How Psalm 5 taught me to pray

Psalm 5 - A prayer for the morning

… in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation … Psalm 5:3

When I go to prayer I need all the help I can get. Several years ago Nathan Hall had suggested praying the Psalms as a means of achieving worshipful prayer. For me, prayer can become routine, done perfunctorily and, of course, dull. Not The Sweet Hour of Prayer I would like it to be. I am jealous to have an emotional high each time I pray, but, alas, that seldom happens. I pray for several reasons: I should pray; I think God thinks I’m a better person if I pray; I want to curry God’s favor. Well, actually, praying with those incentives, is not praying at all. If praying were “easy” I doubt Jesus’ disciples would have asked him how it were to be done.

This Psalm is uniquely suited for morning worship – a glance at verse three shows why. I pray this psalm after I have made my petitions – i.e., prayed for all those people and things I am burdened with. I have just listed all my requests to the Lord and the opening line to this psalm is: “Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing.” How fitting. Let’s go on.

“Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” In typical Hebrew fashion, verse two is a retelling of the opening line of the psalm. I know I need usually to be told more than once to do something. While the same can’t be said of God, still, it addresses a need in me to say again that I need the Lord’s help.

Verse three: “Morning by morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; morning by morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.” This verse I have designated as the “refrain” and I repeat it after the sixth verse, the ninth verse and the twelfth verse. Well, the “morning by morning…” seems to imply that I would be doing this praying thing every day. I repeat this verse because it emphasizes my own need and my expectation. I actually “expect” the Lord to do something with my requests… and he does. Unfortunately most of us don’t “expect” an answer (or at least the one we’re looking for) and when we get the answer (the one we want) we tend to be surprised; or worse we forget that we had asked. Perhaps we shouldn’t be. “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:2b-3 NIV) I get it. We are supposed to ask more for others than for ourselves!

I suppose if I believed in “Give us this day our daily bread…” I might just be satisfied with what the Lord provides. The fact is that the Lord wants to hear about our troubles and fears and wants. Certainly he does not want us not to ask anything of him. I try to pray with reckless abandon to see what happens. I think it is important to remember who we are because of Christ. Because of Christ we are sons (read sons and daughters) of God – well, that puts us in a very special place. We should be able to ask anything. As for the right motives, I think that as we grow in Christ, he changes our hearts in such a way as we begin to desire what he wants for us.

Verses 4-6 look at how the Lord will deal with the unrighteous. We need to know that the Lord is concerned about injustice: “with you the wicked cannot dwell”. Next follows a short list of who these wicked are: the arrogant (v. 5), wrong-doers (v. 5); liars/deceitful men (v. 6); and, of course, the bloodthirsty (v. 6). Here again, I say verse 3 “Morning by morning …”

Verses 7 & 8 help us to become worshipful: “But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple.” I don’t think we appreciate how awesome it is that we can even approach the presence of God – consider what it took to come to God in the Old Testament. Some people in the time before Christ were struck dead because they came too near to God. So as verse 7 indicates: “by your great mercy…” That mercy came at an enormous price – the very death of Jesus. When he died the veil in the temple (which separated everyone from the presence of God – except the high priest but one day a year) was rent in two from top to bottom (see Matthew 27:51). That “rending” gave access to all; the veil being torn from top to bottom, I think is simply from heavenward to earth. So to approach God as matter-of-factly as we tend to is truly less than he deserves. So there is great reverence shown.

Verse 8 (“Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies – make straight your way before me.”) is very much like the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Lead us not into temptation.” It is also a cry to know God’s will.

Verse 9 revisits the wicked: this time with respect to how they use their tongues. The Epistle of James has much to say about the tongue. While he is addressing the faithful, his words apply to everyone. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6 NIV) Evidently the wicked can’t be trusted in anything.

Repeat verse 3 “Morning by morning…”

Verse 10 is seeking justice for the world because of the evil of the wicked. The psalmist is asking God to declare them guilty. They should be declared guilty – they are guilty. And so were we. But we have been declared not guilty. “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14 NIV) So these wicked are guilty both with their tongues and in their actions. While it might grant us a measure of satisfaction to say, “Declare them guilty; banish them for their many sins…” we must also remember that it was the forbearance, patience and grace of God which was extended to us. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)

Verse 11 and 12 encourage us to “take refuge in you [God]”. We sing for joy in this security. I don’t think we can help but sing for joy. For me, this is a picture of what life is like after Jesus has restored the earth to what God had intended all along. I think we can live victoriously because of what Jesus has done for us. And is there any one of us who does not think he is blessed in Christ?

