Psalm 56

Bill McFarland

September 3, 2006


I brought with me today a visual aid.  I know you can’t see it very well, and that really serves my purpose a little better.  I want to see how many phrases from it you know by heart – how many of the phrases on this $1 bill you can quote.  Some of you may know it well enough to know that it says at the top of the front “Federal Reserve Note.”  Or maybe you know that it says “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.”  Maybe you even know the Latin phrase on the great seal of the United States that is on the back.  I am hoping, though, that most of us know the phrase right above the “one” on the back of the one dollar bill.  It says, “In God We Trust.” 

I never had thought about where that phrase may have originated until I started working on the passage that we will study today.  This, as one old writer referred to it, is the “most beautiful of the songs in the psalter.”  It is really the origin for a deeper phrase than this one - not “In God We Trust” but “In God I Trust.”   Notice carefully the words of Psalm 56.  “Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? All day long they injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps, as they have waited for my life. For their crime will they escape?  In wrath cast down the peoples, O God! You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose Lord I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.  What can man do to me?  I must perform my vows to you, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.  For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

This morning we want to direct our attention toward first what there is that is so beautiful about this prayer, this hymn.  Then we want to be reminded about why its sentiments are so urgent for every single one of us, and then we want to consider what it means.  What does it mean to trust in God?  That phrase is used frequently.  What does it mean?

The Beauty Of The Song

One of the reasons I see so much beauty in this psalm is that the Hebrew writer makes use of it in the last chapter of the great book of Hebrews in the New Testament.  You may be aware that Hebrews is written to a weary group of Christians.  They are people who have served, and have served well and hard.  They are people who have given much for a long period of time, but they have done so to the point that they are tired.  They are people who are in some ways feeling used up and wondering if it is worth going on.  I would liken it to what many of us feel after a long hot summer, with its many demands and many things that drain our energy.  I believe it fits a time like this in our lives. 

In Hebrews 13:6 the writer made reference to God’s promise to never leave us or forsake us as his children.  “So,” he says, “we can confidently say ‘the Lord is my helper.  I will not fear.  What can man do to me?”  Now notice that the last phrase is the one used for the chorus of the song in Psalm 56.  The writer said it twice.  Verse 4 says, “I shall not be afraid.  What can flesh do to me?”  Verse 11 says, “In God I trust.  I shall not be afraid.  What can man do to me?”  The fear that drains us is answered by a great enough trust in God. 

I don’t know what kinds of things today might make each one of our hearts fear, but I do know that it is a human condition and a human problem.  Undoubtedly, there are many who have some amount of fear about the conditions in our world right now, where we are constantly talking about who will develop nuclear weapons next, into what kinds of hands those things may fall, and what type of war then will be the result.  We are concerned about war now and which ones of our people have to be in an area where that kind of danger exists.  Some present will be afraid of circumstances in life – maybe things that involve health or personal concerns for family life or fears that have to do with the future and what the future might bring, not to a nation as a whole, but to me individually.  Some of us present have fears about our own usefulness and service in the Lord’s kingdom in future days – whether we have the adequacy to meet the challenges that are before us, whether we can be effective, whether we can do any good, where we may fit in, what life will do with us.  Some will have some fear about aging, and what will happen with our independence, and whether we will be able to meet the needs that are before us. 

So when this writer says, “In God I trust.  I shall not be afraid,” he is voicing a sentiment that undoubtedly we can appreciate.  He certainly is saying something that the Bible repeatedly urges every one of God’s children to say.  In Psalm 27, for example, in the first verse or two, this statement is found: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.  Whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life.  Of whom shall I be afraid?  When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.”  The prophets touched on this theme several times and really urged us from God to trust in him and not to fear those who are less than him.  Isaiah 51, for example, verses 12 and 13 have this statement: “I am he who comforts you.  Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the Son of man who is made like grass and have forgotten the Lord, your maker, who stretched out the heaven and laid the foundations of the earth?  Who are you to fear man who is passing and not me who made it all?”  That is very close to a point Jesus made in Matthew 10:28 as he sent out his disciples on the limited commission.  He told them not to fear man or flesh who can destroy our bodies but instead to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.  The perspective that often we need to deal with fear is really to see how much greater God is. 

I read in a little devotional book this little story: “A soldier who was about to be deployed visited his invalid grandfather.  They were both Christians and enjoyed sharing their faith with each other.  As the soldier was ready to leave, he said, ‘Grandpa, pray that I shall have the courage to die.’  His aging grandfather answered, ‘I will and you pray that I shall have the courage to live.’”  That is the kind of answer to fear that all of us are seeking – the courage to live. 

