by Gordon Franz
History is replete with trusted and beloved people who betray their own family, friends, or country. Two examples come to mind. Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, betrayed the Lord Jesus with a kiss after receiving 30 pieces of silver. Another example is General Benedict Arnold, one of General George Washington’s most trusted officers during the American War for Independence. Arnold betrayed his own country by turning over the plans for West Point, the fort that he commanded, to his British handler Major John Andre in 1780. Fortunately, Andre was captured in Tarrytown, NY, by three alert patriot soldiers before he could make his way back to New York City – thus, this treasonous act was exposed and the plot was foiled.
William Shakespeare vividly captures another betrayal in his play Julius Caesar (1599). In January 2011, I had the opportunity to see this play in Rome on the last night of the Talbot School of Theology’s study tour of Turkey, Greece, and Rome. Some of my students found out that the play was being presented in English at one of the local theaters. They invited me to join them for dinner and then afterwards attend the play. I could not think of a better way to end the trip.
Julius Caesar and emperor worship was one of the themes of our study tour. We had discussed Caesar’s assassination and the implications of his subsequent deification by the Roman Senate. We had also discussed the pivotal battle of Philippi, which changed the course of Western civilization. At stake in this battle was whether Rome would retain its republican form of government or become an imperial empire with emperor worship as its new cult. Unfortunately, the imperialists won the battle and Rome adopted emperor worship. Thus, the underlying conflict between the Early Church and the Roman government began. The conflict revolved around the question of who could be rightly worshiped as lord. Was it Caesar or was it the Lord Jesus?
In 44 BC, Rome was in turmoil. Some Roman senators, calling themselves Liberators, wanted to keep the republican form of government and the liberties and freedoms that went along with it. On the other hand, Julius Caesar and his crowd wanted a dictatorship, and Caesar was about to proclaim himself king. The people seemed to be following Caesar because he fed and entertained them, which later became the basis for the phrase “bread and circuses.” The conspirators (Liberators) isolated Julius Caesar in the old Roman Senate building on the Eids of March (March 15) and proceeded to inflict knife wounds on the dictator. One of the last people to step forward to plunge his dagger into Caesar was Brutus. The Latin line, immortalized by Shakespeare, that has been attributed to Caesar was, “Et tu, Brute?” (“Even you, Brutus?” – Act 3, Scene 1, Line 77).
In the next scene, Mark Antony begins his eulogy of Julius Caesar with his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech. In the course of his remarks, Antony points to the twenty-three stab wounds that were inflicted by the Liberators on Julius Caesar, and says:
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made;
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d;
And as he pluck’d his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow’d it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock’d, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:
Judge, O ye gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart (Act 3, Scene 2).
According to Mark Antony, Brutus was Caesar’s angel and Julius loved him dearly, which is why a dear friend turning on him was “the most unkindest cut of all.”
After the play, we walked back to our hotel. There was a beautiful, bright, full moon (the eids of January) as we walked past the old Roman Senate building, where Julius Caesar had been assassinated and then past the Roman Forum, where the Temple of Julius which contains the cremated remains of the dictator was located.
Psalm 54 tells of another betrayal. The Ziphites, a clan within David’s own tribe of Judah, offered to turn him over to the Benjamite, King Saul. This offer must have deeply hurt David. He might have thought something akin to “Et Tu, Ziphites?” (“Even you, Ziphites?”). Why are you betraying your own tribesman? Where is your tribal loyalty?
Historical, Geographical, and Archaeological Background
The superscription gives us the historical setting for this psalm. It states, “A Contemplation of David when the Ziphites went and said to Saul, ‘Is David not hiding with us?’” It was during the time when David fled from Saul (1 Sam. 19-26). The Bible, however, records that the Ziphites offered David to Saul on two separate occasions (1 Sam. 23:19; 26:1; CBA 92) so it is difficult to ascertain which betrayal the psalmist had in mind. Perhaps the Spirit of God left it ambiguous so we could have two possibilities to contemplate as to how God will deliver us in times of trouble.
The first time the Ziphites offered to turn David over to Saul was in 1 Sam. 23:13-29. David was in the Wilderness of Ziph, and Jonathan, Saul’s son, visited him and made a covenant (23:14-18). David then moved deeper into the Judean desert to the Wilderness of Maon. There Saul divided his army and was ready to pounce on David and capture him when he received word that the Philistines had invaded the land of Israel (23:19-28). Saul left David at the Rock of Escape, or Separation (23:28), in order to take care of the Philistine problem. David then went to the strongholds of Ein Gedi (23:29). The first time David was delivered from Saul it was by external circumstances.
