How to Pray
Usually when we want to discover what the scripture says we take a magnifying glass and really get in there for a closer look at the text. Today we're going to do just the opposite. Considering the issue of prayer, we're going to use the text for today and instead of taking a closer look we're going to take a further look. So, let's begin by looking at these Psalms and then keep backing away from them until we learn a little something about prayer.
For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah. 1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. 5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. 6 My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar. 7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. 8 By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life. 9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” 10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 11 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. 1 Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation. Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked. 2 You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? 3 Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. 4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. 5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
The Story Behind the Story
The Story Behind the Story
Structure — three sections with repeated refrain
First Let's take a look at what the Psalm itself has to say. Don't overlook the footnote included in your Bible right at the beginning. In my NIV Bible the note says “In many Hebrew manuscripts Psalms 42 and 43 constitute one psalm.” How or why the numbering came to be that separated these psalms into two I don't know; but for us to see the whole picture we have to reconnect these psalms and look at them together. This is why we are reading both of them together here this morning. There are three sections to this psalm. We can tell that by the common refrain that separates the sections from one another. You can see that refrain in Verse 5, in verse 11, and again in chapter 43:5.
Sons of Korah — Levites from Gath captured and exiled to Aram
What's the context for this psalm? Who wrote it and what were the circumstances of it's writing? The title of the psalm attributes it to being written by a Levite; specifically someone who is among the “sons of Korah.” These were Levites who had specific temple duties. And now this person is exiled from his temple duties that he loved so much. What's the nature of his exile? Why is he banished? What happened here? The sons of Korah worked in the temple but they did not live in Jerusalem. Keep a finger in Psalm 42 and flip back with me to Joshua 21. In this section of scripture the land of Palestine is being divided up among the tribes of Israel. Chapter 21 describes the various lands where the Levites are to live. Verse 4 says, “The first lot came out for the Kohathites, clan by clan. (these are the sons of Korah) The Levites who were descendants of Aaron the priest were allotted thirteen towns from the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin.” Down to verse 9, “From the tribes of Judah and Simeon they allotted the following towns by name...” and I won't read them off or plot them on a map for you today. But many of these towns were directly west of Jerusalem in a region known as Gath. That's where the sons of Korah lived. Now flip up with me to 2 Kings 12. Look at verse 17, “About this time Hazael king of Aram went up and attacked Gath and captured it. Then he turned to attack Jerusalem.” The king of Aram attacks Israel. Aram is to the north of Israel, Gath is to the west. He's surrounding Jerusalem. And he nearly captures Jerusalem but King Joash pays him off by emptying the temple treasury. In those days when a foreign power attacked, they did not kill everybody in the land they attacked, but they took hostages who were then brought into exile and made to be servants. And these sons of Korah lived right in the path of this foreign invasion. This is the context for psalms 42-43.
Verses 1-4 make up the first section of the psalm and paint the picture for us even further. Verse 4 tells us that the psalmist desires once again to be home performing his temple duties by “leading the procession to the house of God.” Each of the three sections echoes the hints that the psalmist is taken from his home and is exiled among a foreign nation. Verse 3 says, “men say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'” In the second section we see it in verse 9, “I say to God my Rock, 'Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?'” And in the third section we see it in 43:1, “Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men.” With each time that the psalmist repeats his case there is a move from complete hopelessness to trust in God for salvation. This sense is shown in the repeated refrain that comes three times through the psalm. The psalmist acknowledges his heavy and saddened soul because he longs for the presence of God again, but consistently concludes that he will trust God and put is hope in God resulting in praise for the God that will save him. We see this hope stated again in the third section beginning at 43:3, “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight.”
symmetry — psalm centers on 42:6
“my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.”
There's one more detail I want us to see in these psalms. In Hebrew literature, each verse constitutes a sentence in the Hebrew language. So sometimes it can be important for us to pay attention to verse numbers. The repeated refrain of this psalm is one verse, therefore one sentence. Sections one and three are each four verses. But the middle section have five verses. There's an extra sentence in that middle section. There are various forms of Hebrew poetry. This particular psalm happens to be symmetrical. You know what it means for something to have symmetry? It means that the psalm is in some sense balanced on the ends; that the beginning and end somehow mirrors itself. The main point of the psalm then hangs in the middle where it all comes together. It's that extra verse in the middle section that breaks from the pattern where we find the main point. It's verse 6, “my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.” Mount Hermon, by the way, is on the northern boarder of Israel; right against the land of Aram, where this psalmist was possible exiled to. The psalmist again acknowledges his downcast soul and says “therefore I will remember you” The solution to his problem, the source of his his hope is to remember God. But what specifically about God is he remembering? Hold that thought; we'll get back to it.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Now let's shift gears a bit. To pull some insight and meaning from this psalm we don't need to look at it closer, but look farther. Like close-up photographs, maybe the picture of the psalms make more sense the further we back away and look at more of the surroundings. So let's look again at psalms 42 and 43 and start to back away and see what's there. Look at your Bible. Right above where it says Psalm 42 what does it say? It says “Book II: Psalms 42-72.” The psalms are divided into five books. Each of the five books ends with a common theme. They all end with a verse that says “Praise be to the Lord” and some form of “Amen and Amen.” Those verses signal us that a new book of psalms is coming. But why did the Israelites divide the psalms into five books? What was the reason for this arrangement?