The Urgency Of The Song

The urgency of this song passes even the beauty of it.  Notice that the psalmist says in verse 3 “when I am afraid I put my trust in you.”  I might have expected him to say, “If I am ever afraid, I will.”  He being someone who can declare “In God I trust,” I might have assumed that fear was seldom if ever be any problem for him.  The fact is, though, that our moods change, and even when we commit ourselves to living for the Lord, the enemy creeps up on us and brings these worries and concerns to our minds over and over. 

It is interesting to imagine the situation in which these words were written.  The heading of Psalm 56 suggests a time in David’s life which is described in I Samuel 21.  It was a time when he was having to flee from King Saul just to stay alive.  Even though he had been a servant to Saul and even though he had only honored Saul, Saul had grown jealous of him.  He couldn’t stand to hear people singing, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.”  And so from every cave to every part of the country, David has to go and hide to keep Saul from nailing him to the wall with a spear.  Finally, in his terrible weariness and discouragement, David flees into the land of the Philistines, into the hand of a man named Achish, who was the king of the city of Gath.  There, at least for a while, he was safe from King Saul. 

But jealousy is not a problem only in the king of Israel. It is also a problem in the lives of the servants of Achish, king of Gath.  And so they begin to mutter their words of criticism.  They begin to take and twist the words that have suggested how great David had been.  Finally they go to the king.  David hears them slandering him like this and suggesting that somehow he is a hidden threat to the king and he ought to be destroyed.  They go to the king and tell him who David is.  David is in a terrible situation.  The Bible says in I Samuel 21:10 that he was afraid at those words.  Do you remember how he responded?  He had to fain madness.  He had to act like he was crazy.  The Bible says that he went and made marks on the doors and on the doorpost, I assume with his fingernails, as if he were mad out of his mind like a beast scratching on the woodwork.  He had to let the spit dribble out of his mouth and run off the ends of his beard.  The king of Gath hears what is being said about David; then he looks at David and says to David’s enemies, his slanderers, “Don’t I have enough insane people in my kingdom that you have to bring this fellow into my house?”  He lets David go, and David is kept alive. 

This psalm is about that type of an experience, and he pictures himself having to live between the watching of his enemies and the watching of his God and having to decide which one means most to him.  Look at it.  Of his enemies he says, “They oppress me all day long,” and he repeats that phrase.  This is constantly going on.  They are watching me as “attackers.”  They are enemies, verse 2 suggests.  I notice the NIV uses the word “slanderers.”  Apparently their chief weapon is their words against him.  Verse 5 says that “they are twisting my words to injure my cause and they do that because they think evil of me.”  Our words are always fashioned according to what we have already thought about people, it seems.  Have you ever watched an old cat who hangs around under the bushes close to the bird feeder?  He will lay still, crouch down and he’ll move his tail back and forth, laying in ambush, lurking to pounce on that innocent dove or bird.  That is exactly the picture in verses 6 and 7.  “They watched my steps.  They waited for my life.”  Wouldn’t it be awful to live under that kind of pressure all day long, with that kind of fear? 

Thankfully, David realizes that they are not the only ones watching.  Look what he says of God.  Verse 8 says, “You have kept count of my tossings.”  I have noticed the way this word “tossings” is translated “wanderings” sometimes, or “flittings.”  The idea is that David is like this dove who has tried to flee somewhere to find a place of safety.  The reason that it is translated different ways is that you and I don’t see it in English, but the word for “wanderings” or “tossings” in verse 8 and the word for “tears” in verse 8 sound exactly alike in Hebrew even though they are different words.  They had the same sound.  They play on words.  God has watched his wanderings from place to place.  When he has had to flit from here to there like a bird in danger, God has noticed all of that.  When at night the danger has been so great that he has been like somebody who was hinged to a bed and all he can do is to toss back and forth without ever any rest, he believes God has watched him enough to have been aware of that.  Then look at this.  “My tears are in your bottle,” as if they were some sort of very precious liquid which no drop of could be allowed to just drop and be wasted.  God has caught his tears in the bottle.  They are precious to the Lord.  He not only knows about them but he keeps record of them.  “Are they not in your book?”  The psalms used this picture of a book of God’s knowledge of an individual several times. 

So, enemies are watching, God is watching.  A choice has to be made.  Which watcher do I respect most?  Am I more concerned about displeasing these enemies who are lurking or about the favor of my father who is watching?  That is the question.  That is the reason the confession in verse 3 is so urgently important: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”  I consciously decide; I make up my mind that I trust in you.

Timothy Dwight, a great educator in years gone by, wrote, “If you intend to accomplish anything, if you mean not to labor in vain or spend your strength for nothing, you must take your side.  There can be no halting between two opinions.  You must coolly, firmly and irrevocably make your determination and resolve that the Lord is your God and that you will serve him only.”  That is what happens in verse 3 of this psalm.  He makes up his mind and he trusts God.  And again the Bible emphasizes what a wise choice that is.  There are so many beautiful passages I will not take time to read them all.  I suggest Psalm 37:3, 5, which talks about faithfully trusting God.  Proverbs 3:5 is one of the most beautiful statements in the Bible – “If you will trust in the Lord with all your heart, he will direct your path,” it says.  Isaiah 26:3-4 is one of my favorites: “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you because he trusts in you.”  That is my paraphrase of it but that is the idea.  That’s what is happening here. 

