One psalm, the fifty-second, is referred by its inscription to this period, but the correspondence between the history and the tone of the psalm is doubtful. It is a vehement rebuke and a prophecy of destruction directed against an enemy, whose hostility was expressed in "devouring words." The portrait does not apply very accurately to the Doeg of the historical books, inasmuch as it describes the psalmist's enemy as "a mighty man," -- or rather as "a hero," and as trusting "in the abundance of his riches," -- and makes the point of the reproach against him that he is a confirmed liar. But the dastardly deed of blood may be covertly alluded to in the bitterly sarcastic "hero" -- as if he had said, "O brave warrior, who dost display thy prowess in murdering unarmed priests and women?" And Doeg's story to Saul was a lie in so far as it gave the impression of the priests' complicity with David, and thereby caused their deaths on a false charge. The other features of the description are not contrary to the narrative, and most of them are in obvious harmony with it. The psalm, then, may be taken as showing how deeply David's soul was stirred by the tragedy. He pours out broken words of hot and righteous indignation:
"Destructions doth thy tongue devise,
* * * * *
"Thou lovest all words that devour:[F] O thou deceitful tongue!"
[F] Literally, "words of swallowing up."
He prophesies the destruction of the cruel liar, and the exultation of the righteous when he falls, in words which do indeed belong to the old covenant of retribution, and yet convey an eternal truth which modern sentimentalism finds very shocking, but which is witnessed over and over again in the relief that fills the heart of nations and of individuals when evil men fade: "When the wicked perish, there is shouting" --
"Also God shall smite thee down for ever,
In confident security he opposes his own happy fellowship with God to this dark tragedy of retribution:
"But I -- (I am) like a green olive tree in the house of God."
[G] The full force of the word is, "will pluck out as a glowing ember from a hearth" (Delitzsch).
The enemy was to be "rooted out;" the psalmist is to flourish by derivation of life and vigour from God. If Robinson's conjecture that Nob was on the Mount of Olives were correct (which is very doubtful), the allusion here would gain appropriateness. As the olives grew all round the humble forest sanctuary, and were in some sort hallowed by the shrine which they encompassed, so the soul grows and is safe in loving fellowship with God. Be that as it may, the words express the outlaw's serene confidence that he is safe beneath the sheltering mercy of God, and re-echo the hopes of his earlier psalm, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." The stormy indignation of the earlier verses passes away into calm peace and patient waiting in praise and trust:
"I will praise Thee for ever, for Thou hast done (it), And wait on Thy name in the presence of Thy beloved, for it is good."
Hunted from Nob, David with a small company struck across the country in a southwesterly direction, keeping to the safety of the tangled mountains, till, from the western side of the hills of Judah, he looked down upon the broad green plain of Philistia. Behind him was a mad tyrant, in front the uncircumcised enemies of his country and his God. His condition was desperate, and he had recourse to desperate measures. That nearest Philistine city, some ten miles off, on which he looked down from his height, was Gath; the glen where he had killed its champion was close beside him, -- every foot of ground was familiar by many a foray and many a fight. It was a dangerous resource to trust himself in Gath, with Goliath's sword dangling in his belt. But he may have hoped that he was not known by person, or may have thought that Saul's famous commander would be a welcome guest, as a banished man, at the Philistine court. So he made the plunge, and took refuge in Goliath's city. Discovery soon came, and in the most ominous form. It was an ugly sign that the servants of Achish should be quoting the words of the chant of victory which extolled him as the slayer of their countryman. Vengeance for his death was but too likely to come next. The doubts of his identity seem to have lasted for some little time, and to have been at first privately communicated to the king. They somehow reached David, and awoke his watchful attention, as well as his fear. The depth of his alarm and his ready resource are shown by his degrading trick of assumed madness -- certainly the least heroic action of his life. What a picture of a furious madman is the description of his conduct when Achish's servants came to arrest him. He "twisted himself about in their hands" in the feigned contortions of possession; he drummed on the leaves of the gate,[H] and "let his spittle run down into his beard." (1 Sam. xxi.13.) Israelitish quickness gets the better of Philistine stupidity, as it had been used to do from Sampson's time onwards, and the dull-witted king falls into the trap, and laughs away the suspicions with a clumsy joke at his servants' expense about more madmen being the last thing he was short of. A hasty flight from Philistine territory ended this episode.
