Psalm 54: What’s in a Name?

Read Psalm 54.

When I was in the ninth grade, I did pretty well on my English quizzes during the first quarter of the year. In fact, I aced every single one. I studied hard—but it wasn’t the reading assignments I studied. I memorized the actual quizzes.

My sister, Kerry, just two years earlier, took the same class with the same teacher. And because she was a serious student, she saved all her past tests, quizzes, and papers. For my first quiz that year, I used her old, graded quiz as a study aid, thinking it would be good practice. That was when I discovered our teacher didn’t change his quizzes. I had in my possession the answer key for the whole year. So I memorized the multiple choice answers and fill-in-the-blank responses from then on.

It all worked great until I received a quiz that wasn’t what I’d memorized. It looked the same, but the order of the questions was different. When my answers were all wrong but lined up with the teacher’s other answer key, though, he knew something was up. I’m not proud of all this, but when I was caught, I owned up to it. I confessed before the accusation was even made. I took my suspension and my string of zeros without objection. I knew I had done something wrong, and it actually felt good to be done with it.

What didn’t feel good, however, was that about a month later, another student in my class was caught doing the exact same thing. She also had an older sister who had taken the same class, and she also had the quizzes to memorize. Only when this particular student was caught, she wasn’t given a bunch of zeros in the gradebook or a school suspension. She wasn’t reprimanded at all. Instead, our teacher was chastised for not changing his quizzes more frequently. The difference wasn’t in the crime; it was in the name. This other student was related to the founder of the school. The administration wasn’t going to punish her on account of her name.

A name can be a powerful thing if you have the right one. In Psalm 54, David knows that no one’s name is more powerful than God’s. “Save me, O God, by your name” is his petition (v. 1).

But it’s an odd phrase, isn’t it? What good can God’s name do on its own?

In the title, we’re told that this psalm is connected to the time “when the Ziphites had gone to Saul and said, ‘Is not David hiding among us?’” The Ziphites actual came to Saul twice to rat out David (see 1 Samuel 23:19–24; 26:1–4), and no one can be quite sure to which occasion this note refers. But it doesn’t really matter. In both instances, Saul and his men were looking to kill David. He was a wanted man. So how could God’s name alone help him?

Some Bible scholars will tell you that what’s intended is something like, “Save me, O God, for the sake of Your name (i.e. Your reputation).” There is some truth to the idea that a person’s name is shorthand for their character and reputation. But in this case, it just doesn’t add up. For one, that’s not how the Hebrew is actually constructed. Plus, it doesn’t fit with the second line of the verse, which seems to want to be a parallel statement: “Vindicate me by your might.”

God’s name is more than just a collection of sounds vocalized a certain way to form a distinct word. There’s power in His name:

See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. (Exodus 23:20–22)

The name of Yahweh is more than a label stuck to this angel; it is God’s presence there with His people. That’s why God warns the Israelites not to presume upon the angel’s forgiveness for their sins. But that’s an odd thing to say unless the angel is in some sense God. Only God can forgive sins (Isaiah 43:25; Mark 2:7). Notice also that God says to “listen carefully to what he says” and “do all that I say” in the same breath (Exodus 23:22, emphasis added). The angel speaks for God and as God, because He is God.* God’s name is His presence.**

Now David’s plea begins to make sense: “Save me, O God, by Your presence!” David knows that even by himself, he outnumbers his enemies if God’s presence is with Him.

God’s presence is what matters. It was God’s presence in the person of Jesus Christ that saved any of us. His presence is where all of human history is headed. His presence is what our souls long for.

“I will praise your name, LORD, for it is good” (Psalm 54:6).

* Interestingly, the earliest manuscripts of Jude 5 equate this angel directly with Jesus: “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (ESV).

** The Old Testament is filled with examples where the “name” of Yahweh is shorthand for His presence. For a few instances where the connection is particularly clear, see Deuteronomy 12:11; Psalm 20:1, 7; Isaiah 30:27–28.

What is this all about?

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