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Superscription.—“A Prayer of David.” Although this Psalm is not placed with the great body of David’s Psalms (1–70), there is no sufficient ground for disputing his authorship of it.
Occasion.—Barnes says, “The occasion on which it was composed is unknown, but it has been commonly supposed that it was written in the time of the persecution under Saul.” But the opinion of Hengstenberg, that it was written during the dangers to which David was exposed by reason of the rebellion of Absalom, seems to us better supported by the evidence which the Psalm itself affords. Amid the dangers to which he is now exposed, the Psalmist calls to mind for his encouragement a remarkable deliverance which God had formerly granted to him (Psalms 86:13). May it not have been that the former deliverance was from Saul, and his present danger from Absalom! Still we cannot with certainty determine the occasion of its composition.
THE GOODNESS OF GOD AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO SEEK HIM
The “Prayer of David” runs through the whole Psalm, but as the Psalm is too long and suggestive for treatment in one homily, we purpose dividing it by the grounds on which for his encouragement the Psalmist bases his prayer. Let us consider—
I. The petitions of the suppliant. The Psalmist prays—
1. For audience. “Bow down Thine ear, O Lord, hear me.” The petition seems to include—
(1.) Divine condescension. Being sensible of his unworthiness of the regard of God, he prays Him to “bow down” His ear to his prayer.
(2.) Divine attention. “Hear me.” It is not a petition that God would simply hear the prayer of the Psalmist, but that He would hear him favourably, that He would hear and bless him.
2. For protection. “Preserve my soul, … save Thy servant.” David was at this time exposed to danger, his very life was in peril; he prays that God would protect his life, and deliver him from his enemies. If God protect us we are invulnerable. Saul could not harm David, though he sought by every means in his power to do so, because the Lord was his shield. And Absalom and his rebel army were equally powerless against him, because God defended him. All the hosts of hell with their allies upon earth, even when led by their subtle and mighty prince, cannot really harm the child of God who has sought the protection of his Father.
3. For mercy. “Be merciful unto me, O Lord.” Implied in this petition is the conscious unworthiness of the suppliant. David seeks the protection and deliverance of God, not as a right, but as a favour. He presented to God not a claim, but a humble supplication. He addressed himself not to the Divine justice, but to the Divine mercy. “Be gracious unto me, O God.” In all our need it is to the mercy of the Lord we must look.
4. For joy. “Rejoice the soul of Thy servant.” If God should deliver His servant from danger his heart would greatly rejoice. And such were the circumstances of the Psalmist at this time that God only could deliver him from his foes and fill him with gladness. Salvation is a joyous thing. It is the Christian’s privilege to “rejoice in the Lord alway.”
II. The pleas of the suppliant. The Psalmist pleads—
1. His necessity. “For I am poor and needy.” Oppression and poverty are the principal meanings of the words used by the Psalmist in this plea. David pleads that he was bowed down by trouble, as he asks God to “bow down” and hear him, and that he was necessitous, as he asks God to help him. Or we may regard his plea in this way, he was “poor,” i.e., without supply, he was “needy,” i.e., full of wants; therefore he must look away from himself, above himself for satisfaction. Man’s necessity does not give him any claim upon God’s bounty. But human misery always moves Divine mercy. And when we humbly and sincerely plead our poverty with God, He will enrich us with the treasures of His grace. “When I am weak, then am I strong.”
2. His consecration. “For I am holy.” Margin: “one whom Thou favourest.” Hengstenberg: “for I am pious.” Calvin: “for I am meek.” Perowne: “one whom Thou lovest.” He was pious, not profane. He was the “servant” of God. Twice he pleads that fact; and as we are sure that he would not plead “for I am holy” in any boastful or self-righteous spirit, we conclude that his consecration to God is one of his pleas. He was the servant of God, and therefore in asking God to save him, he was asking Him to save His own. If we in the strength of grace have consecrated ourselves to God, we may plead that fact with Him in our prayers. He has never forsaken His faithful servants.
3. His confidence. “Thy servant that trusteth in Thee.” He has pledged Himself to save those who put their trust in Him. By trusting Him we really place our salvation in His hands. Can He fail? Is His power inadequate? His workings in nature, in human history, and in the conversion of souls proclaim it as great and wonderful as ever. Is His willingness diminished? “The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of My peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.” Our trust in God is a mighty plea in our prayers to Him.
