Friday: “What Can Man Do to Me?”

By James Boice

Theme: New Life in Christ

In this week’s lessons we learn from the life of David that when we are afflicted by the attacks of others, we can have confidence in the Lord, whose word never fails.

Scripture: Psalm 56:1-13

So let me ask, Do you trust God? If you are a Christian, you have trusted him in the matter of your salvation. That is the greatest thing. God has saved you from sin, hell and the devil. If you are a Christian, you believe he has done that. But if he has done that, can you not also trust him in lesser things like loneliness or even those sometimes dangerous circumstances that cause fear and desperation? The Bible teaches that God will take care of you if you belong to him and are following after Jesus Christ. David wrote in an earlier psalm, “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Ps. 37:25). The psalm immediately before this one argued, “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22). The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).

Confidence in the Word of God. There is another aspect to David’s confidence in God, and that is that it is also based upon the Word of God. Certainly you have noticed in the words of this repeated chorus that the phrase “whose word I praise” occurs three times. This is very important, because apart from the Word of God we do not know what God is like, and we certainly do not know what he has promised to do for us. What is this “word of God” to which David refers? Clearly it is the entire self-revelation of God in Scripture given up to that time. In other words, it is the Pentateuch (the first five books) and possibly Joshua and Judges. That is only a portion of our Bibles, but it was enough to make God’s character and desires for his people known. In the chorus of Psalm 56 David therefore praises God for his Word, recognizing it as one of the greatest of all God’s good gifts to men and women.

However, it may also be the case that David is thinking specifically of the words of God that were brought to him by the prophet Samuel, assuring him that he would be king over Israel (cf. 1 Sam. 16:1-13). That must have seemed a long way off when David was in Gath or hiding in the cave of Adullam. But no matter. It was the word of God, and though the fulfillment of that word might be long delayed it was nevertheless absolutely certain. Therefore, it was not only in God but also in the specific words of God that David trusted.

You and I do not have individualized revelations from God delivered to us today by God’s prophets. We have the Bible. But the Bible we have is more extensive than David’s. It contains all we need to know about spiritual things. Equally important, we have the Holy Spirit to give us understanding of what has been written as well as the ability to apply it to specific areas of our lives.

The last two verses of Psalm 56, verses 12 and 13, are like the ending of Psalm 54, in which David vows to present a thanksgiving offering to God when he is delivered. So certain is he that God will deliver him in time: “I am under vows to you, O God; I will present my thank offerings to you. For you have delivered my soul from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

This is a great vow of confidence, like the confidence of Psalm 34 which is also based on the incident at Gath. David got this confidence by praying, and so can we. Confidence comes to the person who prays and trusts God.

But I want you to see one thing more before I end this study. The fact that Jesus seems to have used the last words of verse 13 in John 8:12 makes us think of verse 13 in light of the deliverance Jesus brings to those who trust him and the “life” as his gift of salvation by the Holy Spirit. That is the ultimate fulfillment of the psalm, of course. As Alexander Maclaren says, “The really living are they who live in Jesus, and the real light of the living is the sunshine that streams on those who thus live, because they live in him.”3 So I end this way. If you really want to move out of your fear, despair and loneliness, and bask in God’s sunshine, live looking upward always into the face of Jesus Christ. Then will you find yourself saying firmly, “In God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

Study Questions:

  1. From this study, what do we learn from other portions of Scripture about our need to trust God and what he promises to do for us?
  2. Why is it necessary for God to reveal himself to us through the Bible?
  3. How does Jesus use the last part of Psalm 56:13?

Reflection: Do you trust God as David did?

For Further Study: One of the necessary ways that our trust in the Lord is increased is through prayer. To learn more about this important blessing, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message from 1 John, “Confidence in Prayer.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

3Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 3, The Psalms, Isaiah 1-48 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), part 2, p. 46.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Thursday: “What Can Man Do to Me?”

By James Boice

Theme: The Voices of Fear and Faith

In this week’s lessons we learn from the life of David that when we are afflicted by the attacks of others, we can have confidence in the Lord, whose word never fails.

