Psalms of the Fugitive

Harmonizing biblical poetry and history to understand David’s time on the run
From the September-October 2023 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

Of all the musicians in the Bible, King David would have to be the most famous. His reign brought cultural renaissance to Israel.

Josephus wrote: “And now David being freed from wars and dangers, and enjoying for the future a profound peace, composed songs and hymns to God …. He also made instruments of music, and taught the Levites to sings hymns to God, both on that called the Sabbath day, and on other festivals” (Antiquities of the Jews, 7.12.3).

David was not just prolific after having been “freed from wars and dangers.” A handful of psalms contain title text, or subtitles, that show he was composing them during tumultuous times—even when on the run from his predecessor, King Saul.

Let the Stones Speak

Though the psalms are not written in chronological order narratively, we can “harmonize” them with the events catalogued in the book of Samuel. These psalms add color to the historical tapestry of David’s time on the run.

We could call these “the psalms of the fugitive.” They shed light on David’s time before he officially began serving as Israel’s monarch and show what was in his heart—and how he used poetry and song in a unique and masterful way.

The Escape

1 Samuel 18 reveals King Saul’s jealousy of young David and the events that initiated David’s fugitive years. Verses 6-9 describe how Saul was envious of David’s military prowess and exploits. Later in the chapter, Saul puts David in charge of a battle he was sure to lose. But his plan backfired: David not only emerged victorious, he was given Michal, Saul’s daughter, as a reward. This infuriated King Saul, who became “David’s enemy continually” (verse 29).

The next chapter describes a particularly harrowing night for David: “And Saul sent messengers unto David’s house, to watch him, and to slay him in the morning; and Michal David’s wife told him, saying: ‘If thou save not thy life to-night, to-morrow thou shalt be slain.’ So Michal let David down through the window; and he went, and fled, and escaped” (1 Samuel 19:11-12).

This night is the backdrop for Psalm 59, the subtitle of which reads: “For the Leader; Al-tashheth. A Psalm of David; Michtam; when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him.” (It’s important to note: The translation used in Let the Stones Speak is the Jewish Publication Society. In this translation, unlike many others, Psalm subtitles are given verse numbers since they were part of the original Hebrew text. For some of our readers, verse numbers may be slightly different depending on the translation.)

Consider some of the highlights of Psalm 59, given the circumstances recorded in 1 Samuel 19: “Without my fault, they run and prepare themselves; Awake Thou to help me, and behold. Thou therefore, O Lord God of hosts, the God of Israel, Arouse Thyself to punish all the nations; Show no mercy to any iniquitous traitors. Selah. They return at evening, they howl like a dog, And go round about the city” (Psalm 59:5-7). Saul’s soldiers are likened to growling dogs (verse 15), evoking imagery assigned to Benjamin, Saul’s tribe, in Genesis 49:27.

As David hid in this upper story from which Michal “let [him] down,” he also invoked the image of God as “my high tower” (Psalm 59:10, 17-18).

David also uses language to heighten the nocturnal sense of this poem. He calls on God, “Awake Thou to help me” (verse 5) and “Arouse Thyself to punish …” (verse 6). He is certain that he “will sing aloud of Thy mercy in the morning …” (verse 17).

Escaping this threat, David headed first to Naioth in Ramah where the Prophet Samuel was (1 Samuel 19:18). Perhaps David used his time in Naioth to compose psalms like Psalm 59.

Pleading for Justice

Psalm 7 also seems to fit these early days on the run. The subtitle reads: “Shiggaion of David, which he sang unto the Lord, concerning Cush a Benjamite.” The only known Benjamite with a similar name is that of Kish, Saul’s father (1 Samuel 10:11, 21). Additionally, the opening of Psalm 7 fits David’s escape from the spiteful king: “[I]n Thee have I taken refuge; Save me from all them that pursue me, and deliver me; Lest he tear my soul like a lion, Rending it in pieces, while there is none to deliver” (verses 2-3).