Again verse 3: “Morning by morning etc. …” By way of closing the psalm I say the “Glory be to the Father…” the Church’s traditional ending for all the psalms. “… and wait in expectation.”

(by John Tully)

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A Roadmap for Praying the Psalms

This quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together radically changed my understanding of the psalms and prayer itself.

… the whole sweep of the Book of Psalms was concerned with nothing more nor less than the brief petitions of the LORD’s Prayer.” (Life Together, 50).

In other words, if you were to summarize all that Jesus had to each us about prayer it would boil down to to this:

Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:2-4)

The Lord’s Prayer provides structure to prayer. The psalms brings the structure to life. They are a collection of 150 of the finest prayers we have that teach us what it means to worship God in prayer (“hallowed be your name”), pray that God’s kingdom and justice will break into our world (“your kingdom come”), ask God for our daily needs (“give us this day our daily bread”), pray prayers of repentance (“forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone who sins against us”) and to pray for divine protection (“lead us not into temptation”).

I began to see the psalms in a new way when I understood that the psalms provide us with the language to express the simple desires outlined in the Lord’s Prayer. The psalms teach us to pray the way Jesus prayed.

I taught these concepts to a small group when someone asked, “these ideas are great, but where do we find these psalms? Is there a roadmap for the psalms?” What follows is my attempt to provide a few psalms for each part of the Lord’s Prayer. Most psalms reflect more than one of the petitions, but the ones selected below will primarily on one.  If you have other examples, post them as a comment. I’d love to see this collection grow.

Your Kingdom Come
(Aligning our desires with God’s desires – God’s will done on earth.)
Psalms: 2, 110

Give us this day our daily bread
(Asking for our daily needs.)
Psalms: 4 (A Prayer for the Evening), 5 (A Prayer for the Morning), 88, 90, 104,

Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
(Repentance and Forgiveness.)
Psalms: 6, 32, 38, 51, 130

Lead us not into temptation
(Prayers for overcoming sin and divine protection.)
Psalms: 27, 141

Repentance for Good People

Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodgial Son" Which son is lost? The one is rags or the one outside his father's embrace?

A young son wakes up in a pig sty after squandering his father’s inheritance. He looks at the pieces of his broken life and begins dreaming of home. With only a wistful hope that his father will take him back as a servant, the son begins the long journey home and back into a loving father’s embrace.  This is repentance as Jesus defined it. It is the way we become a Christian. It is the way we live our lives as a Christian. Repentance is core.

The sin of this son was obvious. He told his father, “I wish you were dead” and went off and squandered half of the family estate. There are times when I fail horribly and I feel like the younger son. Repentance is easy in those moments. But that’s not me most of the time, so I often struggle with repentance. How can I make repentance more meaningful than a half-hearted, “sorry God for everything.”  The psalms and Psalm 50 in particular has been a valuable guide into fresh and meaningful repentant prayer.

The psalm opens with God, the Mighty One, summoning the peoples of the earth to gather before his throne. Humanity is divided into two groups, the people of God (Israel) and the wicked. So far we are not surprised, for we see the world in the same categories.

God speaks, but I’m shocked when he begins by addressing me. He testifies against the righteous, even though he is fully aware of the lies, slander and deceit of the wicked. Our sin, not the sins of the wicked, are his primary concern.

So what’s the problem? Are we not committed enough? Have we not done enough? That’s not it at all.

Psalm 50:8, 12 I don’t rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine … If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

God doesn’t need our sacrifices.  He doesn’t need our church attendance, our visits to a soup kitchen, the money we give, the amount of time we pray and read the Bible. He doesn’t cry tears of joy when you give up chocolate for Lent.

You see there are two ways to sin. The ‘wicked’ way is tell God, “to hell with you, I’m going to live any way I choose.” But wicked people aren’t the only ones who need a savior. Good religious people need to repent as well. Our sin is more subtle. What was God’s problem with his people? The people had deluded themselves into thinking that God needed their sacrifices. If you have a god that needs you, then you have a god who owes you.

Tim Keller put it this way. Pagan people try to control God by ignoring him. Religious people try to control God through their obedience.We all lie, we all steal, we all commit adultery (remember what Jesus said about looking lustfully at another person). But there is a sin that is far more dangerous for “good” people. It is the good things we do in order to manipulate God into giving us what we want.

Israel offered sacrifices to God because they thought he was hungry. In their minds they reduced the self-sufficient God who had created heaven and earth for no other reason than love, to a starving idol who depended on the sacrifices of people for food. God doesn’t love us because of what we offer him. He needs nothing that we might give him. He loves us … just because.