Scripture: Psalm 56:1-13

I referred earlier to Perowne’s comment that Psalm 56 is about “the victory rather than the struggle of faith.” But that did not mean that fear is missing from the psalm. On the contrary, the fear described in 1 Samuel 21:12 is evident in the opening verses (vv. 1, 2) and also in David’s second, longer elaboration of the danger (vv. 5-9). There are two emphases.

The fury of the attack. Sometimes language can be used to capture the feeling of a moment, and that is the case in verses 1 and 2, where David conveys the relentless fury of his enemies’ pursuit by striking word repetitions. There are three of them. “Pursue,” “attack” and “all day long” are each repeated in verse 2 after being introduced first in verse 1. We have “men hotly pursue me” and “my slanderers pursue me,” “all day long” and “all day long,” and finally “they press their attack and “many are attacking me.” It is a striking, audible way of saying, “I am overwhelmed, simply overwhelmed; because no matter what direction I turn they are always after me, after me, pursuing me, always pursuing me.”

The nature of the attack. The second, later description of the problem (vv. 5-9) is not so furious. Rather it is a calmer description of the nature of the attacks being made. We might think from the setting that all David would be concerned about was his immediate physical danger. But even in verse 2 he spoke not merely of military attacks but of “slanderers,” and now he explains that it is the slander that bothers him even more than the danger. They want to kill him, of course. But to justify their doing it (or perhaps to win the necessary numbers to their side) his enemies twist his words to make it seem that he is threatening King Saul: “All day long they twist my words; they are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life” (vv. 5, 6).

This section ends with a prayer that God will judge these enemies (v. 7) and with a request that God will remember his sorrows, making a list of them (v. 8). David knows that God knows what he is going through and that he will remember it. In fact, he presents the tender concerns of God for himself and his people in an image that has been of immense comfort to generations of sorrowing believers. We know it best in the words of the King James Bible: “Put thou my tears in thy bottle.” But the idea is much the same in the New International Version: “list my tears on your scroll” or “put my tears in your wineskin.” The meaning is that God will never forget nor ever be indifferent to the cares of any one of his much beloved people.

I have already pointed out that the chorus, which occurs in verses 4, 10 and 11, is the very heart of the psalm. We have been invited to observe David’s fear, but now in even clearer tones we hear the voice of faith: “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me” (v. 4)? And again, slightly expanded, “In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise—in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me” (vv. 10, 11)?

Confidence in God. In these verses there are two parts to David’s confidence, and the first is that he is confident in God. He trusts God, whom he calls Elohim four times (two times in v. 4, once each in vv. 10 and 11), and Jehovah once (in v. 10). Not man! Not circumstances! Not his own cunning, as useful as that seemed to have been at Gath! He trusted God: “In God I trust.” It is because of this that he could ask, “What can man do to me?” and expect a negative answer.

Study Questions:

  1. What language does David use to describe the fury of his enemies?
  2. Describe the second account of David’s problem. What is David’s concern there?

Application: Experiencing unjust treatment from others, especially from Christians, can leave lingering feelings of bitterness. Ask the Lord for healing and renewal, as well as for conviction and repentance from those who have wronged you.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Wednesday: “What Can Man Do to Me?”

By James Boice

Theme: An Outline of the Psalm

In this week’s lessons we learn from the life of David that when we are afflicted by the attacks of others, we can have confidence in the Lord, whose word never fails.

Scripture: Psalm 56:1-13

With this background of David’s flight to Gath in mind, we now read the central verses of the psalm: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me” (vv. 3, 4)?

Do you ever feel afraid? Desperate? Alone? If so, this psalm is for you. You will find it to be encouraging, too, for it is not merely about loneliness and fear. It is about the faith that gives victory over those very real states and terrible emotions. I notice with approval that J. J. Stewart Perowne described the psalm as being about “the victory rather than the struggle of faith.”2

But first, one more word about the title. It contains the notation: “To the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks.’” We know nothing about these tunes, but the reference to a dove makes us think back to Psalm 55, in which David cried, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (v. 6). When we studied Psalm 55 we saw that David did not have the wings of a dove. But here we learn that he had something better. He had God who made the dove, and he found the peace he was seeking by trusting him.

