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In these verses David describes his distress as drowning in chaotic waters. The sea is a common metaphor for terror and despair in the Hebrew Bible. This metaphor is similar to other songs of despair in the Hebrew Bible, especially Jonah 2 and Psalm 116:3 There are several words in verse 5 which are also found in Jonah 2:4-6, although in Jonah the possibility of drowning is associated with the story.
Waves and torrents represent two different types of chaotic water. A wave (misbar, מִשְבָּר) is obviously associated with the ocean, while a torrent (nahal, נַחַל)is more like a flash flood which washes down through the dry wadis of the Negev. In both cases, the water so strong a human cannot withstand it. Think of a rip-tide which pulls a person out to sea so fast they can do nothing. The emphasis of the metaphor is a sudden, unexpected disaster, but also a disaster which is so overwhelming no human can do anything to save themselves. Verse six extends this metaphor by described David as tied up in cords or snares. As if being caught in an overwhelming flood is not enough, David is tangled up in ropes which he cannot break, nor can he escape from this trap.
The waves are associated with death (mot, מָוֶת) and the torrents are associated with destruction (belial, בְּלִיַּעַל), the cords are associated with Sheol (שאוֹל), the place of the dead. These words have mythic overtones, anticipating the image of God as a Warrior beginning in verse 8.
- Mot is the Canaanite god of death, a god which is imaged as a hungry mouth devouring everyone. All people “go down to death.”
- The Hebrew בְּלִיַּעַל is “Baal of the Sea (HALOT), the name is related to בלע, a demon who “swallows”people and delivers them to the Abyss.
- Sheol is frequently translated as “grave” in the NIV. It is often associated with Death, as in Hos 13:14 where both Death and the Grave are personified.
These torrents “overwhelm” (NIV) or “assail” (ESV, Hebrew, b’t, בעת) David. There is some variation in translation because this word is rare in the Hebrew Bible. It has the idea of terror and fright, perhaps something that comes upon one as a surprise )there is an Arabic cognate which means, “to surprise.” For example, the word appears in 1 Sam 16:14 to describe Saul when an “evil spirit” tormented him, or in Job 3:5 to describe Job’s despair after he lost everything.
David describes himself as completely helpless, unable to rely on himself to escape the chaotic waters which are dragging him down to the Underworld. It is absolutely certain that David will die in this flood, he cannot not even “hold out” until help comes. His only hope is to cry out to the Lord.
The Lord is in his Temple when he hears the cries of the drowning David (2 Sam 22:7). Like a drowning man, David calls for help. His voice calls upon the Lord, his God, to rescue him from the gods (Death, Destruction, Grave) which are assaulting him. The Lord is described as “above” the chaos, in his heavenly Temple. He is not effected by the swirling waters which threaten David, nor is he on the same “level” as Death, Destruction, or Sheol. The Lord is high and lofty, the mythical gods of Canaan are not a hindrance to the Lord.
That the Lord can hear David’s voice is remarkable since the chaos was described in terms of chaotic water. Think of trying to hear a single voice over the crashing of waves. David’s voice in underwater, he is wrapped up in the waves, and he is being dragged down to the bottom of the ocean. Yet in the fury of this chaos, the Lord hears David’s voice and responds.
Because he has heard the cry of his servant David, the Lord rises from his Temple and rescues David from the chaos which will certainly destroy him. He will come as a mighty warrior and destroy the destroyers, rescue David from the waters of death, and put in a safe place (2 Sam 22:8-20).