When I Am Afraid Psalm 56

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I’m not a very good athlete, but I really want to be and I try very hard to be. It’s important to me, probably more than it should be, and I’ve spent a lot of energy in my adult life trying to channel this in positive directions. It has occurred to me, quite recently, that I might be a happier person if I just stopped playing competitive sports altogether and got my exercise in other ways. Then again, I might just go stark, raving mad if I did that, so I might be happy but insane, in which case maybe happy wouldn’t be the most useful measure.

This is now confession: when I was a kid, I was not very nice. I was mean. Not to everyone, not all the time, but to people I perceived weren’t as good as I was. I could be very cruel to kids who couldn’t play sports as well as I could. I believe one of the reasons I’m a coach now is so that I can be an encourager and help everyone who plays to see how good they can be. God’s redemption is that I’ve become an encourager instead of a discourager; I build people up instead of tear them down. I don’t carry my meanness as an 11-year-old like an iron chain around my neck and I’m not trying to pay penance or make up to God what I did earlier in life. Grace means that God has covered and atoned for my sins, and I’m forgiven and don’t have to fix that on my own, which I can’t. But I know what I did and what I was like, and I want to be a very different person now.

Sometimes it helps to look back to where we’ve been in order to gain perspective on what God has done in our lives. When we see only the six inches in front of our faces, we get very myopic and lose the bigger picture of how God is working in us. Also, I find it helpful to remind myself what I might be without God, especially when I am tempted to criticize myself for all that I should be that I’m not. Anybody else do that? “Why am I not more this or that, why can’t I be more patient, I should be more productive, other people can handle more, why can’t I?”

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that those are worthless questions, that they literally have no worth to me in becoming a godly man who gives others a glimpse of Jesus. Even though they sound like they are trying to motivate me to change, they aren’t doing that. All the leading questions that only lead me to criticize myself and that discourage me about what God has done and is doing in my life, I think those are someone’s voice other than God’s. The most effective lies Satan tells are the ones that have just enough truth to persuade us, or that nudge us away from God.

In contrast, when we keep the long view and remember what God has done in our lives, we see ourselves more accurately. This can actually help protect us from being led astray by these lies.

Remembering what God has done in our lives, how he’s changed us, how he’s come through for us, that is recalling his faithfulness. As we’ve dug into the Psalms together, over and over we’ve seen the psalmists recall God’s faithfulness. I know God will come through for me now, the psalmist says, because I remember that God has come through for me–for us–in the past. God is faithful, God has shown us that he’s faithful, and even though it’s hard to see in this situation how things will be okay, I’m not judging by what I can see in this situation, I’m judging by what I’ve seen from God and what I know is true of God, yesterday and today and forever.

I used to say “I’m one of the least peaceful people I know, but I’m at peace about that.” My point was that I am what I am and where I am, and God has me. I’m growing in becoming a peaceful person and learning how to be that. I’ve identified my biggest enemies to living at peace with God and they are exactly what I described—self-criticism, self-doubt, focusing on what I am not instead of what God is.

As we’re nearing the end of our Psalm series, I’m going to share another Psalm that has been hugely meaningful to me.

Psalm 56

Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;

All day long foes oppress me;

my enemies trample on me all day long,

for many fight against me.

O Most High, when I am afraid,

I put my trust in you.

In God, whose word I praise,

in God I trust; I am not afraid;

what can flesh do to me?

All day long they seek to injure my cause;

all their thoughts are against me for evil.

They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps.

As they hoped to have my life,

so repay them for their crime;

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 record?

Then my enemies will retreat

in the day when I call.

This I know, that God is for me.

In God, whose word I praise,

in the Lord, whose word I praise.

In God I trust, I am not afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

My vows to you I must perform, O God;

I will render thank offerings to you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,

and my feet from falling,

so that I may walk before God

in the light of life.

David wrote this Psalm. I don’t know exactly when, but the intro to the Psalm gives this context, which fills in some of the picture for us: To the leader; according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam; when the Philistines seized him in Gath.

