Category Archives: What The Bible Teaches us about Prayer.

What various Bible passages teach about prayer.

A Lesson in God’s Faithfulness through David’s Failure!

Psalm 34

Background of the Psalm:

The events that inspired David to write Psalm 34 are found in 1 Samuel 18-21. David had killed Goliath and was the hero of all Israel.  Saul was jealous as, due to his disobedience, Samuel had prophesied that his kingship would be given to another (15:28).  In Saul’s mind David’s the main contender so his life was under threat.  Due to Jonathan’s friendship David escapes, but he’s in a desperate situation and makes a bad decision.  Abimelech the priest is nervous when David turns up as word had probably got out that Saul had made attempts on David’s life.  But David spins a story that he’s on a ‘secret mission’ and needs provisions and weapons.  The priest only has the consecrated bread but is assured that David and his men have all behaved themselves.  He also has Goliath sword.  Having got food and a weapon David is on his way.  But David has lied and has looked to his own ingenuity rather than looking to the Lord!

Looking to put some distance between Saul and himself David heads for Gath in Philistine territory.  Perhaps he’s thinking he can hire himself out to King Achish as a mercenary.  But the problem of being the hero of all Israel is that David is easily identified by the King’s officials (21:11).  David, in desperation, pretends to be mad in the hope that the King will think he’s a harmless loony and fortunately it works.  The King has David thrown out and David escapes to the cave at Adullam where he is among family and where various people in trouble or with some kind of grievance (probably against Saul) join him (22:1-2).

 The structure of the Psalm:

  • David praises God for his deliverance the benefits of that deliverance (vs1-10).
  • The tone of the Psalm changes from a prayer of praise to a sermon (vs11-22).
  • This covers: the fear of the Lord – how it is practised (vs11-14).
  • The Lords attitude towards those who follow him which is seen in their deliverance vs15-22).

Some observations on the text (all scriptural quotations ESV):

David starts by praising God (v1). The phrase: ‘I will bless the LORD at all times’ could be phrased ‘at every time’.[1]  David uses ‘Yahweh’ the covenant name of God.  So David rejoices as God has been faithful in keeping his promises.  He can boast that God had acted and delivered him from all his: ‘fears’ (v4).  David’s state in verse 6 was due to his sin, but that did not stop him crying out to God (no doubt in repentance).  Verse 7 has a stunning statement: ‘The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.’ This picture of God’s protection is David’s reason for praising God.  The ‘angel of the Lord’ is singular, but ‘encamps’ is plural.  God is so powerful and there is nothing outside his influence and sovereignty.  Phillip Eveson notes he: ‘acts like a protective shield to deliver his people.’[2]  The angel of the Lord can refer to the pre-incarnate Christ.  Jesus, when praying for his disciples, prayed: ‘not one of them has been lost’ (John 17:12) and when praying for all believers he prayed: ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me, where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world’ (John 17:24).

The next part of the Psalm applies this message with evangelistic zeal! Imagine David in that cave at Adullam with his not so merry men.  “Learn from my mistake” he says “I fouled up, but God was faithful.”  David wants others to have his experience of God’s faithfulness.  But they must trust God and take refuge in him (v8) and ‘fear’ him (v9).[3]  Maybe a lion growls in the distance so he uses it as an illustration. Even a Lion can get hungry and weak but: ‘those who seek the LORD lack no good thing’ (v10).In verses 11-14 David addresses those listening as ‘children’ (v11) reinforcing the instructive element of this Psalm.[4]  The person who wants to live to honour the Lord will refrain from falsehood and seek a path through life that pleases God.  The interesting thing is this comes at a time of danger and failure in David’s life, but it increases his zeal to live in a way that pleases the Lord (vs12-14).  David reminds those listening the Lord is looking out for them, but he is against the wicked (vs15-16).Verse 17 starts to draw a conclusion. The first part of verse 17 contains a statement which is fundamental to understanding prayer. ‘When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears them.’ The second part contains the statement that the Lord: ‘delivers them out of all their troubles.’ But is that true?  For a start, no one is righteous before God?  The Old Testament has a different view of righteousness.  This is not: ‘the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21) that we have due to Christ’s substitution; this refers to being visibility moral and upright.  But can we expect our prayers will always be answered in the positive when we are going through trouble of some sort?

