David's first years at the court of Saul in Gibeah do not appear to have produced any psalms which still survive.
|The sweetest songs are those
Which tell of saddest thought.|
It was natural, then, that a period full of novelty and of prosperous activity, very unlike the quiet days at Bethlehem, should rather accumulate materials for future use than be fruitful in actual production. The old life shut to behind him for ever, like some enchanted door in a hill-side, and an unexplored land lay beckoning before. The new was widening his experience, but it had to be mastered, to be assimilated by meditation before it became vocal.
The bare facts of this section are familiar and soon told. There is first a period in which he is trusted by Saul, who sets him in high command, with the approbation not only of the people, but even of the official classes. But a new dynasty resting on military pre-eminence cannot afford to let a successful soldier stand on the steps of the throne; and the shrill chant of the women out of all the cities of Israel, which even in Saul's hearing answered the praises of his prowess with a louder acclaim for David's victories, startled the king for the first time with a revelation of the national feeling. His unslumbering suspicion |eyed David from that day.| Rage and terror threw him again into the gripe of his evil spirit, and in his paroxysm he flings his heavy spear, the symbol of his royalty, at the lithe harper, with fierce vows of murder. The failure of his attempt to kill David seems to have aggravated his dread of him as bearing a charm which won all hearts and averted all dangers. A second stage is marked not only by Saul's growing fear, but by David's new position. He is removed from court, and put in a subordinate command, which only extends his popularity, and brings him into more immediate contact with the mass of the people. |All Israel and Judah loved David, because he went out and came in before them.| Then follows the offer of Saul's elder daughter in marriage, in the hope that by playing upon his gratitude and his religious feeling, he might be urged to some piece of rash bravery that would end him without scandal. Some new caprice of Saul's, however, leads him to insult David by breaking his pledge at the last moment, and giving the promised bride to another. Jonathan's heart was not the only one in Saul's household that yielded to his spell. The younger Michal had been cherishing his image in secret, and now tells her love. Her father returns to his original purpose, with the strange mixture of tenacity and capricious changefulness that marks his character, and again attempts, by demanding a grotesquely savage dowry, to secure David's destruction. But that scheme, too, fails; and he becomes a member of the royal house.
This third stage is marked by Saul's deepening panic hatred, which has now become a fixed idea. All his attempts have only strengthened David's position, and he looks on his irresistible advance with a nameless awe. He calls, with a madman's folly, on Jonathan and on all his servants to kill him; and then, when his son appeals to him, his old better nature comes over him, and with a great oath he vows that David shall not be slain. For a short time David returns to Gibeah, and resumes his former relations with Saul, but a new victory over the Philistines rouses the slumbering jealousy. Again the |evil spirit| is upon him, and the great javelin is flung with blind fury, and sticks quivering in the wall. It is night, and David flies to his house. A stealthy band of assassins from the palace surround the house with orders to prevent all egress, and, by what may be either the strange whim of a madman, or the cynical shamelessness of a tyrant, to slay him in the open daylight. Michal, who, though in after time she showed a strain of her father's proud godlessness, and an utter incapacity of understanding the noblest parts of her husband's character, seems to have been a true wife in these early days, discovers, perhaps with a woman's quick eye sharpened by love, the crouching murderers, and with rapid promptitude urges immediate flight. Her hands let him down from the window -- the house being probably on the wall. Her ready wit dresses up one of those mysterious teraphim (which appear to have had some connection with idolatry or magic, and which are strange pieces of furniture for David's house), and lays it in the bed to deceive the messengers, and so gain a little more time before pursuit began. |So David fled and escaped, and came to Samuel to Ramah,| and thus ended his life at court.