[H] The Septuagint appears to have followed a different reading here from that of our present Hebrew text, and the change adds a very picturesque clause to the description. A madman would be more likely to hammer than to "scrabble" on the great double-leaved gate.
The fifty-sixth psalm, which is referred by its title to this period, seems at first sight to be in strange contrast with the impressions drawn from the narrative, but on a closer examination is found to confirm the correctness of the reference by its contents. The terrified fugitive, owing his safety to a trick, and slavering like an idiot in the hands of his rude captors, had an inner life of trust strong enough to hold his mortal terror in check, though not to annihilate it. The psalm is far in advance of the conduct -- is it so unusual a circumstance as to occasion surprise, that lofty and sincere utterances of faith and submission should co-exist with the opposite feelings? Instead of taking the contrast between the words and the acts as a proof that this psalm is wrongly ascribed to the period in question, let us rather be thankful for another instance that imperfect faith may be genuine, and that if we cannot rise to the height of unwavering fortitude, God accepts a tremulous trust fighting against mortal terror, and grasping with a feeble hand the word of God, and the memory of all his past deliverances. It is precisely this conflict of faith and fear which the psalm sets before us. It falls into three portions, the first and second of which are closed by a kind of refrain (vers.4, 10, 11) -- a structure which is characteristic of several of these Sauline persecution psalms (e.g., lvii.5, 11; lix.9, 17). The first part of each of these two portions is a vivid description of his danger, from which he rises to the faith expressed in the closing words. The repetition of the same thoughts in both is not to be regarded as a cold artifice of composition, but as the true expression of the current of his thoughts. He sees his enemies about him, ready to swallow him up -- "there be many fighting against me disdainfully"[I] (ver.2). Whilst the terror creeps round his heart ("he was sore afraid," 1 Sam. xxi.12), he rouses himself to trust, as he says, in words which express most emphatically the co-existence of the two, and carry a precious lesson of the reality of even an interrupted faith, streaked with many a black line of doubt and dread.
[I] Literally, "loftily." Can there be any allusion to the giant stature of Goliath's relations in Gath? We hear of four men "born to the giant in Gath," who were killed in David's wars. (2 Sam. xxi.22.)
"(In) the day (that) I am afraid -- I trust on Thee."
And then he breaks into the utterance of praise and confidence -- to which he has climbed by the ladder of prayer.
"In God I praise His word,
How profoundly these words set forth the object of his trust, as being not merely the promise of God -- which in David's case may be the specific promise conveyed by his designation to the throne -- but the God who promises, the inmost nature of that confidence as being a living union with God, the power of it as grappling with his dread, and enabling him now to say, "I do not fear."