Nogah Hareuveni, the founder of Neot Kedumim (the Biblical Gardens), has identified the Rock of Separation with Mount Kholed (177-092 on the Israeli grid system), a one-and-a-half-kilometer, knifelike ridge with steep slopes on both sides. David was on the east side heading toward the Dead Sea. Saul, approaching from the west, split his army into a pincer formation to go around both ends of the ridge and capture David (1991: 33–34).
The second time the Ziphites offered to turn David over to Saul was in 1 Samuel 26:1. David was in the Wilderness (of Ziph or Maon), and Saul was camped on the Hill of Hachilah with his 3,000 men. The Lord caused a divinely induced deep sleep to fall on Saul and all his men (26:12), which enabled David and Abishai, one of David’s mighty men (2 Sam. 23:18-19), to enter the camp of Saul and remove his spear and water jug. Abishai wanted to kill Saul on the spot, but David did not allow it because Saul was the Lord’s anointed. The second time David was delivered from Saul was by divine intervention.
The Wilderness of Ziph (1 Sam. 23:14-15; 26:2) covers the area of Nahal Hever and Nahal Mishmar. The Wilderness of Maon (1 Sam. 23:24-25) covers the area of Nahal Ze’elim (Har-el 2003: 226).
The ancient city of Ziph was situated in the third district of the Hill Country of Judah along with ten other cities and their villages (Josh. 15:55-57). Ziph has been identified with Tel Ziph (1628-0982 on the Israeli grid system), a site located 880 meters above sea level and 6 kilometers (3 ½ miles) to the Southeast of Hebron. Because of its varied agricultural activities, Ziph was an important economic center. Dr. Menashe Har-el, professor of Biblical Geography at Tel Aviv University, observed that: “The ancient farmers [of Ziph] grew vines and olives on the slopes of the mountain ranges to the north and west of the city, and this region of the mountains of Hebron was the center of vine-growing activity. Cereals were cultivated on the wide plateau of Jattir and Eshtemoa in the south, which was the cradle of grain farming in the Judean Hills, while livestock were reared in the wilderness of Ziph in the east, particularly on the southern slopes of the mountains of Hebron in the direction of the Arad Valley” (2003: 228).
Ziph was also a strategic military post because it controlled the roads from the south into Hebron. For this reason King Rehoboam fortified the city in preparation for possible attacks from that direction (2 Chron. 11:8; CBA 119).
In the last quarter of the 8th century BC, Judah produced storage jars with the word “LMLK” stamped on the jar handles. The word “LMLK” mean “to/for the king.” Sometimes the jar handles had the name of one of four cities on them: MMST (most likely Ramat Rachel), Hebron, Succoh, and Ziph. Dr. Anson Rainey suggests that these vessels contain wine from the royal winery, but he is not sure how the crown acquired the vineyard (1982: 59; CBA 152). The Hebron Hills were famous for their grapes (cf. Num. 13:20, 22-24; see also Gen. 49:11-12). King Uzziah had royal wineries in the Hill Country of Judah and in Carmel, south of Hebron (2 Chron. 26:10). The royal Carmel estates were a result of David’s marriage to Abigail (1 Sam. 25:39-43). One could speculate that the Ziphite vineyards were confiscated by King David and made into a royal estate after the Ziphites had betrayed him on two occasions.
No systematic archaeological excavations have been conducted at Tel Ziph. After the Six-Day War (1967), Israeli archaeologists surveyed the site and picked up pottery shards from the Iron Age; the Persian Period; Hellenistic Period; as well as the Roman, Byzantine, and Medieval Periods. There was a heavy concentration of pottery during the Hellenistic period (Kochavi 1972: 68; site #178 on the Judah map). Khirbet Ziph (1635-0983 on the Israeli grid system) is located a short distance to the east of Tel Ziph, was surveyed as well but only Byzantine and Medieval archaeological remains were detected (Kochavi 1972: 69; Judah #179).
A bilingual ossuary that was found near Tel Ziph is on display in the Hebron Archaeological Museum. The owner’s name, which was written in both Greek and Aramaic, was on the ossuary, which dates to the 2nd or 3rd century AD (Rahmani 1972: 113-116).
The psalmist is betrayed by “friends” (his own tribesmen) and pursued by the wicked (King Saul), yet his trust is in the name of the Lord, the One who is “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). The psalmist is confident that the Lord will deliver him from this adverse situation. In gratitude to the Lord for answering his prayer, the psalmist offered a freewill offering out of love for Him.
