s plans are greater than any human scheme.

Praise God that we can go to his word and be reminded of the same.