The untranslated word in the subtitle, Shiggaion, appears to refer to a loud cry. Habakkuk 3, which is constructed as a psalm, opens: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. Upon Shigionoth” (verse 1). Habakkuk, who had bemoaned a lack of justice, calls on God in a poetic fashion to bring justice and revive a weakened work. Its final verses read similar to many subtitles in the psalms.

Similar to Habakkuk 3 and as Shiggaion may imply, Psalm 7 includes a theme of crying aloud for justice: “O Lord my God, if I have done this; If there be iniquity in my hands; If I have requited him that did evil unto me, Or spoiled mine adversary unto emptiness; Let the enemy pursue my soul, and overtake it, And tread my life down to the earth; Yea, let him lay my glory in the dust. Selah” (verses 4-6). These are less pleas for deliverance as they are cries for justice. He begs for justice, even if it means being on the receiving end of retribution himself.

“O Lord my God, if I have done this; If there be iniquity in my hands; If I have requited him that did evil unto me, Or spoiled mine adversary unto emptiness; Let the enemy pursue my soul, and overtake it, And tread my life down to the earth; Yea, let him lay my glory in the dust. Selah.” —Psalm 7:4-6

Shiggaion may also carry the connotation of being a wanderer or fugitive, as the root shagah can mean “to stray or err.” “[John] Parkhurst and others explain shiggayon as ‘a song of wanderings,’” Alfred Sendrey wrote in Music in Ancient Israel. “According to this view, David wrote this psalm during his years of wandering when, as a fugitive, he tried to escape from Saul’s pursuits. … [Franz Julius] Delitzsch maintains that ‘shiggayyon (related to shigaon, madness) may mean … a reeling poem, i.e. one endowed with a most excited movement and a rapid change of the strongest emotions ….’”

One cast as a fugitive would utter a psalm that cries for justice, as seen in Habakkuk 3 and Psalm 7. This corresponds to the narrative of 1 Samuel 20:1: “And David fled from Naioth in Ramah, and came and said before Jonathan: ‘What have I done? what is mine iniquity? and what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life?’”

Ode to Doeg

David went next to Nob (1 Samuel 21:2), where the tabernacle and the priestly families resided. Verses 7-10 show that he ate of the showbread and was gifted Goliath’s sword—being kept there as a sort of artifact of David’s victory. He eventually would use the sword as a payment to buy his way into Gath as a hideout, but before leaving Nob, he was spotted by Doeg, an Edomite loyal to King Saul.

When Doeg told Saul of David’s visit, the king had Doeg return to slaughter everyone in Nob for cooperating with the traitor. The only survivor of that massacre was Abiathar. “And Abiathar told David that Saul had slain the Lord’s priests. And David said unto Abiathar: ‘I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul; I have brought about the death of all the persons of thy father’s house. Abide thou with me, fear not; for he that seeketh my life seeketh thy life; for with me thou shalt be in safeguard’” (1 Samuel 22:21-23).

These events correspond with Psalm 52: “When Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him: ‘David is come to the house of Ahimelech’” (verse 2). The majority of this psalm is addressed to Doeg, as a poetic device (David never intended to perform this for Doeg). He calls him a “mighty man” and contrasts his arrogant evil with the enduring “mercy of God” (verse 3).

He condemns Doeg, adding that God’s punishment on him would cause others to mock him. He then contrasts himself to Doeg: “But as for me, I am like a leafy olive-tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever” (verse 10). He concludes by addressing God Himself: “I will give Thee thanks for ever, because Thou hast done it; And I will wait for Thy name, for it is good, in the presence of Thy saints” (verse 11).

“But as for me, I am like a leafy olive-tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever” —Psalm 52:10

Counting His Wanderings

By the time David arrived in the Philistine city of Gath, his reputation had preceded him. The king there knew of the song about David (1 Samuel 21:11-12).

