Psalm 17 is a prayer, pleading for God to grant vindication to the psalmist (17:1-5), to intervene in the psalmist’s life that is beset with opposition (17:6-9), and specifically to deliver the psalmist from his enemies (17:10-14). It is topped off with a beautiful affirmation of seeing God’s face when he awakes, either from his horrible earthly circumstances or eschatologically, from death to new life.
A trilogy of psalms affirming David’s steady and firm relationship to God (Psalms 15-17)
The lectionary portion prescribed is 17:1-9, but we understand that lectionary prescriptions zoom in on a particular text with no intention of disallowing the larger context. In this case, the larger context is three psalms, not just Psalm 17. And this trilogy of psalms is bound together with the tether of the same verb, “to totter, be moved, be shaken” (Heb. root mut). In all three instances David is affirming his confidence in God, his assurance of God’s power and grace to vindicate him and deliver him: “He who does these things shall never be moved” (15:5); “I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken” (16:8); “My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped” (17:5).
Does God answer our prayers on the basis of our moral standing or on the basis of his steadfast love (hesed)?
Is the suppliant’s confidence one of moral innocence, structured from his own good behavior, as it seems to be in 15:5, and 17:5, or is it confidence in God’s love and power, as he affirms in 16:8: “because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken”? Since the whole trilogy is framed as prayer, we might ask the question another way: When we go to God in prayer, does God answer our prayers on the basis of our moral standing, or does God deal with us only on the basis of his love and power?
First, the psalmist’s behavior, and ours too, is not a negligible factor. That is certainly a given in the Psalms, in Scripture generally speaking. The Lord gives us commandments and tells us to obey them, and he honors our obedience. The commandments are an expression of his own character, and the reflection of God’s character in our own thoughts and behaviors are the height of God-likeness: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (17:15). “Righteousness” is God’s character portrayed in love and justice, and David believed his life’s goal was to be in God’s presence, expressed in 17:15 as God’s “likeness.” It went beyond his passion for building the temple. The temple was, architecturally and historically, his life’s goal, but he had a spiritual goal that was loftier still.
It was to pattern his life after Israel, who was “the apple of his [Yahweh’s] eye,” and who lived under his [Yahweh’s] protecting wings (17:8/Deut. 32:10-11). That was the person David wanted to be. He goes to God in prayer with a clear conscience. He even calls his prayer “righteous” (v. 1), which means it grows out of a right relationship with God and his fellow human beings. His prayer does not rise out of “deceitful lips,” but he has been careful about how he has represented his neighbor (17:1b), and his speech has not been sinful (17:3). He has treated his neighbor with respect and has not engaged in violent actions (17:4). David believed that this right character gave him an advantage in prayer before God. In fact, if the LORD examined his heart and tested him, He would find nothing (17:3).
But the underwriting cause of his righteousness was God’s grace (17:8). David is not adding up his merits and presenting them at the throne of grace and demanding that God honor them. He is talking about the good life that God had enabled him to live. It’s not law, but always grace. And that gave him the spiritual steadfastness that he celebrated in this trilogy of psalms.
C. Hassell Bullock is the Franklin S. Dyrness Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College (IL) where he taught for 36 years. He is a graduate of Samford University (Birmingham, AL), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Instiutute of Religion (Cincinnati, O).
Among his published works are An Introduction to
the OT Poetic Books (Moody), Encountering the Book of Psalms, and a two-volume commentary on the Psalms, Psalms 1-72, and Psalms 73-150 (Baker Academic).
In addition to forty years of teaching in the college classroom, he has served Presbyterian congregations as pastor in Alabama and Illinois. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda, and they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
God cannot at times hear the prayer of your lips because the desires of your heart after the world cry out to Him much more strongly and loudly.
Key Sermon Illustration
How Grace Transforms and Holiness Follows
A number of you may be aware of Jerry Bridges’ series of books on holiness, and the book that maybe put him on the map was Pursuit of Holiness. Jerry’s a friend, so he’s told me these stories, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but Pursuit of Holiness was the book that really brought him to fame. People were strongly motivated to obey God, to seek to honor Him, by Jerry’s writing in Pursuit of Holiness.
But he says that as he went around the country preaching on Pursuit of Holiness, there was always another sermon he had to preach after the series of messages based on the book. And he said the message that he had to preach after Pursuit of Holiness was how grace transforms us so that we can pursue holiness.
I mean, after all, it was in some measure, early on, just kind of a Nike Christianity: “Just do it. You just hunker down and try harder and do what God says here.” People were inspired but found themselves incapable. And so Jerry had to say, “Well, you know, it’s by the grace of God that you’re enabled to do what He says.”
… Here’s what happened. And I don’t remember these figures precisely, but Jerry says the first book, Pursuit of Holiness, which was all about “you just do it,” sold some three million copies. The second book, Transforming Grace, which says it’s actually God’s grace that enables, sold 300,000 copies.
The more we talk about the grace of God rather than what we do to get God to respond to us, the less people seem to be interested. And, you know, what Jerry Bridges said was, it’s actually the grace of God that is the power of the ability to pursue holiness, and our disciplines, as we practice them, are not about somehow paying off God so that He will be good to us but, rather, are simply the means by which God gives us to open our hearts to receive the grace that helps us understand what He provides in our behalf… That inversion—understanding that His grace precedes our performance, not [that] our performance buys His grace—that shift changes everything.
Bryan Chapell, Preparing and Delivering Christ-Centered Sermons II: Communicating a Theology of Grace, Lexham Press.