Week of 7 December 2017 – Psalm 59

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 59 is also a Tashhet psalm – a plea to be spared from destruction. It concerns the episode when Saul sent soldiers to David’s home at night to keep him under surveillance in order to murder him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife (and Saul’s daughter), helped her husband escape, deceiving the guards to think David was still inside. I Samuel 19:11-18

This is another Psalm whose content concerns an incident where David’s life was saved, though curiously Chapter 59 refers to parts of I Samuel that are earlier in chronological sequence than the reference in Chapters 51-58.

The theme repeats the pattern of David complaining against his enemies, demanding G-d mete out justice against them, then praising the Almighty for the salvation he received.

לַמְנַצֵּחַ אַל-תַּשְׁחֵת, לְדָוִד מִכְתָּם: בִּשְׁלֹחַ שָׁאוּל; וַיִּשְׁמְרוּ אֶת-הַבַּיִת, לַהֲמִיתוֹ. For the Leader; Al-Tashheth. To David a Michtam; when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him. (Psalms 59:1)

David complains that he’s done nothing to harm those who seek to take his life. He appeals to G-d that they have no valid cause – thus he is deserving of protection.

כִּי הִנֵּה אָרְבוּ, לְנַפְשִׁי- יָגוּרוּ עָלַי עַזִּים; לֹא-פִשְׁעִי וְלֹא-חַטָּאתִי יְ-הוָה. For, lo, they lie in wait for my soul; the impudent gather themselves together against me; not for my transgression, nor for my sin, O LORD. (Psalms 59:4)

David’s plea soars beyond his own predicament to situations of universal concern. Psalm 59 invokes Divine rescue for all who are oppressed and persecuted.

וְאַתָּה יְ-הוָה-אֱ-לֹהִים צְבָאוֹת, אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל- הָקִיצָה לִפְקֹד כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם; אַל-תָּחֹן כָּל-בֹּגְדֵי אָוֶן סֶלָה.  Therefore, O LORD G-d of hosts, G-d of Israel, arouse Yourself to punish all the nations; show no mercy to any iniquitous traitors. Selah (Psalms 59:6)

Not afraid to carry out their murderous task, the callous guards malign David publicly, showing a lack of fear of Divine retribution. David understands that were the Almighty to arrange their deaths, the lesson would soon be lost and others would come after him instead. He wishes them to become beggars and wanderers so others will see the fate of their colleagues, realise his innocence and desist from pursuing him.

אַל-תַּהַרְגֵם, פֶּן יִשְׁכְּחוּ עַמִּי-הֲנִיעֵמוֹ בְחֵילְךָ, וְהוֹרִידֵמוֹ: מָגִנֵּנוּ אֲ-דֹנָי. Slay them not, lest my people forget, make them wander to and fro by Your power, and bring them down, O Lord our shield. (Psalms 59:12)

Use of the word ‘morning’ may have a double meaning. David sings aloud when escaping their grasp and he’ll give praise to G-d when his adversaries are finally seen to have failed.

וַאֲנִי, אָשִׁיר עֻזֶּךָ– וַאֲרַנֵּן לַבֹּקֶר, חַסְדֶּךָ: כִּי-הָיִיתָ מִשְׂגָּב לִי; וּמָנוֹס, בְּיוֹם צַר-לִי. But as for me, I will sing of Your strength; I will sing aloud of Your mercy in the morning; You’ve been my high tower, a refuge in the day of my distress. (Psalms 59:17)

As an innocent man, to be hunted by the King without the protection of human law, David for several years of his life was terrified. Yet, once Saul was gone and David became king, he too fell victim to his own corruption and plotted an innocent man’s death.

From the vantage point of the 21st century we see a pattern that may not have been obvious 3000 years ago. How often does a victim despite their own harrowing experience become a perpetrator? And how can one prevent this cycle of harm from continuing?

Some will recite this Psalm in times of unexpected trouble to invoke Divine assistance.