I'm going to start with a confession: I'm not the biggest fan of the Psalms. Now for a music leader and preacher, that's a confession that is definitely worth repenting of. I know a bit about the Psalms. I know they're a collection of songs and prayers, that they're full of emotion and real-life situations and that they were written to be sung and prayed corporately by God's people, but more often than not I seem to find them a little confusing.
Take Psalm 17 for example. It's on p388 in the blue bibles by the way, so please open one up as you'll be needing to follow along. Take Psalm 17. How can I sing or speak or pray that I am innocent before God? Or that God will answer my prayer? Or how can I assume that my enemies, if I can even think of any, are also God's enemies. What does it mean in righteousness I shall see your face?
Even if the well-known Christian songwriter Keith Getty put this Psalm to music, with a nice celtic 3-4 rhythm, Irish fiddles and a key change at v13, I still think I'd struggle to sing these words. And yet, the Psalms are meant to be read and sung and prayed… and loved. Our title tonight is Crying out to God. When I need to cry out to God, how can Psalm 17 be a help to me if I don't understand or if I feel like a hypocrite saying it?
Well let's get into it and see what we find. We'll look at it first from David's perspective and then bring it to bear on ourselves afterwards. So firstly then…
1 – David cries out to God
Now, we can't be sure exactly what was trouble David was in when he wrote this prayer Psalm but he was definitely in trouble. Maybe he wrote it when Saul was pursuing him and trying to kill him in and around 1 Samuel 23. Maybe it was his son Absalom's campaign of character assassination around 2 Samuel 15. We don't know, but David was in trouble. Let's read through the Psalm to get a feel for it.
In v1-5 David appeals to the supreme court judge, asking God to listen to him because he is innocent.
1Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry.
Give ear to my prayer— it does not rise from deceitful lips.
This is an intense prayer. There are three cries here: hear my righteous plea, or my just cause; listen to my cry; give ear to my prayer. But David is also confident because he is innocent.
2May my vindication come from you;
may your eyes see what is right.
David wants to be justified, declared right, before God, by God's standard. He wants to be cleared of the charges brought against him by his enemies.
3Though you probe my heart and examine me at night,
though you test me, you will find nothing;
Come and interrogate me, Lord, even at night when my defences are down. Hook me up to your polygraph, Lord. David is innocent of the accusations made against him, and he won't respond in kind.
I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.
I won't sink to their level. I won't trade in slander. Even in the face of unjust and false accusations David refuses to lash out with words.
4As for the deeds of men— by the word of your lips
I have kept myself from the ways of the violent.
5My steps have held to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
David has remained innocent of slander and violence because God's word has restrained him. David has not strayed from the path laid out by God's word.
David has entered his plea: not guilty. Now David goes on to make his request.
6I call on you, O God, for you will answer me;
give ear to me and hear my prayer.
Again there are three cries: I call on you; give ear to me; hear my prayer. But this time David's confidence is greater than before: you will answer me, he says. Here comes David's request.
7Show the wonder of your great love,
you who save by your right hand
those who take refuge in you from their foes.
8Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings
9from the wicked who assail me,
from my mortal enemies who surround me.
David cries out for protection and deliverance, but he does it using some very specific language in verse 8. These phrases come from the song God dictated to Moses and Joshua, which Moses was commanded to teach to the Israelites before they entered the promised land after the exodus and the years in the desert. David is claiming to represent God's saved people, to embody them as their head.
Your eye is one of the most sensitive and delicate parts of your body, and we've got all sorts of protection measures to keep them safe. Just one of those is the corneal reflex, or blinking. This blink reflex is brought on by touching the eye, or by bright light or even by loud noises. It apparently takes about a tenth of a second and protects both eyes simultaneously, even if only one eye is stimulated. David wants that level of protection from God.
Hide me like a great eagle that spreads its wings over its nest of young. And David needs this help because his enemies, v9, are both wicked and deadly. V10:
10They close up their callous hearts,
and their mouths speak with arrogance.
11They have tracked me down, they now surround me,
with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
Like a soldier in combat who throws down his opponent in order to make the final, fatal strike.
12They are like a lion hungry for prey,
like a great lion crouching in cover.
David's enemies are hunting him with consuming desire to kill him like a lion driven by hunger, totally focussed on making the kill. And so David brings his second request, v13:
13Rise up, O LORD, confront them, bring them down;
rescue me from the wicked by your sword.
14O LORD, by your hand save me from such men,
from men of this world whose reward is in this life.
David recognises that his enemies are not simply people he disagrees with over trivial matters; they are wicked. They are men of this world, whose reward is in this life. They are not only David's enemies, they are God's enemies. Obviously it would be much better if they would repent, but it seems like that's not going to happen, so the only route left for David's deliverance is their defeat. God is reluctant to punish; that's why David calls on God to rise up. God is patient and loving toward his enemies but also will act justly against those with whom he is rightly angry.
