[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….) For the next three Sundays Rush Creek Bible Church have its annual Missions Conference, I will return to the Psalms series on March 27. ]
The header for Psalm 57 indicates that David is reflecting the opportunity he had to kill king Saul in 1 Sam 24. There are a few verbal allusions to 1 Samuel. For example, David says that Saul hunts him like an animal (24:11) and calls upon the Lord to judge the case (24:12, 15). These elements are found also in Psalm 57 (hunted, verse 6; God as Judge, verse 2).
In 1 Sam 24, Saul renewed his search for David in the wilderness with a force of 3000 men. David has managed to avoid Saul for some time, but now he is trapped in a cave at En-Gedi, a spring near the Dead Sea. The whole area around the Dead Sea has deep wadis with numerous caves, so David and his men likely split up and find places to avoid Saul’s troops.
Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, and it just happens to be the very cave David and a few of his men are hiding. David’s men are convinced that God has brought Saul into the cave so that David and kill him, but David himself is not convinced. He cuts a tassel from Saul’s robe and allows Saul to leave. He then calls out to Saul, “bows to the earth and paid homage” to Saul (1 Sam 24:8). David asks Saul why he listens to those who are slandering him by saying that he wants to kill Saul. David had a clear opportunity to assassinate the king, but he did not because Saul is in fact the Lord’s anointed.
Saul is moved by David’s speech and confesses that he is pursuing David unjustly. He knows that David will be king, but he does not want his sons to be killed (“you might not kill me but you might kill my sons once you are king”). David swears he will not harm Saul’s family (which is a repeat of his covenant with Jonathan), but he refuses to return to Saul’s court. David continues live in the Negev where his personal wealth and power continues to grow. When Saul dies, David is made King of Hebron and he controls the entire area of Judah.
David begins this prayer with a cry for mercy (verse 1a). The Hebrew word for mercy (חנן)includes the idea of gracious and favor as well as pity. Unlike New Testament Greek, which has words for mercy and grace, Hebrew blends these ideas into one word. Both the ESV and NIV translate the Hebrew as “mercy,” but perhaps this might be better as “be gracious to me, O God.” Terrien therefore suggests the translation “Grace me, O God! (Psalms, 433).
The word is used for “finding favor in the eyes of a superior,” often a king or God, as when Joseph speaks to Potipher in Gen 39:4 or even David to Jonathan in 1 Sam 20:3. In these examples, a human asks a superior human for some favor which the superior may or may not grant. There is no veiled threat (“you owe me a favor”). Rather, the inferior partner must come before his superior humbly and “beg a favor.” While we use the phrase in English, it does not have the same social connotation as it would have in the Ancient Near East. It is possible this language is drawn from the formal speech of a royal court: “To have found hen is the prerequisite for stating a request” (TLOT, 441).
In this Psalm, David is crying out for God to act graciously is in a desperate situation which could end his life. The speaker obviously hopes that God will hear this cry for help and respond, but God is not obligated to act graciously because of the good character of the one making the request. He approaches God as the ultimate King from whom he seeks a gracious favor, rescue for his violent enemies.
As such, Psalm 57 is a model for prayer for God’s people today.