What Are You Afraid Of? (Psalm 56)


What are you afraid of? Maybe you're scared of snakes, like half of the population.[1] Perhaps you're frightened by the dark. It could be that you have the unofficial fear of grammar, "dysgrammataphobia," and recognize that (according to strict Latin-based rules of grammar) the question should be stated, "Of what are you afraid?"

Whatever the case may be, mentally complete the following statement:
When I'm afraid, I will __________.

Or, with more specific examples, consider how you would complete the following phrases:
When I'm afraid that my finances are going to crumble, I will __________.
When I'm afraid that my marriage is failing, I will __________.
When I'm afraid that my medical problems might be incurable, I will __________.

In 1 Samuel 21, David found himself in an exceedingly fearful situation. Fleeing from the bloodthirsty King Saul, David sought refuge elsewhere—or so he thought. While hiding out in the Philistine city of Gath, David was identified by the Philistines as being an enemy combatant, captured, and brought to the Philistine King Achish (cf. 1 Sam. 21:11-14). What was going on in his head at that point? What did he do when enemies, both foreign and domestic, were after him? Psalm 56, a "Miktam" (meaning, "an inscription" designating its use for religious instruction), explains.[2] Over the course of two successive pairs of passages, we learn how David transitioned from fear to faith, and ultimately fulfillment. His God-given perspective in this Miktam certainly does provide much in the way of religious instruction for us as Christians.

Fear (Psalm 56:1-2)

Be gracious to me, O God, for man has trampled upon me;
Fighting all day long he oppresses me.
My foes have trampled upon me all day long,
For they are many who fight proudly against me.

As with many Psalms, David began with an appeal to God regarding his situation. Rather than covering up his desperate situation, or foolishly hiding his need for divine intervention, David humbly expressed his need for grace. Contrary to the suggestions of modern psychology, no amount of positive "self-talk" would be able to fix his fear. This was especially true since his anguish was unceasing, being described as "all day long." Whether in Israel or Philistia, David could not escape from people who wanted him dead. A situation in which he felt crushed and trampled underneath enemies could only be fixed by the Lord.

Faith (Psalm 56:3-4)

When I am afraid,
I will put my trust in You.
In God, whose word I praise,
In God I have put my trust;
I shall not be afraid.
What can mere man do to me?

What's the point of our trials in life? To first-century Christians, the Apostle Peter said that their faith was being tested like gold, resulting in glory and honor to God for sustaining them (cf. 1 Pet. 1:7). So it was with David as well. In abandonment of his own self-sufficiency, David looked to God amidst his fear. "When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You." And this was no subjective emotionalism. This response has nothing in common with the superficiality of much of modern Christianity today. This is not like those who praise a God they don't really know. On the contrary, David said his trust was in God, "whose word I praise" (Psa. 56:4). As one commentator noted, "True trust must be rooted in what is known. You can't trust an unknown God; you can't trust a capricious God. You can trust a God whose word of steadfast love came to Israel, the word which became flesh in Jesus (cf. John 1)."[3]

In other words, David contemplated the objective truth of God's Word, relying on what it taught him about the God he served. With a recognition that his God was bigger than his problems, the situation became clear: what can mere man do to me? The obvious answer is that nothing could touch David unless it was God's sovereign timing. As George Whitefield rightly remarked, "We are immortal until our work on earth is done."[4]

Your fears will melt away when placed under the sunlight of God’s sovereignty.

David's confidence was found in the fact that God is intimately involved in the events of life. It is true that God is transcendent, but He is also immanent—near (cf. Acts 17:27). God is not a distant deity, or a hidden higher power, but is the glorious governor of all that takes place. Knowing this, our confidence likewise comes from the fact that everything that takes place occurs precisely the way God has intended (cf. Eph. 1:11). The trains always run on time in God's universe.

Dr. R.C. Sproul likewise noted that God's sovereignty must be the basis of our hope:

If there is one maverick molecule in the universe—one molecule running loose outside the scope of God’s sovereign ordination—then ladies and gentlemen, there is not the slightest confidence that you can have that any promise that God has ever made about the future will come to pass.[5]

God is in control. Do you believe this? Your fears will melt away when placed under the sunlight of God's sovereignty.

Fear (Psalm 56:5-7)

All day long they distort my words;
All their thoughts are against me for evil.
They attack, they lurk,
They watch my steps,
As they have waited to take my life.
Because of wickedness, cast them forth,
In anger put down the peoples, O God!

