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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Psalm 86

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Help from the Great God

The title of this Psalm is simply, A Prayer of David. We can't place it to a specific time in David's life, because there are too many possible points where this connects with his general circumstances. This Psalm is also notable because David calls God Adonai ("Master") seven times.

"There are four other psalms each called by the name Tephillah, or 'prayer,' but this deserves to be distinguished from the rest and known as 'the prayer of David,' even as the ninetieth Psalm is known as 'the prayer of Moses.' It savours of David. The man of sincerity, of ardor, of trials, of faults, and of great heart, pleads, sobs, and trusts through all the verses of this psalm." (Spurgeon)

A. A plea for help with reasons given.

1. (Psa 86:1) Help me because of my great need.

Bow down Your ear, O LORD, hear me;
For I am poor and needy.

a. Bow down Your ear: David used expressive language to speak of his need. The idea - figurative, of course - is that God in heaven bows His head to earth to hear David's plea for help - David's cry, "Hear me."

i. "When our prayers are lowly by reason of our humility, or feeble by reason of our sickness, or without wing by reason of our despondency, the Lord will bow down to them, the infinitely exalted Jehovah will have respect unto them." (Spurgeon)

ii. Following this request will come a reason David will give to God why his prayer should be answered. David thought carefully in his prayer, and presented both requests and reasons to God. "The psalm is unique in its method of urging a petition upon the ground of some known fact." (Morgan)

b. For I am poor and needy: David gives the first of several reasons why God should answer. David here appealed to God's sympathy, to His compassion. A hard-hearted God wouldn't care for a poor and needy man, or worse yet might despise him. Yet David knew that God was full of love and compassion and would be moved by the fact that David was, and knew himself to be, poor and needy.

i. It is significant that David began his plea with this. His understanding of the love and compassion of God was foundational.

ii. "To confess that we are poor and needy seem demeaning. To be a servant seems unworthy. We want to be people who deserve something from God because of who we are." (Boice)

2. (Psa 86:2) Help me because I am connected to You.

Preserve my life, for I am holy;
You are my God;
Save Your servant who trusts in You!

a. Preserve my life: David's problem was desperate; he felt that without God's help he could perish. Considering the many people set against him (Psalm 86:14), he had reason to be this concerned.

i. Beyond this, we aren't told the nature of David's need. We know it was severe, and he felt it to be life threatening. Yet we don't know if it was danger from Saul, or the Philistines, or from assassins, or from a dozen other things. This is good, because it allows us to see our need in David's need. It allows us to know that we can approach God on the same basis for whatever our need is.

b. For I am holy: This wasn't a claim to absolute holiness. David knew he was a sinner; that he had and would sin. Yet he also knew that as a man among other men - and especially next to those who were against him - he was a holy man.

c. You are my God; save Your servant who trusts in You! David based this plea on three similar ideas, all rooted in the fact that he was connected to God.

- I am holy; "I am connected to You morally God; I embrace Your holiness in my own life."
- You are my God; "I am connected to You with worship and honor."
- Save Your servant who trusts in You; "I am connected to You in trust and faith."

i. In all this we see how intelligent and thought-out David's prayer was. When he came to the throne of God, he came with careful thought.

3. (Psa 86:3-4) Help me because I cry unto You.

Be merciful to me, O Lord,
For I cry to You all day long.
Rejoice the soul of Your servant,
For to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

a. Be merciful to me … For I cry to You all day long: David asked for mercy because he was completely dependent upon God. He cried to God all day long because he could not or would not rely on anyone else for help.

i. "Lest any should, by the former words (I am holy), suspect him to be a merit-monger, he beggeth mercy, with instancy and constancy of request." (Trapp)

ii. To take this same figure, many of us would cry to God for a period of time and then figure out another way to address our need. Not David; he relied on God and God alone.

iii. O Lord: This is the first of seven uses of Adonai in this Psalm. "The name of God which dominates is Adonahy, or Lord, which indicates absolute Lordship, and by the use of which the singer shows his sense of submission and loyalty." (Morgan)

b. Rejoice the soul of Your servant, for to You … I lift up my soul: The reason is much the same as in the previous verse; an expression of reliance and trust in God (to You … I lift up my soul). But the request is beautifully stated: Rejoice the soul of Your servant. David felt that he could only find joy in his soul as God met his need.

4. (Psa 86:5) Help me because You are a gracious God.

