A Song of Circumstance

Songs are usually born out of surrounding circumstances that so affect the thinking of the composer, he cannot help but burst forth with a melody and an accompanying set of lyrics describing his plight. This is certainly the case with the blues and jazz of yesteryear as well as the old spirituals of days gone by and the romantic love songs of any era. The same has often been true of gospel songs and sacred hymns; their historical settings explain their message.

Psalm 5 is no exception. As we read it, we can detect that it emerged out of an atmosphere of strife and oppression. David was down in the dumps . . . discouraged. Whatever his pressures were, they prompted him to compose this ancient hymn in a minor key.

I seriously doubt that there is any subject more timely than discouragement. So many people I meet feel like the soundtrack of their lives is nothin' but the blues. A relentless, grinding discouragement follows each unachieved goal or failed romance. Some try to whistle a happy tune in the darkness of a failing marriage, a relationship that began with such promise but now seems hopeless. Declining health can discourage and demoralize its victim, especially when the pain won't go away. And who can't identify with the individual who bravely risked something new, only to suffer the sting of criticism from a gallery of self-appointed critics?

The discouragement brought on by several back-to-back criticisms can scarcely be exaggerated. It could be that David was just picking himself up off the mat when another sharp-worded comment knocked him back to his knees . . . hence the birth of Psalm 5. Many a discouraged soul has identified with this song down through the centuries. Frequently, the words just above the first verse (which comprise the superscription) establish the historical context of the song.

If you glance just above verse 1 in the King James Version of the Bible, you will see that David desired this song to be played "upon Nehiloth." A nehiloth was an ancient woodwind instrument many associate with today's flute. Because many of the "lament psalms" feature the nehiloth, I think of the oboe, a sad-sounding, double-reed instrument. The wistful tone of the oboe prompts many composers to feature the instrument in doleful or contemplative pieces.

Interestingly, David did not play the nehiloth, but rather a stringed instrument similar to the harp (see 1 Samuel 16:23 KJV). David wrote this sad song of discouragement to be played on the instrument best suited to express the feeling of discouragement that gave birth to this song.

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Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Living the Psalms: Encouragement for the Daily Grind (Brentwood, Tenn.: Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., 2012). Copyright © 2012 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights are reserved. Used by permission.

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