God is the all-powerful Creator and sovereign Lord. But He is not far removed from our daily, and often painful, experiences. Psalm 56 reveals Him as a compassionate Father, who knows our steps, understands our hurts, and has graciously given us His Word to guide our lives.
The Tear Collector
Many years ago, John F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the thirty-fifth president of the United States, made the headlines. And it wasn’t good news at all. The night before he had piloted his single-engine plane from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard, an island just off the coast of Massachusetts. Flying with him were his wife and sister-in-law. Kennedy had logged over 300 hours of flight time but had completed only half of an instrument training course. On this particular night, there was no moon, and a fog limited his visibility. He was effectively flying in the dark.
I remember a pilot telling me that his instructor told him to close his eyes and try to fly straight. After a few moments, convinced he had the airplane on a straight path, he was told to open his eyes; he discovered that he was flying toward the ground.
In the darkness, a pilot has to trust his instrument panel more than his own sense of direction; otherwise, he just might be taking his plane into what is known as a “graveyard spiral.” And that is exactly what happened to Kennedy as his plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
According to investigators, he had lost his sense of direction. In fact, his plane was equipped with an autopilot, which would have returned the plane to a level flight, but he never turned it on.
The psalmist David has composed a song here that we call Psalm 56. It’s a song about being surrounded by difficult circumstances. The lights have effectively gone out, and at the moment David is flying in the dark.
This song is a classic simply because every believer has experienced this same thing—flying through the dark trials of life. David points us to the inspired instrument panel that we need to learn to trust more than our own personal sense of direction.
Now the heading of this psalm, what is called the superscription, gives us the setting. By the way, Jewish scholars added these superscriptions several hundred years before the birth of Christ. They are not part of the original text of the psalms, but they help the Bible student understand the contexts of the psalms.
This superscription reads, “When the Philistines seized him [David] in Gath.” That takes us back to the events recorded in 1 Samuel 21, where David was running for his life from King Saul.
David was no doubt thinking that the last place on the planet King Saul would come looking for him would be the hometown of Goliath, the giant David had killed some years earlier.
First Samuel records that a few days before fleeing to Gath, David stopped by the village of Nob and received from the high priest some food. David asked the priest if he had any weapons, and the priest gave him the sword of Goliath, which had been stored there in the tabernacle.
So, David fled to the Philistine city of Gath, Goliath’s hometown, and what was he carrying? The sword of their former hero, Goliath! One Old Testament scholar said that David’s flight to the city of Gath was proof of his despair.
The Philistines, of course, immediately planned to kill David. So, David pretended to be insane, and the Lord moved the heart of the Philistine king to let David go. David then writes Psalm 56 in response to the Lord’s rescue of him from certain death.
He writes in verse 3, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” I love the realism of David’s admission here: “When I am afraid,” not “If I become afraid.” He is saying, “When I am outnumbered, when I am in a dark place and thinking I’m not going to get out of here alive, I will trust the instrument panel of your promise and that you will guide me through.”
Beloved, faith does not automatically eliminate fear. Trust does not eliminate trials. In fact, who is trusting God more—the one who trusts Him when the sun is out and the birds are singing or the one who trusts God when it is dark and dismal and what is coming next is hidden from sight? Charles Spurgeon writes, “David … doesn’t claim to never be afraid … evidently, it is possible for fear and faith to occupy the mind at the same time.”
Here in verses 5 and 6, David describes the danger he faced in the city of Gath. He writes:
All the day long they injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps.
The word here for “lurk” can be translated, “to pant after,” like a dog on the hunt. David’s enemies are on his trail. They are dogging his heels, and he can’t escape them.
This is the perfect time to check the instrument panel for direction and guidance. David essentially gives us three principles from the instrument panel of God’s Word.
First, God’s Word is consistently appropriate for your troubles. David finds confidence and reassurance in the Word of God. He writes, “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust,” and, “In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust” (verses 4, 10-11).
Let me tell you, when the lights are out, when you are alone, when the pressure is on or the pain seems unbearable, there is nothing more helpful and reassuring and encouraging than God’s Word. In the darkness, beloved, you learn best that His Word is “sweeter … than honey” (Psalm 19:10).
Not only is God’s Word consistently appropriate for your troubles, but second, God Himself is consciously aware of your trials. In verse 8 David writes, “You have kept count of my tossings,” or wanderings. Imagine, every time David ran from one place to another, every time David tossed in his sleep, God knew all about it. Saul might have been on the lookout for David, but so was God.
Describe an experience in your life that has shown you that God is aware of your trials? What happened to make you aware of this truth?
There is a third principle here, and it’s this: God is compassionately attentive to your suffering. David writes in verse 8, “You … put my tears in your bottle.”
It wasn’t until I traveled to Israel that I discovered the ancient practice of tear bottles. In ancient days people kept delicate little containers to catch and store their tears. They were often made of glass, like a miniature vase with a little opening at the top that people would place at their cheeks to catch their tears.
It was normal at a funeral procession in Roman times for people to catch their tears in one of these little bottles and leave them at the graveside as a token of their sorrow.
What is interesting in this psalm is that God is the one holding the bottle to your cheek; God is the one collecting your tears. In fact, it’s God’s bottle. David writes, “You … put my tears in your bottle.”
In other words, God has not missed one tear you have ever shed, whether tears of sorrow, repentance, fear, hurt, rejection, or loss. God is personally involved; He is compassionately attentive to your suffering.
Beloved, you have never cried alone. God has been there all along. He knows every tear you have ever shed. And one day He will wipe every tear away. There is coming a day when God will, so to speak, empty your bottle of tears, and it will never be filled up again.
A hymn writer from many years ago wrote with that same confidence in his own personalized song—a hymn that echoes Psalm 56. It goes like this:
Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my gracious, omnipotent hand.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!
 Michael Youseff, When the Crosses are Gone (Kobri, 2011), 19.
 “How Firm a Foundation,” from John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns (1787).