“You have kept count of my tossings [or ‘wanderings’]; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8, ESV)
In the psalm quoted above, David recounts to God all that his enemies have marshaled against him. They have haunted his steps; injured his cause; plotted against him; oppressed him daily. But God is not unaware of David’s enemies. He keeps the books in heaven. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and all-encompassing, and there will be a day when God settles David’s account.
When we read of books and scribes in Scripture, we must keep in mind that literacy was a specialty, reserved for a privileged few, and still is in some parts of the world. Study was a luxury, and books were priceless. How much more priceless are they when we consider the books that God must keep.
Thou hast a book for my complaints,
A bottle for my tears.
Tears and Tossings
“You put my tears in your bottle.”
In most biblical contexts, a bottle would mean a skin, such as the wineskins Jesus refers to. In this verse, the psalmist is probably referring to a ceramic bottle used in ancient funeral rites. Ornate containers called lachrymatories were commonly added to graves all over the ancient world.
The symbolic act of putting tears in bottles is well-known to historians. Tear-bottles were added permanently to graves, perhaps both as a symbolic goodbye and an honor to the memory of the lost. Museums still hold plenty of examples of these from various centuries as well as regions. They were ceramic in New Testament times; glass was invented later on.
The fact that God puts our tears in his bottle suggests that God shares in our grief with us. The Creator alone knows the innermost self, in its sin, its suffering, and its solace.
“She broke an alabaster jar.”
Bottles were also used in funeral rituals to pour ointment on a body for burial in several ancient cultures. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus, she truly was proclaiming his death beforehand, preparing him for burial. (Mark 14:8) She understood what the disciples were blind to: Jesus had to face a shameful death. (John 12:7)
If we take Matthew’s estimation, the value of the alabaster jar was about a year’s wages. Alabaster was mined in Egypt and carved into exquisite containers; the rare spice inside, nard, grows at elevations above 12,000 feet, and is only found in the Himalayan Mountains. Why then did Mary have this priceless jar? Was it like a life insurance policy, saved for the day of death? Is it possible that she had been saving it for her deceased brother’s grave? In the light of Lazarus’ resurrection, did she surrender to Jesus the safekeeping that would follow her own death? He who holds the keys knows.
There is no blessing in being comfortable, but “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus himself wept at the grave of Lazarus. He wept not only because of Lazarus and his family, but because death is an enemy, and a result of the curse that our sin has brought to us.
“The books were opened.”
Daniel says in his end-times vision that court was convened, and “the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:10) We think first of the Book of Life, and those who are blotted out. God calls it in some places “my book.” (Rev.) The most important record that God keeps is those who receive his salvation.
There are other books in heaven though. Both Daniel and John mention that God has books. Malachi tells us that one of them includes the records of our fellowship, our faithful prayers, and the results they wrought in lives changed:
“Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” (Malachi 3:16, ESV)
There is a crumb of comfort here for ministers with few visible successes. We struggle to reconcile our experience with the thrilling accounts of missionary biography. We could read of the apostolic triumphs in Uganda, and how Bishop Hannington perished on the forbidden road, and yet a church rose in his wake. We could read about the Palm Beach Five in the jungles of Ecuador, facing death for Christ, but giving life to a marginalized tribe. These sacrifices and successes are what fill our books. These are the ingredients of bestsellers.
But heaven has a different best-seller list. The prophet tells us that God writes it down when two believers sit and talk of him. If Malachi’s words are to be taken seriously, God keeps each of our biographies in heaven, and a page-turner to him is when his people take heed, and fear him, and talk about how they may follow on to know him
What God Values
“The Lord paid attention.”
Books and bottles are both vessels of preservation. They tell us what is precious. Precious tears are preserved in bottles; precious thoughts are preserved in books.
God values our thought life. God noticed those that feared him, and thought upon his name. We could spend our whole lifetime in the library, scouring a thousand volumes on theology, history, religion, and ritual. But one honest moment thinking about his name, dwelling on who he really is, drinking in his character from his revealed Word, would outweigh a whole lifetime of any other study.
God values our fellowship. They “spake often one to another.” Speaking to one another about spiritual topics should not be rare or specialized. One preacher said, “We are not called upon to talk theology, but we are called upon to talk gratitude.” We need to talk to God and of God long and often.
God values our mourning. We are not the ones who treasure up our tears; God puts them in his own bottle. Our suffering is not taken lightly by God, even when he leads his children into it. One prophet said, “In all their suffering he also suffered”; and another, “He does not willingly afflict the sons of men.” He treasures the pain that we have been through, not for its own sake, but because of the eternal weight of glory that it’s working in us. Shouldn’t we?
Never a sigh of passion or of pity,
Never a wail for weakness or for wrong,
Has not its archive in the angels’ city,
Finds not its echo in the endless song.