Glancing over this narrative, one or two points come prominently forth. The worth of these events to David must have lain chiefly in the abundant additions made to his experience of life, which ripened his nature, and developed new powers. The meditative life of the sheepfold is followed by the crowded court and camp. Strenuous work, familiarity with men, constant vicissitude, take the place of placid thought, of calm seclusion, of tranquil days that knew no changes but the alternation of sun and stars, storm and brightness, green pastures and dusty paths. He learned the real world, with its hate and effort, its hollow fame and its whispering calumnies. Many illusions no doubt faded, but the light that had shone in his solitude still burned before him for his guide, and a deeper trust in his Shepherd God was rooted in his soul by all the shocks of varying fortune. The passage from the visions of youth and the solitary resolves of early and uninterrupted piety to the naked realities of a wicked world, and the stern self-control of manly godliness, is ever painful and perilous. Thank God! it may be made clear gain, as it was by this young hero psalmist.
David's calm indifference to outward circumstances affecting himself, is very strikingly expressed in his conduct. Partly from his poetic temperament, partly from his sweet natural unselfishness, and chiefly from his living trust in God, he accepts whatever happens with equanimity, and makes no effort to alter it. He originates nothing. Prosperity comes unsought, and dangers unfeared. He does not ask for Jonathan's love, or the people's favour, or the women's songs, or Saul's daughter. If Saul gives him command he takes it, and does his work. If Saul flings his javelin at him, he simply springs aside and lets it whizz past. If his high position is taken from him, he is quite content with a lower. If a royal alliance is offered, he accepts it; if it is withdrawn, he is not ruffled; if renewed, he is still willing. If a busy web of intrigue is woven round him, he takes no notice. If reconciliation is proposed, he cheerfully goes back to the palace. If his life is threatened he goes home. He will not stir to escape but for the urgency of his wife. So well had he already begun to learn the worthlessness of life's trifles. So thoroughly does he practice his own precept, |Fret not thyself because of evil-doers;| |rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.| (Psa. xxxvii.1, 7.)
This section gives also a remarkable impression of the irresistible growth of his popularity and influence. The silent energy of the Divine purpose presses his fortunes onward with a motion slow and inevitable as that of a glacier. The steadfast flow circles unchecked round, or rises victorious over all hindrances. Efforts to ruin, to degrade, to kill -- one and all fail. Terror and hate, suspicion and jealousy, only bring him nearer the goal. A clause which comes in thrice in the course of one chapter, expresses this fated advance. In the first stage of his court life, we read, |David prospered| (1 Sam. xviii.5, margin), and again with increased emphasis it is told as the result of the efforts to crush him, that, |He prospered in all his ways, and the Lord was with him| (verse 14), and yet again, in spite of Saul's having |become his enemy continually,| he |prospered more than all the servants of Saul| (verse 30). He moves onward as stars in their courses move, obeying the equable impulse of the calm and conquering will of God.
The familiar Scripture antithesis, which naturally finds its clearest utterance in the words of the last inspired writer -- namely, the eternal opposition of Light and Darkness, Love and Hate, Life and Death, is brought into sharpest relief by the juxtaposition and contrast of David and Saul. This is the key to the story. The two men are not more unlike in person than in spirit. We think of the one with his ruddy beauty and changeful eyes, and lithe slight form, and of the other gaunt and black, his giant strength weakened, and his |goodly| face scarred with the lightnings of his passions -- and as they look so they are. The one full of joyous energy, the other devoured by gloom; the one going in and out among the people and winning universal love, the other sitting moody and self-absorbed behind his palace walls; the one bringing sweet clear tones of trustful praise from his harp, the other shaking his huge spear in his madness; the one ready for action and prosperous in it all, the other paralyzed, shrinking from all work, and leaving the conduct of the war to the servant whom he feared; the one conscious of the Divine presence making him strong and calm, the other writhing in the gripe of his evil spirit, and either foaming in fury, or stiffened into torpor; the one steadily growing in power and favour with God and man, the other sinking in deeper mire, and wrapped about with thickening mists as he moves to his doom. The tragic pathos of these two lives in their fateful antagonism is the embodiment of that awful alternative of life and death, blessing and cursing, which it was the very aim of Judaism to stamp ineffaceably on the conscience.