I believe these verses are supposed to be understood in a broader context. Verse 18 is the key as this verse reflects God’s care for: ‘the broken-hearted’ as he: ‘saves the crushed in spirit.’  The New Testament context is found in Matthew 5:3-10 where Jesus teaches his disciples of the benefits those who are going through a tough time will receive.  Jesus is teaching his disciples, so these promises are made to believers.  How the Lord delivers his people is found in verses 19 and 20.

Verse 19 seems to duplicate verse 17, except its context is singular. But now David makes a remarkable claim that God: ‘keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken’ (v20).  This seems hard to believe!  Maybe David escaped with no broken bones but he’s still in danger as when he writes these words as he’s hiding from Saul.  Michael Wilcox notes: ‘The Lord promises deliverance from such things, but that is not the same as exemption from them’.[5]  But John applies it as a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus was crucified as he did not have any of his bones broken (John 19:31-37).[6]  The apostle Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost, states that: ‘this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosening the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.’  Acts 2:23-24).  So God delivered Jesus: ‘a righteous man’ completely and in that sense verse 19-20 is fulfilled.  The last part of the Psalm (vs21-22) contrasts the fate of the ‘wicked’ to the future state of the ‘righteous’.  The wicked, who make things for God’s people, will be condemned but those who love the Lord will be redeemed!

For us this means Jesus paid the price for our sin on the cross. Whatever David originally meant by these words, he understood that God was actively protecting him.  So he could end the Psalm on a note of confidence by stating that: ‘none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned (v22).  Philip Eveson notes that God’s: ‘covenant name “the Lord” (Yahweh) appears in almost every verse of the Psalm’,[7]  That’s a reminder that God will always keep his promises!

[1] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester, Inter–Varsity Press, 1973), 139.

[2] Philip Eveson, Psalms, From Suffering to Glory, Volume 1, Welwyn Commentary Series, (Darlington, Evangelical Press, 2014), 218.

[3] Although I do believe that the element of physical fear can also be applied here as we need to remember who God is.  Hebrews 10:31 is certainly written from this perspective!

[4] David addresses them as ‘children’ which is not is not dissimilar to the teacher instructing his pupils as ‘sons’ in Proverbs 4:1 which Peter Craigie sees as a better translation here.  Peter Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50 (Waco, Word Books Publisher, 1983) 280.

[5] Michael Wilcox, The Message of Psalms 1-72, Songs for the People of God, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 118.

[6] This is also reminiscent of the Passover lamb that was not to have any bones broken (see Exodus 12:46).

[7] Eveson, Psalms Volume 1, 221.

The Prayer of True Repentance.

Psalm 51

Background of the Psalm:

After becoming King, David’s reign had been an unqualified success. He had defeated many of Israel’s enemies which had brought security and stability to the nation. Yet by shrugging off this responsibility he’d let himself become idle and open to temptation! This resulted in his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). One sin leads to another and when Bathsheba announces she’s pregnant David, after several desperate attempts to cover his tracks, arranges the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, one of David’s crack soldiers (2 Samuel 23:39). After taking Bathsheba as his wife, when it looked like he had got away with everything, the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to reprimand him (2 Samuel 12:1-15). David had sinned greatly; Michael Wilcock notes that David leaves: ‘five of the Ten Commandments broken in one sordid and cynical enterprise’.[1] However, although the Lord had accepted his repentance (2 Samuel 12:12-13) David realized the serious consequences of his sin. This Psalm is written in the form of a prayer of repentance. The Choirmaster of the title may have composed the music so the Psalm could be sung as a form of repentance in worship.