Psalm 56 seems to have been popular with the other biblical writers, since, although not all the psalms are quoted elsewhere in the Bible, this psalm is. Verses 4 and 11 are picked up in Psalm 118:6 and quoted by the author of Hebrews in 13:6. Verse 9 is referred to by Paul in Romans 8:31. The first part of verse 13 is quoted in Psalm 116:6 with only slight alteration, and the last phrase, “the light of life,” reappears in the third of Jesus’ “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel: “I am the light of the world. whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

At this point in the Psalter we come upon a number of psalms that have a repeating chorus. The next psalm is an example. The chorus is “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.” It is found in verses 5 and 11. Psalm 59 has the chorus, “O my Strength, I watch for you; you, O God, are my fortress, my loving God.” It occurs in verses 9 and 17.

I mention this here because the same thing occurs in Psalm 56 and is the key to outlining it (as well as the others I have mentioned). In Psalm 56 the refrain is what I quoted earlier, calling it the central verse or verses of the psalm. It is found first in verse 4 and then a second time, slightly expanded, in verses 10 and 11. The psalm follows this pattern. First, there is a brief description of the trouble in which David finds himself (vv. 1, 2). Second, there is a strong statement of faith, including the words of the chorus I quoted (vv. 3, 4). Third, there is a further elaboration of the problem (vv. 5-9), followed, fourth, by a slightly expanded version of the chorus (vv. 10, 11). Fifth and last, David promises to present a thanksgiving offering to God when he is saved by him.

Study Questions:

  1. How is Psalm 56 used by other biblical writers?
  2. Review the outline of this psalm and note how the different sections fit together, with the refrains serving as the key to its structure.

Key Point: Do you ever feel afraid? Desperate? Alone? If so, this psalm is for you. You will find it to be encouraging, too, for it is not merely about loneliness and fear. It is about the faith that gives victory over those very real states and terrible emotions.

2J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 444. Original edition 1878-1879. The psalm is one of two which flowered from this crisis. The other is Psalm 34.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Tuesday: “What Can Man Do to Me?”

By James Boice

Theme: How David Felt

In this week’s lessons we learn from the life of David that when we are afflicted by the attacks of others, we can have confidence in the Lord, whose word never fails.

Scripture: Psalm 56:1-13

There are three things worth noting about David’s time in Gath, when this psalm was written.

David was alone. He had fled from Saul without any soldiers, in fact, even without food or weapons. We think of him having at least his four hundred valiant men with him when he was in the wilderness. We think of him having hearty companionship and at least some protection. But according to 1 Samuel 22, the gathering of his army occurred after the time in Gath. So David was entirely alone at this time. There was no one with him.

David was desperate. I have a good reason for saying this, and you will see it as soon as I point out that Gath had been the home of the giant Goliath, whom David had killed just a few years before. Goliath was a Philistine hero, and he had certainly been the pride of Gath. What except desperation would cause anyone to walk alone into the home town of the hero he had killed?

And there is this, too, which I have not seen it mentioned in any of the commentaries. When David was at Nob, he had asked Ahimelech if he had any weapons, and Ahimelech gave him the only weapon he had, the sword of Goliath, which had been placed in Nob after David’s victory. The sword is not described in the account of David’s fight with Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. But the account does say that Goliath was over nine feet tall and that his body armor and bronze javelin were unusually large and heavy. His sword must have been large too, and it was certainly remembered by the people of Gath and was easily recognized by them. There are only two ways any sane man would walk into Gath under those conditions: either in arrogant pride or desperation. Since we know from the psalm that David was afraid rather than arrogant, he must have gone to Gath in near despair.

Derek Kidner begins his study by noting this: “To have fled from Saul to Gath of all places, the home town of Goliath, took the courage of despair; it measured David’s estimate of his standing with his people.” David’s attempt to find safety in Gath was not successful, of course. So Kidner adds, “This has failed, and David is now doubly encircled.”1

David was afraid. We are told this explicitly in 1 Samuel. When David arrived in Gath his presence was reported to the king of Gath, a man called Achish. The people told Achish, “Isn’t this David, the king of the land? Isn’t he the one they sing about in their dances: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’?” (1 Sam. 21:11).

