Psalm 56: Lessons Regarding What God Offers You When You Are Trapped in the Wilderness

Introduction: Before he was king, God took David into the wilderness to test him, mold him, and prepare him. David failed many of God’s tests. Psalm 56 records the lessons that David learned when his faith failed him before the Philistine King Achish. From this psalm, God reveals seven things that He offers you in the wilderness. These include: (1) His mercy, (2) the ability to trust Him, (3) protection, (4) compassion, (5) courage, (6) reasons to be grateful, and (7) deliverance.

First, David’s use of lies and deceit while living as a refugee in the wilderness led him into the hands of the Philistine King Achish. Instead of turning to God, David then employed deceit by making himself look insane. But his deceit would not save him. Thus, he cried out for God to show him mercy. When you repent, God also offers you His mercy and forgiveness. Second, having learned from his errors, David professed that he would trust in God alone. When you need deliverance, God also wants you to place your trust in Him alone. Third, even after he escaped from the Philistines, David cried out for God’s ongoing protection. God also wants you to seek out His ongoing protection. Fourth, even though David cried and felt alone, he gave thanks that God comforted him with His holy presence. When you call out, God also offers His comforting Holy presence as well. Fifth, David thanked God’s Word for giving him the courage to overcome his fears. When you read the Word and pray, the Holy Spirit will also give you a spirit of courage to do God’s will. Sixth, in response to God’s faithfulness, David promised to be both faithful and grateful. God deserves the same from you as well. Finally, David gave thanks that God delivered him so that he could walk in fellowship with God. You can also give thanks that God delivered you out of love so that you could live in eternal fellowship with Him as well.

1. Mercy: When You Are in the Wilderness, God Offers You Mercy. Ps. 56:1-2.

  • David pleaded for God to show him mercy and grace after he sinned in the wilderness. In the face of multiple different enemies who sought to kill him when he lived as a refugee in the wilderness, David committed a number of sins. He then pleaded for God’s mercy: “For the music director; according to Jonath elem rehokim. A Mikhtam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath. Be gracious to me, God, for a man has trampled upon me; fighting all day long he oppresses me. My enemies have trampled upon me all day long, for they are many who fight proudly against me.” (Ps. 56:1-2). In the New American Standard Bible, David is recorded here as pleading for God to be “gracious” to him. In contrast, in the King James, New King James, the American Standard Version, and New International Version, this same word is translated as a request for God to be “merciful” to him. Mercy is a request that your just punishment be withheld. Grace is a request to receive a blessing that you don’t deserve. David needed both things from God. He needed God to spare him from a punishment that he deserved. He also needed God to deliver him from his many enemies, something that he did not deserve.

  • David cried out for God’s mercy and grace only after suffering from his own deceit. After fleeing from Saul, David sought refuge with the high priest Ahimelech in the city of Nob. But when pressed about the reasons for his visit, David deceived his host. Out of fear and a lack of faith, David lied about the reasons for his visit. He falsely claimed that King Saul had sent him on a secret mission. Having been deceived, the high priest offered David food (1 Sam. 21:1-2). After receiving provision, David then turned to the high priest for protection and asked for a weapon. The high priest offered David: “8‘The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the valley of Elah, behold, it is wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod; if you would take it for yourself, take it. For there is no other except it here.’ And David said, ‘There is none like it; give it to me.’” (1 Sam. 21:8). Saul’s evil representative Doeg observed this help and later made accusations against the high priest (1 Sam. 21:7). David’s lies would later cost the lives of the high priest, 84 other priests, and their families (1 Sam. 22:19-22). Having taken the sword of Goliath, David then made the foolish decision to flee to the home of his enemy: “10 Then David arose and fled that day from Saul, and went to Achish king of Gath.” (1 Sam. 21:10). Goliath’s home town was Gath (1 Sam. 17:4). Gath was also a stronghold of the Philistines. After he killed Goliath, he fought the Philistines to the edge of Gath (1 Sam. 17:51-52). In a sign of desperation, David sought refuge with his enemy. In that time period, it was not uncommon for kings to take in political refugees from surrounding nations (e.g., 1 Kgs. 11:40; 2 Kgs. 25:27-30). But David could not find protection through either lies or the weapons of the flesh, like Goliath’s sword. Nor could he trust his own understanding. In Gath, he also could not find refuge as a wanted man. Only through God’s mercy and grace could he escape certain death.

What Does Psalm 56:1 Mean?

