A Primer on Prayer
Prayer, Trust, Justice
One trait that Americans pride themselves on is not asking for help. We have all kinds of phrases that describe people who have success without the assistance of others: a self-made man, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, a lone wolf, a jack of all trades. We have a tendency to see someone who accepts (or needs) the help of someone else as weak, but this morning, we will see David, the mighty king who was known as a great warrior, declaring his utter dependence upon God’s help. David points to prayer as his lifeline to God, and we will seek to learn from David’s attitude.
One of the interesting things about reading the Psalms is seeing the raw emotion in these prayers to God. We often have this notion that when we pray we must sound proper and polished, as though we have to impress God. Certainly, we want to honor the Lord as the great and powerful King that He is, but at the same time, He tells us that we are His children, His friends. As a result, we can speak to God the same way we would a close friend. With a close friend we are able to be who we really are, to be honest about our true feelings, and to pour out our hearts before them. God tells us that we can approach Him in much the same way. David’s prayers in the Psalms usually strike this tone, and that’s the tone that David strikes in our text this morning, Psalm 28.
David’s First Request
David begins his prayer by begging for God to hear him.
I pray to you, O Lord, my rock. Do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you are silent,
I might as well give up and die. 2 Listen to my prayer for mercy as I cry out to you for help, as I lift my hands toward your holy sanctuary. (Psalm 28:1-2, NLT)
David is begging the Lord to hear his cry because he knows that his only hope is for God to intervene. Notice what he says at the end of verse 1: “…if you are silent, I might as well give up and die.” These words seem a little melodramatic, but I don’t think David was overstating things. David recognized that his only hope in all of life was for God to sustain him and intervene on his behalf. He knew that without God, he had no hope.
This is not the kind of prayer you would expect a powerful king to pray. Often, when people rise to a position of authority they begin to believe that they are the source of their power and influence. We sometimes say that these people are beginning to “believe their own press.” A person in a position of power who has lost perspective no longer listens to advisors and begins to believe they don’t need anyone else. For many in positions of authority, that includes not needing God.
We see this arrogant attitude in King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. He looked out over his kingdom and became proud of what he had accomplished. He failed to see that it was God who had given him success. So God reminded Nebuchadnezzar of his dependence upon Him by causing him to go insane and become like a beast of the field for a time. Eventually Nebuchadnezzar (who was not a Jew, but rather, a Babylonian!) came to recognize that he was utterly and completely dependent upon God.
In the book of Acts we see a similar story involving King Herod Agrippa. After speaking to the people, they declared that he was like a god. Herod apparently saw nothing wrong with such a declaration, and so the one true God caused him to die—being eaten by worms.
Both of these kings fell into the trap of thinking of themselves as self-sufficient, having no need for God. We sometimes fall into the same trap—when things are going well, or when we are experiencing success, we fail to recognize our need for God. We might even begin to “believe our own press” and think that all the good things in our lives are a result of our skills, hard work, intelligence, or power. David didn’t fall into this trap, however—he understood that the only power and abilities he had were those God had given to Him, so He rightly confessed his dependence upon God.
We may admire this trait in David, and might even agree that we are dependent upon God, but we have a tendency to live like we don’t need Him. Though we declare that we need the Lord above all, we don’t seek Him like David does. In our daily lives we don’t even think about seeking the Lord, and in a crisis we turn to God as a last resort. The way we live shows that our confidence is found in something other than the Lord.
I suspect this is the reason that so many of us struggle with prayer—we don’t really believe that we need God’s help. It is easy to see whether we believe this or not; all we need to do is look at our first reaction in any sort of difficult situation. When we don’t feel well where do we turn first: medicines, or the doctor, or do we ask for God to help? When we are faced with a difficult financial situation, do we ask God for wisdom and provision, or do we pull out the credit card or raid the savings account? When we have an issue with another person do we sit and stew about the best way to handle it, do we turn to our friends for advice, or do we ask God’s to show us what to do? If, like David, we believed that if we do not hear from the Lord then we might as well die, we would be people who prayed with much greater devotion and frequency. No matter what we are facing, whether it is a crisis or another “normal” day, we need to recognize that our strength is found in God alone and work to make prayer our first resort, rather than our last resort.
David recognized his absolute need for God, but he also expressed a concern that God may not answer him. It is for this reason that he pleads for God to not turn a deaf ear to him (to ignore him). In the NIV, the second half of verse 1 says, “…for if you remain silent…” If this is what David said, then it would indicate that he has been praying for God to act for some time, but so far he has not seen an answer. As a result, David begs for God to act. The Lord’s silence did not cause David to doubt His existence or His love for him, but rather it drove David to pray even more fervently.
