“You number my wanderings. Put my tears into your bottle. Are they not in your book?” – Psalm 56:8
Christians often share this verse with grievers. They tell them their tears are so precious to God that he treasures them in a bottle. The image evoked is saccharine sweet, making us think God is sentimental. Although he “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3), Psalm 56 isn’t for people who’ve lost a loved one. God isn’t storing the tears of grief. He’s storing those of persecution instead, for the Day of Judgment.
David wrote Psalm 56 after “the Philistines captured him in Gath” (title). One Bible commentator said that this psalm refers to the time that David escaped to Gath after fleeing from King Saul, and then feigned madness before King Achish out of fear (1 Samuel 21:10-15). Whether or not the commentator is right, the fact remains that David endured persecution and oppression at the hands of his enemies, men who “would swallow me up” (Psalm 56:1).
My enemies would hound me all day,
For there are many who fight against me, O Most High.
. . . .
All day they twist my words.
All their thoughts are against me for evil.
They gather together,
They hide, they mark my steps,
When they lie in wait for my life. (56:2, 5-6)
Persecuted, David was forced to wander in exile like a fugitive. The Hebrew word for “wanderings” (Psalm 56:8) is nowd. It’s a corruption of Nod (nowd), where Cain fled as punishment for murdering his brother Abel (Genesis 4:16). The root word is nuwd, rich in meaning – waver, wander, flee, etc. God used it to call Cain a “vagabond” (4:12, 14).
Sinners should go into exile, not saints persecuted for righteousness. David knew three things about his situation in Gath. First, God was “for” him, so his suffering at the hands of sinners was evil (Psalm 56:9). Second, God numbered the days of his exile and recorded his tears in a book (56:8). Third, when he cried out to God in prayer, his enemies would “turn back” (56:9). In his righteous anger, God would cast these iniquitous people down (56:7). So, through the blurred vision of his suffering, David asked God to bottle his tears for the Day of Judgment (56:8).
Phialē, the Greek word for vial and vials in Revelation, refers to a shallow bowl or saucer. It doesn’t resemble the Hebrew bottle or wineskin, but the first use of this word is intriguing. John saw four beasts and twenty-four elders holding “golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints” (Revelation 5:8, KJV). What are these prayers? I believe that, since Abel, they request divine judgment on sinners for suffering persecution, exile, and death. After Jesus Christ opened the seventh seal, an angel with a golden censer stood at the altar before God’s throne to offer incense “with the prayers of all the saints” (8:3). As the smoke ascended, the angel filled the censer “with fire from the altar and threw it to the earth” (8:5). Then seven angels sounded seven trumpets, the second series of divine judgments (8:6). The seven last plagues, in which “the wrath of God is complete,” are also vials (15:1, 7). One angel said, “They have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink, for it is their just due” (16:6).
If you’ve been persecuted for your faith in Jesus Christ – job loss, ridicule, torture, or exile – then God is storing your tears and he’ll repay them in judgment on sinners. One day, God will wipe all your tears away (Revelation 21:4).