For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.

a. For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive: David based this plea on the graciousness of God; knowing that He is good and ready to forgive. Far too many people who should know better doubt both the goodness of God and His readiness to forgive.

i. "Whereas most men, though they will forgive, yet they are not ready to forgive, they are hardly brought to it, though they do it at last. But God is 'ready to forgive'." (Caryl, cited in Spurgeon)

ii. "We are blinded by sin, and cannot believe that God is ready to forgive. We think that we must induce Him to forgive, by tears, promises of amendment, religious observances … Oh, clasp this word to your heart! Say it over and over again - 'Ready to forgive, ready to forgive!'" (Meyer)

iii. Many wait to repent and ask forgiveness because they think that time might make God more forgiving. That isn't possible. He is ready to forgive now.

iv. "You have fallen a hundred times, and are ashamed to come to God again; it seems too much to expect that He will receive you again. But He will, for He is ready to forgive." (Meyer)

b. Abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You: As David called upon God for help, he expected abundant mercy from God. This expectation of faith would be answered.

5. (Psa 86:6-7) The confidence of the plea for help.

Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer;
And attend to the voice of my supplications.
In the day of my trouble I will call upon You,
For You will answer me.

a. Give ear … attend to the voice of my supplication: Again, David simply asked for God to hear him. He was confident that if the loving, merciful God heard his plea, then He would answer favorably.

i. David here repeated the idea from Psalm 86:1, but the repetition had a purpose. "He repeats and multiplies his requests, both to ease his own troubled mind, and to prevail with God, who is well-pleased with his people's importunity in prayer." (Poole)

b. In the day of trouble I will call upon You, for You will answer me: This was David's wonderful confidence in God. He knew that God was not a fair-weather friend; that instead God could be counted on even in the day of trouble.

i. Adam Clarke put the emphasis on my and me in verses 6-7. "Attend to me. Millions call upon thee for help and mercy; but who has more need than myself?"

ii. You will answer me: "Our experience confirms us in the belief that Jehovah the living God really does aid those who call upon him, and therefore we pray and mean to pray, not because we are so fascinated by prayer that for its own sake we would continue in it if it proved to be mere folly and superstition, as vain philosophers assert; but because we really, indeed, and of a truth, find it to be a practical and effectual means of obtaining help from God in the hour of need." (Spurgeon)

B. Depending on the great God who helps His people.

1. (Psa 86:8-10) The greatness of God.

Among the gods there is none like You, O Lord;
Nor are there any works like Your works.
All nations whom You have made
Shall come and worship before You, O Lord,
And shall glorify Your name.
For You are great, and do wondrous things;
You alone are God.

a. Among the gods there is none like You: David's understanding of who God is in this Psalm - listening, holy, worthy of trust, merciful, good, ready to forgive - stands in contrast to the contemporary understanding of many of the pagan gods, such as Baal, Ashtoreth, or Dagon. Many of these gods were understood to be bitter, vengeful, cunning, and sexually depraved. David knew that the LORD God was different.

i. "I am not now calling upon a deaf and impotent idol, for then I might cry my heart out, and all in vain, as they did, 1 Kings 18:26-29; but upon the Almighty and most gracious God." (Poole)

b. Nor are there any works like Your works: David knew that when God did something, it was glorious. It had the imprint of His glorious character upon it, and could not be compared to the works of man.

i. "Works probably mean here the things God has made, rather than the deeds He has done (which come later, 10a)." (Kidner)

c. All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You: David recognized that God was creator and master over all nations, not merely Israel. In a day when most gods were considered to be only national or regional deities, David knew that his God - the living God, the true God - was different.

d. For You are great, and do wondrous things; You alone are God: David understood that the LORD was not one God among many gods, or even the best God among many gods. He alone is God, and none other.

i. "Wondrous things, variously translated in the Psalms, is a frequent term for God's miracles of salvation." (Kidner)

ii. It is do, not did (though did would be true also). "Note that the verb doest is in the present, the Lord is doing wondrous things, they are transpiring before our eyes." (Spurgeon)

2. (Psa 86:11-12) Whole-life dependence on the great God.