Psalm 54 is made up of five stanzas and is arranged in a chiastic form: 54:1-2; 3; 4; 5; 6-7. The key word in the A lines (54:1, 6) is “Your name.” The center line, C (54:4), expresses the psalmist’s trust in the Lord.
A. Prayer for deliverance from enemies by YHWH’s name. 54:1-2
B. Enemies rise up against David. 54:3
C. The psalmist’s trust in his Deliverer – the LORD my Helper. 54:4
B’. Enemies are repaid by the Lord. 54:5
A’. Thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies by YHWH’s name. 54:6-7
The Hebrew Bible includes the superscription as part of the inspired psalm; the superscription is found in verses 1 and 2. Verses 1-7 in the English Bible are numbered 3-9 in the Hebrew text.
Exposition of Psalm 54
Prayer for deliverance from enemies by YHWH’s name. 54:1-2
“Save me, O God, by Your name, and vindicate me by Your strength. Hear my prayer; O God, give ear to the words of my mouth.”
David began this psalm with a prayer that contains two requests: save me and vindicate me. His prayer for salvation is made in the name of the Lord (YHWH). Because of the psalm’s chiastic structure, “the name” appears again in verse 6.
David probably had in mind the incident when Moses came across a burning bush at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, in the Sinai Peninsula. The Lord told Moses to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. After the Lord told Moses to go back to Egypt and lead His people out of bondage, Moses asked the Lord what he should tell the people of Israel is His name. The Lord replied, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:13-15). Yahweh was the covenant-keeping-and-blessing God. David understood he was not to seek his salvation in his own strength or might, but rather to trust the Lord because of His character and revealed attributes.
The second prayer request was for God to vindicate David. Vindication is a judicial term. David wanted the Lord to set things right because Saul had already judged David and determined that he was a threat to Saul’s kingdom. Saul wanted his own children to continue the dynasty. Saul slandered both David’s character and his reputation.
David asked the Lord to vindicate him and show his innocence. David had demonstrated his innocence to Saul on two occasions. The first time was at the cave at Ein Gedi. David could have killed Saul while the king was relieving himself in the cave, but he did not kill him because he understood that Saul was the Lord’s anointed. David said to let the Lord be judge between him and Saul (1 Sam. 24:11-15). David demonstrated his innocence a second time when, while being pursued by Saul, David went into Saul’s camp after the Lord had caused a deep sleep to come over everybody in the camp (1 Sam. 26:12). David took the spear and water jug that were by Saul’s head. After David left the camp and was far away, he asked Saul, “Why does my lord thus pursue his servant? For what have I done, or what evil is in my hand?” (26:18). He then mentions the “children of men” (beni ha-adam) in verse 19, the same Hebrew phrase used in Psalm 57:4 and Psalm 58:1-2 to refer to the wicked. David’s response was, “Let them be cursed.”
Enemies rise up against David. 54:3
“For strangers have risen up against me, and oppressors have sought after my life; they have not set God before them. Selah.”
David used a strong word to describe his enemies. He called them strangers (zarim). This word is usually used to refer to foreign enemies, but that is not always the case. In Psalm 86:14, the word is used of the proud, arrogant, person (zedim). Because the Hebrew letter resh and dalet have similar shapes, it could lead to a copyist error. For this reason, some manuscripts have zarim and other manuscripts have zedim in verse 3. Some scholars have suggested that the word strangers as used here refers to the men of Keilah who were of Canaanite origin and were going to betray David if he stayed in their city (1 Sam. 23:1-12; Kirkpatrick 1916: 305).
I would agree with the commentator who said: “Perhaps the intent is to use a particularly harsh term to describe fellow Israelites in order to emphasize just how far they have removed themselves from true covenant relationships” (Wilson 2002: 799).
The oppressors were violent, ruthless men who sought David’s life (cf. 23:14, 15; 24:11). They did this out of envy, or jealousy, because they did not have God’s interest in mind. Their only concern was how they might profit or benefit from David’s death; they refused to recognize the authority of God in their lives.
The verse ends with the Hebrew word Selah. Scholars have debated the meaning of this word, but I think it is a musical rest note meaning pause and reflect; in other words, stop and think about what was just said! The oppressors do what they do because they pursue their own interests rather than God’s.
The psalmist’s trust in his Deliverer – the LORD my Helper. 54:4
“Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is with those who uphold my life.”