This is another reason we sometimes fail to pray as we should—we don’t think our prayers will make a difference. To some degree, this is understandable; we can’t see God, and so when He doesn’t answer our prayers immediately, it is very easy to conclude that God isn’t listening. What we must remember is that God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the time frame that we think He should—though His timing is perfect.
It is not a sin to wonder if our prayers are getting through—even David seemed to ask that question. The issue is how we respond to God’s apparent silence. David’s response was to just pray more fervently. We have a tendency to respond by just giving up and withdrawing from God.
What we need to understand is that God has a reason for being silent. It may be because the time is not right, it might be because He wants to teach us something, it might be because we are praying for the wrong thing, or it might even be that God is answering our prayer in a different way than we expected and we just don’t see it. We should ask ourselves (and God) these questions, but we must continue to pray. Jesus, during his ministry on earth, repeatedly commended those who continued praying, even when God didn’t answer them immediately. We don’t pray persistently as a way of “wearing God down”, but we continue to come to God in prayer, believing that He has a plan. The more time we spend with Him, the more we will be able to understand what He is doing.
David’s Second Request
So far, we have looked at David’s attitude in prayer, and his first request to God—which is for God to hear him. But now we turn our attention to David’s second request—justice.
Do not drag me away with the wicked—with those who do evil—those who speak friendly words to their neighbors while planning evil in their hearts. 4 Give them the punishment they so richly deserve! Measure it out in proportion to their wickedness. Pay them back for all their evil deeds! Give them a taste of what they have done to others. 5 They care nothing for what the Lord has done or for what his hands have made. So he will tear them down, and they will never be rebuilt! (Psalm 28:3-5, NLT)
David’s prayer in verses 3-5 is intense—he prays that God would not let him be dragged away with the wicked and then he prays that God would punish the wicked, giving them what they deserve. He asks God to pay them back for their evil deeds and to let them taste the pain they have caused others.
There is a part of us that really resonates with what David is asking. At some time or another, most of us have probably wanted to pray a prayer like this about someone in our lives. While on the one hand we cheer as David prays for the wicked to be punished, there’s another part of us that feels uncomfortable with praying for others to be punished. So what does David’s prayer teach us? Is it ok to pray for God to punish others?
Before we can answer that question, there are a few things we need to notice. The first is that David is angry because they are not honoring God. His anger is not primarily about his own discomfort or a personal vendetta. David recognizes that these people have no respect for God and so he prays that God would punish them. The second thing we need to see is that David is not praying for vengeance, but for God to act justly. We have a tendency to pray that God would give us the opportunity to stick it to those who have hurt us, but that’s vengeance, and isn’t David’s prayer. His prayer is that God would do what is fair and give the wicked the punishment they deserve.
It is not wrong to be angry about sin—we should be angry about people who are living in opposition to God, and we should be angry about the seeming injustices in the world. The question is where does our anger lead? Does it cause us to seek revenge, or does it trust God to do what is right? Similarly, it isn’t wrong to pray for justice, but it becomes a problem when our prayers for justice prevent us from moving on, and working toward forgiveness. We can move on because we know justice will be served—God will not allow evil to go unpunished.
Practically speaking, this means that when someone says something that hurts us, it isn’t wrong to ask God to help them understand the hurt they’ve caused, but we shouldn’t indulge fantasies about how we might hurt them the same way. It isn’t wrong to pray that the person who has cheated us would be found out and made to make restitution, but we should also pray that God might use this situation to cause them to see their need for Him. The key is that we should pray for justice, not vengeance, and for restoration, not destruction.
When we get to verse 6, the tone of the psalm abruptly shifts gears. The first five verses are intense, pleading with God, and the last four are focused on praising Him.
Praise the Lord! For he has heard my cry for mercy. 7 The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. 8 The Lord gives his people strength.
He is a safe fortress for his anointed king. 9 Save your people! Bless Israel, your special possession.Lead them like a shepherd, and carry them in your arms forever. (Psalm 28:6-9, NLT)
It is interesting how quickly the tone changes when we get to verse 6. Some people conclude that verses 6 and following were written some time after verses 1-5 because David says that “He has heard my cry for mercy.” These people conclude that David finished writing the psalm after he saw how God had responded to his prayer. This makes sense, but I think there is another possibility. It’s possible that after pouring his heart out before the Lord, David was reminded of God’s faithfulness and responded with praise, knowing that even though God had not yet intervened in the situation, he knew he had been heard by God, and that he trusted God to act.
