From My Soul Waits
In the day of my trouble I call on thee, for thou dost answer me. (v. 7)
At the start of Psalm 86, we are inclined to think we are reading an ordinary cry of lament. The psalmist is in some kind of trouble and turns to the Lord for assistance. But as we read further, we encounter a mixture of petition and praise that goes on through the entire psalm. The psalmist’s situation may be dire, but good things have happened as well. I am poor and needy; thou art good and forgiving, (vv. 1, 5). I call on thee; thou dost answer me, (v. 7). Teach me thy way; thou, Lord, hast helped and comforted me, (vv. 11, 17). The psalm goes back and forth between calling out to God in need, and thanking God for needs that have already been met. One way to approach Psalm 86 is as the prayer of a fairly ordinary life, one with which we are all familiar.
There is no question the psalmist is in pain and urgently trying to get God’s attention. The opening seven verses all sound like a soul urgently trying to get God’s attention: incline your ear; preserve my life; you are my God; save your servant; be gracious; gladden my soul; give ear, O Lord. But rather suddenly, with verse 8, the tone of voice is transformed, as if the psalmist begins to look at things from an entirely different perspective, namely God’s: there is none like you; there are no works like yours; you art great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. Instead of asking for deliverance, now the psalmist gives praise: I give thanks to you; I will glorify your name. Even when the psalmist returns to his complaint in verse 14, the final four verses are a yin and yang of petition and praise, of help-mes and thank-yous.
Does this all sound somewhat familiar? Psalm 86 is less a formula for prayer than a description of a relationship – a relationship between God and God’s servant. Most all of us can identify with the ups and downs in this psalm, and with the rapidity with which we make those descents and ascents. A Help me, God, can be prayed in the same breath as a Thank you, Lord, because each is part of a genuine relationship.
Verses 11 and 12 sit at the core of the psalm: “Unite my heart to fear thy name. I will give thanks to thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart.” Both our cries for help, and our thanksgiving for the help already rendered, are united in a heart that is wholly God’s to begin with. In the end, the ease with which the psalmist moves back and forth between petition and praise is rooted in the stability of his relationship with God. The psalmist is as confident in God’s love as he is dependent upon it. Need and trust – two ends of the same relationship of love.
From The Fathers
The only true divine healer of human sickness, the holy comforter of the soul when it is ill, is the Word of the Father. Wisdom, the Word of the Father, who created human beings, concerns himself with the whole creation, and as the physician of the whole person heals both body and soul. (Clement of Alexandria)
Sometimes, Lord, I feel like two different people, complaining one minute and thankful the next.
No surprise to you, I suppose, because you seem to listen to both.
So, unite my heart, too, as the psalmist asked, so that, in whatever state I am,
I will be wholly yours.