Psalm 141 was not written for the New Year.
Yet it is a psalm of resolve. Of sober resolve. It does have several resolutions, but primarily requests. Humble, heartfelt requests. Listen to David:
(What follows is my own translation of a notoriously difficult psalm.)
A Psalm. Of David.
LORD, I have called out to you. Come quickly to me.
Give ear to my voice, when I call out to you.
May my prayer present itself before you like incense;
May the lifting up of my hands [be to you as] the evening sacrifice.
David is seeking to connect with God. He wants to speak with him. He knows that he needs to speak with him. And soon. David’s relationship with God is one of (surprising?) expectation: “Come quickly to me.” “Give ear.” These are imperatives, but respectful and confident imperatives, rooted in the fact that God had pursued David; God had initiated a binding (or “covenantal”) relationship with him: David’s relationship with God was God’s idea. God had made promises to David, and now God was stuck with David.
This is a humble, confident request (demand?) to connect with an initiating and, hence, interested and invested God.
And it is a request made on God’s terms: David desires his prayer to be received in a manner pleasing to God: “like incense…like the evening sacrifice”–these refer to the cultic practices that God gave to Israel, saying, “Draw near to me in these ways, for they will help–vs. hinder–our relationship.”
Unlike the husband/hunter who gets a new hunting bow for his room-service-loving wife for a Christmas present, David approaches and honors God as He has prescribed, for two reasons: (1) so that God might revel in David’s request–the incense was pleasing to God; and (2) so that David might know his request would be pleasing to God.
(We note in passing David’s posture: he is “lifting up” his hands.)
With this initial request to hasten and hear, David launches into his prayer (v. 3):
LORD, set a guard over my mouth.
Guard the door of my lips.
David was a man of extraordinary capacity: a caring shepherd, lethal warrior, brilliant general, and shrewd statesman. But as remarkable (and essential) as these abilities were, they are eclipsed by his pen (and stringed instrument): not only is this true historically (Psalm 23 is a top contender for most read chapter of the Bible), it is possibly suggested in 2 Samuel 23.1, where we find “the last words of David” and where he is described as “the anointed of the God of Jacob and the beloved psalmist of Israel“–though this final phrase is not easy to translate.
And here’s the point: a man whose greatest gift is words is asking God first and foremost: “set a guard over my mouth.” Could it be that David’s dependence upon God manifests itself first not with concern about his “sin issues” or even his weaknesses but with his strengths? “I need your help most with what you have most gifted me to do and be, because I’m most susceptible to misuse–to hijack for my own aims–what I’m best at.”
In addition to his powerful literary mind, David as Israel’s king would of course have regularly pronounced legal judgments in the weightier matters of Israel: his lips had the power of life and death.
So David’s first request is to seek divine aid in the wise–i.e., the restrained, guarded–use of the greatest and most powerful gift that God had given him.
David’s second request is equally sober and insightful (vv. 4-5a):
Do not turn my heart aside to what is evil [or regrettable],
by practicing wicked acts with others who perform iniquity–
I will not eat of their delicacies.
Let a righteous man punch me–this is love,
let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head:
my head will not refuse it.
David grasps the power of community to shape his fundamental desires and fears–what he here calls his “heart.” So he first negatively requests that God would prevent his heart from being shaped by social connections marked by compromise. He discerns that such connections are alluring–they have their “delicacies”–e.g., affirmation or gratification. Such counterfeit communities enjoy the goodness of God’s creation but in ways that He, the Creator, has not sanctioned: they are communities characterized by what Augustine would call disordered affections. David can name these “delicacies” as God-given “goods” while vowing, with God’s help, to refuse to partake in the costly way that these communities do.
So David requests that God would guard his heart–the epicenter of his affections and desires–from such disorder.
But positively David seeks community with “righteous” persons–viz., persons who have aligned themselves with God, who have sought the goodness of God’s creation in the ways that He has prescribed. And what David seeks from this community is the intimacy and dignity that come from accountability.
The more gifted, the more capable, and the more influential that David was, the more he wanted accountability, unvarnished confrontation, true honesty, real feedback. Why? The more gifted, the more capable, and the more influential we are, the more others are tempted to flattery and often the more fearful we are of failure.
So David recognizes that “faithful are the wounds of a friend [literally–“of one who loves”] (Prov. 27.6). Such “faithful wounds” are acts of “steadfast love”; that is, they come not from the fair-weathered friends or activity-based friendships but from those who have committed themselves to being in community with us.
But not only is such confrontation an act expressing loving commitment; it is act bestowing dignity and honor: “it is oil on my head.” Famously, in Psalm 23 David celebrates God’s “royal treatment” of David: “you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” David says, “I know that someone is truly for me, that they are truly my servant when they confront me.”
So David prays against a counterfeit community that would mislead his heart, and he prays for–and no doubt actively pursues–a genuine community, marked by true intimacy and dignity.
With this second request the psalm takes a turn: having requested first genuine caution in the use of his gifts and then genuine community for the protection of his heart, he turns to consider his engagement with a heavily compromised world. That is, having prayed to God for help with the corruption within him, he then turns to seek God’s help with the corruption around him:
“But my prayer is ever against evil actions of men.”
David turns to pray for how God would have him actively engage a world marked by so much injustice and corruption–and we’ll consider this in the next post.