Psalm 141:1-10.
The Gift of Prayer

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2017, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”[1]

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are about to commence on an overwhelming task, a task for which you feel completely unprepared?  We may experience this when we see our first child for the first time.  We might experience this when embarking on a new form of employment, or moving to a new community.  We might experience this when we find ourselves agreeing to a task that is well outside of our “comfort zone.”  These examples include just a few situations where we have made a choice to bring a major change into our lives: a seminal moment that, once passed, changes everything.  Often we approach these events with fear and anxiety.  Not all seminal moments are products of our own choices.  The death of one who is very near to us can bring with it a promise of great and traumatic change.  It is likely that many people have experienced all of these.

How do we approach the unknown?  How do we face impending change when we risk being overwhelmed by anxiety and fears?  David, son of Jesse faced many such seminal events as he went from a nameless and faceless shepherd boy to become the anointed King of Israel.  It was David who stood up to Goliath, the Philistine giant.  It was David who faced certain death if captured by a jealous and enraged King Saul.  It was David who was faced with the task of leading a broken and divided Israel.  It is quite likely that none of us has faced a Goliath, run from a murderous and motivated king, or been tasked with running a kingdom.  However, when we face our fears, we find them no less significant in our own lives.  Consequently, David’s approach to these seminal moments in life is instructive.

Psalm 141 is a vesper prayer, one that is voiced in the quiet of the evening, and possibly prior to the day when one expects to face their fears.  The Psalm is attributed to King David; either written by him, or in his name by someone who is very familiar with David’s heart and David’s experiences.  It is the position of this author that, though the words were likely written as much as four hundred years after David died, they are his, and were maintained through the years through tradition and worship practices.

The nature of the specific event that is motivating David to compose this prayer is unclear, and has been attributed to one of several seminal experiences in David’s life.  A common position is that this prayer reveals David’s preparation for his impending installation as the King of Israel.  David had been anointed by the prophet Samuel, and set apart to serve as the next King of Israel while Saul was the King, long before his installation.[2]  The responsibility that David is facing is grave, and he has little preparation for the task, so his vesper prayer is of paramount importance to him, and consequently to us, as we face our fears.

A PRAYER FOR ACCEPTANCE

Psalm 141:1.  A PSALM OF DAVID.  LORD, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee.

When faced with this impeding seminal moment in David’s life, he begins with prayer.  We often hold off on prayer until find ourselves unable to contend successfully with our issues.  However, David demonstrated in his life that the first step in any journey is an engagement in serious, focused, and sincere prayer to the LORD.  David’s relationship with the LORD defined his very world view.  His faith informed all his decisions, and for him, prayer was simply an open door of communication with the LORD that would take many forms. 

Like most ancient Israelites, David would commonly take part in traditional prayers that would be included in their many worship rites, both inside the Temple/Tabernacle or without.  However, David’s prayers were also a continual expression of his communication with the LORD that would take place at any moment of the day, and could address any circumstance or question that David faced.  Paul described this form of prayer as “unceasing.”[3]  The LORD desires us to be in communication with him in all of our experiences throughout every day.  It is in this way that the Holy Spirit can best lead, guide, direct, and comfort us as we face the experiences of our life.

I cry unto thee.  David expresses the context of his prayer immediately: one of tremendous gravity.  We may take for granted the privilege of prayer, forgetting that it is the Creator of the Universe who hears our prayers.  We may find ourselves taking the honor and blessing of prayer for granted, treating the LORD with far less reverence and respect than He deserves.  David describes his prayer to the LORD as literally, “crying out.”  There is a hint of desperation in his prayer as he is seeking the help and protection of the LORD in his time of need.  His dependence upon God is sincere and unambiguous.  When we are facing our giants this is the appropriate attitude that we should have when we come to the LORD in prayer, and for the same reason:  our dependence upon the LORD, as we are in genuine need of His presence in our circumstances.  