David's flight begins a period to which a large number of his psalms are referred. We may call them |The Songs of the Outlaw.| The titles in the psalter connect several with specific events during his persecution by Saul, and besides these, there are others which have marked characteristics in common, and may therefore be regarded as belonging to the same time. The bulk of the former class are found in the second book of the psalter (Ps. xlii.-lxxii.), which has been arranged with some care. There are first eight Korahite psalms, and one of Asaph's; then a group of fifteen Davidic (li.-lxv.), followed by two anonymous; then three more of David's (lxviii.-lxx.), followed by one anonymous and the well-known prayer |for Solomon.| Now it is worth notice that the group of fifteen psalms ascribed to David is as nearly as possible divided in halves, eight having inscriptions which give a specific date of composition, and seven having no such detail. There has also been some attempt at arranging the psalms of these two classes alternately, but that has not been accurately carried out. These facts show that the titles are at all events as old as the compilation of the second book of the psalter, and were regarded as accurate then. Several points about the complete book of psalms as we have it, seem to indicate that these two first books were an older nucleus, which was in existence long prior to the present collection -- and if so, the date of the titles must be carried back a very long way indeed, and with a proportionate increase of authority.
Of the eight psalms in the second book having titles with specific dates, five (Ps. lii., liv., lvi., lvii., lix.) are assigned to the period of the Sauline persecution, and, as it would appear, with accuracy. There is a general similarity of tone in them all, as well as considerable parallelisms of expression, favourite phrases and metaphors, which are favourable to the hypothesis of a nearly cotemporaneous date. They are all in what, to use a phrase from another art, we may call David's earlier manner. For instance, in all the psalmist is surrounded by enemies. They would |swallow him up| (lvi.1, 2; lvii.3). They |oppress| him (liv.3; lvi.1). One of their weapons is calumny, which seems from the frequent references to have much moved the psalmist. Their tongues are razors (lii.2), or swords (lvii.4; lix.7; lxiv.3). They seem to him like crouching beasts ready to spring upon harmless prey (lvi.6; lvii.6; lix.3); they are |lions| (lvii.4), dogs (lix.6, 14). He is conscious of nothing which he has done to provoke this storm of hatred (lix.3; lxiv.4.) The |strength| of God is his hope (liv.1; lix.9, 17). He is sure that retribution will fall upon the enemies (lii.5; liv.5; lvi.7; lvii.6; lix.8-15; lxiv.7, 8). He vows and knows that psalms of deliverance will yet succeed these plaintive cries (lii.9; liv.7; lvi.12; lvii.7-11; lix.16, 17).
We also find a considerable number of psalms in the first book of the psalter which present the same features, and may therefore probably be classed with these as belonging to the time of his exile. Such for instance are the seventh and thirty-fourth, which have both inscriptions referring them to this period, with others which we shall have to consider presently. The imagery of the preceding group reappears in them. His enemies are lions (vii.2; xvii.12; xxii.13; xxxv.17); dogs (xxii.16); bulls (xxii.12). Pitfalls and snares are in his path (vii.15; xxxi.4; xxxv.7). He passionately protests his innocence, and the kindliness of his heart to his wanton foes (vii.3-5; xvii.3, 4); whom he has helped and sorrowed over in their sickness (xxxv.13, 14) -- a reference, perhaps, to his solacing Saul in his paroxysms with the music of his harp. He dwells on retribution with vehemence (vii.11-16; xi.5-7; xxxi.23; xxxv.8), and on his own deliverance with confidence.
