The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
To the chief Musician upon Nehiloth, A Psalm of David. Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my meditation.Psalms 5
[Note.—The inscription is supposed to be suspicious. The psalm is a sign of the troublous times of the later monarchy. At the time of the composition of this psalm the adherents of Jehovah's religion were intensely disliked and universally calumniated. The literal rendering of the title is, "To the leader on the flutes." It might also be read, "To the precentor, with flute accompaniments." The word Nehiloth, means bored instruments. Some critics have derived the word from the Chaldee, and made it mean "a swarm of bees," referring to the multitudes reciting the psalm. The use of flutes in the religious services of the Hebrews is proved by 1Samuel 10:5; 1Kings 1:40; Isaiah 30:29.]
1. Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation.
2. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray.
3. My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.
4. For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.
5. The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.
6. Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man.
7. But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.
8. Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before my face.
9. For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.
10. Destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee.
11. But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.
12. For thou, Lord, wilt bless the righteous; with favour wilt thou compass him as with a shield.
Personal Prayer and Praise
This psalm is a direct address to the Almighty. We are not aware that any special instructions as to exact form were ever given to man in view of his approaching God in personal prayer. Reverence was enjoined, but no set form of words was given; every heart was left to find words for itself; whatever best expressed its sorrow and its need, if spoken in truth, was acceptable to God. Taking this psalm as an example of personal waiting upon God—separating it from all merely local circumstances—what may we learn concerning Personal Worship?
Mark the Directness of the speech. No priest stands between the worshipper and his Lord. Every man must state his own case. We pray for one another, but not instead of one another. What can be more beautiful than the picture which is thus represented? God is put in his right place as the throned father listening to each of his subjects as the subject may feel impelled to address him. Every word is charged with tremulous life. No man can pray for another in the same exquisite and vital sense as a man can pray for himself: there are always circumstances in the case of the petitioner which the petitioner alone knows, and even though he cannot throw such circumstances into literal expression he can suggest them all by the very tones of his voice. We mistake the nature of prayer if we think it can be limited by words. Even when we use the words of another in our devotional exercises we throw into their expression accents which are personal and incommunicable. It is in such tones and accents that the true quality of the prayer is found. If prayer consisted only in the utterance of certain words, then the wicked might pray, and pray with great elocutionary effect; but the prayer is hardly in the words at all: it is a subtle fragrance of the soul, an inexpressible something which we understand most nearly by the name of agony. This being the nature of prayer, it follows that whatever priestly mediation there may be in the universe—and that there is such mediation no student of the Bible can deny—the individual himself must stand in a direct relation to God, receiving help from the priest, but not in any degree to obliterate his personality or reduce his spiritual enjoyment.
Then, again, mark the Earnestness of the speech. There is not one formal sentence in it from end to end. The man means what he says. There is no merely literary composition in his address; it is the heart's passion for the time being. This marvellous agony of prayer is a wonderful feature in Old Testament devotion. The suppliant almost insists upon having his own way with God. He is so absolutely sure of the righteousness of his cause that he cannot for a moment doubt that God will instantly reply to him in judgment or in mercy, as the case may be. The Old Testament saints did not argue a case before God in fine balancing of words and arguments, by an elaborate process of giving and taking; they came boldly with a cause about whose genuineness they had no doubt, and as it were insisted upon an immediate reply wholly in their own favour. All earnestness is in a degree associable with narrow-mindedness; not narrow-mindedness in the sense of selfishness or meanness, but in the sense of intensity, the mind being held at such a strain as not to admit of looking to the right hand or to the left, or of suspending its agony even for one instant. Earnestness is but another word for burning. When the soul is on fire it is really in earnest. Who can think of prayer in any other sense? To stand before God at all with sincerity and truthfulness is to be called up to the very highest point of being. At such a moment the man realises all the force and quality of his manhood, all its grandeur, and all the possibilities of its future: by this, indeed, he knows whether the soul is really in the exercise of prayer or not; falling below this exalted consciousness the man may at once conclude that he has not touched the mystery and the enjoyment of true communion with God. This ought to be true of all religious exercises and relationships. To be in the sanctuary ought to be in a state of complete release from every memory and anxiety that can distract the attention or trouble the reverence of the soul. This we know to be almost impossible, having due regard to all the conditions of life; but that which is abstractly impossible may be ideally influential, and may constrain the soul to move upwards towards its perfect realisation.
Having marked the Directness of the speech, and the Earnestness of the prayer, we may next dwell upon the Intelligence which the speaker displays. For example, what a marvellous conception he has of the character of God:—
"For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity. Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man" (Psalm 5:4-6).
The suppliant was therefore by so much a theologian. Without a true conception of the nature of Almighty God, how can prayer be addressed to him? We might be speaking the wrong language, or directing our observations to the wrong point, or invoking judgment in the very act of supplicating mercy. Knowledge, therefore, would seem to be the very basis of prayer. Not knowledge in any scientific sense as involving great ability in analysis or in metaphysical perception and expression; but the knowledge which realises the fatherhood of God and all the willingness and love of his heart; a knowledge, too, that realises the righteousness of God, righteousness being no narrow term, but a word which embraces the most multifarious elements and reconciles them in one noble truth. According to the Psalmist's conception, God is righteous, severe, ineffable in holiness, terrible in judgment. Now a conception of this kind must exalt the devotional feeling of every man who entertains it. It is not possible for the soul to go before such a God with frivolous words or with tones and postures unworthy of the being who is addressed. The God will always make the prayer. According to the soul's conception of the throne that is addressed will be the elevation and reverence and grandeur of the terms that are employed, or if not of the terms in any literary sense, yet of the tones which express the soul's divinest moods. Then the Psalmist has also a clear view of the character and deserts of the wicked; wickedness is something more to him than an error of judgment, or an excusable eccentricity, or a mere vapour which shuts out the best hopes of life. "He who entertains but a superficial conception of wickedness can never in reality pray. He may patronise some deity, or pay ceremonial attention to some ideality, but pray he never can. Only the consciously wicked and helpless man can utter the words, "God, be merciful to me a sinner," with any spiritual effect. We never know God's mercy until we know man's wickedness. When we go before God we must carry with us no excuse either of our own sin or the sins of other people; we must express ourselves in utter abhorrence and detestation, and do this not in words only, but with the very heart and soul. This is really more than negative worship. The soul must be in a very positive mood before it can adopt the language of denunciation and rejection with regard to moral evil. The terms themselves may from a literary point be simply negative; but they never could have been used but for the positive condition of soul in which the speaker found himself at the time of their burning utterance.
If this is the kind of prayer which the Lord will hear, then let us gladly learn, first of all, that one man will be heard. This idea does not degrade the majesty of heaven, but rather exalts it. Our vicious imagination is prone to think that the God of the universe can condescend to listen to nothing but the speech of the universe itself. The Bible finds it infinitely difficult to rid the human mind of this unworthy and debasing sophism. We think we exalt God by coming before him in countless numbers, and with elaborate and costly display of ceremony and action; whereas his very greatness is enlarged to our conception by the fact that though heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain him, he will find for himself a sanctuary in the broken and contrite heart. We must invert our ideas of greatness when we apply them to the divine being, We express our reverence most acceptably when we recognise God as numbering the hairs of our head, caring for the lilies of the field and the fowls of the air, carrying the lambs in his bosom, and condescending to men of low estate. Greatness is a question of quality, not of bulk. It follows that those who are heard and answered in prayer should be enthusiastic in their joy. This is made evident by the eleventh verse:—
"But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee." (Psalm 5:11)
Prayer finds its true sequel in praise. The very act of prayer, when conducted according to the conception already laid down, fills the soul with enthusiasm. The soul feels that it has been engaged in a great exercise and has been ennobled by it, and in withdrawing from the personal interview with the king there is a radiance of face which symbolises a still higher brightness and glory of soul. The only thing that can properly succeed prayer is praise. Every other tone would be an anti-climax. Even shouting for joy would seem to be the true sequence of profound and reverent silence in communion.