We spurn this grace and greatly offend God when we twist him into a voracious idol who demands his pound of flesh as payment for a good marriage, well-behaved kids, sound finances and a successful career. Do I give generously because I believe that God will provide for me or because I’m afraid that God will destroy my finances if I don’t? Am I honest because I believe that my reputation is secure in Christ or because I am afraid that God and other people will not love a liar? It is so subtle that an outside observer often can’t tell the difference.

This sin has an even uglier side. I’ve seen my own heart blackened by disappointed rage. You know when life deals you a significant blow and you offer prayers laced with anger through clenched teeth. “After all my service to you God, I know I deserve better.” It is in these moments that our hearts are exposed. We don’t love God for who he is. We obey God to get stuff from him.  I wonder if that is worse than a person who simply chooses to ignore God’s law?

So I’m beginning to learn to repent not only for the lies and the slander, but also for the good things I do with selfish motives. I believe that John Gertsner was right:

“The main thing between you and God is not so much your sins; it’s your damnable good works. ”

But that still leaves me with one question. If God doesn’t want my sacrifices, what does he want?

Psalm 50:14-15 Sacrifice thank offering to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you , and you will honor me.

God wants nothing else than a life energized by gratitude and joy. He wants us to enjoy him. He wants us live not as fearful slaves, but as daughters and sons who have experienced God’s grace and revel in a God who loves them … just because.

Psalm 5 – A prayer to begin to the day

The alarm goes off. You groan as you groggily search for the snooze button. Pressing it makes the noise mercifully stops and your head slips back onto your pillow for a  temporary moment of quiet.  And then it all comes rushing back: unresolved conflict, unfinished projects, deadlines, demands that you can not possibly meet, uncertainty, bills and behind it all, flat out fear.

Depending on who you are, you’re either tempted to go back to sleep and forget it all or you hit the ground running frantically trying to regain some sense of control in your life. It’s fight or flight, but to the prayer masters who compiled the book of psalms, the first moments of the day is the time to pray.

Pray? I’m too tired. I’m late for work. I’ve got too much to do. Those are my excuses, but does anyone else hear the tinge of irony in the words, “Sorry God we can’t talk because I have too much to do for you today.” But God isn’t the one missing out. It’s not like God is in heaven saying, “I’m lonely, I really wish I had someone to talk to.” I’m the one who loses. In my attempts to gain control of my life through frantic activity, I am slowing making self a slave to my fears, my anxieties and my stuff.

I’ve learned recently that the opposite of “pray continually” (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17)  is “worry continually” and for me it begins with the opening minutes of the day. But how do you pray when so much is running through your mind in the morning? Psalm 5 was written to teach us. These are the words of King David as he opened his eyes one morning.

Psalm 5:1-3 Give ears to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.

Eugene Peterson in his book, Answering God: the Psalms as Tools for Prayer, says that the image David is painting for us is that of a man arranging a sacrifice on altar before the Lord. The idea is that we are to arrange the stuff of our lives, the fears, the hopes, the dreams, whatever we wake up with, lay them out before God and then step back and say, “God do something with this mess.” And then there is my favorite part, “wait in expectation.”

What was David laying out before God? We don’t know precisely, but it could have included … “God I’m still waiting to become king, but King Saul is still trying to kill me.” “God I’ve made a mess of my family and now my son has led a revolt against me.” “God, the guilt of my adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband is overwhelming.” We are invited to give it all to God.  Sins. Failures. Injustice. Everything.

And so each morning, I’ve taken to giving a list to God of all the things that come to my mind as I wake up.  This morning it was two articles that I had to write (including this one), a friend with cancer, a family in crisis and my own inadequacies as a husband and father.  Normally I would wake up obsessing over them.  How am I going to solve them? What am I going to do? But now I’m starting to learn to lay them out before God and then step back and see what He is going to do.

I still worry. I’ll battle this sin for the rest of my life. But lately there have been some God-given moments of peace in the morning as the stuff of my life is laid out before God and I’m not running. I’m just waiting.

Psalm 4 – A prayer to end the day

I am most susceptible to sin at night. I suspect it is that way for most Christians. We are tired and at our weakest as the day comes to a close. In the quiet, as we lay down and try to go to sleep, our fears, anger and frustration have room to surface. We’ve been too busy to think about them throughout the day, but when work stops, they come back. In the waning moments of the day we are most tempted to reach for our idols, our addictions, anything to give us relief. So as we fight to get to sleep, we often drift into sin: obsessive worrying, thoughts of rage, or something to anesthetize us: excessive amounts of alcohol, TV or mindless and sometimes dangerous internet browsing

The ancients learned to reclaim the night with prayer and their teaching has been preserved in the book of Psalms. At the beginning are two short prayers: Psalm 4, a prayer for the night and Psalm 5, a prayer for the morning. The Israelites of old understood that our prayer lives need to maintain a rhythm if we are to live in this broken world. It is a rhythm that keeps us in step with the beat of Creation.