Those “tens of thousands” were Philistines, and some of the former people of Gath as well as their hero Goliath were among them. Therefore, we are not surprised to read in the next sentence, “David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath” (v. 12). Since David had no one to defend him he resorted to cunning, pretending to be out of his mind so Achish would despise him rather than kill him. So he eventually escaped.

Study Questions:

  1. What do we know about the city of Gath?
  2. What evidence is there of David’s being alone, desperate, and afraid?

Reflection: Have you ever felt as David did at this time of his life? What helped you during this difficult period? What did you discover about God in fresh ways?

1Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books l and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), p. 202.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Monday: “What Can Man Do to Me?”

By James Boice

Theme: Into Death’s Jaws

In this week’s lessons we learn from the life of David that when we are afflicted by the attacks of others, we can have confidence in the Lord, whose word never fails.

Scripture: Psalm 56:1-13

What can man do to me? We know the answer to that, and we do not have to think about it very much. The answer is: A lot! And to prove it all we have to do is read the morning’s newspaper. The week I wrote this study, on just one day, I read these stories.

  1. An account of an attack on Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Vietnamese refugees in Germany by neo-Nazis, while German police looked on. To their credit the refugees fought back and injured ten of their attackers.
  2. A United Nations vote to look into reports of war crimes by the Serbian government against Muslims in Bosnia. The Serbs seem to be murdering thousands of Muslims in an offensive they call “ethnic cleansing.”
  3. The trial of a man who sold an unsuspecting family a home with a defective gas heater, knowing it was dangerous. It emitted carbon monoxide, and the night it was first turned on three in the family, including an infant, were killed.
  4. The murder of a manager of a fast food restaurant and the wounding of a co-worker by two young punks who wanted to rob them.
  5. The sentencing of two men for insurance fraud.
  6. An abduction.
  7. Several cases of sexual abuse.

Sometimes I count the number of murders on a weekend in Philadelphia. Often there are up to half a dozen. But these are only the tip of the iceberg of evil in one city, a small, partial proof of what the nineteenth century poet William Wordsworth once aptly called “man’s inhumanity to man.”

What can man do to me? Man can oppress, slander, hurt, hate, maim and murder me, for starters. But, of course, that is not the answer David is giving us in Psalm 56. His answer is: Nothing! Not if God is for me and stands against the opposition.

I suppose the immediate reaction to a statement like that is along the lines: “Well, that was easy for David to say. He was a king. He commanded an army. He lived in a fortified city. None of us is so lucky.” I want you to see that this was not the situation in which David wrote the psalm. The title sets us straight on that. It tells us that it was “when the Philistines had seized him in Gath.”

Here is the story. When we were studying Psalm 52 we saw that early in his life David had been forced to escape Jerusalem because Saul, the king who was reigning in Jerusalem, was trying to kill him. David went to Nob, one of the towns of the priests, where Ahimelech, the head priest, assisted him by giving him food and a weapon. Unfortunately, Doeg the Edomite was present when David arrived in Nob, and Doeg later reported this to Saul which lead to the king’s demand that Ahimelech be killed. Doeg obliged Saul by killing Ahimelech. In fact, Doeg killed all the priests of Nob, eighty-five in all, together with their entire families.

There was a lapse of time between David’s visit to Nob and the report of his visit to Saul by Doeg. In fact, when we look this up in 1 Samuel 21 and 22, where the story is told, we find that two incidents filled this interval. The first is David’s flight to the fortified Philistine city of Gath where he imagined he might be safe from Saul. The second is that, when he found he was not safe in Gath, he escaped into the wilderness, to the cave at Adullam, where his brothers and other discontented people began to gather around him. At the end of this period David had collected about four hundred valiant men who eventually became the core of his army. Psalm 56 was written about David’s time in Gath, so it is important to have this incident in full view in order to understand what is going on in the psalm.