You still the hunger of those you cherish;
their sons have plenty, and they store up wealth for their children.
15And I— in righteousness I shall see your face;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with seeing your likeness.
The irony against those whose reward is in this life is that God blesses his people. Not necessarily with food or children or wealth, though we should be quick to be thankful for any or all of these. True blessing, true satisfaction for David is knowing that he will stand before God, right with him, awake, or resurrected, satisfied in God's presence.
So that's Psalm 17 very briefly from David's perspective. David cries out to God, confident that God will answer. Why is he confident?
- Well, in verses 1-5 he appealed to God on the ground that he was innocent.
- In verses 5-12 he appealed to God on the ground that he represented God's people, that as the head of God's people he embodied them.
- And in verses 13-15 he called on God to act because his enemies are also God's enemies.
But on reflection that doesn't really help us much, does it? Which of us is innocent? Which of us can claim to represent or embody God's people as their head? Which of us can claim to love God and be aligned to him so perfectly that anyone who makes life hard for us also God's enemy too? It seems like the criteria for crying out to God with confidence are impossible for us to match. And that's because they are impossible for us to match. So what use is David's prayer to us now?
We need to remember one key lesson that helps us to unlock the meaning of this and many other Psalms, point 2…
2 – Jesus is the true Psalmist
Jesus is the living word of God. He is the word made flesh. It is his Holy Spirit who inspired, who breathed out, the scriptures. There were several authors, or songwriters, even within the book of Psalms, but the true author, the true songwriter, the true Psalmist, is Jesus.
Who else could pray or sing this Psalm, Psalm 17, without being a hypocrite? Who else could say to God the Father, 3Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing, or, 5My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped? Who else can truly claim to be the true Israel, the true apple of God's eye, the true embodiment of God's people? Who else can claim to love God and be aligned to him so perfectly that any enemy of one is an enemy of the other? It can only be Jesus, God's one and only Son, God in human form, perfect in sinless obedience to the Father.
One of Jesus' closest friends, who spent years in Jesus' company, was the Apostle Peter, who later wrote of Jesus, 22He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. How much does that remind you of Psalm 17?
Someone has very helpfully said that when it comes to singing or praying the Psalms for ourselves, Jesus, the true Psalmist, is like the choirmaster, and we are the choir. Maybe you'd prefer to think of Jesus as the lead singer while we are the backing vocalists. But Christmas is coming so I'm going to stick which choirmaster and choir.
As we take up Psalm 17 as the choir that is God's people, we rejoice that it is true of the choirmaster, Jesus.
- We take up Psalm 17 rejoicing that Jesus was innocent and that his innocence has been accredited to us because he paid for our guilt by his death.
- We rejoice that Jesus is our representative, our head.
- We rejoice that God defeated our greatest enemies, sin and death, through Jesus, and that we, like Jesus, will rise after physical death to an eternal life of utter satisfaction and joy in God's presence.
Jesus is like the choirmaster and we are the choir. Jesus is the true Psalmist. And that means, point 3…
3 – We cry out to God confidently through Jesus
Listen to these verses from our second reading.
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all— how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died— more than that, who was raised to life— is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
What about that for encouragement when we're wrongly accused like David? It is God who justifies. And Christ Jesus sits at God's right hand, pleading our case for us, saying that in his death the sentence due for all our sins has already been carried out. Justice has already been done for the sin that we are guilty of. We cry out to God confidently through Jesus.
Perhaps we are being wrongly accused or criticised like David, or perhaps we are struggling with elderly parents or with children or with marriages or with loneliness or mental illness or grief or doubt. There might be all sorts of reasons why we might cry out to God in prayer. And in those times we must remember that we come to God through Jesus. He is interceding for us. He is the choirmaster. He is the lead singer. We come to God, we pray to God, we cry out to God confidently through Jesus, and in Jesus' name.
So we pray on the basis of Jesus' innocence, not our own merit (No merit of my own I claim, But wholly lean on Jesus' name). That means we can pray with a clear conscience and without feeling like hypocrites. We pray knowing that all God's promises to his people are 'yes' in Jesus; they count for us because we're united to him.
We pray knowing that God doesn't just grant any wishes we may have but that as we pray in Jesus' name and as God works in our hearts through his word by his Spirit, he moulds our desires to match his own. He aligns our wayward will with his perfect will, so that we can ask for things we know God wants to give, confident that he will give.
We pray together because we are God's people. So I'll see you at the next church prayer meeting.
We pray everything in and through Jesus. We cry out to God confidently through Jesus.