The introduction to Psalm 56 is quite something:
To the leader [music director] according to [to the tune of] The Dove on Far-off Terebinths [a type of tree; perhaps this is a comforting reference to the Valley of Terebinths where David fought Goliath]. Of David. A Miktam [meaning unknown], when the Philistines seized him in Gath.
We learn that this is another song emanating from the anguish David felt during the time of Saul’s persecution and perfidy (see post on Psalm 52). The dove in name of the tune might suggest a yearning for peace. How nice it would be to have these ancient tunes to hand now. There was then no way of writing them down for posterity. Similarly, we know not what a Miktam was.
As in the preceding psalms, David rehearses the dangers and opposition all around, being hounded all day long; but gives thanks for deliverance in a repeated antiphon that is integral to the flow of the psalm (verses 4 and 10-11). He thus blends fear and trust in a sort of yin/yang juxtaposition. In a fascinating phrase, David also gives us imagery of putting one’s tears into God’s bottle for safekeeping.
The firsts PFAS setting 56A uses this dark/light theme in its refrain; the second 56B uses the last verses paraphrased — though the title of this song “God, I am beaten, battered and bruised’ is hardly enticing. Then again, neither are such circumstances, which are all too prevalent around the world today, as in David’s time.
These are simple enough songs: in contrast, a setting by Henry Purcell for up to 4 voices and continuo, entitled Be merciful to me, would test the most agile of singers. Here is a small extract of two of the voices, there being also a figured bass continuo: