"I sought the Lord, and He heard me,
* * * * *
This afflicted (man) cried, and Jehovah heard,
And the "local colouring" of the psalm corresponds too with the circumstances of Adullam. How appropriate, for instance, does the form in which the Divine protection is proclaimed become, when we think of the little band bivouacking among the cliffs, "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them." Like his great ancestor, he is met in his desert flight by heavenly guards, "and he calls the name of that place Mahanaim" (that is, "two camps"), as discerning gathered round his own feeble company the ethereal weapons of an encircling host of the warriors of God, through whose impenetrable ranks his foes must pierce before they can reach him. From Samson's time we read of lions in this district (Judges xiv.8, 9), and we may recognise another image as suggested by their growls heard among the ravines, and their gaunt forms prowling near the cave. "The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good" (ver.10).
And then he passes to earnest instructions and exhortations, which derive appositeness from regarding them as a proclamation to his men of the principles on which his camp is to be governed. "Come, ye children, hearken unto me." He regards himself as charged with guiding them to godliness: "I will teach you the fear of the Lord." With some remembrance, perhaps, of his deception at Gath, he warns them to "keep" their "tongues from evil" and their "lips from speaking guile." They are not to be in love with warfare, but, even with their swords in their hands, are to "seek peace, and pursue it." On these exhortations follow joyous assurances of God's watchful eye fixed upon the righteous, and His ear open to their cry; of deliverance for his suppliants, whatsoever hardship and trouble they may have to wade through; of a guardianship which "keepeth all the bones" of the righteous, so that neither the blows of the foe nor the perils of the crags should break them, -- all crowned with the contrast ever present to David's mind, and having a personal reference to his enemies and to himself:
"Evil shall slay the wicked,
Such were the counsels and teachings of the young leader to his little band, -- noble "general orders" from a commander at the beginning of a campaign!
We venture to refer the twenty-seventh psalm also to this period. It is generally supposed, indeed, by those commentators who admit its Davidic authorship, to belong to the time of Absalom's rebellion. The main reason for throwing it so late is the reference in ver.4 to dwelling in the house of the Lord and inquiring in His temple.[J] This is supposed to require a date subsequent to David's bringing up of the ark to Jerusalem, and placing it in a temporary sanctuary. But whilst longing for the sanctuary is no doubt characteristic of the psalms of the later wanderings, it is by no means necessary to suppose that in the present case that desire, which David represents as the longing of his life, was a desire for mere bodily presence in a material temple. Indeed, the very language seems to forbid such an interpretation. Surely the desire for an abode in the house of the Lord -- which was his one wish, which he longed to have continuous throughout all the days of his life, which was to surround him with a privacy of protection in trouble, and to be as the munitions of rocks about him -- was something else than a morbid desire for an impossible seclusion in the tabernacle, -- a desire fitter for some sickly mediaeval monarch who buried his foolish head and faint heart in a monastery than for God's Anointed. We have seen an earlier germ of the same desire in the twenty-third psalm, the words of which are referred to here; and the interpretation of the one is the interpretation of the other. The psalmist breathes his longing for the Divine fellowship, which shall be at once vision, and guidance, and hidden life in distress, and stability, and victory, and shall break into music of perpetual praise.
[J] "The fourth verse in its present form must have been written after the temple was built." -- "The Psalms chronologically arranged," p.68 -- following Ewald, in whose imperious criticism that same naked "must have been," works wonders.
