Commentary on Psalm 54
It’s difficult for folks involved in ministry to come up with the right words for every prayer we offer.
Whether that was the case for the worship leaders and congregation of ancient Israel is hard to say, but with Psalm 54 they have left us with a prayer that remains shrouded in uncertainty over the precise problem behind the words, the specific voice in which the prayer is spoken, and the essence of the message the prayer communicates. Such a dilemma fills scholars with uncertainty, but as Brueggemann and Bellinger state, it is the general language that “makes the prayer more germane to various settings and generations in life.”1 In keeping with this wisdom, I want to unpack the potential this uncertainty has for proclamation.
The poet’s original circumstances. If you consulted the commentaries, you know that this is one of a small number of psalms whose heading relates the prayer to circumstances in David’s life, in this case, 1 Samuel 23:19. The fact that the editors of the Psalter made this connection is an important snapshot in the history of the psalm’s interpretation, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. Modern scholarship has suggested a variety of settings: a king asking for deliverance from enemies, an accused person seeking vindication in a legal proceeding, or an individual representing the congregation in a Temple service.2 The crux of the matter has been the word which the NRSV translates as “insolent” (v. 3) but which others have rendered as “foreigners” or simply as “estranged ones.”3 This translational flexibility works to our advantage. Whether we are beset by a specific unjust person, wrestle with xenophobia, or we are assailed by estrangement from those most dear to us, we share with the ancient poet the fear that peace will not come to our relationships. To be sure, we can over-interpret our experiences of estrangement theologically, making every source of our trouble into an enemy of God.4 That’s why I find it so fitting that the poet places the affirmation, “God is my helper,” at the literary center of the poem.5 Keeping that focus, we find that God not only helps us with danger and discord; God helps us interpret those times accurately and wisely.
The poem’s literary form. While few question that the psalm fits the category of individual laments, there is uncertainty about whether the tone of its last verse is more fitting for thanksgiving psalms: “For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.”6 If the crisis described in vv. 1-3 has passed, then perhaps even the petitions of vv. 1-2 are simply rehearsed for the sake of the congregation feeling the psalmist’s earlier desperation. What difference does this debate make for interpretation? We might, as Artur Weiser did, judge the poet harshly for this, suggesting that the conclusion shows he hasn’t let go of his suffering “to give himself up wholly to God, trusting him absolutely.”7 Several scholars disagree with Weiser for using the New Testament to critique the psalm’s outlook. For example, McCann sees a more “theologically significant” analogy to the Christian experience of the “already” and “not yet.” 8 We can rest in God’s victory over evil as well as in our deliverance from its power while still acknowledging that “those who live to harm others will eventually have to face up to how they have chosen to live their lives.”9 And this tension, it seems to me, is not all that different from Psalm 54’s outlook.
The psalm’s theological message. In spite of the uncertainties about form and setting, we can be in no doubt of the poet’s conviction about the solution to his problem: the “name” and the “might” of God (v. 1). These are not two unrelated aspects of God, but after the fashion of Hebrew parallelism “the name carried something of the essential nature and power of God.”10 The psalm also reinforces this point by using “name” to create closure around the psalm’s content: “Save … by your name” (v. 1) and “give thanks to your name” (v. 6). Furthermore, the actual names — “God” (‘elohim), “Lord” (’adonai), and “Lord” (yhwh) — are used for a total of six times, three in each half of the psalm.11 I suspect that a church whose worship is informed by the common lectionary and follows a traditional liturgy is likely to reject an excessive use of the names of the God in songs, prayers, and sermons. Although I share that reticence, I don’t want my preferences to make me forget that this psalm taps into a deep current of biblical theology. The ancient Deuteronomists thought of the Temple as “the place for God’s name” (e.g. Deuteronomy 12:4-14; 1 Kings 8:27-53), and the earliest followers of Jesus healed and preached “in his name” (Acts 3:6; 4:12). Indeed, it is “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). While the psalmist trusts God to vindicate him in the face of opposition, he does not use God’s name as a weapon against them. For our poet, the name of God is to be used in prayer and praise. May it be so for us.
1 Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 246.
2 For an introduction to these options, see Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1990), 46.
3 Beth Tanner, “Psalm 54: Leveling the Field,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 469.
4 Brueggemann and Bellinger, 248.
5 There are 49 Hebrew words of the psalm (not counting the superscription), making “helper” (‘ozer) the 25th and central word.
6 See J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon: Nashville, 1996), IV, 894.
7 Artur Wesier, The Psalms, OTL, trans. H. Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 416.
8 McCann, 895.
9 Tanner, 472.
10 Tate, 47.
11 Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 258.