Briefly, David writes this Psalm for the music worship leader, to be used in Israel’s corporate worship. The Dove on Far-off Terebinths is almost certainly a tune without lyrics of its own to which the leader could put these words. A Miktam, which is a Hebrew musical term that seems to indicate what kind of poem this is—six of David’s Psalms are Miktams and the word appears nowhere else in the Bible.

My real question is, how soon after the Philistines seized him in Gath did David write this? While he was still their prisoner?

Briefly, the story is this: King Saul was pursuing David to kill him, because Saul was jealous of David and felt threatened that David would replace him. I Samuel 18:9. David was fleeing to keep from getting killed. He ran to Gath, where the Philistines lived, and their King, Achish, heard from his servants, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands?” That song, ironically, was exactly why Saul grew jealous of David in the first place. But the Philistines had more reason to hate David—why? He killed their hero, Goliath. So David looks around, realizes this was not a safe sanctuary to run to, and “So he changed his behavior before them’ he pretended to be mad when in their presence.”

He scratched marks on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle run down his beard. 14 Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is mad; why then have you brought him to me? 15 Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?

And David escaped. I’m still waiting to apply that one. I figure someday I’m going to be in some horrible meeting and everyone is going to realize that everything that’s gone wrong is all my fault and I’ll just change my behavior, act completely mad, and they’ll say, “Oh, wait, he’s crazy, let’s just let him go and blame someone else.” That’s going to happen. Or maybe that’s my insecurity.

But seriously, this is a wild story and David recalls it in his Psalm, because he experienced God’s faithfulness. Inspired by this and many other times God rescued him from people, David writes this Psalm. Maybe while he was in the cave he escaped to, the Cave of Adullam we read about in I Samuel 22. Or maybe David wrote it years later, when he was living in a palace and no longer fleeing for his life every other day. The translation from Hebrew is “when the Philistines had seized him in Gath,” though that could mean he’s writing about when that happened, versus he’s doing the writing when it happened.

Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;

All day long foes oppress me;

my enemies trample on me all day long,

for many fight against me.

O Most High, when I am afraid,

I put my trust in you.

In God, whose word I praise,

in God I trust; I am not afraid;

what can flesh do to me?

David cries out to God for help and describes his troubles. “For people trample on me, all day long foes oppress me, my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me.”

Then David recites what he does when he faces these troubles:

O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise; in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can “flesh” do to me. What can “mere humans” or “people” or “mortal men” do to me?

This is how I respond when I am afraid, David says.

My sister Colleen had me memorize these verses when I was a freshman in college. I’d just become a Christian, I was completely overwhelmed by school and culture shock—Los Angeles after rural Illinois—and just learning how to pray. I don’t know how many times I’ve prayed these verses in my life, but it’s a big number.

When I’m afraid, I trust God. O Most high, reminding myself who God is. I put my trust in you. Where do I place my confidence, my hope that I will be okay? I put that in God. Lots of options for where we can put our trust. But it’s God, whose word I praise, his word to me that I can rely on, that Jesus says not one tiny accent mark will pass away, heaven and earth may pass away but God’s word will never pass away, in God I trust, I will not be afraid. I find this powerful: we began with “When I am afraid,” and having cried to God, remembered who he is, committed to trusting him, remembered his word, now “I am not afraid.” Or “I will not be afraid.” I’m actively choosing that I’m believing in God’s power, not my fear. God is bigger. God is bigger than the boogie man, he’s bigger than King Aggoth and the Philistines threatening David, he’s bigger than whatever is threatening us right now.

I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?

Now that’s a big question. I think we are past the naive response that of course people can’t do anything to us because God won’t let them. A friend of mine in this congregation was shot by a mere mortal. People do bad things and sometimes they do them to us. Sometimes God protects us and sometimes things happen to us anyway and maybe he’s protecting us and they still happen, like with my car accident. We don’t always know those answers.

The deeper question, that Jesus answers very clearly, is what do we really have to fear from other people? Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”  This is one of those moments when we have to ask, “Do I really believe this stuff?” I have no testimony for you of a God who won’t ever let anything bad happen to you or anyone in your family, where you’ll all die peacefully in your sleep in your mid-90’s. I can testify to a God who has shown me that death is not the end of us, it’s not the end of our life with God or with one another in God.

