Psalm 56 is a psalm of David, which he wrote for one of his three choir directors. He wrote it to the tune of another song by the title “A Silent Dove Far Away.” David refers to this psalm as a “Miktam.” There are six “Miktams” in the psalms—Psalm 16, and Psalms 56-60.
While we don’t know for certain what a Miktam actually is, some speculate that the term is related to the Hebrew word meaning “cover,” which could mean that David uses the term “Miktam” to imply a need for secrecy during a time of crisis.
Another thought is that the word “Miktam” might be related to the word “niktham,” translated in Jeremiah 2:22 as “stain.” Writing of the rebellious people of Israel, Jeremiah said:
“Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord” (Jer. 2:22).
So, it could be that David penned this psalm, at a time of heightened stress, anxiety, and fear, to leave an indelible stain or mark on himself and those who would later sing this song. And that indelible mark would be to trust the Lord, no matter the circumstances in which one finds himself.
David was certainly in crisis (1 Samuel 19-21), at the time this psalm was written. David was as alone as he had ever been or ever would be. He was demoralized, afraid, and desperate.
Not long before he wrote this psalm, David received word from his closest friend, Jonathan, that Saul indeed planned to kill him. David wisely fled. In 1 Samuel 21, we learn that David first fled to Ahimelech the priest at Nob.
Ahimelech was rightly curious about why David was alone. David came up with a story about Saul sending him on a secret mission. Under the auspices of providing food for some of Saul’s men, he convinced the priest to give him the consecrated bread of the tabernacle.
David asked Ahimelech for a weapon. Continuing his concocted story, David told the priest that his mission for the king was so urgent he inadvertently left his weapons behind. David—Saul’s greatest warrior—set out on a top-secret mission without a weapon?
Apparently, the priest bought David’s story, or he was simply too frightened of David to challenge him. And what was the only weapon available? Goliath’s sword.
David leaves Ahimelech and travels to Philistine city of Gath, where Achish was king. Achish’s servants immediately recognized David as Saul’s great warrior. David became so frightened that the best plan he could devise was to act insane. He scribbled graffiti on the doors of the city gate and wandered about drooling into his beard. Achish was convinced telling his servants, “Don’t I have enough crazy people in my kingdom that you bring this lunatic to me?”
And these are the circumstance in which David found himself, which led him to write Psalm 56.
There are a number of ways Psalm 56 could be outlined. One outline is laid out this way:
- 56:1-4 – A Prayer for Divine Mercy
- 56:5-11 – A Proclamation of Divine Care
- 56:12-13 – A Promise of Offerings for Divine Deliverance
A Prayer for Divine Mercy (56:1-4)
Again, David was frightened and alone. He begins Psalm 56 with a prayer for divine mercy. He dives deep into the well of God’s amazing grace—pleading with God to extend grace to him.
The ESV and NASB translate the opening phrase “Be gracious to me.” The KJV and NKJV translate the same phrase “Be merciful to me.”
While distinctly different aspects of God’s character, grace and mercy are like two sides of the same coin. Grace: receiving from God that which no one can deserve (forgiveness, reconciliation, eternal life). Mercy: not receiving from God that which everyone so richly deserves (His wrath). David, like everyone, was certainly a man who needed both.
In his opening prayer, David humbly acknowledges that he is but a man—a man with weaknesses at that. He acknowledges that his enemies, at the time, seem to have the upper hand. The sense of oppression David felt was his constant companion.
David admits his fear and then, with seemingly the same breath, he declares he has nothing to fear. Whether or not he is afraid hinges upon his trust in God.
With his admission of fear and his rhetorical declaration of fearlessness (“what can flesh do to me?), David expresses an important biblical principle. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his classic work “Spiritual Depression,” encouraged Christians to spend less time listening to themselves and more time talking to themselves.
When David listened to the thoughts in his head, it often led to fear, anxiety, and worry. He looked at his difficult situation and assumed the future would be even worse. Yet when he spoke truth to himself, when he declared to himself the truths about God’s character, faithfulness, and power, he could boldly assert that there was nothing mere men could do to him. The present and the future immediately brightened.
A Proclamation of Divine Care (Psalm 56:5-11)
In his proclamation of divine care, David goes back to describing the oppression he was facing and adds an imprecatory prayer. “In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!”
And then He worships God and reminds himself by declaring the depth, tenderness, and intimacy of God’s care.
He closes his proclamation of divine care by restating His trust in the One who is perfectly trustworthy and the rhetorical question “What can man do to me?”
Keep in mind, David prayed and proclaimed these things after fearfully lying to Ahimelech and fearfully feigning to be a madman before Achish. David knew his sinfulness. Yet he remembered God was with him, and that God would not leave him or forsake him.
David couldn’t trust himself, but he certainly could trust God.
A Promise of Offerings for Divine Deliverance (Psalm 56:12-13)
David draws Psalm 56 to close with a promise to God to be thankful. Even though David found himself in the midst of great affliction, his intent was to stay thankful. God had physically protected him and God had delivered his soul. David was thankful for God’s enablement, presence, and deliverance even in the midst of such great affliction.
Christian: while we ought not model some of the behavior that brought David to the point of writing Psalm 56, we certainly can model what he prays in this wonderful psalm. We can model his faith and trust in God.