I favor this interpretation (though it doesn’t really matter which one is correct) because it seems to fit with my own experience in prayer. I often find that when I come to the Lord and pour out my heart before Him, He works in me to change my heart to trust in Him more deeply. As I confess to the Lord my worry, He gives me the peace of knowing His faithfulness. As I admit to God my anger, I find that He helps me to see things from a different perspective, and He reminds me of my own sinfulness. I leave my prayer praising God, even though my situation hasn’t yet changed. I think it’s possible that David’s attitude could change in the middle of his prayer because God reminded him of His character. When we draw close to the Lord in prayer, we can experience peace, even before our situation has changed. We experience peace not because God has changed our circumstances, but because God has changed us.
As we see David’s shift in focus, there is an important lesson for us to learn—we should cultivate an attitude of thankfulness in our prayers. Jesus talks about this in Luke 17. Jesus healed ten lepers and they all left, eager to get on with their newly-restored lives. Only one of the lepers went back to Jesus to thank Him for what He had done. Jesus chastised the other nine, who were so focused on themselves that they failed to remember who had healed them. We need to be like the one leper, rather than the other nine.
We often spend all of our time asking God for things and never get around to praising God for who He is and what He’s done. Even when God does answer our prayers, we are so focused on ourselves that we never take time to express our gratitude.
It’s important to thank God for answered prayer, but we should express gratitude to God even when it feels like He isn’t answering our prayers. The source of our gratitude is not in our situation, but in the character of God. Even when it feels like the world is caving in around us, we can continue to thank God for His promises—that He will never leave us or forsake us and that He will ultimately work all things for good—because we know He will keep them. The way for us to be grateful in prayer is to focus on who God is rather than on what He can give us. Like David, we can praise God even before He has done anything, because we are confident He is listening and He cares for us.
It isn’t wrong to ask for God to do things, but we must be careful to maintain balance. We should not let our prayers focus only on asking God for things, but we should make time to praise God: for who He is, the way He provides for us, and the ways He has answered our prayers. One way to help do this is to keep a prayer journal, recording the requests you make of the Lord and then watching for how God answers that request. Every so often, go back and look at how your prayers have been answered. You will likely find that God doesn’t always answer your prayers in the way you thought He would, but His way really was best. Use this journal as a reminder of why you should be grateful, and how you can trust Him to do what is best—especially in the times when it feels like He is silent.
In David’s prayer in Psalm 28, we see the whole gamut of emotions. We see David declaring his utter dependence upon God. We see his frustration, feeling as though the Lord is silent and is not answering his prayers. We see David crying out for justice against those who have rejected (rebelled against or ignored) the Lord, and we see a remarkable transformation as David comes to the realization that God does hear us, care for us, and intervene on our behalf.
We see several principles about how to pray by looking at the way David prayed in these verses.
Be honest with God. We don’t have to pray with cleaned up feelings. We don’t have to appear holy and righteous when we go before the Lord—He knows better! When we are struggling with some issue, we should be honest about it with God—even if we are struggling with being angry with Him. God is not afraid of our honest feelings. In fact, sometimes the first step in Him helping us to deal with our feelings is to get us to admit them to ourselves.
Keep praying. It seems like David did not get an answer to his prayer right away. Often, God doesn’t answer our prayers right away. When we don’t get an immediate answer from the Lord we have two options: we can either pull away from Him, concluding that He doesn’t care, or we can draw closer to Him and continue to present our requests to Him, believing that He hears us and will answer us in His perfect time. He has made it clear that He will not turn a deaf ear toward us.
Watch for answered prayer. We must work to be people who see God’s action in the world around us. Look for the blessings that God has given to us. Look for the ways He has been faithful in the past. See the ways that God has answered our prayers, and then turn back to praise Him! We teach children to say thank you because it shows respect for others and prevents our children from taking things for granted. The same principle applies with the Lord. As we take the time to thank Him, we will come to see just how much He does for us. And as we see how God has been faithful in the past it will give us confidence that He will be faithful in the future.
Remember that prayer is a process. We may not always feel like praying—and sometimes we may feel like withdrawing from the Lord—but like David, we will find that as we draw close to God, we receive comfort and are reminded of His faithfulness. We should strive to pray to God in all circumstances—especially in the times when we don’t feel like it.
Psalm 28 reminds us that prayer is a lifeline for believers. It’s kind of like oxygen for a SCUBA diver. A diver checks and rechecks his tanks because he knows he will die without that oxygen. That’s the way prayer is for us. Do you feel starved for oxygen in your spiritual life right now? Are things getting confusing in your life? Do you feel panic rising? If so, then it’s time to refill your tank. David reminds us that the best way to keep our tanks full is by turning to God in prayer in every area of our lives. Prayer should not be a burden or a chore to the Christian, but it should be the lifeline we cling to—because without it we cannot survive.