Like a song with two verses and two choruses, David restated the situation. Using the same phrase "all day long" found in verse 2, David again acknowledged his fear in verse 5. He didn't suppress it, downplay it, or pretend that it didn't exist. Rather, he confessed that his enemies (in this case, Saul and his antagonistic cohorts) were distorting his words—conjuring up support by demonizing their opponent. Plotting him harm, David knew that his every move was being watched (which is ultimately why he fled to Gath in the first place). Calling upon God to "put down the peoples," David wanted God to deal with his enemies in righteous judgment according to their sin. Far from being a personal vendetta, this was a motion for the divine judge to render His verdict.

Faith (Psalm 56:8-11)

You have taken account of my wanderings;
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 word I praise,
In the Lord, whose word I praise,
In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me?

Again, David looked away from his circumstances and toward the God who was acutely aware of what was happening. In verse 8, David expressed his need for God to collect his tears in a "bottle," based on a Hebrew word that is used elsewhere to refer to an animal skin container that holds liquids such as wine, milk, or water.[6] With this vivid imagery, David asked that God would not let even a single tear fall to the ground unattended to—he knew he served a God who captures every one of them, storing them as a reminder of the grief of His people. David's difficulties were even "written down" in God's "book," proverbially logged for future reference.

In verse 9, David spoke of calling upon the Lord, which reminds us that, as Matthew Henry said, "We fight best upon our knees."[7] David prayed that God would handle those who oppose righteousness. Although they may dodge justice in this life, every enemy of God would do well to recognize that justice will most certainly be served at the judgment seat of God. There will be no eternal fugitives. We may be persecuted here and now, but one day believers will sing God's praises as He sets all things right, which includes judging those who have sinned against us (cf. Rev. 19:1-2)

David goes on to say, "God is for me" (Psa. 56:9). Yet, in Psalm 51:5, David confessed that he was born in iniquity. This presents us with a conundrum: how can God be "for" men like David who were born as sinners? That is essentially the most important question any of us could ever ask, because the answer is found in the Gospel. Having provided His own Son as a substitute for sinners, God causes all things to work for the good of the elect—David being among them. For that reason, the Apostle Paul likewise said, "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?" (Rom. 8:31). Those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb can rest assured that God is for them.

In verse 10, David again expressed the basis of his confidence: God's Word. And again it must be recognized: in order for it to be of any real value, trust cannot be based on subjective feelings, but instead must be based on the objective truth of divine revelation from God.

Speaking of David's outlook, Pastor Don Green says,

He doesn't let his fear have the final word in his life. In an example to us, he moves beyond it. He says, "Ok, here I am in this realm of fear. I know what to do here: I go back to God's Word. I go back to God in the midst of this." And so he goes back to the Word of God for strength, and that Word reveals God's character and who He is to His people. All of a sudden he's got a completely different perspective to draw upon here.[8]

The more you grow in the knowledge of God's Word, the greater you will be able to recall the attributes of God that address your situation. In any difficulty you face, may David's triumphant faith characterize your response.

Fulfillment (Psalm 56:12-13)

Your vows are binding upon me, O God;
I will render thank offerings to You.
For You have delivered my soul from death,
Indeed my feet from stumbling,
So that I may walk before God
In the light of the living.

David ends with a note of thanksgiving. He had apparently taken a vow, promising to honor and thank God for His protection, and was more than ready to fulfill it in light of the comfort of the Lord that he experienced. Bear in mind that at the time of the trial, the danger was still present. It's not as if David was magically transported to safety. On the contrary, he ended up having to feign insanity in order to escape the Philistines (cf. 1 Sam. 21:13-15). But at the time, his fear was enveloped by his faith. God sees, God knows, God hears, God understands. It's no wonder that the Apostle Peter comforted persecuted believers by reminding them to cast their cares on the God who cares (cf. 1 Pet. 5:7).

What are you afraid of? Whatever it is, put your trust in the Lord. The evidence of God's love is found in the fact that He sent His own Son Jesus Christ to save sinners from eternal wrath. If you can entrust your future eternity to Him, you can surely entrust your present situation as well. Call upon the Savior, the One who not only shed His own tears (cf. John 11:35), but will collect yours in His bottle (cf. Psa. 56:8), and ultimately wipe them away (cf. Rev. 21:4).


[1] Geoffrey Brewer, "Snakes Top List of Americans' Fears," Gallup News, accessed December 19, 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/1891/snakes-top-list-americans-fears.aspx.

[2] Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 58.

[3] Ibid, 181.

[4] Warren Wiersbe, 50 People Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Spiritual Giants of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 38.

[5] Nathan W. Bingham, "R.C. Sproul Through the Years," Ligonier Ministries, accessed December 20, 2017, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/rc-sproul-through-years.

[6] Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 181.

[7] Matthew Henry, An Exposition of the Book of Psalms with Practical Remarks and Observations (London: Bell and Daldy, 1866), 270.

[8] Don Green, “When I Am Afraid” (presentation, Midweek Service, Truth Community Church, Cincinnati, OH, February 7, 2017).