This verse is the center of the chiasmus in this psalm. It’s the focal point, or central message, of the psalm. That message is simple: Trust the Name of the LORD. He is your Helper, and He will save and vindicate you!
While David’s trust was in the Lord, the Lord used human instruments to “uphold his life” by supporting and protecting David. When David was in the cave of Adullam, 400 members of his family and friends who were distressed, in debt, or discontented with King Saul’s policies, joined David in the cave. By the end of David’s flight from Saul, the Lord had assembled 600 men around David for his protection (1 Sam. 22:1-2; 27:2; 30:9). David’s prayer was that the Lord would be with those who were protecting him.
The Church today is engaged in spiritual warfare against Satan and his minions, both human and demonic (Eph. 6:10-20). We are to be fighting together against Satan and his crowd, not each other!
Enemies are repaid by the Lord. 54:5
“He will repay my enemies for their evil. Cut them off in Your truth.”
King Saul had plotted evil against David (1 Sam. 23:9; cf. 24:17), yet David did not seek revenge. David knew the promise of God: “’Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Deut. 32:35; cf. Rom. 12:17-21). Stopping Saul’s evil plots was the Lord’s problem. Because David trusted the Lord to take care of his enemies, David did not have to take revenge.
Dr. Mitchell Dahood points out that enemies (sorer) is a nuanced term for “defamers, or slanderers” (1968: 25; cf. Ps. 5:8-9; 27:2, 11-12; 54:5; 56:5; 59:1, 12). Defaming and slandering David was what Saul and those around him were doing. Saul was making false statements about David. When David had the chance to confront him from a distance at Saul’s camp, he asked: “Why does my lord thus pursue his servant? For what have I done, or what evil is in my hand?” (1 Sam. 26:18). Earlier, David had pointed out to Saul that men were saying he sought to harm Saul, but he had no desire to do so (24:9).
David did not take matters into his own hands despite having had two opportunities to eliminate Saul: the first at Ein Gedi (1 Sam. 24) and the second in the Wilderness of Ziph (1 Sam. 26). Interestingly, sandwiched between these two accounts, David is set to eliminate Nabal, whose name means fool, but the fool’s wife, Abigail intervenes on her husband’s behalf!
Thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies by YHWH’s name. 54:6-7
“I will freely sacrifice to You; I will praise Your name, O LORD, for it is good. For He has delivered me out of all trouble; and my eye has seen its desire upon my enemies.”
The freewill offering (nedabah) is a communal offering in which God got the fatty portion of the sacrifice (don’t worry, God does not have a cholesterol problem!), the high priest got the wave offering, and the officiating priest got the heave offering (right foreleg), and the rest went to the family and friends of the one offering the sacrifice. David and his family and friends enjoyed the fellowship meal together, praising the Lord for who He is and what He had done for David. It was not a votive offering because David had not made a vow saying he would offer a votive offering if God delivered him from his adverse situation (Lev. 7:16; 22:23; cf. Ex. 25:2; 35:29; Num. 15:3; Ps. 35:18; 52:9). With the freewill offering, David just wanted to say, “Thank you, Lord I love You because your Name is good.”
The reason David could offer this freewill offering was because he loved the Lord for what He had done in his life. The Lord had answered the two-fold prayer of David in this psalm: the first, for deliverance from the hands of King Saul, and the second, for vindication of his reputation in the eyes of Saul and the people.
Twice while David was in the Wilderness of Ziph the Lord delivered him from the hands of King Saul. The first time was by external circumstances. The second time was by divine intervention.
The second part of David’s prayer, “vindicate me by Your strength,” was answered as well. The strength of the Lord was seen when He caused Saul and his army to fall into a deep sleep, affording David the opportunity to take Saul’s water jug and spear. Saul finally realized that David had no evil intentions against him. In fact, as they departed for the last time Saul blessed David. “May you be blessed, my son David! You shall both do great things and also still prevail” (1 Sam. 26:25).
David’s desire was reconciliation, even in a small way, with his father-in-law. David could now rejoice because he had been vindicated by Saul’s admission of David’s innocence and he had given David his blessing.
Life Lessons to Be Learned
Fortunately, unlike Brutus’ betrayal of his friend Julius Caesar, the Ziphites’ betrayal did not lead to David’s death. Yet there are some valuable lessons we can learn from David’s prayer in this psalm and the experiences he went through.
