(OK, all you fans of classic Motown and oldies rock ‘n’ roll. I see you. You’ve got Smokey Robinson and Johnny Rivers playing in your head, right?)
Like the psalmist, when believers suffer, they pray. They seek God’s help for themselves, their friends, their family. But troubles can be ongoing, and the prayers can seem to go unanswered forever. It’s no wonder that the psalmist is sometimes forced to cry out, “How long, LORD? How long?” The waiting, the uncertainty, and the open-endedness of it all taxes our soul and spirit. We struggle to keep the faith, and are tempted to wonder, “Does God hear my prayers? Does God even care?”
Some conclude that the answer must be no, and abandon their belief.
Others, I hope, take genuine encouragement from the Psalms, taking to heart the psalmist’s deep and resilient faithfulness in the midst of the most difficult of trials.
Here’s an example.
. . .
Psalm 56, as we’ve seen, is in many ways a typical lament — but with noteworthy elements from which we might draw encouragement. One is the way in which the psalmist is empowered to manage his fear by reaching out in trust to God and meeting him in his word. The psalmist seems to grow in confidence over the course of the psalm, gaining a new perspective on his troubles, and praising God’s word for helping him learn God’s trustworthiness.
Another encouraging image is found in verse 8:
You yourself have kept track of my misery.
Put my tears into your bottle—
aren’t they on your scroll already? (CEB)
The Hebrew word that the Common English Bible translates as “misery” is rendered differently in other versions; the New American Standard has “wanderings,” while the New Revised Standard has “tossings.” That’s because the root meaning pictures some kind of back-and-forth movement, from wavering and wandering to everything implied by a shaking of one’s head (e.g., grief or sorrow, sympathy or compassion). It’s the reference to the psalmist’s tears that make it clear that some expression of suffering is meant.
The encouragement, however, is in how the psalmist envisions God’s response to that suffering, even before he is divinely delivered from his troubles. The verb translated as “kept track” (NRSV, “kept count”; NASB, “taken account”) can signify keeping a record by making tally marks. Indeed, the psalmist believes that God is keeping track of every tear shed, writing them in his divine record-book. Accordingly, the psalmist asks God to store up his tears in a bottle (or more properly, something like a wineskin).
For what purpose?
But the assumption must at least be that the tears themselves are of value and significance to God.
. . .
Eventually, by the end of the psalm, the psalmist is rescued and promises to show his gratitude properly. But even before the rescue comes, the psalmist is encouraged by God’s word, and by the thought that God cares enough to track every tear.
I’m reminded here of the promise that God will one day conquer death forever, abolish crying and pain, and wipe away every tear (Rev 21:4). This is not the promise of a God to whom human suffering doesn’t matter.
Our struggle is with continuing to believe that God cares when our prayers for relief aren’t answered when or the way we want. This, too, is part of lament. But I hope that, with the psalmist, we might find inspiration in the fact that not a single tear can fall without it being written tenderly and carefully in God’s book.