When my boys were younger we would wrestle a lot. They’d jump on me or punch me in the arm and I’d say something like “a fly, a fly just landed on me,” or “a gnat just bit me.” It was my way of saying, “Do your best, you can’t really hurt big ole dad.” (I don’t wrestle with them now – a wise man once said, “Better to let them think they can beat you than to wrestle them and remove all doubt,” or something like that.)
Psalm 56 reminds me a bit of this taunting. Throughout the psalm, we hear the complaint of all that David’s enemies are doing to him. They trample on him, they pursue, they attack, they twist his words, they plan his ruin, they conspire, they hope to take his life. David admits he is, at times afraid, saying “When I am afraid…”
Yet, David boldly asks twice, “What can flesh/men man do to me?” Well David, they can trample you, pursue and attack you, twist your words, plan your ruin, conspire, and try to kill!
David’s confidence is bound up in his relationship with God. When he’s afraid, he trusts God and can declare, “I will not be afraid.” David’s fearlessness is rooted in three truths braided together. First, a consistent theme of the Psalms is the absolute sovereignty of God. He is the King of Kings, Sovereign over the nations. So Psalm 47:2-3 (also Psalm 10:16, 76:7-9, and 113 for other examples):
For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared,
a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
No plan formed against God’s people will prosper unless God allows it.
Second, and related, God was on his side. In verse nine he writes (maybe sings), “This I know, that God is for me.” So, “If God is for us,” asks Paul, “who can be against us!” (Romans 8:31). His enemy’s plans will not come to fruition – God will deliver David and cast down his enemies in wrath.
This brings us to truth three. Even if David’s enemies do their worst and bring David down, it’s a gnat’s bite, an annoying fly, nothing more. To be perfectly honest, this may be a case where a biblical author wrote more than they truly understood. In verse thirteen the author writes,
“For you have delivered my soul from death,
yes, my feet from falling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life.
It is very likely that here, in Psalm 56, being delivered from death meant rescued from being killed physically. But, this side of the resurrection, we understand that being resurrected from death has a more final, more ultimate meaning. Oh, we’ll die physically of something someday (the first death), but those who’ve been born again (the first resurrection) will be delivered from death in the final resurrection (the second resurrection) and live forever – the second death (eternal death) will not hurt us. This ultimate hope was not unknown to the men who penned the psalms. Take Psalm 71:20-21 as an example:
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again.
You will increase my greatness
and comfort me again.
David says in verse eight, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” They are recorded, and they will be made right in eternity. Sufferings and miseries of this life are not ultimate, life at God’s right hand is. And mortal men cannot threaten this – it is out of their reach.
What David wrote about his enemies still applies to us today. Out eternal life is out of the reach of men who’d seek our harm, a disease that strikes our health, moth or rust that destroy earthly treasure. So, we can say, “What can flesh do to me?” and answer, “Nothing ultimately.”
It reminds me of John Donne’s sonnet, “Death, be not Proud”:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;