Songs of a Warrior Poet

Refrain of the Fearless Heart

Psalm 56
To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.
Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many fight against me.
O Most High, when I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me?

All day long they seek to injure my cause;
all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk,
they watch my steps.
As they hoped to have my life,
so repay them for their crime;
in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?
Then my enemies will retreat
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can a mere mortal do to me?
My vows to you I must perform, O God;
I will render thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
in the light of life.

“What Can Flesh Do to Me?”

As it so often does, the persecution began with the jealousy of a weak, insecure man.

Saul had witnessed David, armed only with a shepherd’s sling, run out to confront Goliath and had watched incredulously as David killed him with a single stone. Scarcely had the giant’s corpse hit the ground when the Israelite army rallied and routed the fleeing Philistines. Saul’s own son Jonathan became “bound to the soul of David” and grew to “love him as his own soul.” Jonathan even stripped off his robes, armor, and sword and gave them to his friend. David joined Saul’s service, and he “went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him.” Popular demand forced Saul to place David over his army, and “all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved.” Then came the final blow to Saul’s large but fragile ego. As the army was returning from battle,

The women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’ (1 Samuel 18:6-7).

We are told that “Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly.” His pride was severely wounded. He realized that in fighting Goliath, David had done a job Saul himself was afraid to do. That day the army had united behind a shepherd boy, not their king. Saul’s own son had joined his heart to David in a bond far deeper and more genuine than he had ever shared with his own father. And now the people were ascribing to the young man ten times the battle prowess of their ruler. The poison of envy entered Saul’s veins and penetrated deep into his heart and mind.

Of course Saul actually had nothing to fear from David, who had no ambition but to offer the king his loyal service. Saul, however, had convinced himself otherwise. Doubtless in his mind he justified his growing hatred of David, blaming the young man for the problem. But the truth was, “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul” (1 Samuel 18:12). Saul had broken faith and disobeyed God during some key tests in his life (1 Samuel 13, 15). A guilty conscience had turned into fear, and fear had turned into a murderous jealousy.

This kind of jealousy lies at the root of many tragedies. It is why Cain murdered his brother Abel, after realizing that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard” (Genesis 4:4-5). It is why the chief priest and the Pharisees handed Jesus over to be tortured and executed by the Romans (Mark 15:10). It is why these men, along with the Sadducees, arrested the apostles and put them in a public prison (Acts 5:17). This same jealousy has continued to fuel persecution of God’s children to this very day.

So “from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David”—and from that time on, David’s life became a nightmare.

On two different occasions, as David played his lyre for Saul, the king tried to pin him to the wall with his spear. When the direct approach failed, Saul set a trap. He offered David his daughter in marriage, on the condition that David would first kill a hundred Philistines. David killed two hundred and claimed his bride. As David’s fame continued to grow, so did Saul’s cancerous jealousy. We are told that “when Saul realized that the Lord was with David, and that Saul’s daughter Michal loved him, Saul was still more afraid of David. So Saul was David’s enemy from that time forward” (1 Samuel 18:28-29).

Saul became obsessed with killing the man he saw as a rival. Unfortunately for Saul, God still loved David. Even Saul’s own children, when forced to choose, sided with David. Jonathan repeatedly risked his own life to intercede with Saul on David’s behalf. Michal helped David escape from a trap when Saul sent messengers to their home to arrest him. David fled to the prophet Samuel. Saul sent his henchmen to kill David, but this time God Himself intervened, sending first the assassins and then Saul himself into a prophetic frenzy, allowing David to escape once more. David next fled to the tabernacle, receiving food and a sword from the high priest. When Saul found out, he massacred not just the high priest, but eighty-five men of the priestly order, along with their families.

David had little choice now but to flee from Israel altogether. He threw himself on the mercy of the Philistines, seeking exile in Goliath’s hometown, Gath. Apparently David reasoned that they were strong enough to protect him from Saul and that they would welcome the defection of their most feared enemy. David, unfortunately, had badly misread the situation. The Philistines remembered the Israelites celebrating that David “had killed his tens of thousands” of their soldiers. They seized him. David, now completely desperate, pretended to be insane, scribbling on the city gates and drooling down his beard. He barely managed to convince the Philistine king that he was no longer a threat.

