Over and again, when people are in troubled times, they are
advised to look to the Psalms.
The prayers and songs we read comfort in all sorts of troubles
because they were clearly offered during all kinds of
circumstances. Many of us long to be able to pray as those
psalmists did, freely carrying our cares, confessions, and praises
to God naturally and continually. The greatness of the psalms,
however, is not in the wording or the phrases, as beautiful as
those may be. As we learned in our last
lesson, the greatness of
the psalmists’ prayers comes from their relationship with God.
When we view God as they did, we’ll begin to pray as they did.
However, there is another part of this relationship. That’s us.
If we want to pray as the psalmists did, we must see God properly,
but we must also see ourselves as they did.
We are sheep in need of a shepherd.
Perhaps the greatest summary of how the psalmists viewed
themselves is found in Psalm
23. We are sheep in need of a shepherd. The picture of Psalm
23 is pleasant to our ears. Even when we preach it, we
talk about what a wonderful picture this was to David, a shepherd.
He thinks of the wonderful relationship between him and his sheep
and speaks of it between our God and us. No doubt, that
relationship is beautiful.
However, while the picture of God as the loving Shepherd is
a great comfort to us, the picture of sheep is not a flattering
description of us. Sheep are helpless, powerless, hopeless. They
easily become cast down, that is, rolled over and unable to even
get back on their own feet. They have no natural defenses. They
are easy prey. Even with a shepherd, they constantly wander off
and go astray. If left to themselves, they destroy their own
feeding grounds and die.
We love to talk about Psalm
23. But few of us really view ourselves as sheep. Most
often, we view ourselves as powerful people who can accomplish
just about anything we want to. We can lead ourselves. We can be
righteous enough to go to heaven. We are strong and mighty. Oh,
surely, we aren’t perfect. Certainly we need God to give us that
little nudge to go the last little bit. But sheep? Helpless,
hopeless, powerless? No. That’s not us. If we just try a little
harder, we’ll make it. Oddly, enough, like the sheep, we try
harder and only succeed in wearing ourselves out, exhausting
ourselves, and destroying ourselves with the effort.
The psalmists saw themselves like the sheep. And not just
because of this psalm.
We are helpless (Psalm
We are powerless (Psalm
We are hopeless (Psalm
We easily become cast down (Psalm
We have no natural defenses (Psalm
We are easy prey (Psalm
We readily go astray (Psalm
Left to ourselves, we will die (Psalm
Because we are sheep, how can we help but come into God’s
presence humbly, honestly, sincerely? How can we help but pray?
Yet, if we see ourselves as strong, we will always fall short. A
great contrast can be seen in Psalm
5 between those who see what they truly are and those who
think they are somehow smarter than God.
righteous come to God humbly, groaning before God accompanied with
sacrifice. The righteous know they need mercy to come into God’s
wicked, however, boast and lie. They see themselves as strong.
They don’t need God. They will rely on themselves.
righteous humble themselves before God, bowing down in fear.
wicked have no truth in their mouth, only death. They do not
honor; they only flatter.
righteous take refuge in God. They know God is their strength,
their power, their protection. Therefore they rejoice.
When we see ourselves as sheep in need of a shepherd,
praying like the psalmists becomes so much more natural.
We are sinners in need of mercy.
We can turn to passages like Psalm
38:18 to see the psalmist confess sins. However, the
psalmists didn’t simply see themselves as folks who sinned on
occasion that needed little help. Rather, the psalmist was covered
up with sin (Psalm
38:3-4). Their sins were not just a spot on their record,
they were a flood in which they were drowning. They needed mercy.
They needed saving. God was the only who could provide that.
Paul certainly learned man is sinful from the psalms.
Consider his argument in Romans
3:10-18. Five of the six quotes in his list come from the
“None is righteous, no, not one; / no one understands; /
no one seeks for God. / All have turned aside; together they have
become worthless; / no one does good, / not even one.” From Psalm
“Their throat is an open grave; / they use their tongues
to deceive.” From Psalm
“The venom of asps is under their lips.” From Psalm
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” From Psalm
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; / in their paths are
ruin and misery, / and the way of peace they have not known.”
The one statement not in the psalms is from Isaiah
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” From Psalm
At times, according to the psalmists, our sins are the
reason for our suffering. Consider Psalm
31:9-10; 32:3-5; 38:3-4, 17-20.
When the psalmist knew his sins were the cause of his suffering,
he still prayed for mercy. But he did so with penitence. As Psalm
38:18-20 said, he was begging for mercy as he confessed
and turned from his iniquity. As Psalm
66:18 explained, the psalmist knew he couldn’t simply
regard sin in his heart and ask for mercy. God would not listen in
The part about the sinfulness of the psalmists at which we
are most likely to rebel is the psalmists viewed themselves as so
sinful, that they could not overcome sin apart from God. They
would never quit sinning by their own power. Many of us are
willing to say we cannot be forgiven apart from God, but we will
be victorious over our sins by our own strength and choice. The
psalmists saw this as a losing battle. Apart from God’s grace
and working in their lives, they would not stop sinning and
therefore would not be forgiven.
