The background to this psalm is found in 1 Samuel 23, and it is a testimony to David’s faithfulness to God in the midst of much unfaithfulness to him. David had delivered Keilah from the Philistines, but the Lord told David that they would turn him over to Saul. He then went to the wilderness of Kiph, but the Kiphim went to Saul the tyrant and promised to turn David over to him. Saul, true to form, felt like he’s the one who needed compassion (1 Sam. 23:21). The one exception to all this treachery was Jonathan. In this background chapter, he makes a wonderful covenant with David—Saul, the tyrant, fathered one of the noblest sons in all of Scripture (1 Sam. 23:16). But when most men are treacherous, and when many men are flakes, God remains God.
“To the chief Musician on Neginoth, Maschil, A Psalm of David, when the Ziphims came and said to Saul, Doth not David hide himself with us?
Save me, O God, by thy name, and judge me by thy strength. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For strangers are risen up against me, and oppressors seek after my soul: they have not set God before them. Selah. Behold, God is mine helper: the Lord is with them that uphold my soul. He shall reward evil unto mine enemies: cut them off in thy truth. I will freely sacrifice unto thee: I will praise thy name, O LORD; for it is good. For he hath delivered me out of all trouble: and mine eye hath seen his desire upon mine enemies” (Ps. 54:1-7).
Summary of the Text
When the Kiphim volunteered to turn David over to Saul, David cries out to God, asking for salvation by the name of God (v. 1), and he requests that he be judged by the strength of God (v. 1). He then urges God to listen (v. 2). David says that his problem is two-fold—strangers have volunteered to take up the conflict with David (v. 3), and oppressors are trying to get him (v. 3). The Ziphim are the strangers, who should have had no problem with David, and the oppressors are Saul and his forces. Both are motivated by a functional atheism—they have not set God before them (v. 3). We then find a selah—Spurgeon says that David is out of breath with indignation. David then says that God is with him; the Lord is also with those who encourage David (v. 4), which would have to include Jonathan. David knows the shape that this help will take—God will reward evil to David’s enemies, and will cut them off in His truth (v. 5). David knows this will happen, and he promises to pay his sacrificial vows when it does (v. 6). He will praise God’s name (v. 6), the name by which he was saved (v. 1). David claims his deliverance by faith (v. 7), and he foresees his God-given victory over his enemies (v. 7).
More on Atheism
We considered the realities of functional atheism in the previous psalm, but we see that same kind of atheism at work here. David says that strangers have risen up, and oppressors have pursued, because “they have not set God before them.” But what does Saul say when the Ziphim come to him? He puts a pious varnish over it. “And Saul said, Blessed be ye of the LORD; for ye have compassion on me” (1 Sam. 23:21). Saul pronounces this blessing in the name of Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel.
We have noted this characteristic of Saul before—trying to murder others while expecting everybody to feel sorry for him. But this kind of thing is often a function of retroactive justification. If one man wrongs another, he is frequently not of a mind to say to himself, “Yes, I did a vile thing without any good reason.” The human heart is a self-justification factory, manufacturing reasons by the quarter ton.
Most of those reasons are of a very poor quality indeed, and have a very tenuous relationship to any kind of orderly chronology. So one man wrongs another, and then goes hunting around in the past (anything earlier than his sin) for retroactively perceived grievances, things that were perfectly fine with him at the time. This is the way the world works, but it must not be the way that you work.
Judgment Is Real
Now David is not being petty or vindictive. As with the imprecatory psalms, the whole point is to turn a grotesque situation over to God, who is the one who sees all things perfectly. We can know the main outlines, but we still turn it over to God. While the bulk of this psalm is David asking to receive help, in one place he makes a direct statement about what God will do to those who are persecuting him. So it is not turned over to God in a spirit of agnosticism; the situation is turned over to God with particular requests attached. David here says that God will “reward evil” to David’s enemies. David has a particular request that God “cut them off.” He wants God to do this in God’s truth, and according to God’s judgments, but he nonetheless wants God to do it. Someone has ably defined a liberal as someone who won’t take up his own side in a fight. If that is the case, the spirit of liberalism is pervasive in the modern church—even including ostensibly conservative churches.
The Troublesome Issue of Works
God will not not judge the world in the aggregate. He will not judge by the gross ton. His judgments will involve glasses of cold water that some people gave and other people didn’t (Mark 9:41). His judgments will include every idle word that some people spoke and some people didn’t (Matt. 12:36). God will render to every man according to his deeds (Rom. 2:6). The apostle Paul also says of false teachers that their “end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:15). He also asked that Alexander be rewarded “according to his works” (2 Tim. 4:14). “And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17).
Now in line with all the Reformation, we hold that the dividing line between the sheep and goats is a line drawn by the electing good pleasure of God, and is not according to works. But once the Lord’s infinite wisdom has drawn that line, the punishments and the rewards that are apportioned to the reprobate and the elect respectively most certainly are in line with how we have lived our lives. The scriptural testimony to this reality is abundant. And so it is crucial that we turn to Christ, knowing that His mercies endure forever.