These general characteristics accurately correspond with the circumstances of David during the years of his wanderings. The scenery and life of the desert colours the metaphors which describe his enemies as wild beasts; himself as a poor hunted creature amongst pits and snares; or as a timid bird flying to the safe crags, and God as his Rock. Their strong assertions of innocence accord with the historical indications of Saul's gratuitous hatred, and appear to distinguish the psalms of this period from those of Absalom's revolt, in which the remembrance of his great sin was too deep to permit of any such claims. In like manner the prophecies of the enemies' destruction are too triumphant to suit that later time of exile, when the father's heart yearned with misplaced tenderness over his worthless son, and nearly broke with unkingly sorrow for the rebel's death. Their confidence in God, too, has in it a ring of joyousness in peril which corresponds with the buoyant faith that went with him through all the desperate adventures and hairbreadth escapes of the Sauline persecution. If then we may, with some confidence, read these psalms in connection with that period, what a noble portraiture of a brave, devout soul looks out upon us from them. We see him in the first flush of his manhood -- somewhere about five-and-twenty years old -- fronting perils of which he is fully conscious, with calm strength and an enthusiasm of trust that lifts his spirit above them all, into a region of fellowship with God which no tumult can invade, and which no remembrance of black transgression troubled and stained. His harp is his solace in his wanderings; and while plaintive notes are flung from its strings, as is needful for the deepest harmonies of praise here, every wailing tone melts into clear ringing notes of glad affiance in the |God of his mercy.|
Distinct references to the specific events of his wanderings are, undoubtedly, rare in them, though even these are more obvious than has been sometimes carelessly assumed. Their infrequency and comparative vagueness has been alleged against the accuracy of the inscriptions which allocate certain psalms to particular occasions. But in so far as it is true that these allusions are rare and inexact, the fact is surely rather in favour of than against the correctness of the titles. For if these are not suggested by obvious references in the psalms to which they are affixed, by what can they have been suggested but by a tradition considerably older than the compilation of the psalter? Besides, the analogy of all other poetry would lead us to expect precisely what we find in these psalms -- general and not detailed allusions to the writer's circumstances. The poetic imagination does not reproduce the bald prosaic facts which have set it in motion, but the echo of them broken up and etherealised. It broods over them till life stirs, and the winged creature bursts from them to sing and soar.
If we accept the title as accurate, the fifty-ninth psalm is the first of these Songs of the Outlaw. It refers to the time |when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him.| Those critics who reject this date, which they do on very weak grounds, lose themselves in a chaos of assumptions as to the occasion of the psalm. The Chaldean invasion, the assaults in the time of Nehemiah, and the era of the Maccabees, are alleged with equal confidence and equal groundlessness. |We believe that it is most advisable to adhere to the title, and most scientific to ignore these hypotheses built on nothing.| (Delitzsch.)
It is a devotional and poetic commentary on the story in Samuel. There we get the bare facts of the assassins prowling by night round David's house; of Michal's warning; of her ready-witted trick to gain time, and of his hasty flight to Samuel at Ramah. In the narrative David is, as usual at this period, passive and silent; but when we turn to the psalm, we learn the tone of his mind as the peril bursts upon him, and all the vulgar craft and fear fades from before his lofty enthusiasm of faith.
The psalm begins abruptly with a passionate cry for help, which is repeated four times, thus bringing most vividly before us the extremity of the danger and the persistency of the suppliant's trust. The peculiar tenderness and closeness of his relation to his heavenly Friend, which is so characteristic of David's psalms, and which they were almost the first to express, breathes through the name by which he invokes help, |my God.| The enemies are painted in words which accurately correspond with the history, and which by their variety reveal how formidable they were to the psalmist. They |lie in wait (literally weave plots) for my life.| They are |workers of iniquity,| |men of blood,| insolent or violent (|mighty| in English version). He asserts his innocence, as ever in these Sauline psalms, and appeals to God in confirmation, |not for my transgressions, nor for my sins, O Lord.| He sees these eager tools of royal malice hurrying to their congenial work: |they run and prepare themselves.| And then, rising high above all encompassing evils, he grasps at the throne of God in a cry, which gains additional force when we remember that the would-be murderers compassed his house in the night. |Awake to meet me, and behold;| as if he had said, |In the darkness do Thou see; at midnight sleep not Thou.| The prayer is continued in words which heap together with unwonted abundance the Divine names, in each of which lie an appeal to God and a pillar of faith. As Jehovah, the self-existent Fountain of timeless Being; as the God of Hosts, the Commander of all the embattled powers of the universe, whether they be spiritual or material; as the GOD of Israel, who calls that people His, and has become theirs -- he stirs up the strength of God to |awake to visit all the heathen,| -- a prayer which has been supposed to compel the reference of the whole psalm to the assaults of Gentile nations, but which may be taken as an anticipation on David's lips of the truth that, |They are not all Israel which are of Israel.| After a terrible petition -- |Be not merciful to any secret plotters of evil| -- there is a pause (Selah) to be filled, as it would appear, by some chords on the harp, or the blare of the trumpets, thus giving time to dwell on the previous petitions.