Study Questions:

  1. Give a brief overview of David’s life at the time this psalm was written.
  2. What harmful things have other people done to you? What is the proper way to look at these things when you know God is faithful to you?

Application: Knowing how people have hurt you in the past, ask the Lord for grace to enable you to treat others the way you would want them to treat you.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Friday: Betrayed by a Close Friend

By James Boice

Theme: Conclusion and Practical Advice

In this week’s lessons we learn how David moves from great anguish and pain over his betrayal, to a settled confidence in God’s care.

Scripture: Psalm 55:1-23

The alternating structure of the psalm continues in verses 20 and 21, where David casts a final glance at the friend who has betrayed him. But the tone has changed, hasn’t it? Earlier David was deeply pained by the betrayal. Here, having laid the matter before God and having assured himself that God is his Savior and that he will surely deliver him from such evil, David steps away from his own feelings and reflects on the wrongdoing itself. The real problem is that the man is a covenant breaker, and the reason he breaks covenant is that he is a hypocrite. He pretends one thing but plots another. He speaks peace, but actually he is devising war.

But enough of that! There will always be traitors and hypocrites and covenant breakers in this world. It is a fallen world. Righteousness you may hope for; sin you can count on. Sin is everywhere. The question is: What are the righteous to do in such deplorable conditions? Significantly, the psalm ends by answering this question. It tells us: “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.”

This classic statement is the verse picked up by the Apostle Peter and commended to us in the fifth chapter of his first epistle: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). Early in his life Peter had been a very anxious person. In the final days of Jesus’ earthly life Peter had been greatly worried about what might happen to Jesus, and then, when Jesus was arrested, he was even more worried about what might happen to himself. Peter was a great worrier, and not without cause. But as he grew older he learned not to worry but rather to do what he then also commended to other people, to cast his cares on God.

Why should we do that? Isn’t this just another form of escapism, the kind of thing David was wanting to do early in Psalm 55? No. In fact, it is the exact opposite. It is learning to cast our cares on God that enables us not to run away but to stand tall and carry on with the task God has assigned us. Casting our cares on God enables us to be strong. The last verses give three reasons why we should cast our cares on the Lord.

First, “he will sustain you.” When we are down it is natural to think that we will never be able to bear up under the troubles that are pressing in from every side. We are sure we will be beaten down. But that is not the case. The Bible says, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

Second, “he will never let the righteous fall.” Peter was sure he was going to fall on one occasion. It was when he was trying to walk toward Jesus over the water of the lake of Galilee, looked at the waves and began to sink. “Lord, save me,” he cried (Matt. 14:30). This is exactly what David has been praying in this psalm. He wants to be saved. And the Lord did it. He saved David, just as he saved Peter and all who cast their cares upon him. David is not exaggerating when he says, “the LORD…will never let the righteous fall.”

Third, “God…will bring down the wicked.” Evil persons may succeed for a time, but it is the promise of God as well as the judgment of history that they soon perish and are destroyed, just as they had sought so hard to destroy other people.

The bottom line is the psalm’s last sentence: “But as for me, I trust in you,” that is, in God. That is David’s final testimony. Is it yours? If you are focusing on the evil around you, you may not be able to say, “But as for me, I trust in you.” But you will be able to

say it, if you have really cast your cares on God.

Study Questions:

  1. Why has David’s tone changed toward his betrayer in verses 20-21?
  2. What is the real nature of his friend’s betrayal?
  3. List the three reasons given for why we should cast all our cares on the Lord.

Application: How have you known God’s care for you during bad experiences? Praise him for his goodness toward you, and look for ways to encourage others close to you who are being mistreated.

For Further Study: James Boice’s three-volume collection of sermons covering all 150 Psalms can be used for personal devotions or group studies, and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is offering it for 25% off the regular price.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Thursday: Betrayed by a Close Friend

By James Boice

Theme: Destruction for the Wicked

In this week’s lessons we learn how David moves from great anguish and pain over his betrayal, to a settled confidence in God’s care.