The Meaning Of The Song

That raises the question: What then does it mean to trust in God?  That is where the value of this psalm really shines forth.  May I draw five quick principles from this psalm to show what trusting God means? 

In the first place, trusting God means being convinced that he is for us.  Trusting God means deciding, concluding, developing the conviction that no matter what else happens, we can be confident that God is for us.  He has our best interests in mind.  He cares about us.  As Christians, the great evidence of that for us is what we have remembered this morning.  Romans 5:8 says that God commends, demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Romans 8:31, as if being attached to this passage here in verse 9 (this I know that God if for me), says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  God in all of his providential dealings and all of his words and all of his patient work is for us.  Will there be things that happen that we don’t understand that were hard and not what we wanted to happen?  Of course, that is life.  But God is for us.  Psalm 118:6 adds to this sentiment:  “The Lord is on my side.  I will not fear.  What can man do to me?”  The Lord is on my side.  That is the first thing it means to trust God.

Second, trusting the Lord means praising his word.  If I count right, this phrase is made at least three times in the reading of this passage.  In verse 4 he is the God whose word I praise; in verse 10-11, he uses that idea two more times – God whose word I praise.  If I believe that he is for me, how can I help praising his word and seeing that it is best for me?  Think of the view of Biblical authority, of scriptural authority which is implied by this statement.  Somebody who praises God’s word is not someone who looks for a way around it.  He is not somebody who majors on what God didn’t say not to do.  This is somebody who sees that God’s promises are true, that his ways are wisest, and that his guidance is best, and who wants more than anything to have the Lord’s way done in his life.  Trusting God means taking him at his word above all else.  It means acting in obedience to his word.  A Christian who obeys the gospel is first and foremost placing his trust in what the Lord has done.  He hears the word; he decides, “it’s true, I believe it.”  He changes his mind, his will about it.  When he makes the good confession, what he is proclaiming is “Yes, I trust God!”  When he is baptized into Christ, he is depending on what Jesus has done to make the difference in his own relationship with God.

Thirdly, trusting God means calling on him in prayer.  Tonight we are going to do something special in our meeting.  I am going to ask your help.  It has to do with prayer.  But in this psalm, if you will notice he is emphasizing his calling on God.  Verse 9 says, “Then my enemies will turn back in the day that I call.”  Prayer means I can see what I can’t do, but I am going to call on God to help.  God is great enough to take a man’s fained madness and use that to deliver that man from the dangers in which his life is found.

Fourth, trusting God means to keep our commitments to him, to worship him.  Notice verse 12 says, “I must perform my vows to you, O God.  I will render thank offerings to him.”  I take it that this fellow has been praying as he has felt the danger which existed, “God, if you will deliver me from this, then I will worship you, I will praise you, I will thank you.  If you will help me through this, I will live for you.”  And now he is saying, “God has kept his end of the bargain.  Let me now keep my commitments that I have made to him.”  In Psalm 50, the psalmist advised, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and perform your vows to the most high.”  Call on me in the day of trouble.  If you make commitments to God, keep them.  If you say I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, live that way.  If you put on the Lord in baptism, keep that commitment that you made.  Learning to keep your promises to God prepares you to keep your promises to a mate, to keep your commitments in business, to keep your obligations to your children.  If you said you put God first, don’t let a Lord’s Day go by when you don’t remember that commitment and honor what you said you would do for the Lord.  That is what trusting God is about.  You believe those things make a difference.

Fifth, trusting God means walking before him in the light of life.  Look at the end of verse 13.  It’s a beautiful idea – walking before God in the light of life.  I John 1 stresses that a child of God needs to walk in the light so that the blood of Jesus can go on cleansing him.  It means to do right.  It may also mean, in this particular text, the idea of living in God’s presence in heaven, walking with him in glory.  I believe that is the idea which is presented here.  What could be more beautiful than saying, “I trust God; I’m not going to be afraid”?  In a world like ours, what is more urgently needed than to make a choice like that, a commitment like that?  But if you trust God, remember that he is for you.  Respect his word; call on him; keep your commitments and walk before him in the light of life.

Remember Psalm 23?  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow, I fear no evil.”  Why?  Because though art with me.  Trusting in God is the only answer really I know to fear.  Make that commitment to him this morning and keep it through your life.  If we can help you become a Christian or if you are a Christian who needs to come home, don’t leave here today without acting on that intention.  Would you come right now while we stand and sing together?