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A Prayer of David
We have heard David sing, now let us hear him pray. He played wonderfully upon his harp, what is his skill as a suppliant? Does he know the ways of heaven? Can he speak the language of the skies, or any language of earth that can be understood there? This psalm is quite in a new style. It is said to be in the early style of the sweet singer of Israel. There is a charm in the early style of all great writers. It may be efflorescent, and redundant; yet there is wonderful passion in it, an audacity that inspires, if it does not affright; although the critic may see much to modify and rearrange, yet there is about the young heart, the young religious life, something that fascinates and stirs and blesses.
The prayer begins right boldly. Introduction there is none. The suppliant would appear to be in great haste, and to be minded to wait for his answer. The opening words of the psalm are a bold moral appeal: "Hear the right, O Lord." Not, Hear my side, my way of putting the case; but, Hear the man who is representing a righteous cause; whatever is done, let right be done. This is the strength and glory of the Bible: it is a book of righteousness; its God is revealed as one who will do right. God is implored to measure everything by a straight line, by a perpendicular standard, to make no allowance on the one side or the other, but to be just to all men. In the second verse the same idea is continued. The "let" in the second clause of the verse may be omitted; then the words will stand thus: "Thine eyes behold the things that are equal"; in other words, God is a God impartial, just, and true; the sentence of heaven must not be modified by any narrow partiality: whatever goes down, righteousness must stand. Let this be felt to be the spirit of the whole Bible, and at once the book becomes a great and noble sanctuary into which all men may run, assured that the measure is right, and that the balances and the weights are just. This should be the prayer of the battlefield every battlefield; the scene of every controversy. Let right be done! Who has not thought that his banner alone was stainless? Who has not been guilty of the injustice of supposing that there could be no right on the other side? Where is there a controversy that has not on both sides of it elements of right? What, then, should be the true prayer of the soul that would have things adjusted upon a permanent basis? that "right" should be done, that wherever there is right it should be recognised, wherever there is wrong it should be put down; and that the whole process of divine criticism should end in the establishment of the right alone.
The Psalmist is quite sure that he himself is sincere. The verses which follow seem to be a kind of anticipation of the Pharisee's self-satisfied prayer; but they are nothing of the kind. The reference in all these matters is not to sinlessness but to sincerity. The Psalmist does not say: I am a pure man, without stain upon the heart or hand. He says: I am a sincere man; the general purpose I have had in view is a purpose marked by honesty. He does not represent himself as pure snow in the face of heaven, but as a man whose supreme motive has been a motive of honesty and general truthfulness. Sincerity can appeal to the right. We draw our prayer out of our own character. This suppliant is so sure of his own honesty that he says: Let the whole case be settled honestly. At other times, when he knows there is not a clean spot upon his whole constitution one sound healthy spot he falls right down before God and weeps out his soul in contrition; but being engaged in a great strife and knowing that he is substantially right as to motive and purpose, he chooses the court in which he will have the case tried, and the court he chooses is the high court of justice. Let right be done. The appeal is an awful one. It is like inviting the day of judgment prematurely. It is the invocation of a sword which once unsheathed returns no more until it has rectified all inequalities and all instances of injustice. We should be very sure of our motive before we invoke the doing of right. It is better for us to invoke the exercise of mercy. Most men will get more from pity than they ever can get from righteousness. Who dare stand before God and say, Let right be done? Better say, God be merciful to me a sinner; Father, pity me, spare me; I am wholly without excuse before thee, but thy grace abounds over my sin God pity me!
David's pleas are not without strength and pertinence. He says he has been obedient so far as he could be: I have been working steadily at the plough; I have been faithful in speaking thy word; I have habitually sought the sanctuary; and my desire has been to serve God: therefore I appeal to the right. Then he pleads his desire to be guided. In the fifth verse he says, "Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not." If we thought he had been boasting too loudly, he corrects our impression by thus casting himself upon the almightiness of God. He is young, adventurous, but not romantic; he will still acknowledge that there are paths in which men ought to go literally, wheel-tracks; so the fifth verse might read: Hold up my goings in thy wheel-tracks; I do not want to make new paths, and to create new and perilous roads in the unmeasured wilderness of time and life, I want to follow the chariots of God. So prudence is compatible with youth; so it is possible to be young, bold, adventurous, and yet to cling to the conservative and the established and the well tested. Who cares to make new roads when good roads are already in existence? Who would carry his independence so far as to say that he will not travel by established roads from one city to another, but will make a road of his own? Who does not see the folly of a boldness or enterprise of that kind? The analogy has its applications to our religious life. There are old paths, old words, even old forms, ancient, well-marked wheel-tracks: enough for most of us to follow where God has led.
