Theme: The Psalmist’s Innocence
In this week’s lessons we look at Psalm 17, and learn how this prayer of David can serve as a model both for our own prayers and for how we examine our own holiness.
Scripture: Psalm 17:1-15
Since Psalm 17 is for God’s protection and deliverance, it contains urgent appeals to God to hear the psalmist’s prayer. We find these in verses 1 (“hear,” “listen” and “give ear”) and 6 (“give ear to me and hear my prayer”), and we could rightly add David’s appeals to God to act quickly and decisively: “Show the wonders of your great love…” (v. 7); “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v. 8); “hide me in the shadow of your wings” (v. 8); and “rescue me from the wicked by your sword” (v. 13).
But what is most striking about this psalm is that from the very first line David protests his innocence, arguing that God should hear his prayer and should answer it because his plea is right and his life above reproach. This is his first argument. It is in verses 1-5.
David does not make this argument in timorous language. In fact, his claims to innocence are so forceful that we, who live in a more introspective and self-conscious age, are easily troubled by them. Consider what he says. In the first line he claims that the plea he is about to make is “righteous.” Do we dare to say that when we approach the holy God? In the same verse David argues that his prayer “does not rise from deceitful lips.” In the next verse he calls for vindication, because God sees him and therefore sees “what is right.” The second stanza is even more extreme: “Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin. As for the deeds of men—by the word of your lips I have kept myself from the ways of the violent. My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”
This is a claim to innocence both in word and deed, positively and negatively. Some of these words remind us of the first psalm. So David seems to be saying that he is the “righteous” man of Psalm 1. He has not walked “in the counsel of the wicked” or stood “in the way of sinners” or seated himself “in the seat of mockers.” His delight is in God’s law.
We say, “How can any mere human being claim such innocence?” We have been taught to pray, “Forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4) and to say, even in our triumphs, “We are at best unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10).
One important answer to our question is to see that David is not claiming a perfect innocence in these lines, only innocence of the wrongs of which he has been charged. He wants “vindication” (v. 2). We discussed this distinction earlier in a study of Psalm 7. Still, I do not want to dismiss this matter quite that easily. This is because in Psalm 17 we are seeing how David uses arguments in prayer, and one of these arguments, an important argument, is that the life of the praying person is above reproach. In other words, this is the positive side of the warning found in Isaiah 59:12: “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” Open and unconfessed sin is a great prayer barrier. An upright life is a strong basis for appeals.
What is David’s first argument for why God should hear his prayer? In what sense does David claim this in his prayer to God?
What are some barriers to prayer? How do they disrupt our communion with God?
Reflection: What are some ways we try to seek vindication on our own? Contrast these with what we learn from this psalm.