Regarding this as an acceptable prayer, we may correct some mistaken notions of worship. For example, it is often said that we may not tell God what he already knows. If this were so there would be no prayer at all, for God knows everything, and therefore no information can be conveyed to him. We do not instruct God by the enumeration of facts; we rather educate our own minds and train them to fulness of survey and accuracy of statement. Education is a very subtle process, and is not all done from the outside. Sometimes the mere utterance of language shows us how imperfectly we are instructed in the tongue which we use. The parent loves to hear the child talk, though the child has nothing to say of the nature of intelligence or information. The utterance has an educational effect upon the speaker himself: so it is in the exercise of prayer: as we begin to enumerate our wants, our necessities grow upon us in number and in force, until imagination takes fire and almost invents a new language for the expression of new consciousness. It is absurd to suppose that we must not tell God the facts of life simply because God already knows them; the use which Jesus Christ made of God's knowledge is of course the right use: it is that our words should be few—not in the sense of number, but should be condensed, expressive, charged with the highest meaning, throbbing with immeasurable intensity of feeling. We are often told that we ought not to make a speech to God in prayer. By this canon the psalm before us never could have been written, for it is of the very nature of a noble religious oration: it is, indeed, a solemn eulogium upon the character and attributes of God. The fact is, the finite must often pray as best it can, now in speech, now in statement, now in a review of life; the one thing which must not be lost is earnestness; so long as that can be kept at the fervid point the soul may allow itself to run on in utterance and praise and supplication and thanksgiving. We are often told that prayer means asking for something. That is a vicious mistake. It is possible to pray without asking for anything in the narrow sense of the term. Prayer includes fellowship with God, close communion with the Spirit of the universe, long speech concerning truth, purity, duty, and heaven. We are more than beggars when we come before the throne of God: we are children, adopted ones, saints, fellow-heirs with Christ; and the soul would be impoverished beyond all conception if it could not dwell with thankfulness and rapture upon the abundance of the divine mercy and the delightfulness of filial communion. Men should never allow themselves to be beaten back and impoverished by the narrow and unworthy criticism which limits prayer to mere petitioning or requisition. That the soul will always have blessings to ask for has been made clear enough by human experience; but the highest request it has to offer is that its own will may be transformed and made coincident with the will of God. All prayers are brought into one complete desire in the words of Jesus Christ in Gethsemane: "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done."
The efficacy of morning prayer.—The efficacy and especial obligation of morning prayer is continually dwelt on by Orientals. Thus in the Talmud, we read, "Every one that eateth and drinketh, and after that says his prayers, of him the Scripture saith, 'But me thou hast cast behind thy back.'" And again, "It is forbidden to a man to go about his business before praying." So too the Koran, "Perform the prayer at the declining of the sun, at the first darkness of the might, and the prayer of day-break, for the prayer of day-break is borne witness to." And so Hafiz, the great Persian lyric poet, addressing the beloved in mystical language, says, "In the morning hours be on thy guard (lest thou be compelled to hear) if this poor stranger make his complaint." Such instances might be multiplied almost without limit. The habit of going to prayer before taking food will explain the words of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:15); the disciples could not have eaten or drunk, for it was still the hour of morning prayer.
For thou, LORD, wilt bless the righteous; with favour wilt thou compass him as with a shield."Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"For thou, Lord, wilt bless the righteous; with favour wilt thou compass him as with a shield."—Psalm 5:12
The word "shield" refers to a shield so long and large as to be meant for one who is of gigantic stature; it was indeed intended not only to protect part of the soldier, but to defend the whole body against harm. It is said of Luther that when he was asked where he would find shelter if his patrons should desert him, answered, "Under the shield of heaven." Notice that it is always character on which the blessing of God rests. God will "bless the righteous," will bless pure character, will not forsake uprightness of soul, will follow with his favour the life that rests in him and looks to him for law as well as for consolation. We need not trouble ourselves about the defence if we make an earnest business of endeavouring to produce the character; in other words, if we endeavour daily with constancy of prayer and practice to become "righteous." The picture of the text is that of a man who is shielded all over,—verily compassed with a shield; we are at liberty to strain the figure, because the meaning is that we are to be defended by God at every point and on every side, from head to foot, behind and before, so that there shall be no place accessible to the enemy. Beautiful is the idea that favour or grace is to be the encompassing shield. There shall be no burden in bearing this defence. It is not duty, it is not discipline, it is not self-immolation that supplies the shield; it is God's grace, God's tenderness, God's gentleness. God is equally strong at every point, by the very necessity of his Godhead; his tenderness is as invincible as his almightiness. His tears are as terrible to the enemy as are his thunderbolts. The soul that reposes in God can say lovingly and gratefully, "Thy gentleness hath made me great." Those who are in Christ are continually exclaiming, "By grace are we saved." We stand and live, we act and suffer, not in the omnipotence of God as an abstract attribute, but in the love of God, which is his almightiness in its most tender and helpful attitude. If the Lord is with us, who can be against us? If we are right, how can we be weak? If righteousness could finally go down in any conflict, God himself would go down in that collapse. The righteous God is the Almighty God. Let us therefore trust him with loving hearts, never questioning either his ability or his willingness to interpose for us according to our varying necessity.