 The structure of the Psalm:

  •  The nature of God – in verse 1 David remembers God’s mercy and compassion (Exodus 34:6-7a). He acknowledges that his sin is an affront to God as God’s law defines sin (v4).
  • The nature of forgiveness – forgiveness has its origin in God’s nature (v6), so forgiveness comes through God acting (v7). It is an act of recreation (v10), God doing the impossible (see Ezekiel 36:25-27). It is he who restores us (vs11-12) therefore there is nothing we can do to earn it (vs16-17).
  • The nature of the forgiven believer – David is now ready to serve the Lord joyfully (vs12-13) and prays for God to show grace towards the nation (v18). Now he can offer worship that pleases the Lord (v19).

Some observations on the text (all scriptural quotations ESV):

The tone of the Psalm is set by the opening verses (vs1-2).  David acknowledges that he is completely dependent on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness.  This he sees as part of the Lord’s nature and verse 1 reflects the Lord’s words to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7a. ‘The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”’.

The concept of all sin being against God (v4) is one we might struggle with. Surely Bathsheba and Uriah are the ones affected by David’s sin.  But we tend to associate wrongdoing in how it affects others, what is at issue here is God’s Law!  As that defines sin, any sin  is essentially treason against God’s rule.  David knows this and prays accordingly.

As forgiveness has its origin in God’s nature he delights: ‘in truth in the inward being’ and he will teach David: ‘wisdom in the secret heart’ (v6).  Therefore, David looks to the Lord to cleanse him (v7) as he realizes that there is nothing in his nature that can atone for what he has done.  Mankind’s natural state does not allow for it (v5).  The picture used in verse 7 is of the ceremonial cleansing during ceremonies like the ‘Day of Atonement’, The priest would sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice or water on the worshipers as a symbol of their sins being atonement for.

The theme of helplessness  and the need for God to act becomes even more prevalent in verse 10. The imagery here is similar to Ezekiel 36:25-27.  “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  David’s sin is so serious no amount of self-improvement can work here, so he is literally asking the Lord step in and recreate his spiritual being!  This defines what repentance is, complete dependence on the Lord’s forgiveness.  This David now illustrates brilliantly in verses 16-17.  Some people think that in Old Testament times it was just a case of God’s people following religious laws and rituals.  But  if there was any possibility of paying for what he had done in the Law David, as King, could’ve afforded it. No sacrifice would’ve been too expensive or lavish for him.  But they couldn’t cover the cost of his sin (Leviticus20:10).  As  with all Old Testament worship it needed to reflect the believer’s love for the Lord.  So all David depends on is: ‘a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart’ as that that is the nature of genuine repentance.  With that attitude he can pray with confidence knowing that it’s God’s nature to forgive anyone who approaches him in that way.  John Calvin states: ‘The phrase the sacrifices of God implicitly rebukes the hypocrite who he imagines he can by his own efforts propitiate God; the one essential for the sinner is to prostrate himself, humbly pleading for divine mercy.’[2]

Now David can now approach his worship in the proper fashion (v19). It’s difficult to tell how long it was before David’s sin was exposed by Nathan,  but it was probably a long time.  No doubt he continued in his religious observance.  But his heart and attitude was wrong.  But now he can joyfully come in worship to the Lord as well as witnessing to the joy of being forgiven (see vs12-15).

[1] Michael Wilcox, The Message of Psalms 1-72, Songs for the People of God (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 185.

[2] John Calvin, Abridged by David C. Searle, Commentary on the Psalms (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 272.

Believing in the Proactive God.

Psalm 43

Background to the Psalm:

Some years back the big event each Christmas for Tracy and I was seeing the next instalment of the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ at the cinema. What I remember about watching the first and second films was they left me with a sense of anticipation for the next.  That’s something quite unusual, as generally sequels tend to be a case of diminishing returns.  But, as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was envisioned as one story broken into three books, each film delivered in terms of expectations and enjoyment.  That’s the case with Psalm 43.  Many commentators feel that Psalm 42 and 43 were one Psalm which had been separated due to their differing tones.  Psalm 43 has no introduction concerning who wrote it, something unique to Book 2 of the book of Psalms.  It also repeats the phrase: ‘Why are you cast down O my soul and why all you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God’ in verse 5 which is found in verses 5 and 11 of the previous Psalm.

