This psalm was published under the title of a prayer of David; not as if David sung all his prayers, but into some of his songs he inserted prayers; for a psalm will admit the expressions of any pious and devout affections. But it is observable how very plain the language of this psalm is, and how little there is in it of poetic flights or figures, in comparison with some other psalms; for the flourishes of wit are not the proper ornaments of prayer. Now here we may observe,
I. The petitions he puts up to God. It is true, prayer accidentally may preach, but it is most fit that (as it is in this prayer) every passage should be directed to God, for such is the nature of prayer as it is here described (Ps. 86:4): Unto thee, O Lord! do I lift up my soul, as he had said Ps. 25:1. In all the parts of prayer the soul must ascend upon the wings of faith and holy desire, and be lifted up to God, to meet the communications of his grace, and in an expectation raised very high of great things from him. 1. He begs that God would give a gracious audience to his prayers (Ps. 86:1): Bow down thy ear, O Lord! hear me. When God hears our prayers it is fitly said that he bows down his ear to them, for it is admirable condescension in God that he is pleased to take notice of such mean creatures as we are and such defective prayers as ours are. He repeats this again (Ps. 86:6): “Give ear, O Lord! unto my prayer, a favourable ear, though it be whispered, though it be stammered; attend to the voice of my supplications.” Not that God needs to have his affection stirred up by any thing that we can say; but thus we must express our desire of his favour. The Son of David spoke it with assurance and pleasure (John 11:41, 42), Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me; and I know that thou hearest me always. 2. He begs that God would take him under his special protection, and so be the author of his salvation (Ps. 86:2): Preserve my soul; save thy servant. It was David’s soul that was God’s servant; for those only serve God acceptably that serve him with their spirits. David’s concern is about his soul; if we understand it of his natural life, it teaches us that the best self-preservation is to commit ourselves to God’s keeping and by faith and prayer to make our Creator our preserver. But it may be understood of his spiritual life, the life of the soul as distinct from the body: “Preserve my soul from that one evil and dangerous thing to souls, even from sin; preserve my soul, and so save me.” All those whom God will save he preserves, and will preserve them to his heavenly kingdom. 3. He begs that God would look upon him with an eye of pity and compassion (Ps. 86:3): Be merciful to me, O Lord! It is mercy in God to pardon our sins and to help us out of our distresses; both these are included in this prayer, God be merciful to me. “Men show no mercy; we ourselves deserve no mercy, but, Lord, for mercy-sake, be merciful unto me.” 4. He begs that God would fill him with inward comfort (Ps. 86:4): Rejoice the soul of thy servant. It is God only that can put gladness into the heart and make the soul to rejoice, and then, and not till then, the joy is full; and, as it is the duty of those who are God’s servants to serve him with gladness, so it is their privilege to be filled with joy and peace in believing, and they may in faith pray, not only that God will preserve their souls, but that he will rejoice their souls, and the joy of the Lord will be their strength. Observe, When he prays, Rejoice my soul, he adds, For unto thee do I lift up my soul. Then we may expect comfort from God when we take care to keep up our communion with God: prayer is the nurse of spiritual joy.
II. The pleas with which he enforces these petitions. 1. He pleads his relation to God and interest in him: “Thou art my God, to whom I have devoted myself, and on whom I depend, and I am thy servant (Ps. 86:2), in subjection to thee, and therefore looking for protection from thee.” 2. He pleads his distress: “Hear me, for I am poor and needy, therefore I want thy help, therefore none else will hear me.” God is the poor man’s King, whose glory it is to save the souls of the needy; those who are poor in spirit, who see themselves empty and necessitous, are most welcome to the God of all grace. 3. He pleads God’s good will towards all that seek him (Ps. 86:5): “To thee do I lift up my soul in desire and expectation; for thou, Lord, art good;” and whither should beggars go but to the door of the good house-keeper? The goodness of God’s nature is a great encouragement to us in all our addresses to him. His goodness appears in two things, giving and forgiving. (1.) He is a sin-pardoning God; not only he can forgive, but he is ready to forgive, more ready to forgive than we are to repent. I said, I will confess, and thou forgavest, Ps. 32:5. (2.) He is a prayer-hearing God; he is plenteous in mercy, very full, and very free, both rich and liberal unto all those that call upon him; he has wherewithal to supply all their needs and is openhanded in granting that supply. 4. He pleads God’s good work in himself, by which he had qualified him for the tokens of his favour. Three things were wrought in him by divine grace, which he looked upon as earnests of all good:—(1.) A conformity to God (Ps. 86:2): I am holy, therefore preserve my soul; for those whom the Spirit sanctifies he will preserve. He does not say this in pride and vain glory, but with humble thankfulness to God. I am one whom thou favourest (so the margin reads it), whom thou hast set apart for thyself. If God has begun a good work of grace in us, we must own that the time was a time of love. Then was I in his eyes as one that found favour, and whom God hath taken into his favour he will take under his protection. All his saints are in thy hand, Deut. 33:3. Observe, I am needy (Ps. 86:1), yet I am holy (Ps. 86:2), holy and yet needy, poor in the world, but rich in faith. Those who preserve their purity in their greatest poverty may assure themselves that God will preserve their comforts, will preserve their souls. (2.) A confidence in God: Save thy servant that trusteth in thee. Those that are holy must nevertheless not trust in themselves, nor in their own righteousness, but only in God and his grace. Those that trust in God may expect salvation from him. (3.) A disposition to communion with God. He hopes God will answer his prayers, because he had inclined him to pray. [1.] To be constant in prayer: I cry unto thee daily, and all the day, Ps. 86:3. It is thus our duty to pray always, without ceasing, and to continue instant in prayer; and then we may hope to have our prayers heard which we make in the time of trouble, if we have made conscience of the duty at other times, at all times. It is comfortable if an affliction finds the wheels of prayer a-going, and that hey are not then to be set a-going. [2.] To be inward with God in prayer, to lift up his soul to him, Ps. 86:4. Then we may hope that God will meet us with his mercies, when we in our prayers send forth our souls as it were to meet him. [3.] To be in a special manner earnest with God in prayer when he was in affliction (Ps. 86:7): “In the day of my trouble, whatever others do, I will call upon thee, and commit my case to thee, for thou wilt hear and answer me, and I shall not seek in vain, as those did who cried, O Baal! hear us; but there was no voice, nor any that regarded,” 1 Kgs. 18:29.
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