Psalms — prayers of Israel separated into five books
To begin to answer that question we need to recognize that for Israel the psalms were not just songs and not just poetry. For God's old testament people the psalms were prayers. These five books of psalms were Israel's prayer book. This is how for centuries people expressed themselves to God. The psalms were how they prayed. Tucked right in the middle of our Bibles are the secrets of prayer; the instructions for how we are to express ourselves to God; of how we are to pray to him. It's all there. There are psalms of praise, psalms of thanksgiving, psalms of lament, psalms of hope, psalms of confession. Everything is here. You know, throughout the centuries there have been different fads of prayer. In our own time there has been the popularity of what is called dunamus prayer literally meaning “power prayer.” And then more recently there has been the prayer of Jabez with all it's accompanying paraphernalia such as the prayer of Jabez journal, the prayer of Jabez Bible, the prayer of Jabez coffee mug, the prayer of Jabez key chain, and the prayer of Jabez teeshirt. Israel expressed itself to God by praying the psalms. Let's figure out what that means.
Donald Miller — five books of Psalms corresponds to the five books of law
There are five books of prayers that make up the psalms. Author Donald Miller plays around with the idea that the five books of the psalms are corresponding responses to the five books of the law. For Old Testament Israel there were five books of the law. And then there were five books of prayer to give the people a proper expression of response back to God. There certainly is not any kind of grid or chart that matches up each individual psalm with a particular section of the first five books of the Bible. It just doesn't work that way.
But the idea is fun to play with and it serves to illustrate the point we are going after this morning. Supposing that book II of the Psalms constitutes a prayer of response to the second book of the Bible. Exodus 1 says,
8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.
3 Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.
Remember the question we left with the psalmist from verse 6, “My soul is downcast withing me; therefore I will remember you.” We asked what specifically is the psalmist remembering? He remembers God's salvation from Egypt. He remembers that the Israelites were once all slaves, but God rescued them from death and gave them new life.
prayer is answering speech — God speaks first, and the prayers of his people are responses to God
the first act of any prayer ought to be listening; or to say it another way, the first act of any prayer ought to be remembering
Do you see the point? Prayer for the Israelites is answering speech. God speaks first, and the prayers of his people are responses to that. God moves first and his people's prayers are in response to God's action. Prayer is answering speech. Prayer like this acknowledges that God gets the first word; that God gets to make the first move. The first act of any prayer ought to be listening. Or to say it another way, the first act of any prayer ought to be remembering; remembering who God is; remembering what God has done.
It's funny, I guess I always assumed in my upbringing that when I folded my hands and closed my eyes and started with those words, “dear God...” that I was somehow initiating the conversation; that i was the one getting things started. In reality, our prayers are responses to a God that spoke to us first. Prayer is answering speech. I suppose this shouldn't come as such a surprise. Everything else we believe about God confirms it. The Bible begins with the words, “and God said...” God spoke first. Look at the order for this worship service. What's the first thing that we stand and do together? It's the call to worship. What is that? It's God's words inviting us into his presence. When we gather for worship God gets the first word. God goes first. In this church we have the tradition of baptizing infant children specifically because we believe that in our covenant relationship with God, it is God who moves first; God who speaks first, even before we know or understand it ourselves. When the nation of Israel was born who spoke first, God or Abram? When Moses approached the burning bush who spoke first God or Moses? Everything we see about God and believe about God shows us that God always goes first; God always speaks first. Why then should prayer be any different? Why do we treat prayer as though it were something that we get started and that somehow God is the one who answers prayer. Sometimes people get so hung up on God answering prayer. We try to figure out how it is that God answers prayer, when God answers prayer, what possible answers God gives to prayer. It is certainly true that our prayers move God, but we mustn't forget that God is the one who always speaks first. God is always the one who acts and moves first. So when we pray isn't it really we who are doing the answering? Aren't our prayers—all of our prayers—answers to God; responses to God? Isn't God the one who started this covenant relationship with us in the first place? Isn't God always the one to go first, and everything we ever say to God is in response?