There was evening (Psalm 4) and there was morning (Psalm 5) – the first day. (Genesis 1:5)

So how do we reclaim the night? What do we do with the thoughts of fear, anger and frustration that swirl around in our head? Psalm 4 points the way. It is a prayer that opens with a raw and loud honesty.

Answer me, when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer. How long, O men, will you glory in my shame … (Psalm 4:1-2)

As you lived life today, you witnessed things that have made you angry. You’ve seen injustice either in the media or in person. Plans have been frustrated. Urgent prayers have gone unanswered. You’ve been sinned against. You have failed. There are demands placed on you that you are unable to meet. Whatever it is, lift them to heaven. Complain about them to God.  Yell if you have to. Don’t keep them in. Don’t hide them. Don’t obsess over them. Lift them heavenward.

That’s where the night prayer begins. A desperate cry to God. God here is what is wrong with the world. Here is what is wrong with my life. Do something. The night prayer starts loudly, but moves into a time of reflection:

In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the LORD. (Psalm 4:4)

It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” It is important to acknowledge the evils and injustices in or world.  We should hate them.  They should make us angry. But we also must acknowledge the sin in our own hearts. The time before we drift out to sleep is the time to “search our hearts” and ask ourselves the question “where in my life am I struggling to trust God?”  Anger is often a symptom of a lack of trust in God. Confess those areas of unbelief to God. Be quiet. Sit in his presence and ask for the faith to trust him.

As you tune your heart to God’s move your thoughts to the hope of the gospel that cannot be overcome by the brokenness of the world.

Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’ Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord. You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. (Psalm 4:6)

In our world, it looks like the wicked prosper and inflict misery with impunity. But our hope is not in this world.  It is fleeting and it is temporary. Our real life is with Christ and one day he will return and he will live forever with us on earth. That is in an inheritance greater than anything the world has ever witnessed. It is a treasure that nothing in this world can take away. Not even death. That is our true hope and security as we drift off into sleep and the psalm draws to a close.

I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

May God grant you the space to cry out to him at night. May He give you insight into your own sin. In the end may he grant you the peace and sleep knowing that your life is in His hands.

* I am indebted to the writings of Eugene Peterson for what I have learned about prayer and the psalms.  If you would like learn more about “praying the psalms” I encourage you to get his book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. 

A quick tour of the Pacific Union Connect emails

Each Connect email (subscribe to the Pacific Union email list) comes with a variety of forms of daily prayer and Bible reading.  Here is a quick introduction …

Prayer Psalm. The Psalms are a collection of 150 of the finest prayers ever recorded.  They were used in worship at the temple in Jerusalem, they were foundational to Jesus’ prayer life and in the prayers of his disciples.  The church of Jesus Christ has for 2000 years have recognized the Psalms as the “school of prayer.”  Praying a Psalm is an opportunity to learn from the masters to pray the full range of human emotions from anger and despair to joy and love.  The Prayer Psalm is offered to help you direct your prayer for the day.  Here are a few suggestions for “praying Psalms.”  For more information read “Some suggestions for reading the Psalms“.

  • Read the Psalm aloud to yourself.
  • Meditate on one particular verse that jumps out at you.
  • Prayer your own prayer back to God in response to the Psalm.  (e.g. If the Psalm expresses fear, pray some of your fears to God, or pray on behalf of someone you know who is afraid.)
  • Journal your responses.

Prayer Point. The Prayer Point is an invitation to pray one aspect of the psalm selected for the day. Each day’s prayer point will focus on a different aspect of prayer as each psalm approaches God in a unique way. Prayer points will range from prayers of thanksgiving, worship, intercession on behalf of the weak and the oppressed and repentance. The goal is to allow the psalms to lead you into a rich variety of the forms of prayer available to us.

Bible Reading Tracks. The Scriptures for the Bible reading tracks are selected from the Christian Year (Advent, Christmas, Good Friday, etc.).  Our sermons follow the same calendar so the Bible readings will roughly coincide with the themes of the weekly sermon.  The three tracks are offered to provide to give you exposure to the diverse writings of the Bible.

  • Old Testament. Tells the story of God’s relationship with the world and his people Israel before the coming of Christ.
  • The Gospels. These unique writings contain four eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
  • New Testament (other than the Gospels, Acts to Revelation).  Tells the story of the church that Jesus and relates the struggle of Jesus’ followers to work out Jesus’ teaching, carry on his mission while they wait patiently for His return.

For more help with reading the Bible, read the blog posts in the “Reading the Bible” category.