If, then, we are not obliged by the words in question to adopt the later date, there is much in the psalm which strikingly corresponds with the earlier, and throws beautiful illustration on the psalmist's mood at this period. One such allusion we venture to suppose in the words (ver.2),
"When the wicked came against me to devour my flesh, My enemies and my foes, -- they stumbled and fell;"
which have been usually taken as a mere general expression, without any allusion to a specific event. But there was one incident in David's life which had been forced upon his remembrance by his recent peril at Gath -- his duel with Goliath, which exactly meets the very peculiar language here. The psalm employs the same word as the narrative, which tells how the Philistine "arose, and came, and drew near to David." The braggart boast, "I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air and the beasts of the fields," is echoed in the singular phrase of the psalm; and the emphatic, rapid picture, "they stumbled and fell," is at once a reminiscence of the hour when the stone crashed through the thick forehead, "and he fell upon his face to the earth;" and also a reference to an earlier triumph in Israel's history, celebrated with fierce exultation in the wild chant whom rolls the words like a sweet morsel under the tongue, as it tells of Sisera --
"Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay;
Another autobiographical reference in the psalm has been disputed on insufficient grounds:
"For my father and my mother forsake me,
It is, at all events, a remarkable coincidence that the only mention of his parents after the earliest chapters of his life falls in precisely with this period of the history, and is such as might have suggested these words. We read (1 Sam. xxii.3, 4) that he once ventured all the way from Adullam to Moab to beg an asylum from Saul's indiscriminate fury for his father and mother, who were no doubt too old to share his perils, as the rest of his family did. Having prepared a kindly welcome for them, perhaps on the strength of the blood of Ruth the Moabitess in Jesse's veins, he returned to Bethlehem, brought the old couple away, and guarded them safely to their refuge. It is surely most natural to suppose that the psalm is the lyrical echo of that event, and most pathetic to conceive of the psalmist as thinking of the happy home at Bethlehem now deserted, his brothers lurking with him among the rocks, and his parents exiles in heathen lands. Tears fill his eyes, but he lifts them to a Father that is never parted from him, and feels that he is no more orphaned nor homeless.
The psalm is remarkable for the abrupt transition of feeling which cleaves it into two parts; one (vers.1-6) full of jubilant hope and enthusiastic faith, the other (vers.7-14) a lowly cry for help. There is no need to suppose, with some critics, that we have here two independent hymns bound together in error. He must have little knowledge of the fluctuations of the devout life who is surprised to find so swift a passage from confidence to conscious weakness. Whilst the usual order in the psalms, as the usual order in good men's experience, is that prayer for deliverance precedes praise and triumph, true communion with God is bound to no mechanical order, and may begin with gazing on God, and realizing the mysteries of beauty in His secret place, ere it drops to earth. The lark sings as it descends from the "privacy of glorious light" to its nest in the stony furrows as sweetly, though more plaintively, than whilst it circles upwards to the sky. It is perhaps a nobler effect of faith to begin with God and hymn the victory as if already won, than to begin with trouble and to call for deliverance. But with whichever we commence, the prayer of earth must include both; and so long as we are weak, and God our strength, its elements must be "supplication and thanksgiving." The prayer of our psalm bends round again to its beginning, and after the plaintive cry for help breaks once more into confidence (vers.13, 14). The psalmist shudders as he thinks what ruin would have befallen him if he had not trusted in God, and leaves the unfinished sentence, -- as a man looking down into some fearful gulf starts back and covers his eyes, before he has well seen the bottom of the abyss.
"If I had not believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!"
Then rejoicing to remember how even by his feeble trust he has been saved, he stirs up himself to a firmer faith, in words which are themselves an exercise of faith, as well as an incitement to it:
"Wait on Jehovah!
Here is the true highest type of a troubled soul's fellowship with God, when the black fear and consciousness of weakness is inclosed in a golden ring of happy trust. Let the name of our God be first upon our lips, and the call to our wayward hearts to wait on Him be last, and then we may between think of our loneliness, and feebleness, and foes, and fears, without losing our hold of our Father's hand.
David in his rocky eyrie was joyful, because he began with God. It was a man in real peril who said, "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?" It was at a critical pause in his fortunes, when he knew not yet whether Saul's malice was implacable, that he said, "Though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident." It was in thankfulness for the safe hiding-place among the dark caverns of the hills that he celebrated the dwelling of the soul in God with words coloured by his circumstances, "In the secret of His tabernacle shall He hide me; He shall set me up upon a rock." It was with Philistia at his feet before and Saul's kingdom in arms behind that his triumphant confidence was sure that "Now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me." It was in weakness, not expelled even by such joyous faith, that he plaintively besought God's mercy, and laid before His mercy-seat as the mightiest plea His own inviting words, "Seek ye My face," and His servant's humble response, "Thy face, Lord, will I seek." Together, these made it impossible that that Face, the beams of which are light and salvation, should be averted. God's past comes to his lips as a plea for a present consistent with it and with His own mighty name. "Thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation." His loneliness, his ignorance of his road, and the enemies who watch him, and, like a later Saul, "breathe out cruelty" (see Acts ix.1), become to him in his believing petitions, not grounds of fear, but arguments with God; and having thus mastered all that was distressful in his lot, by making it all the basis of his cry for help, he rises again to hope, and stirs up himself to lay hold on God, to be strong and bold, because his expectation is from Him. A noble picture of a steadfast soul; steadfast not because of absence of fears and reasons for fear, but because of presence of God and faith in Him.
