Some people discount the brief introduction found at the beginning of this psalm saying it doesn’t necessarily provide an actual historical context, but I am not one of those people. While I might be academically naive, I think David actually wrote this psalm after being pursued by Saul’s men and while with Samuel at Ramah (see I Samuel 19:11-20). What might be surprising, however, are my reasons for believing this: while I completely trust the scriptures to be historically accurate, it is their universal application to human experience that has me convinced.
Take for instance the classic image of children sitting around a campfire, huddled together on logs, listening to the group leader tell stories of monsters, ghosts, and crazed fugitives late into the night. Embers of former branches and logs fill the base of the fire pit as flames cackle high into the night sky lighting up the surrounding dark forest. In their fear, the only thing the young children can see are the beady eyes of what they imagine to be wolves and cougars standing in the darkness ready to pounce and rip them to pieces.
At this point I’m guessing you may be wondering how a summer campfire relates to Psalm 59. You don’t have to be paying too close of attention to the wording of Psalm 59 to find that David likens his enemies to dogs howling in the evening darkness (59:6-7, 14-16) seeking to devour him. They circle him, growl, bellow, and seek his blood. Yet, in the midst of his circling enemies David finds rest in the fortress of God’s steadfast love, for David knows that come morning the vile howling dogs will be gone and in their place will shine the dawning light of God’s strength.
For those who may have been fortunate enough, (or unfortunate enough, depending on your point of view), to have lived through a night of campfire story telling, you may remember what happened in the morning. The beady eyes you thought were surrounding you in the night had disappeared, only to be replaced by dew drops hanging on broken branches. But the dewy eyes didn’t last long as the ever strengthening rays of the morning sunlight evaporated these last remnants of your fearful night. With the threat gone you looked back on your nighttime fears and saw them as a childish and foolish reaction.
However much our campfire experience might parallel the psalmists intentions, they are only an analogy and thus fall short of the real dogs and the true dark night through which we all must go before seeing the dawning light of God’s goodness. For my part, fear is greater in the late hours of the night, just after I’ve turned off the lights and as I lay silently in my bed. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually fear real dogs surrounding me, nor do I worry about thieves breaking in and stealing, though if those were distinct possibilities I’m sure I might lose sleep over them. No, my fears are something much less tangible. When I allow myself the freedom, which is a very odd thing to do, I fear the future and all the unknown fears awaiting me in the twilight years of my life. I fear becoming irrelevant and being discarded. I fear the panting breath of my own sin and my past failures. These, and many other fears, dwell at the edge of the firelight, creeping around the perimeter of my consciousness with their ravenous growls echoing in the darkness of my future and threatening my peace of mind by asking who will be my help in the coming days.
It is in these dark moments when I have two choices: I can give into the cries of these howling dogs of the night and cower in fear, or I can rest secure knowing these rabid howling dogs will be banished when the dawning light of God’s steadfast love appears over the horizon, however distant that might be. In the nights when I chose to give into the fear, I lose sleep, I toss and turn, and fill my head with worry and fabricated future failures which threaten to darken the following day. But on the nights when I chose to rest in God’s steadfast love, my sleep is sweet (Prov. 3:24) and my fears disappear knowing the morning light is coming.
I imagine David had such a choice when he was on the run from Saul’s messengers. I suspect, given that David runs away, that his first reaction might have been to give into the fear. But while running, he chose to go to Samuel instead of remaining in his fear. And it was there, in the presence of Samuel, the prophet of God, that David found safety and comfort. It was also there that the enemies sent by Saul, even Saul himself, were overcome by the Spirit of God so that David’s enemies David were conquered, not by destruction but by transformation: what was once evil became good. The dawning light of God’s Spirit conquered the howling dogs of fear and provided a strong refuge behind which David stood secure, finally experiencing the steadfast love of God.