The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 8, 2023
The Bible tells us we are to fear God, but no one and nothing else.
Fearing God alone is the ideal. We approach the realization of that ideal by a long, slow process in which we strengthen our faith and so minimize our fears. To be honest, the best we usually can do is be unafraid as well as afraid – but, between the two, in positively changing proportions.
David could relate. In verse 3 of this psalm, he prays to God, as both a profession and a confession, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Out of his being “afraid” he exercises faith to grow “unafraid”, albeit unafraid with nerves frayed due to the unrelenting peril he is enduring.
David writes Psalm 56 after the Prophet Samuel has anointed him as the new king of Israel. Yet, Saul, the old king, refuses to give up the throne and thus views David as a threatening rival. In fact, Saul decides to kill the young man he’d once loved but now hates as an enemy.
David flees for his life to get away from Saul, and keeps moving around Israel to stay a step ahead of would-be assassins. At one point, David sneaks in a visit to the high priest, Ahimelech. David, lying through his teeth, makes up a story about being sent on a secret mission by Saul. Having fooled the high priest, David asks him to loan him a good weapon for protection. The priest hands him the sword Goliath once owned and David used to cut off the giant’s head after nailing him between the eyes with a slingshot pebble.
Things eventually get too hot for David to remain in his home country any longer. So he escapes from Israel into the territory of its mortal enemy, the Philistines. Perhaps because David thought it’d be the last place anyone would look for him, David enters the city of Gath, Goliath’s hometown and the Philistine stronghold that had stopped the advance of the troops David had once led.
Maybe because Goliath’s big sword gives him away, the Philistines recognize David and arrest him. Aware of prophecies that David is to kill even more Philistines than Saul, they plan to execute him; but David, adept at deception, acts before the Philistine king Achish as if he were insane. David tags the King’s walls with nonsensical graffiti and continually drools on himself. So Achish dismisses David as a harmless but bothersome nutcase, a person too pathetic to pose any threat, and lets David wander off to fend for himself in the wilderness.
So again David narrowly evades death. But again David finds himself friendless and targeted for murder. For all his clever stratagems and manipulative, ethically dubious maneuvers, he’s still looking over his shoulder every second and every night tossing and turning in bed with worry over what new dangers await him at dawn. David hits bottom, but it knocks some sense into him; David hits bottom, but it bounces his gaze upward to God. In that context David writes today’s Psalm.
It begins with a plea: “Be gracious to me, O God!” David knows he’s lost any claim on God. He knows he’s been tested and found wanting; he’s violated God’s moral code and insulted God by relying more on his cleverness than on God’s goodness. Thus, he seeks from God, not his due, but better than what he’s due. He seeks grace – mercy he does not deserve.
David – the killer of giants, the slayer of bears and lions, the mighty warrior – is desperately scared. Though he knows he has no right to ask God for anything, he pours out his plight before God in prayer. He tells God all about those who “trample on me”, “oppress me” and “hope to have my life” – and how the menace of them is unremitting. They plot against him “all day long”, he cries out three times in a row. It never stops!
David has deep fears because of his circumstances, but wild hope because of his faith in God. So, with nerves frayed from his endlessly harrowing life, he throws himself on God’s mercy and prays with forthright honesty, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”
That helps David grow unafraid. It keeps his worries from occupying his whole mind or entombing his heart. As he affirms his faith, it tells him what to do to hold his fear in check. In defiance of his feelings, he is to act faithful and fearless. He 1) turns to God’s word, 2) trusts in God’s character and 3) takes to the path of obedience.
First, David turns to God’s word. He doesn’t resort to wishful thinking or even positive thinking. Rather he stakes his life on what God has said in scripture. He strives to gain peace of mind on the foundation of the Bible; and thus he repeats in verses 10-11 what he’s already said in verse 4: “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?”
Good question! What can mere mortals do to David? Well, they can hurt him or even kill him, but none can thwart his achieving his God-assigned purposes or destroy him in any final sense. For God is, David says in verse 9, “for me”. In being for him, God is so great that His greatness stymies the intentions of evil doers – and so gracious that the bad they achieve is next to nothing compared to the good God does.
To be unafraid when his nerves are frayed, David turns to God’s word. Second, he trusts in God’s character. He banks on God’s steadfast love and generous kindness. For example, in verse 8 David praises God for how “you have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.” David is comforted and fortified of heart by believing God keeps track of his stress and strain, even noticing his anxious thrashing about in bed, and bears in mind David’s trials and troubles, even recording in a bottle each tear he sheds. God is good to him all the time, even in the worst of times!
To be unafraid even when his nerves are frayed, David turns to God’s word and trusts in God’s character. Finally, he takes to the path of obedience. He concludes his psalm by declaring his commitment to do all God commands. David prays, “My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.” David knows God saves him from the snares of his enemies, not so that he can do his own thing or live for himself, but “so that I may walk with God in the light of life” – which is to say, as the prophet Micah put it, so that he may do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with his God.
Let us carry out David’s practices and grow unafraid ourselves even when our nerves are frayed.