4. His importunity. “I cry unto Thee daily.” Margin: “all the day,”—continually. His prayer was importunate. “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.” These words show that his prayer was earnest, hearty, sincere. He did not merely lift up his hands unto God, but he lifted up his heart also. Prayers which are characterised like this by heartiness, importunity, and faith, when presented by God’s devoted but needy servants, are certain to result in gracious replies from heaven.
III. The encouragement of the suppliant. “For Thou, Lord, art good and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy to all them that call upon Thee.” Here are—
1. Goodness for man as a dependent and needy creature. “Thou, Lord, art good.” In Himself “God is good.” He is perfect in holiness and in grace. He is also “good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” He delights in His works, and in dealing bountifully with His creatures. He, the infinitely and ever blessed God, hath assured us that “it is more blessed to give than to receive;” and He is the infinite Giver. Being and well-being, life and joy, He gives abundantly. Here then is encouragement to seek Him in prayer in every time of need.
2. Mercy for man as a sinful creature. “Ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy.” “Goodness is the disposition to communicate happiness. Mercy is a modification of goodness. Goodness is the genus, mercy the species. The fruits of goodness are enjoyed by holy and happy creatures. The fruits of mercy, by the guilty and miserable. Mercy with relation to an offender is a disposition to forgive. Mercy in reference to a sufferer is a disposition to relieve.” Here then is our encouragement We are sinful and ill-deserving, but He is merciful and pardons. We are wretched, but He is merciful and succours.
3. Mercy in great abundance and dispensed freely. He is “ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Him.” “With the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption.” “He delighteth in mercy.” Like Himself His mercy is inexhaustible, infinite. And it is bestowed freely “unto all them that call upon Him.” “Ask, and ye shall receive.” Unless we are prepared to receive the mercy of God as a free gift, we cannot receive it at all. Here then is encouragement to seek God in our times of need. His mercy is unspeakably greater than our sin and misery, and He waits “ready” to bestow it freely “unto all them that call upon Him.”
CONCLUSION.—In the great goodness and mercy of our God there is encouragement for each and for all of us to seek Him in time of need. We are poor and needy, but the riches of His grace are unsearchable and free. We are sinful and sorrowful, but He is plenteous in mercy and ready to forgive. His love is infinite.
In Him let us trust and rejoice.
THE SUPREMACY OF GOD AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO SEEK HIM
In that portion of the Psalm which we have already considered the Psalmist encouraged himself by the willingness of God to help him; in this he encourages himself by the ability of God to help him. In that the goodness and mercy of God were the ground of his prayer for deliverance; in this the power and glory of God constitute that ground. Let us consider—
I. The supremacy of God. The Psalmist sets forth two aspects of this supremacy. He represents God as supreme—
1. In Himself. “Among the gods there is none like unto Thee, O Lord. Thou art God alone.” The Psalmist refers to the false deities worshipped by the heathen, and he says that none of them are like Jehovah in power and goodness. In might and majesty, in grace and glory, God is supreme. He only is God. It has been well said by Bishop Wilkins, “If God be an infinitely-perfect Being, it is impossible to imagine two such beings at the same time, because they must have several perfections, or the same. If the former, neither of them can be God, because neither of them has all possible perfections. If they have both equal perfections, neither of them can be absolutely perfect, because it is not so great to have the same equal perfections in common with another, as to be superior to all others.” There can be but one Supreme Being.
2. In His doings. “There are no works like unto Thy works. Thou art great and doest wondrous things.” God’s works in creation are wonderful in the wisdom and power which they manifest. And in His providence there had often been remarkable displays of His skill in making the designs of the enemies of His people promote their interests, and of His power in overthrowing His foes and saving them that trust in Him. All His works praise Him and proclaim His sole supremacy. But the doing of God which most encouraged the Psalmist was His hearing of prayer. “Thou wilt answer me.” It is the great glory of God that He who created the heavens and bringeth out their host by number, also regardeth the faint breathings of penitence and the softest whispers of prayer. He hears and attends to all the prayers that rise to Him. He is “the proper object of worship everywhere alike, and at all times. This is a thought,” says Dr. Wardlaw, “not less pregnant with interest than it is with wonder. When you are desirous to present a petition in person to a fellow-creature, you require to leave your place, and to find your way to the nearer or more distant spot where he is. But whatever request you have to present to God, you need not move from the spot you occupy. Never. Wherever you chance to be He is there. This is true, not of you alone, but of all alike. He listens to the prayers and the praises of His people that are poured into His ear at the same instant, in every place and every language. And, at the same instant, too, He is listening to the songs of the ‘ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands’ which arise to Him around His seraph-circled throne in the heavens; and to the addresses which are offered to Him from all the worlds with which the fields of immensity are replenished. And to all these He bends His ear, with the most perfect discrimination, and at the same time with the most perfect ease, without the slightest approach to anything like difficulty or effort. And there is no mixing up of one thing with another; of any of the particulars of one case with those of another. Each case, in all its details, is as distinctly heard and recorded as if there had been no other to which to attend.” In this we have a marvellous exhibition of the supremacy of God.