Make haste unto me.  Because of the vagaries of translation, this statement has been misunderstood by many who consider it an imperative, a demand that David is making upon the LORD.  However, the Hebrew form does not imply this is an imperative, but rather as a sincere request.  There have been many experiences in my life when I was faced with the necessity to come up with the right words when teaching or counseling.  Once a woman who was suffering from traumatic grief when she lost her daughter to the consequences of the behavior of a drunk driver asked me, “Why did God kill my child?” On one occasion, it was necessary for me to speak in the German language on the mission field when I had not spoken the language in twenty-five years.  When faced with these needs, I immediately went to the LORD in prayer, though nobody around me was aware of it.  Referring to these as “microsecond prayers,” they were in the form of, “LORD, I need you to empower me, to give me the words, and to do so NOW!”  These were not prayers of words; they were prayers of verbal thought.  In both situations and many others like them, the prayers were positively answered immediately.  I was able to effectively minister to the woman.  When needing my German vocabulary, I would argue that my speech was better than it ever was when we lived in Germany.

This is the context of David’s prayer:  LORD I need you, and I need you NOW!  He is likely facing his giant very soon, and based upon some of the Hebrew terms used in this passage, it may be the very next day.  Of course, the LORD answers us in His time and in His wisdom, but there is certainly nothing wrong when speaking our heart when we pray.  The LORD knows the content and context of our prayers long before we speak the words.

Give ear to my voice when I cry unto thee.   This prayer is in the form of Hebrew poetry, where each “verse” is a rhyme of ideas.  The second rhyme is stating much the same message as the first, but with slight variations to allow a more complete understanding of the intent of the author.  The Hebrew phrase rendered “hear my prayer” or “hear our prayer” is a common idiom in David’s psaltery.[4] Others, such as Nehemiah and Daniel have offered up the same statement in their prayers.[5]  Consequently, as is the case with the first clause of this passage, this is not a command or demand that David is making, but rather a humble request that further reveals the gravity of this prayer.

Psalm 141:2.  Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

Understanding much of the nature of God, David also understood the significance of prayer.  To David, there was an element of sacrifice in the act of prayer.  A sacrifice is something that is wholly given to God.  If one retains any benefit from a gift given to the LORD, it is not a sacrifice.  The Hebrew poetry reveals this idea of sacrifice when we compare the two rhyming phrases:

Prayer be set forth : lifting up of my hands

As incense : as the evening sacrifice.

The first refers to the attitude of prayer as spoken to the LORD by David.  It is David who is “setting forth” the prayer, it is he who is bringing this to the LORD.  The “lifting” of the hands was a common position of prayer in the ancient near-east.  One stands before the LORD, with head and open-eyes raised to the sky (or the ceiling), and hands lifted with palms turned up.[6]  Standing represents the honor that the LORD has given us to be able, and to be requested, to stand in His presence, rather than to grovel on the ground.  The humility represented in the bowed knee and head represents quite the opposite.  The lifted hands and eyes have a similar representation, as it would be culturally improper for a servant to look to His master this way.  One who is lower on the social scale would be expected to keep their eyes lowered, looking up only when told to do so.[7]  Together these physical attributes of prayer speak to the amazing grace and love that the Creator has for His faithful, as He not only allows us into His presence, but does so by lifting us up, calling us to praise Him with confidence.

The second idea is that of incense and sacrifice.  The LORD provided very specific instructions to the ancient Israelites concerning the preparation of burnt sacrifices and offerings.  There are two important principles concerning these offerings that inform our understanding of David’s prayer.  First, the animal, or portion of an animal that was to be presented for a burnt offering was to be consumed by the fire completely.  There would be nothing left over.[8]  The idea behind this is the teaching that a sacrifice is only a true sacrifice when it is wholly given to the LORD.  Also, an integral part of the burnt offering is the “sweet savor,”[9] the LORD’s description of His approval of the offering.  There is an idea that the smoke from the sacrifice rises into the heavens where the LORD can enjoy its “sweet savor.”  However, it is the obedience of the faithful to the LORD’s command that he loves.  The idea behind incense is similar, and is a belief shared by both the Israelites and the ancient pagans, as a part of worship whereby incense is burned, raising a sweet odor.  Incense is still used in this manner today by many eastern traditions and religions. 

