A sermon on Psalm 86 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 26 September 2021
The psalms are great for lots of reasons. People turn to them for comfort, for peace and for inspiration.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Isn’t it great? But the psalms are also great because they teach us to pray.
Now if you want to learn how to bake a cake, it’s good to see a picture of what it should look like. And if you want to learn how to change a tyre, it’s good if someone who knows what they are doing shows you how. So in the psalms we see what prayer should look like. In these poems, these songs, the psalm writers are showing us how to pray.
Psalm 86, for example, is a prayer. It’s a prayer of David. And prayer can be many things, but at its heart it is asking God for things. It is bringing requests to our creator and asking him to grant them. And I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating for those who missed it last time. Look at the direct language that David uses towards God.
Hear, O Lord, and answer me.
Guard my life.
Save your servant.
Have mercy on me.
Bring joy to your servant.
And that’s just in the first four verses. I wasn’t brought up to talk to my betters like that. I was taught to mind my manners. But the psalms teach us that we don’t have to mind our manners with God. We can get straight to the point and tell him what we need. The psalms teach us that we are allowed to and that the Lord wants us to.
It’s worth noting too the sorts of things that David asks for in his prayer. He says,
Hear, O Lord.
He wants God to listen to him, to give him what he is asking for. He says,
Guard my life.
David is asking for protection from his enemies. He says,
Save your servant.
His life is in danger and he wants the Lord to bring his life back from the brink of death. He says,
Bring joy to your servant.
David is distressed by his troubles. He fears for his life. He wants his life to return to peace so that he can enjoy the good things in life. He says,
Teach me your way.
He wants to please the Lord and he wants to be shown the way to do it. He says,
Give me an undivided heart.
David wants an undistracted life that pursues the one aim and the one goal, to know the Lord and to serve him with reverence, which is the fear of the Lord that the Bible talks about. Because we all love so many things and our hearts are tugged in many different directions and we are torn by conflicting desires, but we find our true happiness and fulfil our greatest service when we love the Lord with all our heart and love the things he loves in his name. For we love our families better, we love our country better, we love our local community better, when we love God even more and then love those other things in the way that pleases him.
Turn to me and have mercy on me.
In his distress, he feels like God has turned his back on him and isn’t paying attention to him. He is even worried that God is letting his suffering happen to teach him something or to punish him for some wrong. But he is reaching his breaking point and needs to see the Lord’s kindness and to feel the comfort of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. He says,
Give me a sign of your goodness.
David is worried most of all that his enemies will be encouraged by his downfall to pursue their ruthlessness and cruelty. But if the Lord turns to David in kindness, if he restores David’s fortunes so that everyone can see that the Lord brought it about, his enemies will be ashamed and treat him differently and perhaps even change their lives.
And another thing worth noting is how important reasons are in David’s prayer. Psalm 86 is full of reasons to pray and full of reasons for prayer to be answered, often indicated by the little word “for”, meaning “because”, explaining “why?”. In fact, you can see that in the first four verses, the word “for” is used three times. Reasons answer the question “Why?” Why should I pray? Why would God answer my prayer?
And I believe that reasons are important for prayer. It is important that we know why we should pray. Because reasons are important for anything and everything. When we don’t know why, when we don’t understand the reason, we aren’t motivated to take action. Take crossing the street, for example. Crossing the street is very dangerous. You could get hurt or worse. If you didn’t know why you wanted to cross the street, you would never bother. On the other hand, if you have a good reason to do it, you will gladly accept the risk. When we have a good reason, we are highly motivated to do what is good for us.
Why pray? And more important, what good reason is there for the creator of the cosmos to spare a thought for you? Why should he do what you ask from him? Knowing why will motivate you to pray. And knowing why will also help you form your prayers. We are all full of many conflicting wants and needs. We want to be liked, but we want to do the right thing. We need our own personal freedom, but we also need to respect the freedom of other people. So what should we pray for? And what prayers are the kind that get answered? Knowing why will help us not only understand David’s reasons for praying in Psalm 86, but we can learn from him to form our own prayers.