Scripture: Psalm 55:1-23

Verse 15 seems to stand alone. It is the low point of the psalm and is a prayer or wish in which David longs for the destruction of his foes. The language is important because, just as verse 9 uses words that deliberately recall the confusion of speech at the building of the tower of Babel, so here the throwback is to the destruction of Korah and his followers in the days of Moses. On that occasion “the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah’s men and all their possessions. They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community” (Num. 16:31-33). David is referring to this unprecedented destruction in the words of verse 15.

But why? Why the vehemence? J. J. Stewart Perowne explains it by his friend’s betrayal: “To have trusted, and to find his trust betrayed; to have been one with a man in public and in private, bound to him by personal ties, and by the ties of religion, and then to find honor, faith, affection, all cast to the winds—this it was that seemed so terrible, this it was that called for the withering curse.”5

That may be, of course. But it seems significant that David does not specifically mention his former friend in this malediction. In fact, he seems to have distinguished between his enemies, who are cursed here, and his former friend in the previous section, who is not cursed.

What is important is that a turning point comes with verse 16. Earlier the writer had called on God. The psalm began, “Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me” (vv. 1, 2). But that was uttered out of the writer’s anguish. Here the tone is different. In these words the psalmist explains that when he calls on God, as he has just done, the Lord actually hears him and saves him. He explains his experiences of God’s grace in three moving phrases: “the LORD saves me” (v. 16), “he hears my voice” (v. 17) and “he ransoms me unharmed” (v. 18). Because of this past experience of God’s grace, which he has remembered, the psalmist knows that God will destroy the enemies that still confront him and will deliver him from them (v. 19). This is faith, of course. It is the point we come to when problems are honestly faced and brought to God.

And brought to God again and again, I should add. For that is the point of the alternating structure of the psalm. There are psalms that are a short fierce statement of concern, thrown up to God in quick desperation. But this is not one of them. This is a prayer in which the psalmist unburdens himself of his anguish, describes the terrors he is facing, reflects on the evil of his foes, asks God for help, and then persists in laying the same things before God again. In other words, this is a lesson in perseverance. It is also an illustration of how such persevering prayer first changes us, strengthening our faith, before God intervenes in response to change our desperate situation.

Study Questions:

  1. What is the significance of verse 16 in this psalm?
  2. What is taught through the psalm’s alternating structure?

Reflection: Describe how persevering prayer changes us. Give thanks to the Lord for how he is at work in your life, even in great difficulties.

5J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 439.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Wednesday: Betrayed by a Close Friend

By James Boice

Theme: Bad Times in the City

In this week’s lessons we learn how David moves from great anguish and pain over his betrayal, to a settled confidence in God’s care.

Scripture: Psalm 55:1-23

Having unburdened himself of his troubled inner feelings, the psalmist now turns to the wicked who are wreaking havoc in the city. His description of this evil is in words people who live in cities in our day can readily understand (vv. 9-11).

We might have thought from David’s reference to “the enemy” in verse 2 that he was concerned about the hostile nations that surrounded the Jewish kingdom. But now we discover that the enemy is not without but within. The psalmist is saying, as Pogo said in one of the best-known Pogo cartoons, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” These verses personify six vices in three pairs of two each. Violence and strife prowl about on its walls. Malice and abuse are within the city. Threats and lies never leave the streets. It is a grim picture, because we know that these are not just forces in themselves. They are present because wicked people are present, and these wicked people are within the gates. They are us.

That is what is wrong with the cities of America, of course. We want to blame our problems on the environment or government programs or the lack of government programs. But the problem is not “out there.” It is within. The problem is that we are sinners, and this means that there will never be a substantial improvement in the moral state of our cities (or the country as a whole for that matter) until there is a deep moral improvement in America’s people. And that happens in only one way. It is by revival, by a people rediscovering God. There is nothing America needs so much at the present time as a Holy Spirit-produced revival and reformation.