Then he pleads his intimacy with God: "I have called upon thee" ( Psa 17:6 ) I know thee, thou knowest me altogether; do not let our friendship go for nothing; complete it in perfect consummation, so that I may see light in thy light, and know the fulness of thy purpose in my being. There are times when we can turn our spiritual intimacy with God into immediate and practical advantage. We have not to begin our communion in the time of controversy; it is not in trouble that we originate the building of the sanctuary; but in hours of contentment and blessedness and general prosperity we have been cultivating the divine acquaintance, advancing our confidence on high, so that when the trouble comes in great shocks and gusts and tempests, God is not afar off but nigh at hand, and our intimacy becomes a real and valuable possession. Improve the quiet days, work hard when the wind is low; then when the days are full of noise, and the air is an angry tempest, there will be less to do in moving heaven, and in invoking and realising the right.
Observe the character of God as drawn by the Psalmist in this prayer. We have seen that: he regards God as righteous. That must be the foundation of all true theology. There must be no difficulties of a conscientious kind in our communion with heaven. Once unsettle the moral confidence, and the whole creation of a theological kind totters and dies, and properly so. Reason may be baffled, Imagination may be confounded, but Conscience must have a sure standing-place, an everlasting confidence, must be so persuaded of God's righteousness as to be able to say, The end will be right; at the last even hell will confess that its pit is not too deep or its fire too hot Conscience keeps the whole nature right; conscience chastens imagination, and throws a rein upon the passion which would urge reason to undue and disastrous lengths. God has always been careful to keep conscience as it were upon his side, so that men might feel, whether by day or by night, all processes of providence would end in righteousness.
The Psalmist also looks upon God as probing the heart, always seeking to know what is in it, watching its every throb and flush of colour. It is about the heart that God may be said to be anxious. Given a heart of honesty, a spirit that wishes supremely to be in the right, then how merciful yea, how pitiful even to tears, and how patient beyond all known love is God, in relation to every other department of life! As we, on our side, are solicitous that there should be no dispute on moral grounds, in relation to the divine purpose and government, so God may be said to be anxious, on his side, that our heart should be right. That being so, he can understand the ambition of reason and the audacity of imagination.
But is the Psalmist's portraiture of the divine character all drawn in stern lines? Are there no tears in all the delineation? The seventh verse is our reply: "Shew thy lovingkindness" that would be beautiful if it stood alone, but the word lovingkindness does not stand alone "Shew thy marvellous lovingkindness." Has any New Testament writer suggested a tenderer aspect of the divine character? Observe how the words accumulate: kindness, lovingkindness, marvellous lovingkindness. Religion must not be a matter of abstract right, some lofty or metaphysical geometry of perpendicular lines and horizontal positions; it must go further and be more: and how much further can it go, and how much more can it be, than as represented by such words as kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, tender mercy, marvellous lovingkindness? Now the balance seems to be adjusted: the stern in law is balanced by the tender in pity.
This suppliant is a poet He thinks in images. When did he ever write without symbolism, metaphor, the fine colour which is thrown upon common words by the poet-prophet? In this matter the Psalmist is just to himself, even in this pious composition, this sacred address to the ear of God. In the eighth verse he says, "Keep me as the apple of the eye." Religion cannot do without metaphors. Religion itself, as we understand it, is but a metaphor, pointing to its larger self, beyond the horizon, above the zenith. "The apple of the eye" literally, the manikin of the eye, the little man in the eye; that central eye, that without which there would be no eye. Keep me as the gem, or living point, of the eye.
"Hide me under the shadow of thy wings" ( Psa 17:8 ).
What wings? Quote the Old Testament instances in which this figure is used, and you will find that they are instances relating to the eagle, the vulture, flying things with great pinions that might almost darken the sun. Under such outspread pinions would the Psalmist be hidden. These are Hebrew figures, but we are not Hebrews. Is any use made of these figures, nearer our own custom, nearer our own simplicity? The answer is in the affirmative. Where the Hebrew says the "manikin" of the eye, the Gentile language says the "daughter" of the eye "the little daughter"; a gentler term, a coming-down to our historical standing-place, without loss of dignity, but with some accession of tenderness. "Wings" wings of the eagle wings of the vulture, says the Hebrew; but when the Saviour speaks, he says, "as a hen." There is no loss of dignity; there is a revelation of household nearness and pity. The ancient figure is "as an eagle stirreth up her nest"; in the New Testament the Saviour says, "I would have gathered thee as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings," poor wings, as compared with the eagle's and the vulture's, but a mother's wings nevertheless; and but a figure after all, representing in some bold way, or in some modest form, the available almightiness of the Almighty God.
Another figure occurs in the thirteenth verse: "Arise, O Lord, disappoint him." The English word "disappoint" does not represent the original meaning in the most graphic form. The figure is that of a champion going out to meet the enemy, and to break him in pieces. Read: Arise, O Lord, go forth, meet him ere he start from home; be first on the field; be ready to encounter him the moment he comes out from his hiding-place, and smite him with thy righteousness. Thus the Lord fights the battle alone oftentimes. We are not called into the controversy at all; the whole shock takes place without our knowledge, yet not without being an answer to our prayer. In the New Testament we have sketches of worldly men, but say whether there is any sketch amongst them equal to the portraiture given in the fourteenth verse of this Psalm. This is a perfect delineation of the worldly man. It is impossible to add one useful line to it: "Men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes"; their life is a limited life; it is all visible, measurable, namable; the whole life can be written out in plain terms and figures, and the whole value can be totaled in summary numbers. It is a pitiful man who is sketched in the fourteenth verse a worldling, a grubber, a man who lives in the dust, almost a beast. Whatever may have been outworn by the process of the ages, this picture of the worldly man is today correct in every line, vivid and true in every tint.