Psalm 56 relates to this stint in Gath: “For the Leader; upon Jonath-elem-rehokim. A Psalm of David; Michtam; when the Philistines took him in Gath” (verse 1). The untranslated Jonath-elem-rehokim literally means “on the silent dove of the far-off pine grove.” Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary says this psalm could liken David to “an uncomplaining, meek dove, driven from his native home to wander in exile. Beset by domestic and foreign foes, David appeals confidently to God ….”

In this psalm, David mentions a singular “he” who “oppresseth me” (verse 2), as well as “They that lie in wait,” and that “they are many that fight against me” (verse 3).

Verse 9 contains a fascinating detail about David’s time on the run: “Thou has counted my wanderings; Put Thou my tears into Thy bottle; Are they not in Thy book?” (verse 9). Whatever book David is referring to, this again confirms the fugitive nature of this composition. And like other psalms, this one concludes by extolling God, encapsulated in this statement: “I will not be afraid; What can man do unto me?” (verse 12).

All Together

David became concerned he wasn’t safe in Gath. 1 Samuel 21:14 says he “feigned himself mad in their hands” so he could be released. The subtitle of Psalm 34 says it relates to “when [David] changed his demeanor before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.” A couple of remarkable observations stand out about this psalm.

First, it’s one of a handful of acrostic poems in the psalter—where each line or section of poetry begins with the next letter of the aleph-bet. This brings a ring of irony: Someone who’d feigned insanity composed a highly structured psalm.

Another noteworthy aspect of this poem is the use of first-person plural—particularly David’s charge in verse 4: “O magnify the Lord with me, And let us exalt His name together.” It’s likely he introduced this as a “congregational” hymn for those who joined him while on the run, as described in 1 Samuel 22. Psalm 34:12 indicates he may have involved children in performing this.

Verse 8 reinforces this idea of a group setting for this composition: “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, And delivereth them.”

In the Cave

After departing Gath, David went to Adullam (1 Samuel 22)—the name of which means “justice of the people.” This location was a “stronghold” for David (verses 4-5). This is where many supporters joined him, including his own biological family: “[A]nd when his brethren and all his father’s house heard it, they went down thither to him. And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men” (verses 1-2).

Psalm 57 is “of David … when he fled from Saul, in the cave” (verse 1). “Be gracious unto me, O God, be gracious unto me, For in Thee hath my soul taken refuge; Yea, in the shadow of Thy wings will I take refuge, Until calamities be overpast” (verse 2). “Refuge” is referenced twice in this verse.

The ensuing verses contain various metaphors related to David’s enemies: wanting to swallow him; being like lions; their tongues being sharp; preparing nets and pits in his path. David spends the remainder of the psalm exalting God, saying he will do so with instruments and a loud voice—even to the extent that “I will awake the dawn” (verse 9). To him, God’s glory was too great to keep silent, even in hiding places.

Betrayal of Strangers

After receiving advice from the Prophet Gad, David left Adullam and went to the forest of Hereth (1 Samuel 22:5). Later, David was inspired to go to Keilah, to save its citizens from a Philistine invasion (1 Samuel 23:5). While there, David learned of Saul’s plans to entrap him (verses 8-13).

David went to the “hill-country in the wilderness of Ziph” (verse 14). “Then came up the Ziphites to Saul to Gibeah, saying: ‘Doth not David hide himself with us in the strongholds in the wood, in the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of Jeshimon?’” (verse 19). This happens again in 1 Samuel 26 after David circles back into that area during his wanderings.

Psalm 54 refers to one or both of those occasions “when the Ziphites came and said to Saul: ‘Doth not David hide himself with us?’” (verse 2). David prayed for God’s attention: “For strangers are risen up against me, And violent men have sought after my soul; They have not set God before them. Selah” (verse 5). He also declared his assurance in God: “He will requite the evil unto them that lie in wait for me; Destroy Thou them in Thy truth” (verse 7). He then promised a “freewill-offering” of thanksgiving in advance of God rescuing him: “For He hath delivered me out of all trouble; And mine eye hath gazed upon mine enemies” (verse 9).

