Today we have yet another psalm of lament in which the psalmist cries to the Lord for help because of the trouble he’s in. And I think I’m mentioned this before, but the fact that so many of the psalms are lamentations is a reminder to us that our life in this world is full of trouble and trials and we frequently find ourselves in trouble. In this world, there are many who do not believe and who hate us because we belong to the Lord. So, we suffer for the sake of righteousness. But we also suffer because this is a fallen and broken world and there are many things which happen in our day to day lives which make us sigh and weep and which frustrate us and which upset us.
Of course, there is much that gives us joy, because the world God made is good and he fills our lives with good things. But the good world which God made has been spoiled because of Adam’s sin in the beginning and so there is much which makes us weep. But when we’re in trouble, when we suffer afflictions of one kind or another, we know we can turn to the Lord our God for help, because — as the psalmist tells us in verse 9 — God is for his people; he’s on our side.
The title tells us that this psalm is associated with the time when the Philistines seized David when he was in Gath. So, in 1 Samuel 21 we read how David was on the run from Saul and he went down to Gath, which was a Philistine city. In fact, it was where Goliath was from. We’re not told why David decided to go there, but perhaps he was hoping that no one would recognise him and he would be able to hide out there for a time. However, the servants of the king recognised him immediately; and they remembered that he was the one of whom it was said:
Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.
When David heard them talk about him in this way, he was very much afraid. And so he pretended to be insane and he acted like a mad man. And the king was deceived and instead of killing him, he let David go.
So, that’s what happened in 1 Samuel 21; and today’s psalm is associated with that time. However, there’s not a great deal of correspondence between what we read in 1 Samuel and what we read in the psalm. The only real connection is that in 1 Samuel 21 and in Psalm 56 David is in trouble and he needs God’s help.
Verses 1 and 2
The psalm begins with a cry for mercy. And he needs God’s mercy and help because ‘men hotly pursue me’. I’m not entirely sure why the NIV translates the verse that way, because what David really says is:
Be merciful to me, O God, for man tramples on me.
He refers to a single person who is crushing him. Of course, he’s using the word ‘trample’ in a figurative way to convey how this person is oppressing him. And then he adds that this person presses his attack ‘all day long’. Well, we can often put up with trouble when it doesn’t last very long. Or we can put up with trouble when it’s now and again. But it’s another matter entirely when it happens all day long and there’s no relief. And it turns out from verse 2 that it’s not just one person who is attacking David, because now he refers to ‘slanderers’ in the plural who all day long pursue him. The word translated ‘pursue’ is the same one from verse 1 when means trample and crush. So, they’re oppressing him all day long. And he then refers to ‘many’ who are attacking him. So, he’s being attacked by not just one person, and not just a few people, but by many people. And they’re not just attacking him now and again, but all day long.
Verses 3 and 4
But look: when he’s afraid like this — and presumably he’s afraid for his life — when he’s afraid, he trusts in God. And he says it again in verse 4, though this time he reverses what he says:
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
So, trusting God is the antidote to fear, Instead of looking at the thing which is frightening us, we should look to the Lord who is able to help us. And since we’ve got God on our side, since the Lord is with us to help us, ‘what can mortal man do to me?’ The Lord our God is almighty; he rules and reigns in heaven above. He controls all of his creatures and all of their actions. Who can speak and have it happen, if the Lord has not decreed it? Isn’t that how Jeremiah puts it in the book of Lamentations? Unless the Lord has decreed it, no-one’s plans against us will ever succeed. And if the Lord has decreed it, then you can be sure that whatever he has decreed for his people will be for our good, because he’s able to work all things together for the good of his people. And therefore, what can a mere mortal do to me? What can they do, because they are under the authority of the Lord God Almighty who controls all his creatures and all of their actions, so that they can’t do anything to us which he has not permitted. And so, when I am afraid, I will trust in you, because the Lord God rules and reigns over all.
And did you notice what David wrote in the middle of verses 3 and 4? He said:
In God, whose word I praise.
