04 August 2002

Psalm 56

A Be gracious to me, O God,
for people trample on me
     All day long oppressing me.

B My enemies trample on me all day long
     For many fight against me.

C O Most High, when I am afraid
     I put my trust in you.

D Refrain:In God whose word I praise
     In God I trust, I am not afraid,
          What can flesh do to me?

E All day long they seek to twist my words
     All their thoughts are against me for evil.

F They stir up strife, they lurk
     They watch my steps, hoping to take my life.

G Because of wickedness, cast them forth
     In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

F' You have kept count of my wanderings,
put my tears in your wineskin,
     Are they not in your record?

E' Thus my enemies will turn back
in the day that I call;
     This I know because God is for me.

D' Refrain: In God whose word I praise,
     In Yahweh whose word I praise,
          In God I trust, I am not afraid,
               What can a mortal do to me?

C' My vows to you I must perform, O God,
     I will present thank offerings to you.

B' For you have delivered my soul from death,
     And my feet from falling.

A' So that I may walk before God
     In the life-giving light.

The bold-face letters at the beginning of each bit are there to highlight the overall structure, which appears to me to be chiastic. A "chiasm" is a literary structure, quite common in ancient literature, where the literary flow is inward to a turning point and then back outwards again, in a form roughly like this:

     A
          B
               C
                    D
               C'
          B'
     A'


In this example, sections A and A' would be parallel, and B and B', and so on, while D would serve as the pivot of the structure. It is called a "chiasm" after the Greek letter "chi" which is an X shape.

Psalm 56 follows such a pattern fairly evidently, though the refrain is the first clue. In sections A - C David pleads his cause and asks for deliverance, culminating in trust. In the parallel sections A' - C' David praises God for having delivered him, vindicating his cause, beginning in sacrificial worship.

The two refrains, D and D', are evidently parallel, the latter one expanding and intensifying the basic thought: that God's word can be trusted and so David has nothing to fear from mere human beings.

The middle section, between the refrains, begins by listing David's enemies' specific actions against him and ends by his recounting his own record of suffering before God, with confidence that God will vindicate his cause. The very center is the turning point of the Psalm in which David cries out to God to cast down his enemies.

With that background, here is my little homily on Psalm 56.

Judging from the superscription, the context of the Psalm is apparently 1 Samuel 21, when David, fleeing from king Saul, found himself in Gath (Goliath's hometown) and had to feign madness in order to escape. While the background is somewhat illuminating, the narrative sequence of the Psalm is still quite evident on its own.

David, the Lord's anointed, is being pursued by enemies who twist his words, stalk him, stir up strife against him, and seek to take his life. In the midst of this, David expresses absolute trust in the word of God, the promise of blessing held forth to him by God in both the Torah and in David's own status as the anointed successor to Saul. David is confident that, in the eyes of the divine court, he will find favor. God will see his righteous suffering and vindicate him, bringing him back from the very brink of the grave, into a new life in the divine presence. As an expression of his confidence in God, David has vowed that he will respond to God's certain deliverance by offering up thank offerings, a particular kind of peace offering, made in God's presence at the Tabernacle altar.

The Christian typology is clear. Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord's anointed (the Christ), the true son of David, who was trampled down by enemies on every side, whose words were twisted against him, who was followed by those who sought to kill him, and who stirred up strife against him at every turn. Yet, in the midst of all of this, Jesus turned to his Father in absolute trust. He knew not only the word of the Torah, but also the promise of God held forth in the prophets and even in this very Psalm. If God had delivered his forefather David in light of his righteous sufferings, he would surely deliver the one whom he had called his "beloved son" in the anointing of his baptism in the Jordan.

And we know that God did deliver Jesus from the grave, returning him to the light of life. Jesus was vindicated before his heavenly Father and his divine court when, after his enemies had done their worst, God raised him from the dead. And we know that, like his father David, Jesus passed through suffering, pouring out his tears into God's wineskin, as the way to that vindication. But when Jesus was raised, he kept his vow to his God, ascending before him as a thank-offering, offering himself up before God's presence as a sacrifice of peace and reconciliation.

As Christians, we too are caught up into this sacred history because we share in the very anointing of Jesus as the Christ, an anointing we receive in baptism. We know that, baptized into Christ, his deliverance is already ours for we already are raised with him, having the new life that belongs to those whose case has been vindicated before the divine throne, having Jesus himself as our thank-offering and sacrifice of peace. But the present sign of this vindication is that we too continue to wander along the way that David and Jesus walked, the way of suffering, the way of tears, the way of the cross. May God grant us the grace to enter more fully into that way, in solidarity with those who are oppressed by enemies, whose words are twisted and remain unheard.

We find we lack the strength often to continue on that way, but this Psalm can help us in our weakness.

First, it is a word to us that we can trust. We belong to the God who remembered David's wanderings and noted Jesus' tears. We belong to the God who delivered David and vindicated Jesus: the God whose word we praise. In that God we can trust, we need not be afraid, for what can any mere mortal do to us in Christ?

Second, in Christ we have an offering by which we can enter more fully into the life-giving presence of God. And that offering is called "eucharist," that is, a thank-offering. By coming to the table of the Lord, and sharing in what he offers us there, we enter into the very self-offering of Jesus Christ before his Father in heaven. And there we learn to walk in the presence of God and receive the life-giving flesh of Jesus himself to strengthen us as we complete our wanderings and as God continues to gather the tears of his people.

God grant us mercy to recall his word to us in this Psalm when we feel trampled by our enemies, both in the world and in our own flesh.