When David expresses this in his prayer, he is stating that it is his desire that his prayer be received by the LORD like the sweet savor of the burnt sacrifice, or like the incense that serves a similar purpose.  

A PRAYER FOR OBEDIENCE

Psalm 141:3.  Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.

David’s request from the LORD begins with His intervention on his behalf concerning his own behavior.  It is likely that when we begin to pray, we focus our petitions on those “things” that we want from the LORD, as if He is a great source of provision above all other things.  Rather than present the LORD with a list of the things he wants, he speaks first to the help that he needs in order to maintain the obedience to Him that he desires. 

Set a Watch.  It will be immediately evident that David is asking the LORD’s help as he seeks to live a life of obedience.  However, it is far easier to desire to serve the LORD in obedience than it is to actually do it.  There is no limit to the distractions, both within our own hearts and in the world which we are immersed, that will turn us away from the LORD.  David uses a military term that he is probably quite familiar with from his days running from King Saul.  David would “set a watch.”  This would refer to a squad of soldiers who had a singular responsibility to maintain their attention on the area surrounding the camp so that those in the camp can respond quickly to any external threat.  These would be David’s trusted defenders, people who he could surround himself with when he was at his most vulnerable, particularly during the night when he would be sleeping.

David is asking the LORD for such a defense against the threats that would serve to compromise his obedience.  A successful watch never sleeps.  It is dedicated to its task continually, every moment of the day, without compromise.  David is emphasizing the need for the LORD’s constant protection against that which would cause him to sin.  He then goes on to note some of the areas in his life where he needs the most help.

My Mouth.  There are many influences in our lives that distract us from obedience, things that turn us away from the path that the LORD would prefer for us.  One of the primary distractions to our own obedience is our speech.  The New Testament writer of the book of James writes of the destructive power of the tongue.[10]  David’s request is simple, and is one that we may be reminded to include in our own prayers.  David requests that the LORD would help him to refrain from destructive or unholy speech.

The speech of a faithful Christian should be distinctively holy and without sin.  There is no place for cursing, coarse, or vulgar speech in the vocabulary of a Christian.  When one is surrounded by people who do not know the LORD and have no such filter on their vocabulary, it is easy to compromise so that we can better “fit in” with the group.  Surrounded by Israel’s male military, it is likely that he is frequently immersed in vulgarity.  David asks that the LORD put a “door” on his lips, to help him maintain wholesome and edifying words without compromise.

RESISTING UNGODLY INFLUENCES

Psalm 141:4.  Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties.

Virtually all Christians are familiar with the phrase from the “Lord’s Prayer,”[11] that states “Lead us not into temptation.”  There has been no little controversy over this phrase since the biblical narrative is clear that the LORD does not cause people to sin.[12]  David’s prayer may serve to add some understanding to this phrase.  Just as David has just asked that the LORD help him to keep his words in check, David is asking that the LORD keep his heart in check also: that the LORD would help him to avoid the temptation to sin. 

My heart.  For example, when David saw the bathing Bathsheba, rather than turn away, he chose to allow his gaze to become a desire that led him to the most significant act of sin that he would every commit, one that will not be forgotten as long as people remember biblical history.  David is asking that his heart not be inclined to sin, that when temptation would come, the LORD would give him the wisdom to turn away and not allow himself to surrender to the temptation.  If this prayer was written after his experience with Bathsheba, he is speaking from the knowledge of just how powerful an uncontrolled inclination can be.  Likewise, we can pray for the same thing: that the LORD would speak to us and draw us away from temptation when it is presented to us so that we would not commit sin.  We can do this by establishing wise boundaries to our behavior, and when those boundaries are approached, to come to the LORD in prayer and ask for His strength to turn back.

Men of Iniquity.  Just as it is possible for a person of faith to pick up and use coarse language when immersed in a community that uses it, it is possible for a person of faith to compromise their commitment to obedience to the LORD when they are immersed in a disobedient community.  Peer pressure can have a strong influence on those who do not have a strong defense against it.  It is necessary for David, as the King of Israel, to interact with ungodly men who wield a significant amount of cultural, political, and military influence.  Many of them will, just as politicians do today, work to influence and manipulate the king in order to obtain their own desired outcomes, and many times those will be outcomes that David is also trying to accomplish.  Consequently, he desires that the LORD would, again, put up a “watch” that will serve to defend and protect him against the temptation to compromise his obedience to the LORD by allowing sinful men to influence him with their rhetoric. 