The structure of the Psalm:

  • A cry for God to intervene in the Psalmists situation (v1).
  • The Psalmist questions why he is in the state he’s in. He now starts to have confidence that God will change situation (vs2-4).
  • The Psalmist repeats his original question (see Psalm 42:1). But this time the sentiment is, to paraphrase: ‘how could I have ever felt that?’ (v5).

Some obviations on the text (all quotations ESV):

The psalmist has started to climb out of his predicament which had so immersed him in Psalm 42. He now calls on the Lord to defend his cause against those who making it hard for him, a bit like a lawyer taking up their client’s case.  This is a bold prayer which calls upon the Lord to act (v1).  Even if in verse 2 he is still musing over the Lord supposed rejection of him, he realizes that the Lord is his refuge.  The psalmist now asks himself why he’s in the state he’s in if he believes in such a God?

This acts as a major challenge to us. If we worship a God who is sovereign, but then fall into despair over any trial or tribulation we face, that is hardly honouring to God.  We should focus on the Lord and his promises, so when we find ourselves sad and hard-pressed, we will not despair.  Sadness and despair are two very different things.  One can suffer sadness due to being caught in the crossfire of a damage world, but not be despairing.  To despair when we worship a sovereign God is to lack faith!

The psalmist continues to call on the Lord to act. The phase ‘Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill’ (v3) has been interpreted various ways.  One suggestion is that it is: ‘envisioned by the writer as guardian angels of a sort who are walking along at his side.’[1]  But I suspect the psalmist is recounting how, in his depression, he’d forgotten this aspect of the Lord’s nature.  The reference to: ‘your holy hill’ has connotations of the Temple and the psalmist now seeking fellowship with the Lord that had been absent in his depressed state.

But whatever the phrase means, I think we can draw two conclusions from it. Firstly, gone is the depressive nature of the former Psalm where the psalmist prayer dwelt on his own fragile emotional state.  There is nothing wrong with praying like that as the Lord wants to know, however raw the emotion, what we are feeling.  He wants us to be brutally honest about our situation!  But there has to be a point where we ask God to intervene, and this the psalmist now does.  Secondly, having realized this, the psalmist pinpoints what is needed.  So now he is seeking spiritual clarity.

So, where can the psalmist find the necessary: ‘light and truth’?  The answer is in ‘God’s Word’.  In this way, by the power of the Holy Spirit, clarity of thought and belief will be found and order can be restored to the believer’s troubled mind.  The Bible should the first place we look when we seek to restore spiritual order.  Too often we look to the advice of those who speak out personal experience.  Although there’s some value in that, we are all different and one person’s experience may not be another’s!  Henry and Scott note that the Christian should: ‘discard dishonourable fears, and pray more earnestly that the Lord would send forth the truth of his words, and the light of his spirit, to guide us into the way of holiness, peace and salvation.’ [2]

The psalmist realizes that if he engages with God’s Word he will bring his emotions under the discipline of the Lord’s instruction. Then he can approach God in joyful worship.  In the previous Psalm he had looked back in despair at the fellowship that he had lost.  But now he looks forward to future fellowship and worship in joyful anticipation.  The reference to the: ‘lyre’ gives us a picture that if David was the author of the two Psalms he is literally at a point where he is anticipating composing a song of praise about the loving kindness found in the Lord’s relationship with his people.

