Commentary on Psalm 86:11-17
No small amount of ink has been spilled trying to sort out the structure of this prayer song of the individual.
Hans-Joachim Kraus believes the poem to be plagued by copy errors1 while James L. Mays sees it as a prayer comprised of snippets from other psalms and scriptures have been crafted into an original creation.2
The present division of the psalm into a pericope comprised of verses 11 to 17 is also difficult to understand. James Limburg divides the prayer into three major sections, each concluding with a doxological statement (verses 5, 10, 15),3 while Kraus sees two divisions, verses 1-13 and 14-17.4
The present author also sees a break between verses 13 and 14. The first half of the poem is structured as a psalm of individual lament. The anticipated address and cry appear in verses 1 and 2 while the motivations for God to act are signaled by the preposition ki (translated as “for” by the NRSV) in verses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. An oracle of salvation or word of assurance — missing from the lament psalms (but see 1 Samuel 1:17) — led to the praise and thanksgiving that appear in verses 8 to 13. Verses 14 to 17 return to the subject of lament, now identified as harassment by insolent villains who threatened the psalmist’s life (verse 14).
Given the clumsy division of the lectionary, the preacher may want to concentrate on the relationship between the petitioner and the LORD. Seven times in the psalm the psalmist refers to the LORD as “my Lord,”5 while three times the psalmist refers to himself as “your servant.”6 This relationship, lord to servant, means that the servant can cry out to his Lord and that he can confidently expect a positive response to his cry.
The Lord will answer (verse 7), he avers confidently, because he belongs to the people who know the constitutive character of this God. The LORD is good, forgiving, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (verses 5, 15, see Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8). God has, moreover, spoken to this servant or, at the least, to his people in the past; Mays notes that verse 2 is the response to the declaration of Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD your God.”7
Because of this relationship, the psalmist can call boldly to God, confident both of God’s will and of God’s power to help (verses 8-10). On the one hand, the psalmist is a member of the community that is “poor and needy” (verse 1), dependent upon the LORD to keep him from Sheol (verse 13). On the other hand, the petitioner knows himself to be a pious man (chasid, verse 2) who trusts God to respond to his calls for help (verse 7).
As is usually the case with the psalmist, he assumes that his enemies are also God’s enemies. In verse 14, the insolent ruffians who rise up against the psalmist and who seek his life are the very ones who “do not set you before them.” Again, in verse 17, the psalmist wishes for a sign of divine favor so that his enemies will be shamed by the knowledge that the one they despised was aided by the LORD.
If the pious trust of this servant of the LORD serves as a model for us, the one he repeatedly addresses as “my Lord” deserves our praise. If we knew no more about this God than what appears in this psalm we would still know much. This LORD answers the prayers of the poor and needy (verse 1) — a claim that should give pause for thought to those of us who are neither poor nor needy. More, this LORD is known by a character that is good, forgiving, and abounding in steadfast love (verse 5), a God who both in the past and in the psalmist’s experience is known to be merciful, gracious, slow to anger and (again!) abounding in steadfast love (verse 15).
This LORD can deliver us from the gates of Sheol (verse 13). This LORD strengthens and saves us (verse 16). This LORD’s wondrous works distinguish God as the only God worthy of praise (verses 8, 10), a circumstance that will ultimately be recognized by all nations who shall come, bow down, and glorify the name that is above every other name (verse 9, see Philemon 2:9-12; Revelation 15:4).
In short, this psalm praises the selfsame LORD who has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
The response to such a revelation in this psalm is, appropriately enough, characterized by doxology (verses 8-10, 15) and thanks (verses 12-13).
Added to his praise and thanks, however, is the fervent petition of verse 15 to the effect that the psalmist might be instructed to live according to the grace that has been poured out upon him: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”
The psalmist’s requests that the command of Deuteronomy 6:4 (described by Jesus as the “first” of all the commandments) might be his experience as well. He longs for an “undivided heart.” The prayer is for a heart that concentrates its affections in order that God’s name might be revered properly and, with verse 12, entirely.8 Given that Hebrew anthropology generally credited the heart, not the head, with rational reflection,9 this petition summons us to a devotion that is also intellectually engaged and thoroughly concentrated.
In spite of the wish that the psalmist might glorify LORD’s name “forever” (verse 12b), praise dissolves to a plea for help just two verses later. Whether or not this psalm was originally a single composition, the movement from plea (verses 1-7) to praise (verses 8-13), and back again to a cry for deliverance (verses 14-17) reflects the actual faith journey upon which most of us find ourselves. Simply describing the movement from desperate hope to confident praise and back to pleading hope may, by itself, serve as good news for those who are discouraged that their hearts are so often fearful and divided.
1 Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 180.
2 James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994). 278. Specifically, Mays notes the reuse of the following: Psalm 40:17 in verse 1; Psalm 25:1 in verse 4b; Psalm 27:11 in verse 11a; Psalm 54:3 in verse 14; Exodus 34:6 in verses 5 and 15.
3 James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 292.
4 Kraus, Psalms, 181.
5 Verses 3,4,5,8,9,12, and 15.
6 Verses 2, 4, 16. In addition, the psalmist refers to himself as the child of your handmaid (leben-‘amateka) in verse 16.
7 Mays, Psalms, 279.
8 The Hebrew verb ychd here means to be united and the petition intends that the psalmist’s heart/mind be thoroughly fixated on the LORD and his name. The Septuagint, the Syriac, the Vulgate, and other versions seemed, however, to have had “let my heart rejoice,” perhaps reading an original yichad from chada. Given the wholehearted thanks of verse 12, the Masoretic Text is likely to be preferred, albeit there is certainly something attractive about a joyful heart/mind that reveres God’s name.
9 Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 46-47.