But until that comes we can at least pray that evil will be frustrated and the doers of evil confused. This is what David prays for in verse 9, asking God to “confuse the wicked” and “confound their speech,” using words deliberately reminiscent of the confusion God brought upon the builders of the tower of Babel (cf. Gen. 11:1-9). God does it too. Thank God, he does. We would be many times worse off if evil people could actually get their acts together and work in harmony against the righteous instead of fighting among themselves, as they habitually do.

It is possible to see verses 12-14 as an extension of the psalmist’s description of the evil in Jerusalem. But it is better to see it as a return to the revelation of his own anguish and pain. In fact, like a trained psychologist probing deeply for the root of his pain, David explores his own heart and reveals that what is bothering him most is that his own close friend has betrayed him. The friend’s betrayal is part of the general evil, of course. If this is a reference to the days of Absalom’s rebellion, it might even greatly have contributed to it. But more than this, the betrayal is the root of David’s personal pain and his understandable desire to run away from what is hurting him and be at rest.

How well he knows himself and how well he describes the situation: “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him.” David had endured and hid before. Once, when David was fleeing Jerusalem, Shimei, a noted enemy, cursed him from the hillside, crying, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel. The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned.” But the king did not allow his men to retaliate by killing Shimei. He said, “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more then, this Benjamite!… It may be the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today” (2 Sam. 16:5-14).

David bore Shimei’s cursing well. But here in this psalm this was not Shimei, an enemy. This was his companion, his close friend, one with whom he had enjoyed sweet fellowship, a person in whose presence he had worship at the house of God. It is no revelation to say that it is those who are closest to us who hurt us most. Spurgeon said, “None are such real enemies as false friends.”4

Study Questions:

  1. What evil does the psalmist see?
  2. Describe what genuine revival and reformation look like?

Application: Knowing the sin that is in our own hearts, pray for the spiritual awareness and holy desire to honor the “golden rule” in our treatment of other people around us.

4C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 448.


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Tuesday: Betrayed by a Close Friend

By James Boice

Theme: The Psalmist’s Personal Anguish

In this week’s lessons we learn how David moves from great anguish and pain over his betrayal, to a settled confidence in God’s care.

Scripture: Psalm 55:1-23

There is a significant difference between the setting of the two earlier psalms of betrayal and this one. In Psalms 52 and 54 David is in the wilderness fleeing from his enemy Saul, a low point in his career, while in Psalm 55 he is apparently established in Jerusalem, his capital city. This must mean that Saul is dead and that David is now king. We would expect this situation to be good. David’s troubles should be over. But we find that this is not the case and that David is as much troubled in his ascendancy as he was when a fugitive.

In fact, the pain of these verses (vv. 1-8) may even be greater, for this is strong language. David begins by saying that he is “distraught” (v. 2) and in “anguish” (v. 4), and the words increase in intensity after this. The “terrors of death” assail him (v. 4). “Fear and trembling” beset him. “Horror” overwhelms him (v. 5).

In verses 6-8 we find something new. The writer is so distraught by what he finds around him that he is thinking how wonderful it would be to escape from his troubles. We have not seen anything like this before in David’s psalms. He has been fearful before. He has anguished over evil. But always he has seemed ready in God’s power to confront the evil boldly. Nowhere before has he expressed a wish to escape his trouble, to fly away and be at rest: “I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.’”

What is happening? Why do we find this new element? In my opinion what we have here is the weariness that comes to a valiant warrior or worker late in life or at least after the passing of youthful battles and triumphs. When we are young we do not expect life to be easy, and if we are energetic, we tackle problems with optimism and with our full strength. We achieve certain victories too. But as life goes on we find that the problems we thought we had overcome earlier are still around. The company we work for is still in trouble. Our taxes are still high. The murder and felony rates have not declined. Our children continue to cause trouble. In addition, we are getting older and therefore have less energy to cope with these or any other problems. We find ourselves thinking how nice it would be merely to fly away and escape them.

Many do, of course, at least if they have sufficient money to retire and travel. That desire makes the tourist industry flourish. But it is not always possible to escape things—David did not have “the wings of a dove”—and God does not always give us leave to leave either, especially if the problems we face involve continuing responsibilities on our part.