The psalmist concludes with the question he’d asked back in Psalm 42. But now the question is asked rhetorically.  The psalmist is pretty much saying: “how could I be so depressed and distraught when I worship a God who speaks to his people through his Word.”  Craig Broyles concludes.  ‘The Psalm as a whole is a clear testimony that, while circumstances may put restraints on the people of God, they do not have ultimate control. Worshipers can exercise a measure of control over how they respond to hardship and over the state of their soul, especially when they commit their hopes to God through prayer.’ [3]  The psalmist may still have  problems and struggles , but he has started to resolve them by turning to God’s Word and regaining a proper perspective!

[1] H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (London, Evangelical Press, 1959), 343.

[2] Henry and Scott, Scots Commentary, Job to Solomon’s Song (London, The Religious Tract Society, 1833), 202.

 [3]Craig C. Broyles, New International Biblical Commentary Psalms (Massachusetts, Hendrickson publishers, Inc, 1999), 200.

The Prayer of a Dry, Drowning and Despairing Believer.

Psalm 42

Background of the Psalm:

The psalmist can only be described as being in a very depressed state.  But who is he, and what were his circumstances?  The Psalm is attributed to the ‘Sons of Korah’, Korah being a descendent of Levi who rebelled with Dathan and Abriram against Moses and was judged by the Lord (Numbers 16).  Despite this his descendants became those who had important non-priestly tasks connected with the Tabernacle (gatekeepers, singers and musicians).  Many have attributed this Psalm to David, but if so when did these events take place?  Some commentators think it is when David fled Jerusalem to escape from Absalom.  But the places described in the Psalm and the short duration of his absence from Jerusalem at that time makes this unlikely.  The most likely scenario is that the events described took place when David was hiding from Saul.  The mention of the ‘Sons of Korah’ could mean when David became King he recounted his experience to one of them who, either on his own or with David, then composed the Psalm.

The structure of the Psalm:

  • The psalmist acknowledges a need – he is desperate to have close fellowship with the Lord and his people as the ungodly surround and taunt him causing him to fall into deep depression (verses 1-7).
  • The right and wrong approaches to lack of fellowship – looking back is not always the best thing!  Reasoning with one’s self is not the first sign of madness (verses 4-6)!
  • The solution: a proper focus on the Lord – the psalmist remembers God’s nature.  Yet he is still deeply hurt and struggling.  But he slowly starts to get a proper focus (verses 8-11).prayering-over-bible

Some observations on the text (all scriptural quotations ESV):

If the Psalm was written by David it is easy to imagine him in exile and while hunting, observing a deer as it approaches a stream to drink.  He raises his bow, but the heavy breathing of the animal suddenly causes him to reflect on his spiritual state.  Just as the animal is gasping for water due to its thirst, David is desperate for the fellowship he once knew before Saul’s murderous intent caused him to flee (vs1-2)!  Charles Haddon Spurgeon sums up David’s situation.  ‘Debarred from public worship, David was heartsick.  Ease he did not seek, honour he did not covet, but the enjoyment of communion with God was an urgent need of his soul; he viewed it not merely as the sweetest of all the luxuries, but as an absolute necessity, like water to a stag.  Like the parched traveller in the wilderness, whose skin bottle is empty, and finds the wells dry, he must drink or die – he must have God or faint.’[1]  The sense of isolation is heightened by the name used for God which is Elohim (Creator God) rather than Yahweh (Covenant God).

The psalmist’s difficult situation becomes clearer in verses 3-4.  This feeling of being separated from fellowship with God is coupled with those around him not sharing his devotion.  The question: “Where is your God?” is an accusation that God has deserted him.  The psalmist desires a return to the days when fellowship was readily attainable.  What verse 4 makes clear is that although the psalmist had a very prominent role in worship he was not bound by formality or ritual as he enjoyed this communal praise and worship (notice the use of the words: ‘throng’ and ‘multitude’).

But looking back to the ‘good old days’ where he joined with joyous and excited pilgrims on the way to one of the festivals doesn’t help at all.  In fact makes him feel a lot worse.  To be constantly looking back to better past times may not encourage us as Christians in our present situation!