Thirsty Lands

1 Samuel 23:20-23 show the particulars of this stint in Ziph. Verse 24 states: “… David and his men were in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah on the south of Jeshimon.”

Maon, another Judahite wilderness David found himself in, was probably the setting for Psalm 63, “when he was in the wilderness of Judah” (verse 1). This psalm poignantly draws upon metaphors from a parched desert: “O God, Thou art my God, earnestly will I seek Thee; My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee, In a dry and weary land, where no water is” (verse 2). The next verses are filled with praise, and then this image, to which anyone who’s been in a desert for an extended period of time can relate: “… in the shadow of Thy wings do I rejoice” (verse 8). At the end of the composition, he forecasts the fate of his enemies: “hurled to the power of the sword” and becoming “a portion for foxes” (verse 11).

1 Samuel 23:25 says Saul “pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon” but that he was drawn away by a Philistine threat (verses 27-28). “And David went up from thence, and dwelt in the strongholds of En-gedi” (1 Samuel 24:1). This is the cave where David had the chance to kill Saul and likely the same place referred to in Psalm 142, “when he was in the cave” (verse 1).

David spares Saul’s life in the cave of Adullam

In verse 8, he pleads: “Bring my soul out of prison, That I may give thanks unto Thy name ….” David was praising God in these life-threatening conditions, but he expressed a desire for deliverance to be able to do it more freely.

1 Samuel 25:1 tells us that Samuel died around the time that David “went down to the wilderness of Paran.”

Psalm 143 doesn’t contain a location in its subtitle, but its proximity to Psalm 142 may indicate that it coincides with this time in Paran. Psalm 143:3, 5 reference the dead and the “days of old,” possibly indicating a nostalgic David remembering the life of his mentor Samuel.

Verse 6 bears resemblance to the previous wilderness psalm: “My soul thirsteth after Thee, as a weary land ….” This phrase implies a wilderness hideout, though David believed—no matter where he hid—God was where he’d hidden himself (verse 9).

1 Samuel 25-31 record the remainder of David’s time on the run before Saul is killed in a battle against the Philistines. David spent the last 16 months of these fugitive years in Ziklag (1 Samuel 27:5-7). This is where he learned of Saul’s death and composed one of the most exquisite elegies in history (2 Samuel 1:19-27).

Around this time, he composed another psalm, which is recorded later in 2 Samuel 22. Psalm 18:1 reads, “For the Leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who spoke unto the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.”

In this psalm, David calls God his “rock,” “fortress,” “deliverer,” “shield,” “horn of salvation” and “high tower” (verse 3). “Praised, I cry, is the Lord, And I am saved from mine enemies” (verse 4).

Songs of Deliverance

David also composed psalms while on the run later in life. Psalm 3 is attributed to “when he fled from Absalom his son” (verse 1). (Psalm 55 strongly implies the same time period in David’s life.) These events are related in 2 Samuel 15-18, but Psalm 3 shows David’s heart like nothing else: “Lord, how many are mine adversaries become! Many are they that rise up against me. Many there are that say of my soul: ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’ Selah” (verses 2-3).

King David composed psalms and prayers for deliverance to the God he looked to for his shield and for his promotion (verse 4). He proclaimed that he can literally rest assured: “I lay me down, and I sleep; I awake, for the Lord sustaineth me. I am not afraid of ten thousands of people, That have set themselves against me round about” (verses 6-7).

David was full of conviction that God would do for him later in life what he did in those many years he spent running from King Saul. “… For Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek, Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongeth unto the Lord; Thy blessing be upon Thy people. Selah” (verses 8-9).

Exploring David’s artistic output, especially during the “fugitive” years, reveals something remarkable: He was never too busy or burdened to compose songs in praise of his God. As he wrote in Psalm 32:7, “With songs of deliverance Thou wilt compass me about. Selah.” To him, these were not trite diversions from the woes of life, but their own kind of rocky fortress.