Teach me Your way, O LORD;
I will walk in Your truth;
Unite my heart to fear Your name.
I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart,
And I will glorify Your name forevermore.

a. Teach me Your way, O LORD: Because David knew who God was - not perfectly, of course, but with great understanding - his natural reaction was to submit himself to this great, gracious God and to ask Him to teach him.

i. Again, this shows that David understood that this amazing God cared for him. This same majestic God, whom all nations will worship and glorify, will hear the plea from one poor and needy man (Psalm 86:1) who asks, "Teach me Your way, O LORD."

ii. It also shows a subtle shift in the Psalm. In the first section (86:1-7) David desperately cried out for help. In doing so, he thought deeply about who God is and what He does. Those thoughts did not make David retract his plea for help, but it did make him say, "I need to learn from this great God. Teach me Your way, O LORD."

iii. We could even say that David's great need showed him his need to be taught. It brought him to say, "Don't give me my way, Lord; teach me Your way."

iv. "Most of us, when we pray, are concerned about deliverance and help and guidance and such things. But we are not nearly as concerned to be taught God's way and to be helped to serve him with an undivided heart." (Boice)

b. I will walk in Your truth: This determination gave integrity to David's request. He wanted to be taught so that he could live; so that he could walk in God's truth. This wasn't merely to satisfy intellectual curiosity or to win arguments; it was to live.

i. "Walking, in the Scripture, takes in the whole of our conversation or conduct: and to walk in anything, intends a fulness of it. For a man to walk in pride, is something more than to be proud: it says, that pride is his way, his element; that he is wholly under the influence of it." (Jay, cited in Spurgeon)

c. Unite my heart to fear Your name: David knew he could only walk in God's truth with a united heart. A divided heart - divided among different loyalties and different deities - could never walk in God's truth.

i. "Our minds are apt to be divided between a variety of objects, like trickling streamlets which waste their force in a hundred runnels; our great desire should be to have all our life-floods poured into one channel and to have that channel directed towards the Lord alone." (Spurgeon)

ii. Unite my heart: "Join all the purposes, resolutions, and affections of my heart together, to fear and to glorify thy name. This is a most important prayer. A divided heart is a great curse; scattered affections are a miserable plague. When the heart is not at unity with itself, the work of religion cannot go on. Indecision of mind and division of affections mar any work. The heart must be one, that the work may be one. If this be wanting, all is wrong. This is a prayer which becomes the mouth of every Christian." (Clarke)

iii. "As thou art God alone (ver. 10), so let my heart be toward thee alone." (Trapp)

iv. We could say that the united heart is the goal; the way to the goal is "teach me Your way, O LORD" and "I will walk in Your truth." David therefore indicated that this couldn’t happen in his own self-effort. Instead, he asked God to unite his heart as he was taught and as he walked in the truth.

v. At the same time, the promise of a unified heart is part of some of the Old Testament promises of the New Covenant, as in Ezekiel 11:19: Then I will give them one heart. As part of this New Covenant, we have special reason to pray expecting God to work a unified heart in us.

d. Way … truth … unite: He is our way, our truth, and our life (John 14:6). He is our way; we say, "Teach me Your way." He is our truth; we say, "I will walk in Your truth." He is our life; we say, "Unite my heart to fear Your name."

e. I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart: This is what David wanted to do with his united heart - he wanted to praise God with it. From his understanding of God previously in the Psalm he knew God was worthy of such praise; but he knew he could only praise God as he should with God uniting his heart.

i. David wanted to do this with his united heart; but perhaps he also understood that praise is one way to unite the heart. When we consciously focus the attention of our mind, emotions, and affections upon who God is and what He has done for us, our heart is marvelously united.

ii. "Here is a God-given beginning (and practical means) to the answer of his prayer: his whole heart absorbed in praise." (Kidner)

iii. "Though nothing can add to God's essential glory, yet praise exalts him in the eyes of others. When we praise God, we spread his fame and renown, we display the trophies of his excellency." (Watson, cited in Spurgeon)

iv. O Lord my God: "This is the second time in the Psalm that David calls the Lord 'my God,' the first time he was in an agony of prayer (verse 2), and now he is in an ecstacy of praise." (Spurgeon)

- He is our God in times of trouble - we rely upon Him.
- He is our God in times of rejoicing - we praise Him.

3. (Psa 86:13-15) Depending on the graciousness of God.