What can a mortal person do to me? Some bad stuff, but nothing God can’t overcome. That’s the answer.

In the Psalm, David switches back to his troubles:

All day long they seek to injure my cause;

all their thoughts are against me for evil.

They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps.

As they hoped to have my life,

so repay them for their crime;

in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

David is not trying to get revenge directly, but he’s certainly calling on God to do that for him. “I just leave this one to God.” We read the Psalms and they cry to God to avenge them, to repay. God might. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, but the New Testament also lets us know not to get revenge but to leave the Justice in God’s capable hands. I just know that I’m counting on God’s mercy for myself, and I leave it to him how he gives it to others. But having said that, when people are committing evil, we pray that God will put a stop to that, here and now.

Having brought more of his woes to God—and many of us have a pretty good list of those, at least sometimes—David now returns to reciting God’s faithfulness:

 You have kept count of my tossings;

put my tears in your bottle.

Are they not in your record?

Then my enemies will retreat

in the day when I call.

This I know, that God is for me.

In God, whose word I praise,

in the Lord, whose word I praise.

In God I trust, I am not afraid.  

What can a mere mortal do to me?

God cares. David knows for certain that God is with him and cares about his suffering. God will come through for him. “Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call.” We know David had experiences where he had to flee—like this one—and his enemies didn’t instantly go away. But his faith is in God who comes through for him.

This I know, that God is for me.

Memorize that. Not because you are righteous, or sinless, or even have gotten to church without yelling at your kids (or at yourself).

This I know, that God is for me.

That’ll change your life. All those self-accusations I described in the beginning, all the doubts we have about our ourselves and whether God can really love me when I do this or fail to do that, and these eight simple words: This I know, that God is for me.

In God, whose word I praise,

in the Lord, whose word I praise.

In God I trust, I am not afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

David repeats this, emphasizing that God, the LORD< the ADONAI, the MAJESTIC, ALMIGHTY AND ONLY GOD, whose word he praises, this God he trusts. This stanza serves as David’s chorus in this poem. It bears repeating. In God I trust, I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me.

David concludes this psalm:

My vows to you I must perform, O God;

I will render thank offerings to you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,

and my feet from falling,

so that I may walk before God

in the light of life

That would be the Old Testament way to say, “Thank you, God, and praise you.” As Matt House described a couple weeks ago, these offerings were calling the people into deeper relationships with God. Thank offerings were the visible, tangible demonstration of thanks. Honestly, our visible, audible offering of thanks is our singing. We won’t get in trouble with God if  we don’t sing, but we sing because we are thankful.

Why is David thankful?

“For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling. So that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

And if you’ve experienced this, you know exactly what David means. Have you had your soul delivered from death? Have you had your feet delivered from falling? Have you seen God change you from selfish and sinful to walking before him in the light of life? Again, this is why we remember, why we remind ourselves and recite to one another God’s faithfulness, how he’s transformed us, how he rescues us from physical and spiritual danger. Jesus delivers us from death and he delivers us for life, so that we may walk before him—where he can keep an eye on us—in the light of life, which is the light that comes from him.

I believe these are the steps to peace. Of course, you can use much more complex-sounding theological terms from the New Testament, but this is the core:

God is faithful

We put our trust in God

People can’t destroy our souls

God is for us

God delivers us from death

We walk with God

Of those six steps, God is five of them. The sixth is what people can’t do alone. We can choose because God walks with us. Peace is not “chilling out,” or “it’s all good.” Peace in God is knowing that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and however big the threat people seem to pose, remembering finally, ultimately, we have nothing to fear. We learn to live at peace by remembering God’s faithfulness—I was sometimes a horrible kid but by God’s mercy I didn’t turn into a horrible adult—and by putting our trust in God, committing ourselves to God instead of to our fears.

 

When I am afraid, I will trust in you,

in God, whose word I praise,

In God I trust, I will not be afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

One thought on “When I Am Afraid Psalm 56

  1. pat

    Your words are a GREAT reminder of who to turn to when we are questioning our problems, and the answer that we need to turn to, as He is the solution to our weakness, to our single mindedness, to our attempt to make ourselves better by tearing down someone else. If God is with us, who can be against us!!!

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