Theme: An Outline of the Psalm
In this week’s lessons we learn from the life of David that when we are afflicted by the attacks of others, we can have confidence in the Lord, whose word never fails.
Scripture: Psalm 56:1-13
With this background of David’s flight to Gath in mind, we now read the central verses of the psalm: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me” (vv. 3, 4)?
Do you ever feel afraid? Desperate? Alone? If so, this psalm is for you. You will find it to be encouraging, too, for it is not merely about loneliness and fear. It is about the faith that gives victory over those very real states and terrible emotions. I notice with approval that J. J. Stewart Perowne described the psalm as being about “the victory rather than the struggle of faith.”2
But first, one more word about the title. It contains the notation: “To the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks.’” We know nothing about these tunes, but the reference to a dove makes us think back to Psalm 55, in which David cried, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (v. 6). When we studied Psalm 55 we saw that David did not have the wings of a dove. But here we learn that he had something better. He had God who made the dove, and he found the peace he was seeking by trusting him.
Psalm 56 seems to have been popular with the other biblical writers, since, although not all the psalms are quoted elsewhere in the Bible, this psalm is. Verses 4 and 11 are picked up in Psalm 118:6 and quoted by the author of Hebrews in 13:6. Verse 9 is referred to by Paul in Romans 8:31. The first part of verse 13 is quoted in Psalm 116:6 with only slight alteration, and the last phrase, “the light of life,” reappears in the third of Jesus’ “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel: “I am the light of the world. whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
At this point in the Psalter we come upon a number of psalms that have a repeating chorus. The next psalm is an example. The chorus is “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.” It is found in verses 5 and 11. Psalm 59 has the chorus, “O my Strength, I watch for you; you, O God, are my fortress, my loving God.” It occurs in verses 9 and 17.
I mention this here because the same thing occurs in Psalm 56 and is the key to outlining it (as well as the others I have mentioned). In Psalm 56 the refrain is what I quoted earlier, calling it the central verse or verses of the psalm. It is found first in verse 4 and then a second time, slightly expanded, in verses 10 and 11. The psalm follows this pattern. First, there is a brief description of the trouble in which David finds himself (vv. 1, 2). Second, there is a strong statement of faith, including the words of the chorus I quoted (vv. 3, 4). Third, there is a further elaboration of the problem (vv. 5-9), followed, fourth, by a slightly expanded version of the chorus (vv. 10, 11). Fifth and last, David promises to present a thanksgiving offering to God when he is saved by him.
How is Psalm 56 used by other biblical writers?
Review the outline of this psalm and note how the different sections fit together, with the refrains serving as the key to its structure.
Key Point: Do you ever feel afraid? Desperate? Alone? If so, this psalm is for you. You will find it to be encouraging, too, for it is not merely about loneliness and fear. It is about the faith that gives victory over those very real states and terrible emotions.
2J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 444. Original edition 1878-1879. The psalm is one of two which flowered from this crisis. The other is Psalm 34.