Perhaps a fitting post to follow the previous one on prayer, which seems to have attracted quite a readership, is for me to comment on a single Psalm. It’s one thing to talk about categories, concepts, theories, and ideas – they give you a good grounding and framework – but it’s important, then, to move on to look at real examples of those theories in action. I read Psalm 61 a couple nights ago, and the prayerful language really spoke through me.
First of all, according to the subtitle, Psalm 61 was written by King David. Normally I wouldn’t consider this sort of thing worth pointing out, but it’ll come in handy to consider this towards the end. Also, this is categorized as a Trust Psalm by some and a Lament Psalm by others. But those are categories determined by overall tone and certain elements found within the Psalm, which is precisely what we’re about to examine anyway. So without further ado, let us proceed roughly verse by verse.
Hear my cry, O God,
listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you
when my heart is faint. (v1-2a)
These opening words address God with words of petition – “listen to my prayer.” But it’s not an immediate complaint, for there’s also an element of oblation in here. By adding that “my heart is faint,” King David is sort of implying that he’s putting himself before God in his state of need. Or at least, he’s pointing out that in this time of trouble, he’s going straight to God. Not a bad model for us to copy!
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I,
for you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the enemy. (v2b-3)
The overall tone is still that of a petition, asking God to lead him to a place of safety and comfort, but there are other undercurrents feeding into this. The sense of self-offering and oblation continues in his choice of wording: “the rock that is higher than I.” He’s recognizing his insufficiency by himself, and acknowledging his need for God’s help. This, in turn, is supported by his expression of trust in praising God for past help – having been his “refuge” and “a strong tower.” He hasn’t even gotten to saying what is specific trouble is, yet he’s already brought God’s past mercies into his prayer! Therein lies more valuable lessons for our own prayer lives: imagine the patience and spiritual maturity it takes to praise God before bring our complaints directly to him.
Let me dwell in your tent forever!
Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah
For you, O God, have heard my vows;
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name. (v4-5)
We come to another actual petition, but it’s still not directly about the problem that King David has. Instead, he asks to live forever in God’s presence where it’s safe to assume that his problems will never follow him. Along with this petition is a prayer of adoration – simply desiring to be in God’s presence. Verse 5 backs this up with an expression of assurance; he has experienced God’s answers to prayer in the past. The idea that God “heard” his vows doesn’t just mean that God sat back and listened, but that God followed up, acknowledged them, and did His part, namely, gave him a heritage. This could be considered a prayer of thanksgiving too, though it’s expressed in a way that holds up his adoration.
On a side note, having received “the heritage of those who fear your name” is a really interesting concept. What King David basically means by this is that God has made him a spiritual successor to people like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Or, in Christian buzzword terminology, David is acknowledging his placement into “the communion of saints.” This isn’t the same thing as praying to saints or through saints. However, he is taking comfort in the spiritual fellowship God has provided for him among all God’s people, dead and alive. What a great thing to give thanks for!
Prolong the life of the king;
may his years endure to all generations!
May he be enthroned forever before God;
appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him! (v6-7)
This is the part where I think it helps to know that King David is the probable author of this Psalm. If it wasn’t him, then we’d be stuck wondering why there is a sudden intercession for the psalmist’s king in the midst of this plea for help and comfort. But if we understand that David is referring to himself, then it makes more sense: the petitionary tone of the Psalm continues unabated here, with continued aspects of oblation, as David recognizes that he needs God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” to watch over him. Still, though, the specific problem that prompted David to “cry” to God when his “heart is faint,” still isn’t brought up. Instead, he’s petitioning God for more broad and general things like his reign. Now, considering God’s calling for David was primarily to be a good ruler (as I mentioned early last week), this becomes an important observation. What David is doing here is asking for God to help live out his particular calling. I don’t mean to conclude that we should never bother bringing our specific problems and issues before God, but it is worth noting that praying for our regular needs in living out our callings seems to be of a higher priority. To look at this at another angle, regular times of disciplined prayer are more meaningful than irregular need-based times of prayer. And the final verse of this Psalm seems to support this conclusion:
So will I ever sing praises to your name,
as I perform my vows day after day. (v8)
This prayer of oblation shows us that David combined the idea of heart-felt praise with regular disciplined devotions. It’s tragic that we so often separate the two in our heads, thinking that they’re different and are difficult (or worse, impossible!) to combine. But no, I daresay if either are done right, they’re done together. At the very least, King David was able to combine them without a problem.
What can we say to sum up the scope of prayer in this Psalm?
- Petition makes up the bulk of the prayers.
- Many of the petitions imply oblation, and the Psalm ends with pure oblation too.
- Thanksgiving shores up elements of adoration found in some of the petitions.
Furthermore, one can quickly observe that there are no explicit prayers of intercession nor praise nor penitence in here. Despite the extent to which I stressed in the previous post the importance of seeking a balance between these seven genres of prayer, you don’t necessarily have to cram them all into every single prayer. Sometimes you might, but other times you don’t. That’s why most Christian offices of daily prayer make use of all 150 Psalms in some sort of rotation (in seven days for monastics, in four weeks in the Liturgy of the Hours, in 30 days in the Book of Common Prayer), so you get through the full range of prayers God has offered for us in His Word. Of course, there are other set prayers included to help develop a well-rounded Christian spirituality according to their particular streams of tradition and schools of thought.
Anyway, that’s Psalm 61; a prayer in times of trouble which brings in a rich variety of prayer genres, particularly involving acts of renewed self-offering, in the trust that God will help him to do what He wants him to do.