Having abandoned Adullam, by the advice of the prophet Gad, who from this time appears to have been a companion till the end of his reign (2 Sam. xxiv.11), and who subsequently became his biographer (1 Chron. xxix.29), he took refuge, as outlaws have ever been wont to do, in the woods. In his forest retreat, somewhere among the now treeless hills of Judah, he heard of a plundering raid made by the Philistines on one of the unhappy border towns. The marauders had broken in upon the mirth of the threshing-floors with the shout of battle, and swept away the year's harvest. The banished man resolved to strike a blow at the ancestral foes. Perhaps one reason may have been the wish to show that, outlaw as he was, he, and not the morbid laggard at Gibeah, who was only stirred to action by mad jealousy, was the sword of Israel. The little band bursts from the hills on the spoil-encumbered Philistines, recaptures the cattle which like moss troopers they were driving homewards from the ruined farmsteads, and routs them with great slaughter. But the cowardly townspeople of Keilah had less gratitude than fear; and the king's banished son-in-law was too dangerous a guest, even though he was of their own tribe, and had delivered them from the enemy. Saul, who had not stirred from his moody seclusion to beat back invasion, summoned a hasty muster, in the hope of catching David in the little city, like a fox in his earth: and the cowardly citizens meditated saving their homes by surrendering their champion. David and his six hundred saved themselves by a rapid flight, and, as it would appear, by breaking up into detachments. "They went whithersoever they could go" (1 Sam. xxiii.13); whilst David, with some handful, made his way to the inhospitable wilderness which stretches from the hills of Judah to the shores of the Dead Sea, and skulked there in "lurking places" among the crags and tangled underwood. With fierce perseverance "Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand." One breath of love, fragrant and strength-giving, was wafted to his fainting heart, when Jonathan found his way where Saul could not come, and the two friends met once more. In the woodland solitudes they plighted their faith again, and the beautiful unselfishness of Jonathan is wonderfully set forth in his words, "Thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next unto thee;" while an awful glimpse is given into that mystery of a godless will consciously resisting the inevitable, when there is added, "and that also Saul, my father, knoweth." In such resistance the king's son has no part, for it is pointedly noticed that he returned to his house. Treachery, and that from the men of his own tribe, again dogs David's steps. The people of Ziph, a small place on the edge of the southern desert, betray his haunt to Saul. The king receives the intelligence with a burst of thanks, in which furious jealousy and perverted religion, and a sense of utter loneliness and misery, and a strange self-pity, are mingled most pathetically and terribly: "Blessed be ye of the Lord, for ye have compassion on me!" He sends them away to mark down his prey; and when they have tracked him to his lair, he follows with his force and posts them round the hill where David and his handful lurk. The little band try to escape, but they are surrounded and apparently lost. At the very moment when the trap is just going to close, a sudden messenger, "fiery red with haste," rushes into Saul's army with news of a formidable invasion: "Haste thee and come; for the Philistines have spread themselves upon the land!" So the eager hand, ready to smite and crush, is plucked back; and the hour of deepest distress is the hour of deliverance.
