Theme: Fervent Prayers
In this week’s lessons, we are reminded of God’s care for us as we cry out to him in our troubles.
Scripture: Psalm 142:1-7
The first two verses set the tone for the psalm, because here David is pouring out his distress before God, seeking God’s help in his trouble. He is praying urgently.
From time to time in these studies I have written of the psalms’ use of parallelism as their most prominent poetic device. These two verses are a good example of such parallelism, since each of the lines says essentially the same thing. “I cry aloud to the LORD” is the same as “I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy,” except that the second line adds a plea for “mercy” as the subject matter of the cry. Likewise, “I pour out my complaint before him” is the same as “before him I tell my trouble,” except that the use of “trouble” begins to explain what the poet’s complaint is about.
This fourfold repetition underscores the fervency of David’s prayer, as do the words “cry aloud” (v. 1), which read literally, “With my voice I cry.” The psalm actually begins, “With my voice I cry to God” and “With my voice I ask for mercy.” So David is not only praying in his heart, that is, silently and calmly, but outwardly, verbally and loudly.
I wonder if many of our prayers are like that. We probably pray with some regularity if we are Christians: when we read the Bible, at church, probably even at scattered times throughout the day. But I suspect that not many of our prayers are fervent prayers and that none, except when we are taking part in a prayer meeting, are out loud. What does it take to lift our prayers from the wasteland of mere routine to the high ground of actually pleading with Jehovah?
One thing that seems to work well is trouble, the very thing we are considering in this study. In easy times our prayers are easy too, but they take on a new urgency when trouble comes. The same day I sat down to write this study of Psalm 142 I received a letter from South Africa telling me that one of my friends, a leader in the church in Johannesburg, had collapsed at work and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had an operation, received a guarded prognosis, and at the moment I received the letter seemed to be doing fine. It had been a frightening occurrence. But his testimony is that this was the most important spiritual experience of his life, since it threw him on God in new ways. When there are none to help but God, Christians do learn to trust him. And they find that he is attentive to their cries.
It is possible that verse 3 should be placed at the end of stanza one, that is, with verses 1 and 2, explaining why David is placing his troubles in God’s hands. It is because he is fainting away, and only God knows what is before him and can help. Kidner sees verse 3 as “the first of three modest summits of the psalm,” with the sense, “When I am ready to give up, it is you who know my way.” That is, I don’t, but you do.1
Still, the New International Version is probably right to put verse 3 where it does, for it is here that David begins to describe what his trouble really is. In verses 3 and 4 he lays his difficulties before God. Notice the change of pronouns. In the first two verses, David writes in the first person: “I cry aloud … I lift up my voice … I pour out my complaint … I tell my trouble.” In verses 3 and 4 he speaks to God himself, saying, “It is you who know my way.” Even verse 4 is spoken to God, as bold as it may seem: “Look to my right and see; no one is concerned for me.”
The change in pronouns reminds me of Psalm 23, which is also by David. In the earlier part of that psalm, when David was describing the Lord’s ample provision for him in good days, he used the pronoun “he”: “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” But as soon as David speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, the language changes. Now it is no longer “he” but “you” and “your”: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. “
Things are different when the fierce troubles of life, especially those that are a shadow of our coming death, come. In times of trouble our prayers become fervent and we find ourselves running to God and throwing ourselves on God as our only adequate helper.
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), p. 473.
How does each parallel line give meaning to the prayer?
What does a change in pronouns tell you about the psalm’s organization? How is this reminiscent of Psalm 23?
Observation: Literary devices are used to call attention to the meaning of the text. In this case, parallelism is used for emphasis of the point.
Reflection: What circumstances add urgency to your prayer? How do you convey this urgency? What do you learn during these times?
Key Point: When there are none to help but God, Christians do learn to trust him.
Prayer: Ask God to enable you to be faithful and disciplined in your prayer life.