Back to verse 1. It says,
Hear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
This is one good reason we pray. Without God, we have nothing. Every good thing we have is a gift from him. So if we lack something, if we need something, Psalm 86 teaches us not to be shy to ask for it. No one wants to be poor and needy. And nobody wants other people to think that we are poor and needy. That’s why in front of other people we put on a brave face. We do our best to keep it all together. But we don’t have to pretend to be okay in front of our heavenly Father. We don’t have to pretend that we are fine. We can share with him our poverty and need, our brokenness, so he can supply what we lack and bring us healing.
Verse 2 says,
Guard my life, for I am devoted to you.
Here David declares his loyalty to the Lord, as he also does later in the Psalm when he says
I call to you all day long.
when he says,
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,
when he calls himself the Lord’s servant and the son of his maidservant. David offers his loyalty as a reason the Lord should grant his request. David is not claiming to be perfect, but he is reminding the Lord that he will not gain anything from the end of David’s life. He will, in fact, lose a faithful servant. David will not be able to praise him. On the other hand, his relief will mean that he is able to give the Lord all the credit. But if he dies, not only will his enemies think they have won, but the Lord’s enemies will think they have won too. While if David’s prayer is answered, they will see that the Lord is good to those who fear him and perhaps come to fear him too. David may have something to learn from his suffering. He may have to endure some discipline for some fault in his life. But if his suffering continues too long, he won’t live long enough to learn anything.
So it’s worth thinking about what you plan to do if the Lord answers your prayer. If you are sick and in pain and you cry out to the Lord and he hears you and saves your life, what will you do with that extra time on earth you are given? And if your friend or family member is in distress and you ask God to come to their help, what will you do if he does? Will you waste your second chance at life on worthless things? Or will you surrender all you have in his service? Will you praise the Lord and give him all the credit for his mercy and power, or when things turn around will you go back to business as usual?
One important thing that David does in his prayer is to appeal to the Lord’s nature. In verse 5 he says,
You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you.
Later, in verse 8 to 10, he says,
Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord; no deeds can compare with Yours. All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord; they will bring glory to your name. For you are great and do marvellous deeds; you alone are God.
It’s a great reminder from David to himself and to us that we can be confident to bring our prayers to the Lord, because he is loving and powerful. He can do what we ask him to. And he cares about us enough to do it if he wants to. Like the leper who said to Jesus,
If you want to you can make me clean.
We don’t have to be afraid that the Lord is unable or unwilling to do what we ask him. Instead, we can affirm with the apostle Paul that our heavenly Father
is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.
If you can think it, if you can imagine it, God can do it.
But appealing to the Lord’s nature is also a bold challenge to him to act according to his nature. Is the Lord, as David says, forgiving and good and abounding in love? Is he the only God, and there is no one like him in heaven or on earth? Is he, again as David says, a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness? Then shouldn’t my experience, shouldn’t your experience confirm that? And yet every infant’s cry, every act of injustice, every time the evil seem to win, seems to deny it. As Paul says in Romans chapter 8, all creation groans and longs for its redemption. It can hardly wait for the day when God will put all wrongs right. In the same way, it is only fair that every answer to prayer, every time God brings good out of times of distress and suffering is a confirmation that the universe is in good hands.
But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
They are true and comforting words. But in the context of this prayer it is a bold reminder to the Lord to act according to his nature. It is also a bold reminder of who we are. For only one person is allowed to march up to the king and say to him, “But you promised.” And that is the princess, the king’s own daughter. We are children of the heaven king and we are allowed to ask him to do what he has promised, to act according to his nature.
In verses 12 and 13 David says,
I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave.
Here is one last reason that David gives the Lord to answer his prayer. He will praise him. Of course, David already has. It is his usual practice. It is what he intends to do while he has life and strength. But if the Lord rescues him, if he shows his great love to him, he will give the Lord all the credit. And he will make sure that everyone will know it. What greater joy is there than having a need and bringing it to the Lord and having him answer it so that you can say to your friends, isn’t God good? God is good. He is so good that he can bring good out of pain and blessing out of our distress.
What good reasons to pray. What good reasons for the Lord to answer prayer. We are poor and needy. We have nothing if the Lord does not provide. We are devoted to him and we benefit from the Lord’s discipline. But if our distress goes on too long we won’t be able to learn from it. God is forgiving and good and he proves it when he acts according to his nature and brings good out of our bad. And we will praise him. When he rescues us we will give him all the credit.