Give thanks for God’s mercy and forgiveness1

  • After the Philistines captured David, he became filled with fear and again used deceit. Once David was exposed as the man who killed Gath’s home-town hero Goliath, he became overcome with fear because of his self-inflicted circumstances: “11 But the servants of Achish said to him, ‘Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of this one as they danced, saying, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?’ 12 David took these words to heart and greatly feared Achish king of Gath.” (1 Sam. 21:11-12). Psalm 56 adds to this account by revealing that the Philistines captured David after he arrived in Gath (Ps. 56:1). By carrying Goliath’s distinctive sword, David likely gave himself away. The Philistines also knew of the prophetic song that identified David as a king who would surpass Saul in the number of Philistines that he would kill (1 Sam. 18:6-7). Saul recognized from this prophecy that David was a threat. The Philistines also recognized from this prophecy that David was a threat. But David did not show that he deserved his calling based upon his own merit. Instead of turning to God, he again used deceit by falsely making himself appear insane: “13 So he disguised his sanity before them, and acted insanely in their hands, and scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down into his beard.” (1 Sam. 21:13).

  • God answered David’s prayers by showing him mercy and grace before his captors. Even though David employed the tools of the devil (lies and deceit) and deserved to be punished, God spared him (mercy) and delivered him (grace) by causing King Achish to release David: “14 Then Achish said to his servants, ‘Behold, you see the man behaving as a madman. Why do you bring him to me? 15 Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this one to act the madman in my presence? Shall this one come into my house?’” (1 Sam. 21:14-15). David pretended to be a madman with saliva dripping down his beard. King Achish then believed that David was too pathetic a person to pose a threat to him.

  • Give thanks that God’s grace is big enough to deliver any sinner. Before King Achish, David acted like Abraham. Both lied foolishly out of fear. Both foolishly sought refuge from an enemy when they faced danger. God also had to deliver both through His grace (Gen. 12:17-20). God revealed to Moses that He is slow to anger and quick to forgive: “Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in faithfulness and truth;” (Ex. 34:6; Dt. 4:31). He gives us mercy each time we repent and return to Him: “The Lords acts of mercy indeed do not end, for His compassions do not fail. 23 They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:22-23). For these reasons, God deserves your praise for the mercy and grace that He offers you.

2. Trust: When You Are in the Wilderness, Trust in God. Ps. 56:3-4.

  • David learned the importance of trusting God. After learning that his own lies and deceit led to his captivity and a near death experience, David professed that he would trust God: “3 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 mortals do to me?” (Ps. 56:3-4). God taught David to manage his fears: “The young man who killed the lion and the bear, who killed Goliath, and was a successful young captain in Israel’s army, did not deny the presence of fear. There were times when he was afraid. Yet he knew what to do with that fear, to boldly proclaim His trust in God despite the fear. . . . Many do not serve God or speak a word in His name to others out of fear, and they wait for a time when they are no longer afraid to do so. David would counsel them, ‘I am sometimes afraid – but I trust in God and do what is right to do.’ Don’t wait for the fear to stop before you do what is right before the Lord.” (David Guzik on Ps. 56) (emphasis original).2

Psalm 56:1 Be Gracious To Me, O God (yellow)

During your trials, place your trust in God3

  • Trust in God does not include relying upon your own understanding. David relied upon what seemed right in his heart in seeking refuge with his enemies and then feigning insanity. He learned to not rely upon his own understanding. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5). The heart is also deceitful. “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered.” (Prov. 28:26). “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). David’s trust in his own instincts nearly led to his death. God wants you to learn from David’s example to trust Him, not yourself.

  • Trust God to never leave you or forsake you. David asked “What can mere mortals do to me?” (Ps. 56:4). The author of the book of Hebrews repeated this to state the confidence that we can have when you have faith in Jesus: “so that we confidently say, ‘The LORD is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” (Heb. 13:6). There were many times when David pleaded with God to not abandon him: “Do not abandon me nor forsake me, God of my salvation!” (Ps. 27:9b). Through incidents like this where David had sinned and did not deserve to be rescued, he learned that he could still trust God to not abandon him: “For the LORD loves justice and does not abandon His godly ones; they are protected forever, but the descendants of the wicked will be eliminated.” (Ps. 37:28). “For the LORD will not abandon His people, nor will He abandon His inheritance.” (Ps. 94:14). You can also trust that God will never leave you or forsake you. Even when you have sinned and feel unworthy, He wants you to cry out to Him and put your trust in Him. He will never leave you nor forsake you because of your sins.

