In the midst of Psalm 86’s barrage of “calls for fire” (14 petitions) is a penetrating insight enclosed within a request,
“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name. I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave” (Psalm 86:11=13).
The Psalmist prays for unity of effort within his own mind. In the New Testament, James focuses on the same thought when writing, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double minded man, unstable in all he does” (James 1:5-8).
When under attack, as was the writer of this Psalm, we may lose focus. The prayer of Psalm 86 reminds us who can save us: “Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord; no deeds can compare with you…For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God” (Psalm 86:8, 10). The writer also prays, “But you, O Lord, are compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (86:15). Earlier in the prayer he noted, “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding love to all who call to you” (86:5). In an age where technological innovation is common and we take for granted inventions that would have amazed our great-grandparents, we may succumb to the same temptation that captured the imagination of the builders of the tower of Babel, wanting to be like God (Genesis 11). This prayer captures a sense of God’s transcendence; even if there were other gods, they would fail in comparison with God – no deeds can compare with his.
This prayer praises God and remembers his love and mercy. It still is a prayer of lament. The Psalmist needs help, for he is under attack from people who have no regard for God. This threat underlies his cries for help, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long. Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (86:3-4). In our time and in our culture, where antagonism toward faith seems on the rise, we may want to pray along with this Psalmist, “Give me a sign of your goodness, that my enemies may see it and be put to shame, for you, O LORD, have helped me and comforted me” (86:17).
The prayer, a cry for help, confesses the tension we feel when we know help is possible but it has not yet occurred. Just as Soldiers may worry whether artillery or close air support will drive back the enemy before their position is overrun, we too long for God to rescue us in a way that will win over our enemy to God’s cause. Recognizing that tension returns us to the need for self-awareness and focused faith when we pray. We must pray with confidence that God hears.
God who helps and comforts, help us to pray with undivided loyalty. Strengthen our moral fiber so that we may stand firm in the moment of testing. Help us to live what we profess to believe. We pray in the name of the One on whom we fix our gaze, through Jesus, Amen.