We now come to the fifteenth verse, so generally misunderstood and misapplied: "As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness." Who has not misread this verse by not perceiving its punctuation? How often has the comma after "awake" been struck out, and thus the whole sense of the passage lost! It has been read, "when I awake with thy likeness"; being so read it has been violated. Observe the punctuation, and further comment is needless. We might turn it round thus: I shall be satisfied with thy likeness when I awake. The man does not awake with the likeness; he is satisfied with the likeness when he awakes. But why is he about to awake? This is a note of time. The explanation of this is in the third verse: "Thou hast visited me in the night." This prayer was a prayer offered in darkness. Who can tell how many of the Psalms were night thoughts? How could a soldier find time to write psalms or prayers in the day season, when every sound was an alarm, every shadow was a challenge? How could minstrels sing then, or suppliants stop to write their prayers? Beautiful is the figure of the Psalmist writing his psalms at night: the hurly-burly done for the day, and the scribe sets himself to make record of his heart's deepest experiences. Who cannot compose best at nighttime? The day seems to be made for active thought outward, urgent service, and the calm night for setting down in order the recollections of the day's controversy. Now we come to the fifteenth verse: "As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness"; I am about to sleep, to lie down and take what rest I may; I shall be satisfied with thy likeness when I awake: the morning shall see me a stronger man, the morning shall bring a larger and truer theology, the morning will be a time of liberty and enlargement. Yet men do not know always what they are saying as to the fulness of its meaning, its uttermost possibility and final consummation. He is no fanatic who sees in such words strugglings after immortality, the beginnings of a new mysterious energy in the soul that will by-and-by be articulated into resurrection. To sleep, now that we understand it, is to die; to awake, now that we see the larger meanings of things, is resurrection. We did not see these things at the first, but now they are clear. We thought of sleep in a merely animal sense: it was a bodily recreation, something to be done at the end of a period of service. Now that we have more light we see clearly that sleep is death, waking resurrection, and when we awake we shall see the likeness of God, and we shall be satisfied with that likeness; that is to say, he shall come into us, fill us: we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. A transforming sight: whilst we gaze upon the beautiful, we ourselves shall be beautified.
Almighty God, let it please thee to show us more and more of the beauty and tenderness of thy Son. It is thine to show Christ to the heart we cannot see him with our dull eyes, but if thou dost anoint our eyes with eye-salve that we may see, we shall behold him near at hand, the great light and the only life. We have heard of him by the hearing of the ear now would we receive him into the sanctuary of our love, and have long converse with him, and tender, as those who exchange deepest confidences, and express to one another the most urgent necessities and longings of the heart. We would hear him speak to us in his whisper as well as in his great thunder: we would hear from him the voice still and small that will not add to our grief, but utterly take it away, by the tenderness of the sympathy, by the richness of the grace with which it will speak to our wounded spirits. Thou hast yet more to say unto us thou art never done always is there one more word one other message, one further revelation. Thus dost thou take us along the road of our life promising and fulfilling, and yet making every fulfilment itself a still richer promise. Thou hast kept the good wine until now; we behold the beauty of the Lord as we never saw it before it is richer, tenderer, nearer, more complete in its persuasiveness, more powerful in its attraction. May we thus see it every day, until we exchange all meaner lights and all poorer mediums for the great glory and the unveiled majesty in heaven. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"... Marvellous lovingkindness." Psa 17:7
The word "lovingkindness" would have been enough by itself, yet here is the word "marvellous" attached to it as if to help out the wholeness of its meaning. We read in another place of the marvellous goodness of God. We read also that God did great and marvellous works in the field of Zoan. The finest expression of this kind we find in the speech of Paul, wherein he speaks of the "marvellous light" of the Gospel. It was not light only, but marvellous light. There was a distinctiveness of glory about it which dazzled the eyes of the soul. This is the experience of every man who comes into close and vital association with God. He is continually surprised at the bounty of heaven, at the tenderness of the divine fatherhood, at the largeness of the divine love; surprise follows surprise in ever-growing amazement, because imagination is left behind, and expression utterly fails when the goodness of God is contemplated. We must not reckon God's providences amongst common things. They do not belong to a class, as if they were parts of a whole. They are individual, outstanding, altogether unique and special. So the Bible must not be set in a row with other books, it must have no common enumeration; for ever it must be The Book, the one Book, the only Book, the marvellous Book. We cannot overtake God and enter into competition with him: we light our candle, but we must not hold it to the sun. The candle itself, could it speak, would say when the sun arose upon it, This is a marvellous light! So say all the stars, as they retire from the majesty of the advancing morning. Let us glory in the specialty of divine communications and heavenly revelations.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 17". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19