At some period in this lowest ebb of David's fortunes, we have one short psalm, very simple and sad (liv.) It bears the title, "When the Ziphims came and said to Saul, Doth not David hide himself with us?" and may probably be referred to the former of the two betrayals by the men of Ziph. The very extremity of peril has made the psalmist still and quiet. The sore need has shortened his prayer. He is too sure that God hears to use many words; for it is distrust, not faith, which makes us besiege His throne with much speaking. He is confident as ever; but one feels that there is a certain self-restraint and air of depression over the brief petitions, which indicate the depth of his distress and the uneasiness of protracted anxiety. Two notes only sound from his harp: one a plaintive cry for help; the other, thanksgiving for deliverance as already achieved. The two are bound together by the recurrence in each of "the name" of GOD, which is at once the source of his salvation and the theme of his praise. We have only to read the lowly petitions to feel that they speak of a spirit somewhat weighed down by danger, and relaxed from the loftier mood of triumphant trust.
(1) O God, by Thy name save me,
(2) O God, hear my prayer,
(3) For strangers are risen against me,
The enemies are called "strangers;" but, as we have seen in the first of these songs of the exile, it is not necessary, therefore, to suppose that they were not Israelites. The Ziphites were men of Judah like himself; and there is bitter emphasis as well as a gleam of insight into the spiritual character of the true Israel in calling them foreigners. The other name, oppressors, or violent men, or, as we have rendered it, tyrants, corresponds too accurately with the character of Saul in his later years, to leave much doubt that it is pointed at him. If so, the softening of the harsh description by the use of the plural is in beautiful accordance with the forgiving leniency which runs through all David's conduct to him. Hard words about Saul himself do not occur in the psalms. His counsellors, his spies, the liars who calumniated David to him, and for their own ends played upon his suspicious nature, -- the tools who took care that the cruel designs suggested by themselves should be carried out, kindle David's wrath, but it scarcely ever lights on the unhappy monarch whom he loved with all-enduring charity while he lived, and mourned with magnificent eulogy when he died. The allusion is made all the more probable, because of the verbal correspondence with the narrative which records that "Saul was come out to seek his life" (1 Sam. xxiii.15.)
A chord or two from the harp permits the mind to dwell on the thought of the foes, and prepares for the second part of this psalm. In it thanksgiving and confidence flow from the petitions of the former portion. But the praise is not so jubilant, nor the trust so victorious, as we have seen them. "The peace of God" has come in answer to prayer, but it is somewhat subdued:
"Behold, God is my helper;
The foes sought his life, but, as the historical book gives the antithesis, "Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand." The rendering of the English version, "The Lord is with them that uphold my soul," is literally accurate, but does not convey the meaning of the Hebrew idiom. God is not regarded as one among many helpers, but as alone the supporter or upholder of his life. Believing that, the psalmist, of course, believes as a consequence that his enemies will be smitten with evil for their evil. The prophetic lip of faith calls things that are not as though they were. In the midst of his dangers he looks forward to songs of deliverance and glad sacrifices of praise; and the psalm closes with words that approach the more fervid utterances we have already heard, as if his song had raised his own spirit above its fears:
(6) With willinghood will I sacrifice unto Thee.
(7) For from all distress it has delivered me.
The name -- the revealed character of God -- was the storehouse of all the saving energies to which he appealed in verse 1. It is the theme of his praise when the deliverance shall have come. It is almost regarded here as equivalent to the Divine personality -- it is good, it has delivered him. Thus, we may say that this brief psalm gives us as the single thought of a devout soul in trouble, the name of the Lord, and teaches by its simple pathos how the contemplation of God as He has made Himself known, should underlie every cry for help and crown every thanksgiving; whilst it may assure us that whosoever seeks for the salvation of that mighty name may, even in the midst of trouble, rejoice as in an accomplished deliverance. And all such thoughts should be held with a faith at least as firm as the ancient psalmist's, by us to whom the "name" of the Lord is "declared" by Him who is the full revelation of God, and the storehouse of all blessings and help to his "brethren." (Heb. ii.12.)