Before the psalmist concludes the first part of the Psalm he asks himself a rhetorical question (vs5-6a).  The psalmist already knows what he should do, but this forces him to draw on his knowledge of God and to focus on that rather than wallowing in the pointless and unhelpful nostalgia.  In this case talking to oneself is not ‘the first sign of madness’ but rather the road to recovery.  He is to: ‘Hope in God’ for his salvation.’

But as is often the case when someone is very depressed he succumbs to a sudden mood swing.  Verse 6b makes clear that he is far from home.  The area described is near the source of the river Jordan on the North-eastern borders of Israel.  One can imagine David composing this while sitting by the fledgling stream with its waterfalls and the pools they form (v7).  However, some commentators feel the imagery reflects the open sea.  It’s possible that David makes that connection as: ‘an uncomfortable reminder of the deep, that symbol of chaos and disorder which the Hebrews always found unnerving’.[2]

Some commentators have suggested that the psalmist feels that he is suffering some form of judgment from God.  But this doesn’t sit easily with what follows in verse 8 where he is aware of God’s continual care for him.  He notes that: ‘By day the LORD commands his steadfast love and at night his song is with me’.  What is notable about this verse is that the name Psalmist uses for God has now changed.  It is no longer Elohim, Creator God, but the more intimate Yahweh which is the covenant name for God.  Yet, there is more to this verse as the second part reads: ‘by night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.’  But what exactly does that mean?  John Calvin notes that it is: ‘to be understood as an expression of the delight experienced when by God’s favour we are given free access into his presence.’[3]  That’s a possible explanation, but to my mind it doesn’t quite fit with the sentiments that have been expressed up to this point.  Although the psalmist has acknowledged the relationship he has with God, there is a sense that the origin of this prayer is not the psalmist.  So I offer the following explanation.  The prayer referred to at the end of this verse has its origin in the Lord’s love and his: ‘song’ and therefore originates from him.  It’s possible that it is the psalmist prays it, but this is similar to the priestly intercession of Christ (Hebrews 7:25).  So I suggest that the psalmist is being enabled to pray some form of prayer that has its origin in the Lord’s relationship with him.  The comfort for believers is even when they are up against it; the Lord steps in enabling them, whatever their condition, by his Spirit to seek him in prayer.

Yet despite the psalmist change of tone in verse 8 he has yet to start the process of climbing out of his predicament.  Verses 9-10 showed that he is still struggling.  His continual depression is affecting his judgment.  He realizes that God is the one constant in an ever-changing world but at the same time he feels God has forgotten him.  It makes no sense, but that is often the case when we are depressed!  What the Psalmist needs to do is to stay where he was in his reasoning in verse 8.  God is the one constant which is why the psalmist describes him as: ‘my rock’ (v9).  When we find ourselves in such difficulties we need to take a step back from the situation so we get that perspective and then fixate on the Lord’s steadfast love!  The psalmist starts to do this as he repeats the rhetorical question of verse 5-6a in verse 11.

The psalmist has realized that he has been forgetting God’s attributes and his love towards him.  He needs to make the Lord the centre of his hope so he can make a concerted effort to climb out of the situation!  Martyn Lloyd Jones sums the psalmist up in this way.  ‘He reminds himself of God.  Why?  Because he was depressed and had forgotten God, so that his faith and his belief in God and in God’s power, and in his relationship to God, were not what we ought to be.  We can indeed set sum it all up by saying that the final and ultimate cause (of spiritual depression) is sheer unbelief.’[4]

[1] C. H Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Volume 2, Psalms 27-52, (Welwyn, Evangelical Press, reprinted 1977) 300.
[2] Michael Wilcox, The Message of Psalms 1-72, Songs for the People of God (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 155.
[3] John Calvin, Abridged by David C. Searle, Commentary on the Psalms, (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 226.
[4] Martyn Lloyd Jones, Spiritual Depression, Its Causes and Cure (London, Pickering and Inglis Ltd, 1965), 20.