At this point the psalm becomes a lesson to us in steady perseverance, particularly perseverance in middle or late age. Perseverance is one of the virtues God looks for in his children.

Study Questions:

  1. How does the setting of Psalms 52 and 54 differ from Psalm 55 concerning David himself?
  2. What is the new element regarding David’s distress? Why might David feel this way?

Application: Can you identify with David in this psalm? Have you ever been betrayed by a close friend? How can this psalm help you to persevere as you study David’s response?


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Monday: Betrayed by a Close Friend

By James Boice

Theme: When Friends Betray

In this week’s lessons we learn how David moves from great anguish and pain over his betrayal, to a settled confidence in God’s care.

Scripture: Psalm 55:1-23

In Psalm 52 David’s presence in Nob had been disclosed to Saul by Doeg the Edomite. It concerns David’s betrayal by a foreigner. In Psalm 54 David has been betrayed by the people of Ziph, that is, by his own countrymen. This short series of betrayal psalms reaches a strong climax in Psalm 55 with its description of David’s betrayal by an intimate friend.

Who was this friend? The best guess is Ahithophel, David’s most trusted counselor, who sided with Absalom at the time of Absalom’s rebellion. But this is a “best guess” only because we have no other story from David’s life to link it to. Ahithophel’s story is told in 2 Samuel 15-17. It tells us that he was close to David and that he did betray him in order to side with Absalom, later hanging himself when Absalom rejected his advice in favor of another counselor. But there are problems with this view. The writer of Psalm 55 is presumably in Jerusalem. But in the account of Absalom’s rebellion given in 2 Samuel, David learned of Ahithophel’s defection only after he had left the city. Again, although David valued the advice of Ahithophel and trusted him, it would be hard to say that he was as close to David as Psalm 55 describes the betrayer having been: “my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship” (vv. 13, 14).

These difficulties have caused some commentators to ascribe the psalm to another writer entirely, to Jeremiah or to someone writing in a later declining period of the monarchy. But the title says the psalm is by David, and we should probably assume that it is merely about an incident that is not recounted in the historical books. At best those books give a summary of what was obviously a long and very complex career.

What about an outline for the psalm? Many commentators offer a three-part outline, the most striking form of it being by G. Campbell Morgan: 1.) fear (vv. 1-8); 2.) fury (vv. 9-15); and 3.) faith (vv. 16-23).1 Marvin E. Tate, one of the more modern commentators, finds ten parts.2

In my judgment, the best way of getting into the psalm is to focus on its alternating pattern of six or seven parts. We have seen something like this before, in Psalms 5, 18 and 42-43, for example. In the case of Psalm 55, the stanzas alternate between disclosures of the psalmist’s own state of mind and his descriptions of the wicked who are causing him problems. As is usual with such psalms, the descriptions of the psalmist’s state show improvement as David moves from great anguish of mind and pain to quiet confidence in God. I outline the psalm like this:

  1. the first disclosure of the psalmist’s anguish (vv. 1-8)
  2. the first description of the wicked (vv. 9-11)
  3. the second disclosure of the psalmist’s anguish (vv. 12-14)
  4. the second description of the wicked (v. 15)
  5. the psalmist’s faith in God (vv. 16-19)
  6. the third description of the wicked (vv. 20, 21)
  7. the psalmist’s final conclusion and advice (vv. 22, 23).3

 

As far as genres go, the psalm is a combination of a lament, a prayer, and a wisdom poem.

Study Questions:

  1. Who is thought to be the most likely friend to have betrayed David, and why?
  2. What are some problems with this identification?

Reflection: Why might it be better that we do not know the person and the situation that is the cause of this psalm of David?

For Further Study: To learn more about true friendship from the book of James, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “My Friends Are Special.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

1G. Campbell Morgan, Notes on the Psalms (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1947), pp. 101-102. But see also J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 436; H.C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), pp. 420-425; and Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 39-89 in “The Expositor’s Bible” series (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), pp. 159-170.
2Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), p. 56.
3Spurgeon is the only major commentator who has an outline similar to this. See C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 445.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.