3. Protection: When You Are in the Wilderness, Seek God’s Protection. Ps. 56:5-7.

  • David pleaded for God’s ongoing protection. Even though David had escaped the Philistines, Saul and his other enemies continued to try to discredit and kill him. Thus, he pleaded for God’s protection: “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 their wickedness, will there be an escape for them? In anger make the peoples fall down, God!” (Ps. 56:5-7). When God delivers you, it is tempting to let your guard down. But God also wants you to seek His ongoing protection.

  • Seek refuge in God, and He will be a shield against your enemies. David frequently cried out for God to protect him from his enemies. “Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; set me securely on high away from those who rise up against me.” (Ps. 59:1). God had previously delivered David without any weapons. On three occasions, He protected David from Saul’s spear attacks when David had no weapon at all. He also protected David against Goliath’s attack with a giant spear with only a sling and rocks (1 Sam. 17:7). He also protected David in his many battles against the Philistines. He also promises to be a shield to all who submit to Him: “He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.” (2 Sam. 22:31; Prov. 30:5). When you are in need of protection will you submit to God and trust Him to be a shield against your enemies?

  • Let Jesus be your refuge in the wilderness. It is in Jesus that we “have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” (Heb. 6:18). “The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble;” (Ps. 9:9). “Each will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a huge rock in a parched land.” (Is. 32:2). No one can replace the refuge that Jesus offers. Yet, He frequently uses His believers as the instruments of His refuge. If His love is in you, He wants you to be a refuge to those in need: ‘“naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’” (Matt. 25:36). Jesus asks us: “And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt. 5:47). Have you made yourself available to help a person like David in their time of need?

4. Compassion: When You Are in the Wilderness, God Offers Compassion. Ps. 56:8.

  • David thanked God for showing him compassion during his times of sorrow. Despite shedding many tears and feeling alone, David celebrated that God was there for him: “You have taken account of my miseries; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” (Ps. 56:8). In between his fleeing from the Philistines and his arrival at the Adullam Cave (1 Sam. 22), David was completely alone in the wilderness. Thus, he needed to feel God’s comforting presence. God offers you His comfort as well.

When you are sad or under attack, God offers you comfort4

  • Praise God for the comfort that He offers during your times of distress. As a man of faith, David repeatedly turned to God whenever he was in need of comfort. “Hear my prayer, LORD, and listen to my cry for help; do not be silent to my tears; for I am a stranger with You, one who lives abroad, like all my fathers.” (Ps. 39:12). “May You increase my greatness and turn to comfort me.” (Ps. 71:21; Ps. 30:8). “Show me a sign of good, that those who hate me may see it and be ashamed, because You, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.” (Ps. 86:17). You can also praise God because He is always ready to shower you with compassion and love: “Shout for joy, you heavens! And rejoice, you earth! Break forth into joyful shouting, mountains! For the LORD has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted.” (Is. 49:13). If you feel sad, alone, or depressed, are you asking for God’s compassion and holy presence?

  • Jesus offers you comfort when you turn to Him. When you suffer, you can always turn to Jesus for comfort: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (1 Cor. 1:3-4). He restores you when you feel sad: “But You, LORD, are a shield around me, My glory, and the One who lifts my head.” (Ps. 3:3). “A Psalm of David. I will exalt You, LORD, for You have lifted me up, and have not let my enemies rejoice over me.” (Ps. 30:1). “But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Lk. 21:28). When others around you are in pain, Jesus also wants you to share with them the same “comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (1 Cor. 1:4).

5. Courage: When You Are in the Wilderness, the Spirit Gives Courage. Ps. 56:9-11.

  • David praised God’s Word for giving him courage. David also praised God because the power of His Word enabled him to overcome his fears and act with Spirit-led confidence: “Then my enemies will turn back on the day when I call; this I know, that God is for me. 10 In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, 11 in God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid. What can mankind do to me?” (Ps. 56:9-11). Whenever David followed God’s will, he had no reason to fear what his enemies might do to him.

Psalm 56:1 Be Gracious To Me, O God (yellow)

When you place your trust in God and obey Him, you never need to fear evil5

  • God can give you confidence in the face of evil. David stated his enemies would “turn back” because “God is for me.” (P. 56:9). David made a similar claim in Psalm 118: “The LORD is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Ps. 118:6). David’s Spirit-led confidence in turn inspired the Apostle Paul: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Ro. 8:31). When you are doing God’s will, you also never need to fear evil. God will protect you.

  • When you face evil, let the Holy Spirit strengthen you. When you do God’s will, the Holy Spirit will give you a spirit of strength: “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7). “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons and daughters by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!”’ (Ro. 8:15). “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” (Eph. 6:10). “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (1 Cor. 16:13). The only fear that you are commanded to have is of God (Prov. 1:7). And fearing God is defined as hating all things that are evil (Prov. 8:13). If you feel fear, turn to God and pray for strength.

