The Book of Psalms

Tuesday: 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.
Prayer for an Undivided Heart

What are David’s requests? There are a lot of them, fifteen in all, as I said yesterday. He asks God to “hear” and “answer” (v. 1), “guard” and “save” (v. 2), “have mercy” (v. 3), “bring joy” (v. 4), “hear” and “listen” (v. 6), “teach me” and “give me an undivided heart” (v. 11), “turn,” “have mercy,” “grant…strength” and “save” (v. 16), and “give me a sign of your goodness” (v. 17). Most of these requests have to do with his perilous circumstances, which is what he develops in the last stanza. We may remember that there is hardly a psalm of David’s that does not mention his enemies and ask God’s help in delivering him from their attacks and stratagems.

But in the midst of these many requests for deliverance from his ever-present enemies there is a remarkable stanza in which David also prays that God will teach him his “way” and give him an “undivided heart” (vv. 11-13). This is the key to David’s greatness. Most of us, when we pray, are concerned about deliverance and help and guidance and such things. But we are not nearly as concerned to be taught God’s way and to be helped to serve him with an undivided heart. In other words, we want the blessings of salvation without the duties. We want prosperity and personal safety while we nevertheless go our own way. David was not like this. He knew his heart, how prone he was to wander from God. But he also knew he needed to go in God’s way if he was to prosper spiritually. So he asks God for this great blessing.

One of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s great themes when he was writing or speaking about prayer is that we should learn to pray with arguments. That is, that we should sharpen our thinking by learning to express the reasons why God should answer our prayers affirmatively. It should be clear that this is not so much for God’s benefit as for ours. If we cannot think of reasons why God should answer our prayers, it is probably the case that our requests are wrong and need to be revised or redirected.

Notice how David buttresses his prayers with sound arguments. They are easy to find because they are highlighted by an eight-fold repetition of the word “for,” which means “because.” He begins with reasons based on who he is and his need, reasons that link up with some of the things I wrote about David earlier. As he prays, his thoughts shift to God and his later reasons therefore have to do with who God is, with his power and great grace. First, there are four reasons based on David and David’s need.

1. “For I am poor and needy” (v. 1). The first reason is based on David’s sad plight. He is not mighty or self-sufficient. On the contrary, he is poor and needy. So if God will not help him, there is no real help to be found anywhere. This argument presupposes God’s mercy, which we will look into at greater length later. It is because God is merciful that he helps the poor and needy.

2. “For I am devoted to you” (v. 2). The second reason is that the psalmist stands in a covenant relationship to God. In other words, he is God’s servant and God is his master. As a servant he has duties toward God, but God also has duties toward him. This seems to have meant a lot to David at this point in his life, for he calls God Adonai (translated “Lord” but meaning “master”) seven times.1

3. “For I call to you all day long” (v. 3). The third reason why God should answer his prayer is that he is asking God to do it. God is not obliged to answer. Even this is of grace. Nevertheless, David is not like one who does not know God or is indifferent to God. He does know God, and he knows he can help, which is why he is praying. God is a prayer-answering God, so David asks him to take note of the fact that he is praying.

4. “For to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (v. 4). The fourth reason is that David is calling on God and on no other. A pagan might have many gods and call on all of them, but that would only show that he has no real confidence in any. David is praying to God only, because he knows that only the one true God can help him.

1In the English versions Adonai is distinguished from Jehovah by being rendered “Lord” (with a capital “L” followed by lowercase letters) as opposed to “LORD.” In Psalm 86 “Lord” (Adonai) occurs in verses 3-5, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 15. “LORD” (Jehovah) occurs in verses 1, 6, 11 and 17. God is also called “God” or “my God” in verses 2, 10, 12, 14 and 15. These many references to God and the variety of names for God is a characteristic of the psalm.

Study Questions
  1. What does David ask of God in verses 11-13? Do our prayers include this?
  2. What guarantee do we have when we follow God’s path?
  3. Explain what it means to “pray with arguments.” How is this helpful?

Reflection: How do you pray in times of trouble?
Application:  Pray like David that you will be taught God’s way and be helped to serve him with an undivided heart.

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