Theme: The Historical Setting
From this week’s lessons we learn that just as God protected and delivered David when he was surrounded by the hostile forces of King Saul, so also will God protect and deliver his people from whatever enemies surround them.
Scripture: Psalm 59:1-17
Psalm 59 is another psalm with an historical setting from the life of David, the great poet of the first two books of psalms. These historically-based psalms have appeared in more or less alternating order since Psalm 51. That is, when we look at the titles to these psalms, we find historical references for Psalms 51, 52,54,56, 57, and now 59 and 60. Most of these are linked to the days when David was hiding from King Saul, first at Nob, then at Gath, next in the wilderness of Ziph and finally in the wilderness cave of Adullam. As the collection comes to an end, we find Psalm 60 looking ahead to something that happened later in David’s life when he had been king for some time, and Psalm 59, which we are to study now, looking back to David’s first troubles with the king.
Psalm 59 is about the time “when Saul had sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him.” The story is in 1 Samuel 19:11-18. David was still with Saul in these days. But it was the time following David’s victory over Goliath, and the women of Israel had been singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7), and Saul was jealous. Twice he became so distraught that he threw his spear at David (1 Sam. 18:10, 11; 19:9,10), but each time David escaped. After the second attempt on his life David thought it would be wise to leave Saul and his court and go to his own home. But that night the king sent soldiers to surround David’s house, watch it and kill him in the morning. David was married to Saul’s daughter, Michal, at this time. She loved David and warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed” (1 Sam. 19:11). Michal seems to have known her father well, just as her brother Jonathan, David’s friend, also did. So that night Michal let David down through a window of the house, presumably outside the city’s walls or into a back alley, and he escaped.
Michal also bought David time. She put an idol in his bed, covered it with a blanket and set some goat’s hair at its head. When the soldiers came in the next morning, it looked as if David was asleep. “He is ill,” Michal said. The soldiers reported this to Saul. Saul told them to bring David to him on the bed so he could kill him anyway. But when the soldiers went back to David’s house and discovered the ruse, David was long gone.
This is the historical setting for the psalm, and the psalm is quite understandable against this background.1 However, there are a few phrases that suggest that it may have been expanded at a later time to apply the lessons David learned in these early days more broadly. Thus, there are two references to the surrounding nations (“all the nations,” v. 5; and “all those nations,” v.8), and one reference to “the ends of the earth” (v. 13).2 The point seems to be that just as God protected and delivered David when he was surrounded by the hostile forces of King Saul, so also will God protect and deliver his elect people from whatever enemies may surround them.
Marvin E. Tate observes rightly that “the psalm reminds us that we have not escaped the problem of enemies and their evil work in human society. The ‘dogs’ prowl about in our communities and towns as they did in the ancient world—‘dogs’ which embody the devouring, malignant persons and forces in human affairs. Law no longer mediated justice.” He reminds us, “Like ancient Israelite communities, we too are dependent on Yahweh for deliverance.”3
As far as its outline goes, this is another psalm which is divided into two parts by a refrain (like Psalm 57). But here the two parts are also much like one another. In fact, there are repetitions within the two halves. The simplest outline goes like this: 1) David’s appeal to God (vv. 1-5); 2) a description of David’s fierce foes (vv. 6-8); 3) a refrain (v. 9); 4) David’s second appeal to God (vv. 10-13); 5) a second description of his foes (vv. 14-16); and 6) the refrain repeated (v. 17).
1Tate has an interesting list of word parallels between this psalm and 1 Samuel 19 and 24, which also suggests a connection between the psalm and the historical setting: “watch” (v. 9), “morning” (v. 16), “innocence” (vv. 3, 4), “seeing” (vv. 4, 10), “dogs” (vv. 6, 7, 14, 15), “ambush” (v. 3) and “blood” (v. 2). See Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990), p. 95.2See Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), p. 211.3Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100, p. 99.
What was happening in David’s life as he wrote this psalm?
Why was Saul jealous of David?
How did Michal help David to escape?
What did David learn when he was surrounded by his enemies?
Application: How can David’s psalm apply to us?
Reflection: Look back over a hard time in your life and ask God to show you a lesson you may have missed.
For Further Study: James Boice’s three-volume collection of his studies of the Psalms is available at a special price from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Order yours today and receive 25% off.