We should probably take this to mean that he praises God for his word. And when he refers to God’s word, he might be thinking of God’s promise to David in particular that he would be the king of God’s people in place of Saul. And since God had promised him that he would one day be king, then the Lord God would do everything necessary to preserve his life and to keep him safe from his enemies until his word to David was fulfilled. But it’s also possible that he was thinking of God’s promise to his people in general to be their God and to take care of them. And right throughout the Bible we have one promise after another from God to his people to comfort us and to reassure us and to teach us that we don’t need to be afraid, but we can always trust in him to help us. And so, when we’re frightened, we should turn to the Bible and search through it for all of God’s wonderful promises to us to be our refuge and strength and an ever-present help in trouble; to be our strength and our shield; to be our Shepherd who is with us and who goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life.
Verses 5 and 6
In verses 5 and 6, David continues to describe his enemies. All day long they twist his words and they’re plotting to harm him. They conspire against him. And they lurk or lie hidden, ready to pounce on him. And they watch his steps, keeping an eye on him, because they are so eager to take his life.
That’s what his enemies are like. And so, David turns to the Lord in verse 7 and he asks the Lord to make sure they do not escape his wrath. Once again, the NIV translation is a little off, because David refers in this line to their crime or to their iniquity. So, he’s asking the Lord to punish them for their sins; and to bring them down and to destroy them because of all the wicked things they have done. And, of course, David was thinking of the Philistines, wasn’t he? And we know it was God’s will that they should be destroyed, because they were a wicked nation.
Verses 8 and 9
The NIV takes the words of verse 8 as a request to the Lord, though other English translations take the words as a statement. Perhaps we can say that David is absolutely confident that God will grant his request. And so, he knows that God will record his lament and not dismiss it or forget it. And he knows that God will list his tears in his scroll. Other translations say that God will put his tears in his bottle. The point is the same: God will not ignore his tears or forget them, but will remember all of David’s tears. And he’ll keep a record of them in his book.
Now, think about that. When we’re upset and troubled, the Devil comes along and he tries to get us to believe the lie that God does not care. God does not care about what you’re going through. God does not care what you’re suffering. But it’s a lie, isn’t it? And we know it’s a lie, because here we have this wonderful image of the Lord our God looking down at us and noticing all the times we’re afraid and worried and upset and sorrowful and are weeping and he writes it all down in his record book. And so, on those occasions when you wonder whether anyone knows what you’re going through and does anyone know your sorrow or your heartache, you should remind yourself that the Lord knows and he’s keeping track of it all; and he will not let you suffer beyond what you can bear. And so, when the time is right, he will make your enemies turn back and he will keep you safe. And we can be sure about this, because we know that God is for us. How do we know that God is for us? We know that God is for us, because he did not spare his Son, but gave him up for us and for our salvation. And since he was prepared to give up his Son for us, then there’s nothing he won’t do for us now and there’s nothing that can separate us from his love for us in Christ Jesus. Nothing we face now can ever separate us from his love. So in whatever circumstances you find yourself, you can be sure of this one thing: that God is for you. He’s on your side.
Verses 10 and 11
And since this is true, David repeats in verses 10 and 11 what he has already said in verses 3 and 4. It’s a kind of chorus or refrain. Perhaps David sang it to himself whenever he was afraid to remind himself that he need not be afraid.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise —
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can man do to me?
Verses 12 and 13
And so, he makes a vow to present a thank-offering to the Lord. In other words, he promises to go up to tabernacle and to offer a sacrifice to the Lord to demonstrate his gratitude to God for saving him. And he’s so confident that God will deliver him that he speaks of it in verse 13 as if it’s already happened. So, he knows that God will deliver him from death; and he knows that God will keep his feet from stumbling. And since God will deliver him and keep him from death, he will therefore walk before the Lord. In other words, he will walk in the ways of the Lord, seeking to do his will each day.
And since you too can trust in the Lord, then you too should do the same. You’re not to bring an animal sacrifice to God, but you’re to offer God a sacrifice of praise by proclaiming all that he has done for you. And you’re to walk in his ways and you’re to do his will. And whenever you’re afraid — and there are many things which make us afraid; and there are many people and situations which upset us and hurt us and make us weep — you should remember and believe that you can trust in the Lord your God, who keeps a record of all your tears and who has promised in his word to help you. You should remember and believe that he is for you. Once you were his enemy, because of your many sins. But you have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ his Son, who loved you and who gave up his life to pay for all your sins. Once you were God’s enemy and you were therefore liable to his wrath and curse. But now, because of Christ, you’re no longer his enemy, because you’ve become one of his people and a member even of his family. And therefore he is no longer against you, but he’s for you; and you can therefore cry out to him for mercy and for help.