A New Look at Prayer
A New Look at Prayer
What, then, does this kind of prayer look like? If you and I are to understand that God speaks first and all out prayers are in fact a response back to God; that our prayers are answering speech; then how should those prayers be? How should we pray? There are volumes of useful information on this subject and we can't possibly examine all of it here today, so let's go back to where we started. Let's look at the Psalms. Let's see what the Psalms can tell us about how prayer can be something that answers to God. Let's see what the psalms can teach us about how our prayers can intentionally acknowledge that God has spoken first and our prayers are simply a reply back to him.
Perhaps many of you are familiar with the ACTS acronym for prayer. This is the model of prayer that suggests balanced prayer diet includes elements of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication...the first letters of each word spelling out the word ACTS. Let's borrow the same acronym but apply it to the basic format of the psalm and see what we get. Now I need to give a disclaimer here that while the psalms are viewed as Israel's prayers, they are also examples of Hebrew poetry. And therefore, this is in no way a rigid, one-size-fits-all type of format for the psalms. There are many psalms that deviate from this pattern altogether, so please don't think you can tag all 150 psalms with these exact headings. But this at least gives us a way of looking at the psalms and tagging what we see there as a way of understanding how the psalms are expressions of prayer to God.
Address — naming God according to his excellent qualities
So here we go. Using the word ACTS for our acronym, we first identify that prayer psalms have sections of address. The psalms are addressed to God. Maybe you and I typically address our prayers with a simple, “dear God...” or “heavenly father...” but when the psalms address God, they do so in a way that acknowledges God's qualities. Look at what Psalm 42 says about who God is in the way that the prayer addresses God. Verse 2, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” And verse 9, “I say to God my Rock.” Throughout the Psalms God is addressed as a fortress, a stronghold, our protector, provider, the shade at our side, the wing that covers us. God is addressed by his excellent qualities. At mealtimes my children pray a simple prayer that addresses God in this same way. It starts out like this, “God is great, God is good...” a prayer that addresses God for who he is.
Complaint — naming a situation in which God is needed
The next thing we find in a psalm prayer is a condition, or complaint. The psalmist lays out a situation in which God is needed. In Psalm 42 we find this in verses 2 and 3, “When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'” And again in verse 9, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me.” These are words of complaint. But notice what these words are really expressing. The psalmist is saying here, “I need you God.” Often this section of prayer that states a condition of needing God does not come as an immediate situation. But often the psalms express this by recalling a time from Israel's history when God was needed. For example, Psalm 66 says, “He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot.” This section of prayer recalls specific situations in which God was or is needed.
Trust — acknowledging that God is faithful
Intricately tied together with this is the next piece we find: trust. A psalm never lodges a complaint to God without also expressing a measure of trust in God to go along with it. So the psalmist can write in Psalm 42, “Why have you forgotten me?” but it is immediately followed in the next verses by saying, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” The prayers of Israel always acknowledged that God is in control and that they trusted in his faithfulness. The prayers of the psalms always resonate with hope. Even the deepest cries for help to the Lord such as we see in Psalm 22 echo with hope as well. Where David writes, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them...you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you.” Whether in our prayers we empty our own petitions before God or we recall times of need in the past before the LORD, words of trust and hope must always accompany them.
Salvation — declaring praise and hope for deliverance and redemption
And finally the prayers of the psalms include words of salvation. The prayers of Israel declared praise to God for the salvation that he brings. Once again we see this in Psalm 43 where it says in verses 3 and 4, “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.” The prayers of Israel express assurance that God will be there for them and will guide his children according to his good plan. It is good when our prayers are filled with praise for God, not just our shopping list of what we would like God to do for us. There is so much that we can praise him for. There is so much that we can thank God for. Our prayers should be filled with praise because God brings us salvation. He gives us new life. And he gives us freedom to live for him.
So in this week when you take time to pray, try this. Open your Bible to the Psalms and let these ancient prayers that God's people have been using for thousands of years be your guide as you talk with God. And maybe you'll find this week that instead of God doing what you ask of him, maybe it's you who starts doing what God asks of you. And maybe the point here isn't for us to get God to do what we want, but for God to get us to do what he wants. And maybe God's powerful and moving response to our prayers is not so much him answering us as it it is us being drawn by God closer to the center of his holy, divine will and purpose for our lives and for this world. May God bless us as we pray. And may God be blessed as we pray.