  • The Holy Spirit will also guide you to do God’s will. After making his many mistakes, David later recorded in Psalm 119 that he would turn to God’s Word to guide his path: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105). Today, the Holy Spirit will help you to remember the Word and apply it in your life. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (Jo. 14:26, 16; 15:26; 16:13). Are you reading the Word and praying for the Spirit to guide you?

6. Gratitude: When in the Wilderness, Be Grateful and Praise God. Ps. 56:12.

  • In response to God’s faithfulness, David promised to lead a life filled with gratitude. Out of gratitude for God’s mercy and grace, David promised to be both faithful and grateful: “12 Your vows are binding upon me, God; I will render thanksgiving offerings to You.” (Ps. 56:12). David made a sacrifice as a peace or thank offering (Lev. 3:1). “Offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High;” (Ps. 50:14). Today, you don’t need to make animal sacrifices to show that you are grateful. Instead, you can offer yourself as a living sacrifice to Jesus out of gratitude for what He has done (Ro. 12:1-2).

  • David’s psalm of praise for his undeserved deliverance after feigning madness. In Psalm 34, David also praised God for his deliverance: “A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed. I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul will make its boast in the LORD; the humble will hear it and rejoice.” (Ps. 34:1-2). “He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.” (Ps. 18:17). “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand will save me.” (Ps. 13:7). David could not boast that he deserved to be delivered. His lies and deceit were not from God, and God would never condone his actions.

  • Give thanks for your deliverance as well. Like David, God wants you to give thanks for the many times that He has delivered you from illness, sadness, defeat, fear, or an enemy: “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess. 5:18). “always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;” (Eph. 5:20). Have you thanked God for His grace in delivering you?

  • Praise God in your suffering because your suffering is likely for His greater good. God allowed David to suffer in the wilderness so that he would learn to cling to Him and trust Him. God also wanted to humble David so that he would not become prideful when God later exalted him. He did the exact same thing for the Jews when they wandered helplessly. Just as God allowed David and the Jews to suffer for His greater good, He also allows you to suffer for His greater good as well. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Ro. 8:28). Just as David later praised God in his suffering, so should you. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (Ja. 1:2-3). The only exception to this rule is if you have brought suffering upon yourself because of your sins. Yet, even in the case of sin, your suffering serves God’s greater purpose if it brings you to repentance. If you are suffering, sing God’s praises as a witness. He may be molding you for something great. If you complain to others, what kind of a witness are you?

7. Deliverance: When You Are in the Wilderness, God Offers Deliverance. Ps. 56:13.

  • David praised God for His grace in delivering him from certain death. David celebrated that God delivered him from death so that he could walk in fellowship with Him: “13 For You have saved my soul from death, indeed my feet from stumbling, so that I may walk before God in the light of the living.” (Ps. 56:13). Jesus has also delivered you from death so that you can walk in the light of His eternal fellowship: “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; the one who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”’ (Jo. 8:12).

  • David prayed for deliverance from evil. David trusted God in the face of attacks from evil people: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” (Ps. 52:8). As part of the model prayer, Jesus also urges every believer to pray for deliverance from the evil one. “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’” (Matt. 6:13). “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.” (Jo. 17:15). “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 Jo. 5:19). Are you turning to Jesus each day to seek deliverance for yourself and others from the evil one?

  • God will deliver you from your enemies when you turn to Him. Like David, God delivered the Jews from their captivity with His mighty arm: “Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.” (Ex. 6:6). “Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the LORD brought you out from this place. And nothing leavened shall be eaten.”’ (Ex. 13:3). “for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.” (Dt. 20:4). As the Jews learned in the wilderness, there was no enemy that God could not defeat. Will you trust Him?

  • Accept God’s testing in the wilderness as He exposes your sins and molds you. God repeatedly tested the Jews in the wilderness to show them where their hearts were evil. “You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Dt. 8:2). David also recorded in a psalm how God tested his heart out of love to expose his hidden sins: “You have tried my heart; You have visited me by night; You have tested me and You find nothing; I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress.” (Ps. 17:3). David then wrote another psalm where he encouraged God to search his heart for other sins: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts;” (Ps. 139:23). “Examine me, O LORD, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” (Ps. 26:2). David’s willingness to accept testing and correction was what made him “a man after His own heart,” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). Will you invite God’s testing and correction?