EMBRACING GODLY INFLUENCES

Psalm 141:5.  Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities.

Men of Faith.  David states quite the opposite when it comes to his relationship with other men of faith.  As the King, David had the godly influence of Nathan a friend of David who exhibited a gift of prophecy.  Abiathar, son of Ahimelech, the anointed High Priest of the Kingdom of Israel would also serve David honorably.  A typical pagan king would never be expected to accept rebuke from any man (or woman,) and to attempt to do so could result in the execution of the offender.  However, David makes it clear that he is open to the rebuke of godly men so that he can learn of his disobedience and repent.  Nathan’s rebuke of King David concerning his sin with Bathsheba is an example of this form of kingly humility. 

Rather than accept rebuke with contempt or prideful resistance, David recognizes that the rebuke from a godly man is a form of kindness.  Recognizing this truth, David desires the wisdom to accept such counsel with humility, so that he can receive such instruction and profit from it.  Many times those godly people who the LORD brings into our network of relationships can observe our behavior from a viewpoint that we may be blind to.  If we are firm in our defenses, and are not open to suggestion from others, they will usually keep silent.  It takes a measure of courage for a godly person to rebuke another as they search for the words that will provide positive and healing guidance.  Recognizing this, we may be more open to listen to the counsel of those godly people that God has given to us in our circle of relationships.

Excellent oil.  The reference to oil carries with it the idea of the act of anointing: setting one apart for holiness.  When one embarks on a spiritual task, it is not unusual for the faith community to anoint them, or ordain them, to the task.  David recognizes that godly counsel carries with it the desire of the counselor to lead him to obedience, providing an excellent resource as he seeks to fulfill the tasks that the LORD has called him to.

Break my head.  This phrase is a form of poetic idiom that is difficult to understand if the Hebrew form is literally translated.  Something that would “break my head” would be something that is considered a great offence.  In modern English, we might phrase this, “let me not be offended, and accept the rebuke from godly men with grace.”

Their calamities.  Again, we find a phrase that is rather idiomatic.  It is David’s desire to take a stand for truth and godliness and to stand firm against evil and those who practice it.  It is not David’s desire to be swept into the workings of the evildoers, and godly rebuke serves to assist him in this effort.  His prayers will include prayers for these evildoers as he is protected from their influence.

Psalm 141:6.  When their judges are overthrown in stony places, they shall hear my words; for they are sweet.

The word that is rendered “judges,” could also be rendered “kings” or “rulers,” and is a reference to ungodly men of great influence.  David seeks to be a godly influence in an ungodly world.  This is also an appropriate endeavor for every faithful Christian.  Like David, we all face the same challenges when working to maintain uncompromised truth in our lives.  However, if David is successful in doing so, if he is successful in maintaining an obedient lifestyle that is characterized by godly leadership and instruction, he is confident that he will be able to accomplish the task of teaching the truth, and people will learn it.  David describes the ungodly leaders as being thrown off of a cliff, an idiom that refers to removing a person violently from their position of influence.  The judgment upon the wicked is sure, and if it does not take place in this world, it will take place at the judgment seat of Christ.  However, if David is successful in teaching the truth, people will learn that “sweet” truth, something that is pleasant to accept, and the lies of the evil men around him will be exposed for what they are, and those evil leaders will be deposed. 

THE SURETY OF GOD’S PROTECTION

Psalm 141:7.  Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth.

David understands that this world is a wicked place, and it is filled with wicked and perverse people who are destined for an eternity separated from God.  It is these whose minds are fully focused on that which is ungodly, and because they will carry their rebellion against God to the grave, their judgment is sure.  The phrase “bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth” is a very literal translation, leaving little ambiguity concerning its source:  pagan mythology.  Even pagan mythology teaches that their mythical god Mot will destroy evil men, mowing them down like a plow cultivating a field, scattering their bones at the entrance of Sheol.  David simply emphasizes that the doom of the lost is sure, and the influence that they may enjoy in this world will only serve to assure their own destruction. 

