Psalm 86 is classified by most scholars as a psalm of individual lament, in which an individual expresses the pain of his present condition and seeks relief from God.
However, most of the elements of complaint are in the early part of the psalm, with only verse 14 and verse 17 from our selection expressing concern over the psalmist's circumstances, and even in those places there is no explicit mention of pain that has been experienced. Verses 11-17 thus on their own read more as an expression of commitment based on the experience of God's past help (verses 12-13, 17) and on the knowledge of God's character (verses 13, 15-16). The element of petition is still present, however, in the final two verses.
The opening petition, "Teach me your way, O LORD," expresses a common important sentiment in the psalms (see examples, 25:4 and 27:11). The tacit basis of the petition is that God's way is not necessarily obvious and hence requires teaching in order to know it. The line that follows, "that I may walk in your truth," is a statement of commitment. The psalmist and we desire to know God's way not out of curiosity but so that we may actually live it out. "Truth" is used in the second line not to mean anything different than God's way but to affirm that God's way is truth. We might well be reminded at this point of Christ's claim to be "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). The word "life" does not appear in the NRSV's translation in this passage, but life is certainly an issue in verse 13, and the Hebrew word translated as "soul" in verse 13 is translated "life" in verse 2 (nefesh).
The last line of verse 11 combines the elements of petition and commitment: "Give me an undivided heart to revere your name." The tacit basis of the petition is again important: Just as the psalmist recognizes that we are in need of teaching, so he recognizes that very often our hearts are divided and thus unable to walk in God's way. There is not the burden of sin here felt in Psalm 51:10's plea for God to "create in me a clean heart," but the sentiment is the same.
The psalmist does not dwell on the need for an undivided heart, for in the very next line he expresses thanks to God "with my whole heart" (verse 12). There is a simple confidence that his prayer for an undivided heart is answered. In fact, there is a bold magnification of the petition from verse 11, because whereas in verse 11 he had asked merely to "revere" God's name, here in verse 12 his claim is much stronger: "I will glorify your name forever." Not only has he moved from revering to glorifying, but the addition of "forever" makes the return of thanks all the more fervent. It is as strong a statement of commitment as one can imagine. Can we make the claim our own?
Verse 13 provides the foundation for the thanksgiving, petitions, and commitment expressed in verse 11-12: "For great is your steadfast love toward me." "Steadfast love" translates the single Hebrew word khesed. The Hebrew meaning is difficult to convey with any single English expression, and thus we see different English Bibles using a variety of translations in different contexts: steadfast love, lovingkindness, love, kindness, mercy, loyalty, favor, devotion, goodness, and still others. The range of translations gives a sense of the broad meaning of the word. For the psalmist here, it is a confession of and proclamation of his fundamental relationship with God, and especially of the blessing he has received from that relationship.
The second half of verse 13 expresses a very concrete benefit of God's khesed: "You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol." In the context of the overall psalm, this probably refers to a deliverance from physical death. Sheol is simply the "the grave" (as it is often translated). Many Christians will think here, however, and appropriately so, of the salvation from spiritual death that is the quintessential example of God's khesed in their lives. It is the life that walking in God's way and truth provides.
The reference to God's khesed is picked up in verse 15 and expanded. Beginning with the word "merciful," verse 15 is a quote of the fundamental self-revelation of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6). This initial self-revelation expressed Israel's understanding of the basic nature of its relationship to God, and it is quoted and paraphrased frequently throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 14:18; Joel 2:13; Psalms 103:8, 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17). Here it forms the basis for the psalmist's appeal for grace, strength, and salvation in verse 16 and for why he need not fear his enemies referred to in verse 14.
When he appeals to God to "turn to me and be gracious to me" (verse 16), it is his knowledge of the gracious character of God mentioned in the Exodus quote of verse 15 that prompts his plea. Of course, the words "turn to me" also express his feeling of the present absence of God's grace, a feeling caused by the intentions of his enemies mentioned in verse 14. The feelings of divine absence and abandonment expressed in many of the psalms (in the present psalm, mostly in verses 1-7) often cause believers today a certain amount of discomfort, but they should remind us that it is pointless to hide our true feelings in addressing God--and that there is no need to do so.
Verse 17 closes the psalm with a final petition, a request for a sign of God's favor. As in verse 16, the petition is based on knowledge of God's character, but here the psalmist expresses it in terms of his own experience: "because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me." In this sense the psalmist's petition may be a model for our own prayers to God: Our appeals arise out of our common understanding of God's character and out of our experience of God's steadfast love and faithfulness to us in the past.