The first lesson to be learned is that David prays in the Name of the Lord for his salvation: “Save me, O God, by Your name.” In the Hebrew Scriptures the name of God was Yahweh (or Jehovah), the self-existing, eternal God who saves. In the New Testament, salvation is found in the name of the second Person of the Triune Godhead, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Joseph found out his betrothed wife Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21). When the Apostle Peter appeared before the Sanhedrin, he stated: “Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. ‘This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12).
The Apostle Paul describes the “mind of Christ” as being humility. The Lord Jesus had humbled Himself to the Father’s will and was obedient to death on the Cross. “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
The second lesson to be learned is that when we are betrayed, rejected, or hounded by people, we should take our problems to our Friend, the Lord Jesus, in prayer. The hymn writer, Joseph Scriven (1855), so eloquently, yet so simply stated:
“Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
The third lesson to be learned from this psalm is that God answers prayer and uses various means to deliver us, and we should be careful not to dictate to God how to answer our prayers. Twice while he was hiding in the Wildernesses of Ziph and Maon, David was delivered from the hand of Saul. The first time it was by external circumstances. David was surrounded and about to be captured. Then the Philistines threatened Judah, and King Saul departed to take care of that problem, sparing David. The second time David was threatened; God divinely intervened by causing a great sleep to fall upon the camp of King Saul. David was able to take Saul’s water jar and spear and demonstrate to Saul that he had no evil intentions against him. The light finally came on in Saul’s head, and he realized David had no evil intentions toward him. Thus, he blessed David and departed, never to pursue David again. Twice David was in the same life-threatening situation, yet God delivered him in two different ways.
How does God answer prayers today? For example, if a person is sick, there are two different means God could use to heal the individual. He could use external circumstances. The sick person could go to a doctor, who makes the proper diagnosis and prescribes the proper medicine, and the person is healed. On the other hand, God could directly intervene and miraculously heal the person.
The final lesson to be learned is that ultimately God’s righteous justice will prevail. David understood that God would repay his enemies and deal with Saul (1 Sam. 26:10). God’s justice has been demonstrated by history. King Saul and his sons were killed on Mount Gilboa by the Philistines, and the Ziphites lost their land and it became a royal estate / vineyard.
In some churches, this psalm is sung on Good Friday when the prayer of the Lord Jesus is recalled while He was on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Perhaps a glimpse of this perspective can be seen in David’s relationship with his father-in-law. David recognized that Saul was God’s anointed and never took revenge on him. Instead, he prayed about the situation. What if David had taken matters into his own hands and killed Saul in the cave of Ein Gedi or the camp in the Wilderness of Ziph? David would not have experienced, even in a small way, reconciliation with his father-in-law, nor would he have gotten his blessing!
Even though David was betrayed by his own tribesmen and pursued by his father-in-law King Saul, his trust was in the Name of the Lord; the One who is “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” God delivered him from this adverse situation, and David offered a freewill offering to the Lord out of love for Him.
Aharoni, Yohanan; Avi-Yonah, Michael; Rainey, Anson; and Safrai, Ze’ev
2002 The Carta Bible Atlas. Jerusalem: Carta [abbreviated as CBA].
Albright, William Foxwell
1924 Researches of the School in Western Judaea. Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 15: 2-11.
1974 The Psalms. London: Soncino. 11th Impression.
1968 The Anchor Bible. Psalms II 51-100. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
1973 Commentary on the Old Testament. Psalms. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
2007 Psalms. Vol. 2 (Psalms 42-89). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
2003 Landscape, Nature, and Man in the Bible. Jerusalem: Carta.
1991 Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage. Lod: Neot Kedumim.
1973 Psalms 1-72. An Introduction and Commentary on Books 1and 2 of the Psalms. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity.
Kirkpatrick, A. F.
1916 The Book of Psalms. Cambridge: At the University.
1953 The Book of Psalms. Vol. 1. Dublin: Browne and Nolan.
1972 Judaea, Samaria and the Golan Archaeological Survey 1967-1968. Jerusalem: The Archaeological Survey of Israel and Carta.
Lance, H. Darrell
1992 Ziph. P. 1104 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Perowne, J. J. Stewart
1976 The Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
1972 A Bilingual Ossuary-Inscription from Khirbet Zif. Israel Exploration Journal 22/2-3: 113-116.
1982 Wine from the Royal Vineyard. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 245: 57-62.
1989 Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
1990 Word Biblical Commentary. Psalms 51-100. Vol. 20. Dallas, TX: Word.
Van Gemeren, Willem
1991 Psalms. Pp. 3-880 in Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 5. Edited by F. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
2002 The NIV Application Commentary. Psalms. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.