Today is Presidents Day in the United States. Originally, this holiday merged the commemoration of the birthdays of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in February. In this posting, I will reflect on the prayer of Psalm 61, a call for fire that combines pleas for personal protection with gratitude for sharing the heritage of God’s worshipers. The prayer of this psalm also adds prayer on behalf of the king, before concluding with a promise of future praise and obedience by the worshiper that seems tied somehow to God protecting the king.
The prayer begins with a personal petition for assistance:
“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe” (Psalm 61:1-3).
The request for help alludes to previous assistance from God. God already has been “a strong tower against the foe.” A poem (later a hymn) published in the “Sunday School Journal” in 1871 identifies Jesus as the Rock and the Tower. The last verse of the poem says, “That Rock’s a tow’r, whose lofty height, Illumed with heav’n’s unclouded light, Opes wide its gates beneath the dome, Where saints find rest with Christ at home.” The refrain of the hymn says, “Some build their hopes on the ever-drifting sand, Some on their fame or the their treasure or their land; Mine’s on the Rock that forever shall stand; Jesus, the ‘Rock of Ages” (Songs of Faith and Praise, 36th Printing, hymn 558). Our hymns both reflect and shape our faith. Psalm 61 originally would have performed those functions as Israelite worshipers sang its words in the Jerusalem temple.
The psalmist gives thanks for God’s protection. He also expresses gratitude for being include among God’s people:
“I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings. For you have heard my vows, O God; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name” (Psalm 61:4-5)
This prayer longs to remain under God’s protection and rejoices in sharing the heritage of the faithful. 1 Peter 4:16 reflects this line of thought: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” The psalmist suffers and yearns for God’s protection while thankful that he shares the “heritage” of those who fear God. The Christian too may suffer for doing right, but also rejoices that he or she shares the “heritage” of those who fear God.
Psalm 61 reflects a historical situation where the king of Israel or Judah was a servant of God, at least in theory. Several Psalms refer to the king as the Lord’s anointed. In reality, many kings failed to live up to the standard set forth for them in the Torah. Several flagrantly led Israel or Judah into idolatry, spurning the worship of God. Yet Psalm 61, a prayer and hymn of the temple, prays, “Increase the days of the king’s life, his years for many generations. May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever; appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him” (Psalm 61:6-7). The apostle Paul, writing as a citizen of an empire ruled by a pagan king, wrote to the evangelist Timothy, “I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). The Psalm was written to people who lived in a theocratic monarchy under a king who may or may not have been faithful to God; Paul’s letter was written to subjects of a pagan monarch. In both cases, worshipers of God pray for God’s blessing on a government leader. The psalm, after praying for protection for the king, concludes, “Then will I ever sing praise to your name and fulfill my vows day after day” (Psalm 6:7-8).
The Bible does not advocate mindless obedience to laws that preclude obedience to God. Nevertheless, its writings encourage believers to pray to God on behalf of their political leaders, so that society will be a more secure setting for followers of God to practice their faith. The psalm specifically calls for God to use his love and faithfulness to protect the king. Our political arrangement differs radically in the United States from the two kingdoms of the biblical times. We choose our leaders; we may express more freely our disagreement with their policies or actions. However, like followers of God in biblical times, we still should pray on behalf of our leaders, asking that God in his love and faithfulness will protect them. We should do this, and let our leaders know that we are praying on their behalf, because we serve a God who wants all “to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth,” including Presidents.