The prayer of Psalm 56 is a true call for fire. Its composer has identified enemies who threaten him. They pursue (or “trample”- NRSV) him. They conspire against him; he says that “they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life” (verse 6). He has already said, “All day long they twisted my words; they are always plotting to hurt me.” The superscription of this Psalm identifies its historical milieu as when the future King David was in Gath. 1 Samuel notes two occasions when David was in Gath; on both visits, enemies threatened him. Whatever the psalm’s setting, the writer’s life is in peril.
The Psalmist prays with purpose, identifying the target and proposing an end-state: “On no account let them escape; in your anger, O God, bring down the nations. Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll – are they not in your record? Then my enemies will turn back when I call for help. By this I will know that God is for me” (verses 7-9). The objective is to bring down the nations and cause the Psalmist’s enemies to turn back. The means is to record his lament, either by writing it in a scroll (NIV) or storing his tears in a wineskin or bottle (NRSV). The psalm reminds us of the value of water in a desert society; at times, even tears may be saved. The threat and its related danger is not what we focus on as we study this prayer. Although endangered, the Psalmist prays with confidence:
“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?” (verses 3 and 4).
“In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise – in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (verses 10 and 11).
The poetic structure of the prayer drives home its author’s assertion of trust in God: he will not be afraid. This person of faith does not ignore danger; he recognizes his peril, but conquers fear with his confidence in God’s power to save. Like many psalms of lament, this prayer ends by regarding salvation as already accomplished:
“I am under vows to you, O God; I will present my thank offerings to you. For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (verses 12-13).
When we pray because we are under attack, we may describe the nature of the threat. We, however, pray with confidence to a God who can redeem the situation. We do not need to fear, for he retains the power to save. We demonstrate our confidence and our gratitude by walking in the ways God has prescribed in his word. Because he has saved us, we will do his will.