This is the first of the “penitential Psalms.” That might seem odd, since it contains no clear confession of sin. But it does contain an almost unspoken acknowledgment of guilt. It demonstrates an attitude with which the godly will frequently identify. It is as if the author were saying, “I may not be able to say wherein I have sinned, yet I know that I have.” Those who know themselves deeply often realise that, even when at our best, our motives are not always pure. Even when we want to do right, sin is always at hand (Rom 7:21). This is the human condition, and we would all do well to recognise it.
“O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.
2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.
3 My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord—how long?
4 Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.
8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.
The writer is ill (2), and he has enemies (8, 10), but the nature of the illness and the enemies are not clear. So, what we have is an unclear illness, a shadowy group of enemies, and an undefined sense of sinfulness. There is really only one thing that is clear in this Psalm — the need to rely on God.
In every experience of life
This psalm tells us that we must rely on God in every experience of life. We tend to live life as a series of “natural” consequences, only occasionally seeing an event as a religious experience. We divide our lives into the secular and the sacred, and the sacred aspect is pretty small. Although we might recognize some illness as coming from God, most we treat on a material level only. This prayer confesses no specific sin yet is very aware of the possibility that the illness is discipline.
We do not hear that kind of talk today. We hear more Christians giving thanks for success and prosperity than in times past, but we still do not hear Christians willing to attribute illness to God’s will. ‘It is an unbiblical faith that sees God’s hand only in positive experiences that can be interpreted as blessings.’ (paraphrase of a comment of James Mays on this psalm).
A “thorn in the flesh” may be from Satan. Yet, God is allowing it. The throne should be looked at carefully and prayerfully. We should have confidence that it will somehow serve God’s eternal purpose since he has allowed it (2 Cor 12:7 & context).
His nature, not ours
This Psalm tells us that we must rely on God because of his nature, not ours. It is the “mercy” (KJV) of God, or his “steadfast or unfailing love” (RSV; NIV) that is the basis of the plea (4). It is not that we deserve the gift, but that he desires to give it.
We need to be careful about how we pray. Jesus told of two men who prayed, one on the basis of his own deeds and the other on the basis of God’s mercy (Lk 18:10ff). It was the one who appealed for mercy that was justified.
We sometimes hear public prayers that sound more like preaching than praying. Occasionally, the problem runs even deeper. We hear a man bragging with his eyes closed. Closing one’s eyes and bowing one’s head does not make bragging a prayer.
It is troublesome to hear a Christian listing only the sins of others when explaining how he came to be in difficulty. Maybe others have done us wrong; but is it not also true that our errors contributed to our problems? The example of this psalm would indicate that such self-examination would be in order. This Psalmist has some enemies, and he hopes God will bring those enemies’ wrongs home to them. But at the same time, he is not unaware of his own failings. He does not seem aware of specific sin on his own part; but he is aware of his own sinfulness. Therefore, he approaches God humbly. Could we not do the same?
This psalm tells us that we may rely on God even for the wording of our prayer. “Lord — how long?” (3) is not a very complete thought. It is the cry of one who does not know exactly what to say. In a sense, it foreshadows the assurance of Romans 8:26, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
For generations, people believed the earth was the centre of the solar system. Now nearly all believe in the “heliocentric theory.” In ordinary daily life, neither theory makes a difference. It does not matter what is physically at the centre. The important question is, “What do we place at the centre spiritually?”
In our generation, man has placed himself at the centre. This psalm calls on us to place God there. To turn to him in every situation. To rely on his grace, even for the wording of our requests. Let us be theocentric in all aspects of our lives this week. Let us completely rely on God.