Consider some statements from the psalms.
righteous, the psalmist must be led by God. God must make His ways
the psalmist. And the psalmist can only enter God’s house by
God’s steadfast love.
we are the sheep. Left to ourselves, we wander off, go astray,
become cast down and die. We are saved by the leadership of the
Shepherd who guides in righteous paths.
righteous, the psalmist must be led by God. He must be instructed
the psalmist’s extravagant claims of personal innocence and
walking in integrity, the last line is telling. Why has he been able to do this? Because his
foot stands on level ground. Considering Psalm
143:10 the psalmists walks on level ground because of the
the psalmist’s best intention to guard his ways by himself and
not sin, his distress grew. Therefore he cried out for God to act so He might be delivered from
his transgressions (Psalm
great was the psalmist’s sins he presented himself as being
conceived in it.
psalmist is asking God to do whatever it takes to keep him out of
sin. Even though his prayer is continually against the evil deeds
of others, he sees sin as a trap into which he will inevitably fall unless God does something to keep him out.
This shocks us; we fear accepting
this point because we believe it may teach the Calvinistic ideas
of total depravity and irresistible grace. The difference,
however, is this; in Calvinism, each person wills to repent only
if God chose them to; those who don’t have a will unto
repentance do not because God has not chosen them to. The
psalmists have chosen to will penitence, they volunteer freely
110:3). The psalmists’ conception of overcoming even
though they are unable to is not that God must select them
unconditionally to will for salvation. Rather, they must choose to
surrender completely to God because only God can save them; they
cannot save themselves. They surrender by giving their will up to
His, trusting His word, following His lead.
No doubt, this seems to be a
paradox. However, it is the same paradox we find in Romans
7:14-25; Ephesians 3:14-21; and Philippians 2:12-13.
It is summed up by the maxim I’ve heard attributed to Augustine
of Hippo, “Without God, I cannot; without me, God will not.”
When I am able to see my sins as a sea in which I’m
drowning, then I’ll pray as the psalmists did. When I see the
only possible way for me to overcome sin, not just forgiveness but
actual victory, is by God’s grace, I’ll pray as the psalmists
Sometimes we are innocent.
Though our first two points cover
the main concepts of the psalmists’ idea about self, leading
them to pray. There was one very interesting point I found
repeated. In some of the laments, the psalmists did not claim
guilt and beg for mercy. Rather, like Job, at times they declared
their innocence and begged for deliverance and retribution.
LORD my God, if I have done this, / if there is wrong in my
hands…let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, / and let
him trample my life to the ground / and lay my glory in the
do not sit with men of falsehood, / nor do I consort with hypocrites. / I hate the
assembly of evildoers, / and I will not sit with the wicked. / I
wash my hands in innocence/and go around your altar, O LORD…”
without cause they hid their net for me; / without cause they dug
a pit for my life…They repay me evil for good; / my soul is bereft. / But I, when they were sick— /
I wore sackcloth; / I afflicted myself with fasting; / I prayed
with head bowed on my chest…
they lie in wait for my life; / fierce men stir up strife against
me. / For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD, / for no fault
of mine, they run and make ready.”
you I have leaned from before my birth; / you are he who took me
from my mother’s womb…O God, from my youth you have taught me,
/ and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. / So even to old age
and gray hairs, / O God, do not forsake me, / until I proclaim
your might to another generation…” (contrast this with Psalm
Psalm 86:2—“Preserve my life, for I am godly…”
return for my love they accuse me, / but I give myself to prayer.
/ So they reward me evil for good, / and hatred for love.”
is a time for declaring we don’t deserve what is happening to
I recognize some of these
statements are in specific contexts. For instance, Psalm
7:3-5 is not a declaration of absolute innocence, but a declaration that he hadn’t done what has
been said of him.
Also, I recognize we can say along
with the psalmist, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O
LORD, who could stand?” (Psalm
130:3). Clearly, the psalmists did believe everyone has
sinned and God has the right to send punishment and discipline
However, the reason I bring this up
is not to say some people are utterly innocent. Rather, there is a
for declaring we don’t deserve something happening to us. Too
often, we play the part of Job’s friends when someone is
suffering. They declare they haven’t done something worthy of
their suffering and we respond, “Oh, we all sin. Really, the
question is not whether we’ve done something worthy of
suffering, but whether we’ve done anything worthy of having
peace and safety.” The psalmists would not necessarily say this.
While they recognized retribution
occurred in many cases, they did leave room for saying some turmoil is undeserved. I’m not sure where to draw the lines on this. I simply
noticed it was the case.
If we want our prayers to sing like those of the Psalmists,
the first place we need to start is with our relationship with
God. We need to get to know Him and see Him as the psalmists did.
But at the same time, we need to get to know us, cutting through
the lies, pride, and arrogance we so often hide behind. We need to
see that we are sheep in need of a shepherd, sinners in need of a
savior. When we do we’ll pray like the psalmists did.
to God in the church by Christ Jesus
Church of Christ