The Book of Psalms

Monday: An Appeal to the Compassionate God

Psalm 86:1-17 In this week’s lessons, we learn that David bases his prayers for mercy on the character of God.
A Plea to the Mercy of God

There are psalms of David in every book of the Psalter, but we have come near the end of the Psalter’s third book and have not had a psalm of David, until now. And characteristic of David, it is an appeal for mercy based on the character of God.

The psalm is filled with petitions, at least fifteen of them, but they are variants of this one idea. It is found throughout, explicitly in verses 3, 6 and 16. Verse 3 says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long.” Verse 6 reads, “Hear my prayer, O LORD; listen to my cry for mercy.” Verse 16 pleads, “Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant your strength to your servant and save the son of your maidservant.” Nothing is more important to sinful men and women than finding mercy with God. Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “The best of men need mercy and appeal to mercy, yea to nothing else but mercy.”1 Yet we do not appeal to mercy naturally, and we do not show it to others very often.

Do you remember that magnificent speech in praise of mercy from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice? The speaker is Portia who is acting as a lawyer in order to plead a case before the court of Venice. She says,

The quality of mercy is not strained:
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;–
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown (Act IV, Scene 1).

They are beautiful words. But in practice most human beings neither seek nor give mercy. We want to be treated on our merit, and what we demand from other human beings we demand from God. David was spiritually wiser than we are. He knew that what he needed was mercy, not his just due, and here he pleads for it.

The outline of the psalm is fairly straightforward. It consists of a lament (vv. 1-7), praise (vv. 8-10), prayer (vv. 11-13), and final petition (vv. 14-17). Yet these elements overlap in the psalm’s four sections, and for that reason the best way to get into the psalm is by focusing on its most important ideas. These are: 1) David’s relationship to God; 2) David’s requests of God; 3) the reasons God should answer his requests; and 4) the most important characteristic of God from the point of the psalmist’s need, which is mercy.

It is consistent with David’s appeal to God’s mercy, which becomes explicit for the first time in verse 3, that Israel’s king does not begin his prayer by arguing that God owes him anything. On the contrary, he is “poor and needy” (v. 1), God’s “servant” (v. 2), one who looks to God for help. These themes are repeated later, in verse 7 where he speaks of his “trouble,” verse 14 where he speaks of “the arrogant” who are attacking him, verse 16 where he again describes himself as God’s “servant” and verse 17 where he again draws attention to his “enemies.”

We find it hard to pray this way. By nature we want to plead our rights or accomplishments before God. To confess that we are poor and needy seems demeaning. To be a servant seems unworthy. We want to be people who deserve something from God because of who we are.
Of course, it is true that we have become something of value because of God’s favor to us. But it is only because of God; that is the point. And the only reason why he has been favorable to us is because he is merciful, not because we deserve it. Therefore, when David refers to himself as God’s servant he is already developing his most important theme and is speaking consistently with it. It is only because God has been merciful to him that he has a relationship to God, and it is only because God has shown himself to be merciful that David can make this appeal.

1Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2a, Psalms 58-87 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), p. 464.

Study Questions
  1. What is the basis for David’s appeal for mercy? Why do we need mercy?
  2. How does David describe himself? Why is this the starting place for us as well?

Reflection: Does asking for God’s mercy take a prominent position in your prayer life, or do you sometimes approach God from the perspective of your supposed merit? Why do we plead our merit instead of God’s mercy?
Application: When have you last shown mercy to others? Imagine what our churches would look like if we all practiced the “Golden Rule” as we are commanded.
Key Point: Nothing is more important to sinful men and women than finding mercy with God.
For Further Study: When we are sad, perplexed, and afraid, the Psalms are a source of comfort and encouragement, for in them we are reminded of who God is, and what he promises to do for his children. To help you in your study of the Psalms, James Boice’s three-volume set is available for 25% off the regular price.

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