Psalm 141:8.  But mine eyes are unto thee, O GOD the Lord: in thee is my trust; leave not my soul destitute.

David draws a contrast between his world view and that of this wicked world.   Where the world has its “eyes” elsewhere, David’s are maintained upon the LORD.   Often the writers of the biblical narrative uses the metaphor of the eyes to refer to the way one sees their world.  We all have systems of belief that inform our perception of the world around us.  These systems act like a filter through which we interpret what we see and hear.  David declares that his is a system of belief is informed by his faith in “God the LORD.”  David’s trust is in the LORD and not in the belief systems of this world.  Consequently, David demonstrates a confidence in God’s judgment.

The last phrase is difficult to translate, and different translations vary dramatically in their efforts to render the author’s intent.  David’s determination to maintain his faith, and to lead the Israelite people in faith, has placed him at odds with the world, bringing him no shortage of enemies and many of these seek to kill him.  He has also witnessed the miraculous intervention of the LORD in behalf of Israel in several occasions when they faced the threat of destruction at the hands of a far more powerful foreign army.  With this in mind, his words are similar to the prayers lifted up to the LORD by Israel that preceded these miraculous interventions.  His words can be literally understood to say, “do not leave me defenseless.”  Knowing that the LORD will bless Him for his obedience, it is evident that he both needs that blessing, and he needs to maintain that obedience. 

Psalm 141:9-10.  Keep me from the snares which they have laid for me, and the gins of the workers of iniquity.  10Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst that I withal escape.

Snares, gins, and nets are all words that David uses to describe the various forms of traps that his enemies will set for him in their efforts to destroy him.  Just as David has asked the LORD to keep him from committing acts of disobedience that can ensnare him, he asks for the LORD to protect him from the acts of wicked men which also have the potential to ensnare him.  We might correlate this with the “deliver us from evil” segment of the “Lord’s Prayer.”  David certainly hopes for some vindication and protection from his enemies as they would fall victim to the consequences of their own wicked designs. 

CONCLUSION

David has had a significant amount of experience in “facing the giants,” as he has demonstrated faith in and obedience to the LORD on many occasions, with one of the first involving a literal giant of a man.  He has suffered many victories and a few defeats, he as demonstrated great obedience and at least one occasion of profound disobedience when he saw his relationship with the LORD devastated by it.  One thing that came out of David’s experience was a desire to teach others how to experience the blessings of the LORD that he had, and the first thing that David notes is the necessity of prayer.

David teaches that prayer is more than simply a religious icon, rite, or tradition.  For David, prayer is an open door of communication with the LORD that allows him to talk to God about anything that is on his mind, and allows him to pray at any time.  This concept of continual prayer is in conflict with many religious practices, but is appropriate for people who place their faith and trust in God.  Faith in God is not a religion, though the “Christian Religion” has been formed from it.  Faith in God is a relationship with the Creator of the Universe who loves His creation, loves you, and desires to bless you.  That blessing is found in a life that is dedicated to God, seeking obedience to him in all things, and empowered by the avenue of prayer.

Let us not take for granted this wonderful gift of grace that enables us to establish a relationship with God, and find forgiveness for our sinfulness through the work of Jesus, Christ.  By loving God as David did, praising God as David did, and praying to God as David did, we will find for ourselves the same joy in our salvation … that David did.

 

[1] Matthew 6:13.

[2] 1 Samuel, Chapter 16.

[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18.

[4] Psalm 4:1, 5;3, 17:1, 39:12, 54:2, 61:1, 64:1, 69:13, 84:8, 102:1, 143:1.

[5] Nehemiah 1:6; Daniel 9:17.

[6] The upturned palms represent an expectation to receive something.  Downturned palms represent an expectation to give something.  Both of these are certainly appropriate positions for prayer.

[7] Acts 3:4.

[8] Exodus 29:18.

[9] There are no less than 38 uses of this phrase in the Pentateuch.

[10] James 1:26, 3:5-8.

[11] Matthew 6:9-13.

[12] James 1:13, e.g.