For great is Your mercy toward me,
And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
O God, the proud have risen against me,
And a mob of violent men have sought my life,
And have not set You before them.
But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious,
Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.

a. For great is Your mercy toward me, and You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol: David thought about God's past deliverance in his life. The merciful God who rescued him before would rescue him again.

i. Great is Your mercy: "Mercy" here is hesed, the great word for covenant love, love that is promised in a covenant relationship.

ii. "As for the rescue from the depths of Sheol, it is possible to take this as either past or future." (Kidner)

b. The proud have risen against me, and a mob of violent men have sought my life: David lived such a long life of danger and adventure that we can't precisely place this event in his life. It could have come at several points. Nevertheless, the danger was clear and real.

c. And have not set You before them: For David it was clear. Proud men, violent mobs, are not surrendered to God. If these proud and violent men had set God before them, they would share some of His compassion, graciousness, longsuffering, and great mercy and truth.

d. You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion …: David knew that the evil of man did not negate the goodness of God. God is full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth despite the pride and violence of men.

i. But You: "What a contrast! We get away from the hectorings and blusterings of proud but puny men to the glory and goodness of the Lord." (Spurgeon)

ii. It seems that twice in this Psalm David quoted the words and ideas from Moses' encounter with God recorded in Exodus 34:6-7. We see this at Psalm 86:5: For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy. Also, it is seen here in Psalm 86:15: But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.

iii. Compare this with the phrasing of Exodus 34:6-7, the great revelation of God to Moses: The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

iv. "David seems to have stood in the cleft of the rock with Moses, and to have heard the name of the Lord proclaimed even as the great lawgiver did, for in two places in this Psalm he almost quotes verbatim the passage in Exodus 34:6." (Spurgeon)

v. We could say that David read his Bible, and learned who God is. Then he took that knowledge to prayer, and asked God to answer his prayer because of who He revealed Himself to be in the Bible.

4. (Psa 86:16-17) A hopeful plea for help.

Oh, turn to me, and have mercy on me!
Give Your strength to Your servant,
And save the son of Your maidservant.
Show me a sign for good,
That those who hate me may see it and be ashamed,
Because You, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.

a. Turn to me, and have mercy on me! Through it all, David never approached God on the basis of what he deserved. Anything he received from God, he would receive on the basis of mercy.

b. Give Your strength to Your servant: This plea of David is answered by the later exhortation by Paul: Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might (Ephesians 6:10). God does give His strength to His servant!

c. Save the son of Your maidservant: We aren't told much in 1 or 2 Samuel about David's mother, but this brief mention suggests that she was a godly woman who served God, who could be called "Your maidservant."

i. In a few places (Genesis 14:14, Jeremiah 2:14) the Bible gives the idea of a home-born slave - someone who is a slave because their mother was a slave, and they were born into their servitude. That may be David's idea here; to express how completely he belongs to God, he pleads as the son of Your maidservant.

d. Show me a sign for good: David seems to say, "Lord, I do not expect all the answer right now. Yet, show me a sign for good - give me some indication of Your help and power - so that those who hate me may see it and be ashamed."

i. Here David is wonderful for his humility - not demanding all the answer from God right now. He is also wonderful for his humanity - asking for a sign for good at the moment.

ii. In some cases, it is wrong to ask God, "Show me a sign for good." It is wrong when our attitude is, "God, prove to me that You love me" or "I will believe if You show me a sign, but if You do not I will not believe You." Yet there are some good ways legitimate circumstances in which we can cry out to God, "Show me a sign for good."

- Answers to prayer are a sign for good (Psalm 86:1, Bow down Your ear, O LORD, hear me).

- Preservation of character is a sign for good (Psalm 86:2, for I am holy).

- Deliverance from trouble is a sign for good (Psalm 86:2, Save Your servant who trusts in You!).

- Joy in a surrendered life is a sign for good (Psalm 86:4, Rejoice the soul of Your servant, for to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul).

- A sense of forgiveness is a sign for good (Psalm 86:5, You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive).

- Confidence in God is a sign for good (Psalm 86:7, For You will answer me).

- Knowing and declaring the greatness of God is a sign for good (Psalm 86:10, For You are great, and do wondrous things).

- When the proud and violent are enemies, it is a sign for good (Psalm 86:14, the proud have risen against me, and a mob of violent men have sought my life).

iii. Some - such as Adam Clarke - take this expression differently. "'Make with me a sign.' Fix the honourable mark of thy name upon me, that I may be known to be thy servant. There seems to be an allusion here to the marking of a slave, to ascertain whose property he was." Perhaps we could say that the idea is, "Put Your mark of goodness on me, so that all can see that I am Yours and You will deliver me."

e. Because You, LORD, have helped me and comforted me: Once again David bases his current expectation on God's prior help. Every past experience of God's goodness to us is a promise of His continued blessing.

© 2010 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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