But again he falls from this height; another surge of fear breaks over him, and almost washes him from his rock. His foes, with ceaseless malice, arrest his words; they skulk in ambush, they dog his heels, they long for his life. The crowded clauses portray the extremity of the peril and the singer's agitation. His soul is still heaving with the ground swell of the storm, though the blasts come more fitfully, and are dying into calm. He is not so afraid but that he can turn to God; he turns to Him because he is afraid, like the disciples in later days, who had so much of terror that they must awake their Master, but so much of trust that His awaking was enough. He pleads with God, as in former psalms, against his enemies, in words which go far beyond the occasion, and connect his own deliverance with the judgments of God over the whole earth. He plaintively recalls his homelessness and his sorrows in words which exhibit the characteristic blending of hope and pain, and which are beautifully in accordance with the date assigned to the psalm. "My wanderings dost Thou, even Thou, number." He is not alone in these weary flights from Gibeah to Ramah, from Ramah to Nob, from Nob to Gath, from Gath he knows not whither. One friend goes with him through them all. And as the water-skin was a necessary part of a traveller's equipment, the mention of his wanderings suggests the bold and tender metaphor of the next clause, "Put my tears in Thy bottle," -- a prayer for that very remembrance of his sorrows, in the existence of which he immediately declares his confidence -- "Are they not in Thy book?" The true office of faithful communion with God is to ask for, and to appropriate, the blessings which in the very act become ours. He knows that his cry will scatter his foes, for God is for him. And thus once again he has risen to the height of confidence where for a moment his feet have been already planted, and again -- but this time with even fuller emphasis, expressed by an amplification which introduces for the only time in the psalm the mighty covenant name -- he breaks into his triumphant strain --
"In God I praise the Word;
And from this mood of trustful expectation he does not again decline. Prayer has brought its chiefest blessing -- the peace that passeth understanding. The foe is lost to sight, the fear conquered conclusively by faith; the psalm which begins with a plaintive cry, ends in praise for deliverance, as if it had been already achieved --
"Thou hast delivered my life from death,
He already reckons himself safe; his question is not an expression of doubt, but of assurance; and he sees the purpose of all God's dealings with him to be that the activities of life may all be conducted in the happy consciousness of His eye who is at once Guardian and Judge of His children. How far above his fears and lies has this hero and saint risen by the power of supplication and the music of his psalm!
David naturally fled into Israelitish territory from Gath. The exact locality of the cave Adullam, where we next find him, is doubtful; but several strong reasons occur for rejecting the monkish tradition which places it away to the east, in one of the wild wadies which run down from Bethlehem to the Dead Sea. We should expect it to be much more accessible by a hasty march from Gath. Obviously it would be convenient for him to hang about the frontier of Philistia and Israel, that he might quickly cross the line from one to the other, as dangers appeared. Further, the city of Adullam is frequently mentioned, and always in connections which fix its site as on the margin of the great plain of Philistia, and not far from Gath. (2 Chron. xi.7, etc.) There is no reason to suppose that the cave of Adullam was in a totally different district from the city. The hills of Dan and Judah, which break sharply down into the plain within a few miles of Gath, are full of "extensive excavations," and there, no doubt, we are to look for the rocky hold, where he felt himself safer from pursuit, and whence he could look down over the vast sweep of the rich Philistine country. Gath lay at his feet, close by was the valley where he had killed Goliath, the scenes of Samson's exploits were all about him. Thither fled to him his whole family, from fear, no doubt, of Saul's revenge falling on them; and there he gathers his band of four hundred desperate men, whom poverty and misery, and probably the king's growing tyranny, drove to flight. They were wild, rough soldiers, according to the picturesque description, "whose faces were like the faces of lions, and were as swift as the roes upon the mountains." They were not freebooters, but seem to have acted as a kind of frontier-guard against southern Bedouins and western Philistines for the sheep-farmers of the border whom Saul's government was too weak to protect. In this desultory warfare, and in eluding the pursuit of Saul, against whom it is to be observed David never employed any weapon but flight, several years were passed. The effect of such life on his spiritual nature was to deepen his unconditional dependence on God; by the alternations of heat and cold, fear and hope, danger and safety, to temper his soul and make it flexible, tough and bright as steel. It evolved the qualities of a leader of men; teaching him command and forbearance, promptitude and patience, valour and gentleness. It won for him a name as the defender of the nation, as Nabal's servant said of him and his men, "They were a wall unto us, both by night and by day" (1 Sam. xxv.16). And it gathered round him a force of men devoted to him by the enthusiastic attachment bred from long years of common dangers, and the hearty friendships of many a march by day, and nightly encampment round the glimmering watchfires, beneath the lucid stars.