But still the thought of the foe haunts him, and he falls again to the lower level of painting their assembling round his house, and their whispers as they take their stand. It would appear that the watch had been kept up for more than one night. How he flings his growing scorn of them into the sarcastic words, |They return at evening; they growl like a dog, and compass the city| (or |go their rounds in the city|). One sees them stealing through the darkness, like the troops of vicious curs that infest Eastern cities, and hears their smothered threatenings as they crouch in the shadow of the unlighted streets. Then growing bolder, as the night deepens and sleep falls on the silent houses: |Behold they pour out with their mouth, swords (are) in their lips, for 'who hears'?| In magnificent contrast with these skulking murderers fancying themselves unseen and unheard, David's faith rends the heaven, and, with a daring image which is copied in a much later psalm (ii.4), shows God gazing on them with Divine scorn which breaks in laughter and mockery. A brief verse, which recurs at the end of the psalm, closes the first portion of the psalm with a calm expression of untroubled trust, in beautiful contrast with the peril and tumult of soul, out of which it rises steadfast and ethereal, like a rainbow spanning a cataract. A slight error appears to have crept into the Hebrew text, which can be easily corrected from the parallel verse at the end, and then the quiet confident words are --
|My strength! upon Thee will I wait,
For God is my fortress!|
The second portion is an intensification of the first; pouring out a terrible prayer for exemplary retribution on his enemies; asking that no speedy destruction may befall them, but that God would first of all |make them reel| by the blow of His might; would then fling them prostrate; would make their pride and fierce words a net to snare them; and then, at last, would bring them to nothing in the hot flames of His wrath -- that the world may know that He is king. The picture of the prowling dogs recurs with deepened scorn and firmer confidence that they will hunt for their prey in vain.
|And they return at evening; they growl like a dog, And compass the city.
They -- they prowl about for food
If (or, since) they are not satisfied, they spend the night (in the search.)|
There is almost a smile on his face as he thinks of their hunting about for him, like hungry hounds snuffing for their meal in the kennels, and growling now in disappointment -- while he is safe beyond their reach. And the psalm ends with a glad burst of confidence, and a vow of praise very characteristic on his lips --
|But I -- I will sing Thy power,
And shout aloud, in the morning, Thy mercy,
For Thou hast been a fortress for me.
And a refuge in the day of my trouble.
My strength! unto Thee will I harp,
For God is my fortress -- the God of my mercy.|
Thrice he repeats the vow of praise. His harp was his companion in his flight, and even in the midst of peril the poet's nature appears which regards all life as materials for song, and the devout spirit appears which regards all trial as occasions for praise. He has calmed his own spirit, as he had done Saul's, by his song, and by prayer has swung himself clear above fightings and fears. The refrain, which occurs twice in the psalm, witnesses to the growth of his faith even while he sings. At first he could only say in patient expectance, |My strength! I will wait upon thee, for God is my fortress.| But at the end his mood is higher, his soul has caught fire as it revolves, and his last words are a triumphant amplification of his earlier trust: |My strength! unto thee will I sing with the harp -- for God is my fortress -- the God of my mercy.|