II. The effects of that supremacy. Two are mentioned—
1. All nations shall worship God. “All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord; and shall glorify Thy name.” The nations of the earth are represented as created by God. He “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” All nations have a common origin. God is the Creator-Father of all men. Human brotherhood is a great fact, however man may disregard it. The king and the beggar have a common origin. The oppression of one man by another, or one class of men by another, is a crime in the sight of the common Maker of us all. The nations shall all come and worship God. “All kings shall fall down before Him: all nations shall serve Him.… All nations shall call Him blessed.” It is thought by some that the prediction of the text was partially fulfilled in the great number of proselytes to the Jewish religion during the reigns of David and Solomon. But its complete fulfilment is certainly yet in the future. The triumphs of Christianity are spreading. A bright future is before our world and race. God is supreme over all, and the time is coming on apace when His supremacy shall be loyally and enthusiastically acknowledged by all nations.
2. The troubled soul shall trust in Him. The supremacy of God encouraged the distressed Psalmist to seek Him. Such will ever be the effect of that supremacy when it is rightly understood. God is supremely good, supremely beneficent, and, while enthroned high over all things, He stoops to listen to the feeblest prayer. He is both able and willing to succour the distressed, and help the needy, and comfort the sorrowful.
“His love is as great as His power,
And knows neither measure nor end.”
There is every encouragement presented to the suppliant soul in drawing near to God. Oh, ye impoverished ones, come and be enriched out of His fulness. Burdened and anxious ones, come and cast yourselves with your weight of cares upon Him who careth for you. Sinful and sorrowing ones, come in faith to God, and He will forgive your sins, and soothe or sanctify all your sorrows.
1. Seeing that God is supreme, let us reverence Him, serve Him. “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”
2. Seeing that He is so compassionate to the troubled, let them seek His help and comfort. From the highest throne in glory He will listen to your cry and hasten to your help. “Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me.”
3. Seeing that there is so sure a prospect of His universal worship, let us rejoice in spirit, and hopefully pray and work for its realisation. “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” “The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.”
THE DAY OF TROUBLE
We have here—
I. A period with which all men are acquainted. “The day of trouble.” Trouble is a common experience amongst men in this world. We are troubled by physical infirmities, pains, and diseases; by perplexities, cares, and losses in business; by the unfaithfulness of professed friends; by the bereavements of death; by spiritual distresses and conflicts.
1. The individual character of trouble. “My trouble.” Our troubles often arise partly from peculiarities in our circumstances and temperament and disposition. The same events very differently affect different persons. The sorrows of no two persons are exactly alike. “The heart knoweth his own bitterness.” “Every man must bear his own burden.”
2. The limited duration of trouble. “The day of my trouble.” Through the mercy of God our troubles are short-lived. There is more of gladness than of gloom in the world. In the case of the great majority of persons suffering is the exception, not the rule of life. Courage, troubled heart, the day of thy trouble will soon be over, and happy months of peace shall be thine. Even if the whole of this earthly life were dark and sad it is but as a day when contrasted with the glad, and bright, and endless ruture.
II. A resolve which all men should make. “I will call upon Thee.” The Psalmist did not stoically endure his distresses. He was keenly sensible of their painfulness. Nor did he impiously rebel against God by reason of them. That, not to mention its sinfulness, would only have made the matter worse. But by prayer he took his trouble to God. We should do the same with ours. And we should do so humbly. It may be that our trouble is a consequence of some sin or sins of ours. Sin is the fruitful parent of suffering. Therefore we should call upon God with humble and penitent hearts. We should call upon Him submissively. While our object in seeking Him is to obtain relief from trouble, let us leave it to Him to impart that relief as He may choose. He may relieve us by removing the trouble. He may continue the trouble, but relieve us by imparting more grace to us that we may bear it. “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
III. A result which all men may anticipate. “Thou wilt answer me.” The Psalmist was confident that God would hear and answer his prayer. “He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” “Thou wilt answer me”—
1. Because Thou hast promised to do so. “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee.” “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive,” &c. “Ask, and ye shall receive,” &c.