A little plain of some mile or so in breadth slopes gently down towards the Dead Sea about the centre of its western shore. It is girdled round by savage cliffs, which, on the northern side, jut out in a bold headland to the water's edge. At either extremity is a stream flowing down a deep glen choked with luxurious vegetation; great fig-trees, canes, and maiden-hair ferns covering the rocks. High up on the hills forming its western boundary a fountain sparkles into light, and falls to the flat below in long slender threads. Some grey weathered stones mark the site of a city that was old when Abraham wandered in the land. Traces of the palm forests which, as its name indicates, were cleared for its site (Hazezon Tamar, The palm-tree clearing) have been found, encrusted with limestone, in the warm, damp gullies, and ruined terraces for vineyards can be traced on the bare hill-sides. But the fertility of David's time is gone, and the precious streams nourish only a jungle haunted by leopard and ibex. This is the fountain and plain of Engedi (the fount of the wild goat), a spot which wants but industry and care to make it a little paradise. Here David fled from the neighbouring wilderness, attracted no doubt by the safety of the deep gorges and rugged hills, as well as by the abundance of water in the fountain and the streams. The picturesque and touching episode of his meeting with Saul has made the place for ever memorable. There are many excavations in the rocks about the fountain, which may have been the cave -- black as night to one looking inward with eyes fresh from the blinding glare of sunlight upon limestone, but holding a glimmering twilight to one looking outwards with eyes accustomed to the gloom -- in the innermost recesses of which David lay hid while Saul tarried in its mouth. The narrative gives a graphic picture of the hurried colloquy among the little band, when summary revenge was thus unexpectedly put within their grasp. The fierce retainers whispered their suggestion that it would be "tempting providence" to let such an opportunity escape; but the nobler nature of David knows no personal animosity, and in these earliest days is flecked by no cruelty nor lust of blood. He cannot, however, resist the temptation of showing his power and almost parading his forbearance by stealing through the darkness and cutting away the end of Saul's long robe. It was little compared with what he could as easily have done -- smite him to the heart as he crouched there defenceless. But it was a coarse practical jest, conveying a rude insult, and the quickly returning nobleness of his nature made him ashamed of it, as soon as he had clambered back with his trophy. He felt that the sanctity of Saul's office as the anointed of the Lord should have saved him from the gibe. The king goes his way all unawares, and, as it would seem, had not regained his men, when David, leaving his band (very much out of temper no doubt at his foolish nicety), yields to a gush of ancient friendship and calls loudly after him, risking discovery and capture in his generous emotion. The pathetic conversation which ensued is eminently characteristic of both men, so tragically connected and born to work woe to one another. David's remonstrance (1 Sam. xxiv.9-15) is full of nobleness, of wounded affection surviving still, of conscious rectitude, of solemn devout appeal to the judgment of God. He has no words of reproach for Saul, no weak upbraidings, no sullen anger, no repaying hate with hate. He almost pleads with the unhappy king, and yet there is nothing undignified or feeble in his tone. The whole is full of correspondences, often of verbal identity, with the psalms which we assign to this period. The calumnies which he so often complains of in these are the subject of his first words to Saul, whom he regards as having had his heart poisoned by lies: "Wherefore hearest thou men's words, saying, Behold! David seeketh thy hurt." He asserts absolute innocence of anything that warranted the king's hostility, just as he does so decisively in the psalms. "There is neither evil nor transgression in my hand, and I have not sinned against thee." As in them he so often compares himself to some wild creature pursued like the goats in the cliffs of Engedi, so he tells Saul, "Thou huntest my life to take it." And his appeal from earth's slanders, and misconceptions, and cruelties, to the perfect tribunal of God, is couched in language, every clause of which may be found in his psalms. "The Lord, therefore, be judge, and judge between me and thee, and see, and plead my cause, and deliver me out of thy hand."
The unhappy Saul again breaks into a passion of tears. With that sudden flashing out into vehement emotion so characteristic of him, and so significant of his enfeebled self-control, he recognises David's generous forbearance and its contrast to his own conduct. For a moment, at all events, he sees, as by a lightning flash, the mad hopelessness of the black road he is treading in resisting the decree that has made his rival king -- and he binds him by an oath to spare his house when he sits on the throne. The picture moves awful thoughts and gentle pity for the poor scathed soul writhing in its hopelessness and dwelling in a great solitude of fear, but out of which stray gleams of ancient nobleness still break; -- and so the doomed man goes back to his gloomy seclusion at Gibeah, and David to the free life of the mountains and the wilderness.