TO THE CHOIRMASTER: ACCORDING TO DO NOT DESTROY.
[ESV Psalm 57] (See endnotes for chant)
1. Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
5. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
7. My heart is steadfast,
and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.
Let your glory be over all the earth!
In the first section, verses 1 -5, the psalmist gives a description of the crisis he is facing. In the second section, verses 6- 11, the psalmist declares his faith in the Lord. Each section ends with an antiphon, verses 5 and 11.
The antiphon is an ascription of praise:
In verse 1 the psalmist makes his request, and even as he asks for God’s mercy, he declares his faith. The word for mercy here is chanan, which means bend, or stoop in kindness, to an inferior. In his request he acknowledges the sovereignty of the Lord, and asks for God, in his kindness, to stoop to deliver him. Our God is a God who bends in divine accommodation to meet his children where they are. The psalmist is so sure of God’s favour that he tells the Lord that his soul, his inner being, will take refuge in Him. The image, the shadow of God’s wings, doesn’t mean that God has wings, but rather that he looks to God to gently enfold him in His protection. The word ‘destruction’ has a side meaning that indicates that this very real storm of destruction is rushing eagerly upon him.
1. Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
Verses 2 to 4 are addressed, not to the Lord, but to those with whom he shares his Psalm of Trust. In verse 2 he takes his stand on the faithfulness of God to whom he has made his request. Despite the seriousness of the crisis, the psalmist is sure that God will fulfill his purpose for him. There is a promise in Jeremiah that every Christian needs to own.
I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD,
2. I cry out to God Most High,
In verse 3 the psalmist declares that God will send from heaven, stoop to deliver him, and put to shame the enemy who is trampling upon him. God will send out his steadfast love, and faithfulness. Steadfast love, chesed, is not static, but active, reaching out into our lives, and the word for faithfulness is emeth which also means ‘truth’ and ‘stability.’ When we are in a tight place it is precisely the active steadfast love of God, His faithfulness, His truth and stability that will deliver us.
Verse 4. How serious is the psalmist’s situation? The tight place, may be the cave where David hid, but this verse indicates that the psalmist is surrounded by fierce lions and fiery beasts, whose teeth are spears and arrows; but the actual focus is the fact that their “tongues are sharp swords.” So often in life, in families, on jobs, and even in church, we face crises in which we are wounded by the words of others who are bent on destruction. When we pray the Psalms sooner or later we will end up praying about things that will touch our lives, and praying the Psalms helps us maintain balance by giving voice to the issues of our lives.
Verse 5 bursts in like light in the darkness. Even in the midst of crisis, the psalmist, in joyful faith, cries out exuberantly:
In verse 6 the psalmist gives testimony to way God has worked out the psalmist’s deliverance. Those who plotted his ruin have fallen into their own trap. Sooner, or later, and how often we wish it was sooner, those who set traps for others will themselves be trapped by their own behaviour. The underlying issue is God’s mishpat, His justice. According to C. S. Lewis the word mishpat means fairness and “it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life.”[i] Know that God is indeed interested in mishpat and will hold all humankind accountable; but know also that His patience and mercy are greater than ours. Nevertheless I can almost hear the psalmist give a woop of joy, “they dug a pit for me and have fallen into it themselves!”
In verse 8 the psalmist exhorts himself saying, “Awake, my glory.” The word ‘glory’ here refers to the soul in its noblest capacity for praise and giving honour, much the same as Psalm 16:9 where the ESV translates ‘glory’ as ‘whole being.’ “Therefore my heart is glad and my whole being (glory) rejoices.’ He tells the Lord that he will be so jubilant in praise that he will cause the sun to rise and awaken the dawn.
In verse 9 he declares that he will not only give thanks among the peoples (usual referring to Israel) but also among the nations. The word for ‘thanks’ also contains the meaning of stretching forth the hands in praise and thanksgiving. The word for ‘nations’ is not the one usually translated, ‘gentiles’ but a more general word that includes not only the gentiles, but all nations together. When you stop and consider the truth of his claim you may well realize that the psalmist has indeed declared his praise among many nations down through the centuries, and at this moment he declares his praise also to us.
Verse 10 reprises the theme of verse 3 where the psalmist proclaimed “God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!” God has indeed sent forth His active, steadfast love, and His faithfulness, truth and stability, in the psalmist’s very real situation. We ourselves should take heart, for the God who has sent forth His steadfast love and faithfulness into the life of the psalmist stands ready to pour out that same steadfast love and faithfulness into our lives, for He declares to each of us, “You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4).
Verse 11 in lofty praise repeats verse 5 as an antiphon, and directly addresses the Lord and exalts His irresistible sovereignty above the heavens, and proclaims His glory over all the earth. C. S. Lewis uses the expression “the weight of glory” as a title for one of his essays. Glory is not only brightness, splendour, and luminosity, but glory has a “weight, or burden of glory, which our thoughts can hardly sustain.[ii]
The word ‘earth’ differentiates earth from heaven, and from the underworld. In medieval literature, and in Tolkien and Lewis, the word ‘earth’ refers to ‘middle earth,’ the lands where we live. Let the weight and splendour of His glory be over this very place where you and I live!
[i] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), p. 79.