2. Because Thou hast done so. Jacob prayed, and God answered and blessed him (Genesis 32:0) Isaiah and Hezekiah prayed, and the Lord answered and cut off 185,000 Assyrians in one night (1 Kings 19:0; 1 Chronicles 29:0; 1 Chronicles 29:0) “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly,” &c. (James 5:17-18). The early Christians prayed instantly and earnestly, and the Lord answered, and by an angel delivered Peter out of prison (Acts 12:0 et al). What He has done, He will do again.
3. Because of what Thou art. Thou art omniscient, and therefore knowest our need; omnipotent, and therefore canst help us; “good, and plenteous in mercy,” and therefore wilt take pleasure in relieving us, &c.
Trembling and troubled hearts seek the Lord in believing prayer; and He will calm and cheer, soothe and strengthen you.
THE FORMER MERCIES OF GOD AN ENCOURAGEMET TO SEEK HIM
In this division of the Psalm we have—
I. A grateful recollection of former mercies. “Great is Thy mercy toward me; and Thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell.” The word translated “hell” is “sheol,” in the Greek “Hades.” “Thou hast delivered my soul,” or life, “out of deep sheol,” is a poetical way of saying that God had delivered the Psalmist out of extreme dangers or deep distresses. The allusion is very probably to the repeated and remarkable deliverances vouchsafed to David in the time when Saul persecuted him and sought his life. During that persecution there were times when David despaired of his life, feeling that it was vain to hope to escape from the cunning and strength that were put forth against him. Yet God had graciously and marvellously preserved him safely. He regarded this deliverance as a Divine “mercy.” He knew that he had no claim upon the protection of God. He felt that he had not deserved the great favours which God had bestowed upon him. The Christian may use these words in a spiritual sense. “Great is Thy mercy toward me; and Thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell.” When God in mercy saves a soul He saves it from sin, death, and hell. This recollection of past mercy was an encouragement to the Psalmist in his present distress. It would keep before his mind—
1. God’s ability to deliver him. He had saved him in former times, therefore He, the unchangeable One, could save him now.
2. God’s willingness to save him.
“His love in time past
Forbids me to think,” &c.
Memories like this of the Psalmist’s are amongst the most helpful and precious of all our possessions.
II. An earnest prayer for deliverance from present danger. The great object of the prayer was that the Psalmist might be delivered from the enemies that were aiming at his life. “O God, the proud are risen against me, and the assemblies of violent men have sought after my soul, and have not set Thee before them.… Save the son of Thine handmaid.” The foes from whom he sought deliverance were “proud.” They were men of haughty spirit and daring ambition, who would despise the welfare or the right of others if they stood in the way of the accomplishment of their projects. They were “violent. “They wrought out their plans by force. They were fierce and cruel, caring not what violence they used in accomplishing their ambitious designs. They were united. Hengstenberg translates—“The band of the violent.” And Barnes says—“The word assembly here means merely that they were banded together; what was done was the result of a conspiracy or combination.” They were irreligious. They had not set God before them. They did not fear Him, or respect His law. His threatenings they despised; His presence and observation they disregarded. What evils might not be expected from enemies such as these? From such enemies David prays for deliverance. “Save the son of Thine handmaid.” In his prayer be sets forth the desired deliverance—
1. As a mercy. “O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me.” He asks that God would favourably regard him, pity him, and relieve him.
2. As a communication of Divine power. “Give Thy strength unto Thy servant.” He regarded his case as requiring nothing less than the strength of God to meet it. And he asks that he may be enabled to act as if he were nerved with the very power of God.
3. As found in obedience to the Divine will. “Teach me Thy way, O Lord; I will walk in Thy truth; unite my heart to fear Thy name.” The Psalmist felt that if deliverance were to come to him, he must be found in the way of the Divine precepts, walking with God, and serving Him with undivided heart. It cannot be too earnestly insisted upon, that, if we would be saved, we must be found walking in the way which God prescribes for us. “Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life.” Nor can we insist too earnestly upon the necessity of whole-heartedness in the service of God. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” In the Christian life and work we need fixedness of purpose and concentration of effort if we would succeed. “Unite my heart to fear Thy name.” “This one thing I do,” &c.
