Week of 16 November 2017 – Psalm 56

This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]

Psalm 56 is attributed to King David when he was in imminent mortal danger (a continuing theme since Psalm 52). It is supposed to have been conceived during the brief period when David took refuge from King Saul among the Philistines in Gath (I Samuel 21:11-16).

There are 2 parts to this Psalm; David complains of his enemies’ malice, praying for mercy for himself & Divine justice against them, and, David confides in G-d, reminding himself of the need to praise the Almighty and be strong no matter the circumstances. (The full text can be found here.)

חָנֵּנִי אֱ-לֹהִים, כִּי-שְׁאָפַנִי אֱנוֹשׁ; כָּל-הַיּוֹם, לֹחֵם יִלְחָצֵנִי. Be gracious unto me, O G-d, for man would swallow me up; all the day his fighting oppresses me. (Psalms 56:2)

שָׁאֲפוּ שׁוֹרְרַי, כָּל-הַיּוֹם: כִּי-רַבִּים לֹחֲמִים לִי מָרוֹם. They that lie in wait would swallow me up all day; for many fight against me, O Most High. (Psalms 56:3)

Torn in two directions, being forced to hide from one enemy (Saul) in the midst of another (the Philistines), David feigned madness and was left alone. His protectors didn’t know David’s real identity or they may have exacted revenge for his killing Goliath years before.

עַל-אָוֶן פַּלֶּט-לָמוֹ; בְּאַף, עַמִּים הוֹרֵד אֱ-לֹהִים. Because of their iniquity cast them out; in anger bring down those peoples, O G-d. (Psalms 56:8)

Those who face challenges and suffering are often inclined to ask; ‘Why me?’ Everyday life is mixed with joy & happiness and struggle & oppression. It’s easy to praise the Almighty in good times. But in difficult circumstances, one must overcome feelings of hopelessness, dread and despair to remind ourselves that nothing is beyond G-d’s abilities, and that relief and support can come in an instance (as often happened with David).

בֵּא-לֹהִים בָּטַחְתִּי, לֹא אִירָא; מַה-יַּעֲשֶׂה אָדָם לִי. In G-d do I trust, I won’t be afraid; what can man do to me? (Psalms 56:12)

כִּי הִצַּלְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת– הֲלֹא רַגְלַי, מִדֶּחִי: לְהִתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי אֱ-לֹהִים– בְּאוֹר, הַחַיִּים. You delivered my soul from death; have you not delivered my feet from stumbling? That I may walk before G-d in the light of the living. (Psalms 56:14)

This Psalm can be read by the persecuted, oppressed and the fretful, depressed, reminding ourselves we must have Faith in G-d’s eventual and ultimate Goodness.

GENERAL NOTE: For those who read Psalms regularly as a prayer for well-being, it’s interesting to note the 150 chapters are divided into 3 different partitions. There is the Days-of-the-Week division where one can recite roughly 20-30 Psalms per day completing the entirety within 7 days. There is a separate division based on the 30-Day Calendar where one can read roughly 5 chapters per day and finish the entirety within a month.

Then there is a division which comprises 5 Books; Book 1 consists of Psalms 1–41, Book 2 of Psalms 42–72, Book 3 of Psalms 73–89, Book 4 of Psalms 90–106, and Book 5 of Psalms 107–150. This last division is referenced in the midrash as being modelled on the 5 Books of the Torah.

Scholars have noted that among the differences between the 5 books of Psalms is the use of the name for G-d. Books 1, 4 & 5 predominantly use the 4-letter name beginning with the letter Yod, while Books 2 & 3 more frequently use the name Elohkim.

Of the 150 chapters of Tehillim, the longest (Chapter 119) is 176 verses and the shortest are 2 verses (Chapters 117 & 131). The average is 17 verses.