Humiliated, alone, despised, and hunted like an animal, David had seemingly reached rock bottom. He was a broken man. His physical strength and natural charisma were worthless to him. All of his past victories meant nothing now. Everything that David might have relied on in the natural realm had been shaken and removed, “so that what cannot be shaken could remain” (Hebrews 12:27). At this bleak, seemingly hopeless moment, David discovered Someone who could not be shaken: God. David had not slipped out of the Father’s hand. He had merely reached the point where God could do His best work.

It was then, during those desperate days in the Philistine city of Gath, that David wrote the song we call Psalm 56. In light of his circumstances, we can easily understand the opening lines of the psalm: “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me.” The Hebrew word David chose to describe his life can be translated either “trampled on” or “devoured.” Both meanings fit. His enemies were crushing him under the sheer weight of their animosity; they were tearing him apart with the ferocity of their hatred. Every persecuted child of God knows exactly how David felt.

But it was here, at his lowest point, that David proclaimed his trust in the Most High God. He chose to rely on the fact that God is enthroned on high, far above any earthly persecutors and infinitely exceeding their power and authority.

God is called by many Names in the scriptures. But there is something about “Most High” that captures His ability to humble proud mortals. Melichizedek had called on this Name when Abraham defeated the five kings, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:19-20).

Hannah likewise grasped this aspect of God, when she prayed, “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Samuel 2:9-10).

Proud Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way that God, not he, was Most High. God for a season had given him the mind of an animal. The humbled emperor testified: “When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For His sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34).

In his humiliation and pain, David remembered that God was Most High. Seeing God as Most High transformed David’s view of human adversaries as well. They were only flesh, mere mortals. While the enemies pursuing him were many and fierce, the power of this God was infinitely greater. David made a decision. He could deliberately, intentionally choose to trust God in the face of human oppression. “O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?”

The path from “when I am afraid” to “I am not afraid” must always pass through “I put my trust in You.” Whatever our circumstances, that path is open for us.

“This I Know, That God is For Me”

“What can flesh do to me?” David asked. What they wanted to do to him was clear: “All day long they seek to injure my cause.” David’s faith in God did not automatically bring his suffering to a stop. His oppressors remained infatuated with their evil plans. David went on to sketch the anatomy of a typical episode of persecution in a few strokes.

David had pressed through his fears and come to a place of poise and stability. But in response to the ongoing persecution, he did not adopt an attitude of passivity. Instead he prayed: “As they hoped to have my life, so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!” Expressions like this prayer in the Psalms have troubled some. God has in effect even been called “unchristian” for including these words in the Bible. But there is nothing here that isn’t Christlike. David trusted God implicitly. His faith was active, strong, forceful. He looked to God Most High and reasoned that there was nothing too difficult for Him. He even dared to believe that God was willing and able to cast down an entire people—in this case, the pagan Philistine nation—to rescue a single one of His own.

And David believed that he was one of God’s own. He wasn’t going to allow his troubling circumstances or the hateful rants of his enemies to convince him otherwise. He saw past his own pain, grasping by faith that his cherished relationship with the Father was in no jeopardy. David had groaned, yes, but there had been One who had kept count of his cries. He had wept, certainly, but there had been One who had captured each tear in a bottle and recorded it in a scroll. It was this intimate faithfulness of God that convinced David that “his enemies would retreat in the day when he called.” His world might be confusing. His future might look bleak. His enemies might seem formidable. But David chose to base his attitude on truth, not feelings. And he rested especially on one fact: “This I know, that God is for me”!

Child of God, if indeed you have been born a second time and His seed now lives in you, you can take your stand on the fact that He loves you. And “if God is for us, who is against us?” We may have to endure “hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, or sword”—and according to Jesus’ own word, some of those painful experiences will be ours. But they will never separate us from His covenant love.

David’s forceful faith did not stop with his deliverance from immediate danger. He had no interest in making a bargain with God. What he wanted was a covenant. There is a universe of difference between the two! A bargain attempts to barter with God, offering Him some service in return for His help—as if the King of the Universe somehow could be bribed! But a covenant—that is an ongoing relationship of the closest kind, sealed by mutual love and selfless devotion. Bargains are for a crisis; covenants are for eternity. So David sang, “My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you. For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

May the privilege and honor of “walking before God in the light of life” be yours and ours! And may the rest of our days, whether short or long, be a constant offering of thanks to Him!

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