4. As calculated to produce a favourable impression. To the Psalmist himself his deliverance would be a “token for good,” a clear and unmistakable sign of the favour of God. To the enemies of the Psalmist his deliverance would be a rebuke. By it their purposes would be defeated, their schemes frustrated, and themselves humbled and shamed. Thus David prays to God for deliverance, and encourages himself in so doing, by thinking of the goodness and faithfulness of God. Having mentioned the haughtiness and violence, the unity and irreligiousness of his foes, he says, “But Thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth.” The Psalmist felt that he had nothing but evil to expect from his enemies. And from so gracious a God, he, though unworthy, could expect nothing but good. (We have already looked at “The goodness of God as an encouragement to seek Him”—Psalms 86:1-5.)
III. A devout resolution to serve God. The Psalmist resolves to serve God—
1. By obedience. “I will walk in Thy truth;” i.e., I will conform my life to Thy will. The truth of God should not only be held by us as sentiment, or doctrine, or fact; but should also be practised by us. We should translate our creed into our conduct. We should seek not only to hold the truth, but also to live the truth; not only to know the will of God, but also to do His will. The “doer of the work shall be blessed in his doing.”
2. By worship. “I will praise Thee, O Lord my God, with all my heart; and I will glorify Thy name for evermore.” The poet resolves to worship God heartily. “With all my heart.” When God united his heart he would pour it all out in worship to Him. His undivided affection and adoration he would give to God. Such hearty worship is acceptable unto God. He would worship God eternally—“for evermore.” While he had any being he would praise God. In time and through eternity he would glorify Him.
1. Learn the value of sacred memories. How greatly David was encouraged by his recollections of past mercies! Such memories should be monitors, reminding us of our weakness, &c. Such memories should be inspirers, telling us of Divine strength, goodness, &c. He who does not use wisely the memories of the past is not living as he ought in the present, and is ill-furnished for the changes and trials of the future.
2. The obligations imposed by Divine mercies. Goodness calls for gratitude. New favours demand new songs. Our obligations to God are ever increasing. “I will praise Thee, O Lord my God, with all my heart; and I will glorify Thy name for evermore.”
THE DIVINE WAY FOR MAN
I. The Divine way for man indicated by God. “Teach me Thy way, O Lord.”
1. There is a Divine way in which man should walk. “Thy way.” The way prescribed by Him in His holy Word. The way of obedience to His precepts. The way which our Lord Jesus Christ trod.
2. God must indicate that way to man. “Teach me.” “The original meaning of the Hebrew word is to point out, or mark the way.” The way is clearly revealed in the sacred Scriptures; but man’s moral perceptions are not clear, his moral judgment is warped by sin; hence his need of the direction of God. He must indicate to man the true way of human life.
II. The Divine way for man trod by man. “I will walk in Thy truth.” It is the way of Divine truth which God points out, and which the Psalmist resolves to walk in. To walk in God’s truth implies—
1. Harmony with the truth. “To walk in the truth of God signifies to be always mindful of it.” “Walking, in the Scripture, takes in the whole of our conversation or conduct.” The whole life in accord with the Divine mind and will.
2. Progress in the truth. The Psalmist resolves to walk, not to stand, in God’s truth. Walking implies advancement. The godly soul “follows on to know the Lord.” We must advance in two things: in knowledge of the truth, and in practice of the truth:
III. The need of integrity of heart to tread the Divine way for man. “Unite my heart to fear Thy name.” We use the word integrity in its literal meaning.
1. There is a great tendency in human nature to division of heart. There are many rival claimants for our affections; and the heart itself has lost its true centre.
2. Integrity of heart is essential to enable us to tread the Divine way. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Unless we are whole-hearted we shall speedily wander from the way, or faint by the way. God demands our undivided affection and our complete devotion. Only by hearty and concentrated effort can we secure the prize. “One thing I do, forgetting,” &c.
3. God alone can impart to us integrity of heart in the Divine way. The bias of the unrenewed heart is averse from Divine things. None but God can harmonise our powers and affections in His service. He will thus unite the hearts of all who sincerely seek Him.
“Let earth no more my heart divide;
With Christ may I be crucified,
To Thee with my whole soul aspire;
Dead to the world and all its toys,
Its idle pomp and fading joys,
Be Thou alone my one desire.”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 86". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany