Lesson Focus: Because God is both merciful and powerful, we can humbly approach Him with confidence He will hear and respond to our prayers according to His character.
Hear Me: Psalm 86:1-7.
 A Prayer of David. Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.  Preserve my life, for I am godly; save your servant, who trusts in you – you are my God.  Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day.  Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.  For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.  Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace.  In the day of my trouble I call upon you, for you answer me. [ESV]
This psalm by David is an appeal for mercy based on the character of God. It is filled with petitions, at least fifteen of them, but they are variants of this one idea. It is found throughout, explicitly in verses 3, 6 and 16. Nothing is more important to sinful people than finding mercy with God. Yet we do not appeal to mercy naturally, and we do not show it to others very often. We want to be treated on our merit, and what we demand from other human beings we demand from God. David was spiritually wiser than we are. He knew that what he needed was mercy, not his just due, and here he pleads for it. The outline of the psalm is fairly straightforward. It consists of a lament [1-7], praise [8-10], prayer [11-13], and final petition [14-17]. Yet these elements overlap in the psalm’s four sections, and for that reason the best way to get into the psalm is by focusing on its most important ideas. These are (1) David’s relationship to God, (2) David’s requests of God, (3) the reasons God should answer his requests, and (4) the most important characteristic of God from the point of the psalmist’s need, mercy.
David’s Relationship to God. It is consistent with David’s appeal to God’s mercy, which becomes explicit for the first time in verse 3, that Israel’s king does not begin his prayer by arguing that God owes him anything. On the contrary, he is poor and needy , God’s servant , one who looks to God for help. These themes are repeated later, in verse 7, where he speaks of his trouble; verse 14, where he speaks of insolent men who are attacking him; verse 16, where he again describes himself as God’s servant; and verse 17, where he again draws attention to his enemies. We find it hard to pray this way. By nature we want to plead our rights or accomplishments before God. To confess that we are poor and needy seems demeaning. To be a servant seems unworthy. We want to be people who deserve something from God because of who we are. Of course, it is true that we have become something of value because of God’s favor to us. But it is only because of God; that is the point. And the only reason why He has been favorable to us is because He is merciful, not because we deserve it. Therefore, when David refers to himself as God’s servant, he is already developing his most important theme and is speaking consistently with it. It is only because God has been merciful to him that he has a relationship to God, and it is only because God has shown Himself to be merciful that David can make this appeal.
David’s Requests of God. David makes fifteen requests in this psalm. He asks God to: hear and answer ; guard and save ; have mercy ; bring joy ; hear and listen ; teach and give an undivided heart ; turn, have mercy, grant strength, and save ; and show a sign of your favor . Most of these requests have to do with his perilous circumstances, which he develops in the last stanza. We may remember that there is hardly a psalm of David’s that does not mention his enemies and ask God’s help in delivering him from their attacks and stratagems. But in the midst of these many requests for deliverance from his ever-present enemies there is a remarkable stanza in which David also prays that God will teach him His way and give him an undivided heart [11-13]. This is the key to David’s greatness. Most of us, when we pray, are concerned about deliverance and help and guidance and such things. But we are not nearly as concerned to be taught God’s way and to be helped to serve Him with an undivided heart. In other words, we want the blessings of salvation without the duties. We want prosperity and personal safety while we nevertheless go our own way. David was not like this. He knew his heart, how prone he was to wander from God. But he also knew he needed to go in God’s way if he was to prosper spiritually. So he asks God for this great blessing.
Praying with Arguments. We should sharpen our thinking by learning to express the reasons why God should answer our prayers affirmatively. It should be clear that this is not so much for God’s benefit as for ours. If we cannot think of reasons why God should answer our prayers, it is probably the case that our requests are wrong and need to be revised or redirected. Notice how David buttresses his prayers with sound arguments. They are easy to find because they are highlighted by an eightfold repetition of the word for, which means “because.” He begins with reasons based on who he is and his need. As he prays his thoughts shift to God, and his later reasons therefore have to do with who God is, with His power and great grace. First, there are four reasons based on David and his need. (1) for I am poor and needy . The first reason is based on David’s sad plight. He is not mighty or self-sufficient. On the contrary, he is poor and needy. So if God will not help him, there is no real help to be found anywhere. This argument presupposes God’s mercy. It is because God is merciful that he helps the poor and needy. (2) for I am godly . The second reason is that the psalmist stands in a covenant relationship to God. In other words, he is God’s servant and God is his master. As a servant he has duties toward God, but God also has duties toward him. This seems to have meant a lot to David at this point in his life, for he calls God Lord (meaning Master) seven times. (3) for to you do I cry all the day . The third reason God should answer his prayer is that he is asking God to do it. God is not obliged to answer. Even this is of grace. Nevertheless, David is not like one who does not know God or is indifferent to God. He does know God, and he knows God can help. God is a prayer-answering God, so David asks Him to take note of the fact that he is praying. (4) for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul . The fourth reason is that David is calling on God and on no other. A pagan might have many gods and call on all of them, but that would only show that he has no real confidence in any. David is praying to God only, because he knows that only the one true God can help him. Second, there are four reasons based on God and God’s character. (1) for you answer me . In verse 1 David had asked God to hear and answer him, but here he asserts his confidence that God will answer. Prayer is not an empty exercise because God does answer prayer. (2) for you are great and do wondrous things . Sixth, not only is God a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God, He is also a God who is able to do what the one who is praying asks. God is great and powerful and consistently does great deeds. (3) for great is your steadfast love toward me . The seventh of these requests gets near the heart of the psalm’s major theme, which is God’s mercy, for it pleads as a reason for God to answer prayer the fact that God in His mercy has already set His love upon the one praying. In Hebrew the word translated love is the powerful word hesed, which refers to covenant love, love that is promised in a covenant relationship. God has established a covenant like this with David. Our equivalent would be the fact that God has made us His sons and daughters by the new birth. (4) because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me . The final argument for why God should answer David’s prayer is that God helped David in the past, perhaps even as he had been praying. It is consistent with our every past experience of God to ask for mercy now.
The Merciful God. That brings us to the major theme of the psalm. It is the mercy of God to which David is appealing in virtually everything he says. David knows that God is merciful because God Himself had revealed it clearly. David is appealing to that clear revelation.
Four Points of Application. The mercy of God is such a tremendous and all-embracing theme that it applies to virtually every area of life. There are four applications that we cannot afford to miss. (1) We need mercy if we are to be saved. This can never be said enough, simply because we do not think this way naturally. We think in terms of justice, supposing ourselves to be deserving. But we are not deserving. If we are to be saved, we must not plead our desserts but God’s mercy. Apart from mercy we will perish. (2) God is a God of mercy. Here is the good news. True, He is also a God of justice and wrath. Sin will be punished. The wrath of God will be made known along with His other great attributes. But God emphasizes mercy. He offers mercy. To find mercy we must come to Him on the basis of the shed blood of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to be our Savior. The mercy of God is seen at the cross of the Savior more than at any other place. It is the ultimate expression of mercy and the means by which God saves. (3) We can appeal to mercy. The mercy of God is not compelled in any way. Otherwise it would not be mercy. But that does not suggest that we cannot appeal to it. We can. Indeed, the Scriptures are full of such appeals. Our psalm is one example. The Scriptures even tell us that it is through appeals to mercy that mercy may be found. Who are those who receive mercy? They are those who ask God for it. They are those who turn from their own self-sufficiency and trust Jesus. This is the only way the children of God are made known. (4) We can proclaim God’s mercy to others. God is sovereign in salvation. He has mercy on whom He wills to have mercy and has compassion on whom He wills to have compassion [Rom. 9:15]. But God is also a merciful God, and there is nothing in the Bible to hinder us from saying this as forcefully as we can. His very name is Mercy [see Exodus 34:5-7]. Because His name is Mercy, we can assure others that if they will come to Him through faith in Jesus Christ, which is how He has made His mercy possible as well as known, they will find it. God has never turned a deaf ear to one who has truly asked for mercy. He has never rejected anyone who has believed on Jesus Christ.
What is mercy? It is the fond compassion and tender expression of God’s love toward His creatures who find themselves in a desperate plight. Mercy is the deep heart feeling of benevolence that God has for His own, especially in their troubles. Flowing from His all-compassionate heart, mercy is God’s infinite kindness and unending favor toward His people whose lives have been ruined by sin or stressed by trials. This attribute of God, His tender mercy, is the underlying focus of this psalm. Feeling mounting pressure upon him, David burst forth Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me. He pleaded with God to incline His ear to his urgent plea. Rather than approaching God as if God owed him something, David humbly confessed he was poor and needy, needing mercy. Preserve my life … save your servant, he requested, from evil men who sought to do him much harm. The basis of his appear was that he was devoted (godly) to God. He was not claiming sinlessness but a position of total commitment to God, as one who trusts in the Lord, looking to Him with the eye of faith and thus demonstrating that he is righteous. Pouring out his heart to God, David yearned for God’s mercy and grace to be shown to him. So desperate was his state that he called upon God all the day, never ceasing. David prayed for God’s joy in the midst of his ordeal, something that only God can do. Although surrounded by proud enemies who were attacking him, David, nevertheless, remained confident in the Lord regarding several unchanging truths about the divine character. David knew God overflowed in boundless love toward him. This was his assurance, a confidence rooted in the unchanging character of God. David once more pleaded for God to hear his prayer. Confident of God’s love toward him , he poured out his soul to the Lord. With unwavering trust, David believed that God would hear him and come to his rescue. In the furnace of affliction, David’s faith remained strong and steadfast not in himself or his circumstances, but in God.
Teach Me: Psalm 86:8-13.
 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.  All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.  For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.  Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.  I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.  For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. [ESV]
[8-13] David’s Adoration. The fact that God loved him, heard him, and would deliver him caused his heart to burst forth in praise for God. David understood that the Lord is God, the only true God among the false gods of the polytheistic nations surrounding Israel. God alone works with unlimited power and unrivaled authority. All the nations you have made, even these peoples who threaten the psalmist as the enemies of Israel. In due time, they shall come and worship before God. Whether in this lifetime or in the final judgment, they shall glorify your name. One day even his enemies will praise God, even if it was in their damnation. For you are great and do wondrous things, a fact that elicited utter amazement from David. You alone are God, and there is none other, not in heaven, on earth, or under the earth. David’s prayer and praise were not confined to a merely theoretical realm. He desperately wanted to live what he believed. So he asked God, Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. He desired to pursue the path of God’s will relentlessly, but the Lord must illumine the way. David realized that his own heart was prone to wander and was in continual need of divine intervention and influence in order to rightly reverence the Lord. God’s sovereignty over David’s spiritual life caused him to rejoice humbly. Expressed as a vow of thanksgiving, this praise was not to be a one-time, isolated occurrence but an ongoing lifestyle of worship as he devotedly sought to glorify the Lord. Such praise flowed out of David’s experience of the steadfast love of God. Because of God’s faithful and steadfast love towards him, David anticipated a positive answer to his prayer, convinced that God would rescue him from this life-threatening situation.
Help Me: Psalm 86:14-17
 O God, insolent men have risen up against me; a band of ruthless men seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.  But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant, and save the son of your maidservant.  Show me a sign of your favor, that those who hate me may see and be put to shame because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me. [ESV]
[14-17] Though confident of God’s deliverance, David continued to plead his case before the heavenly throne. In so doing, he affirmed two realities to the Lord. The first was insolent men have risen up against me. David reminded God of the desperate and possibly life-ending situation in which he found himself, facing enemies who sought his life and had no regard for God, in other words, David’s foes were God’s foes. The second truth was, But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, unlike his malicious enemies. Amid his many dangers, David rested in the tender care of God, whose heart was drawn toward his plight. He knew God to be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. This strong affirmation echoed David’s earlier praise. He has every reason to trust in God and God’s steadfast character. This psalm concluded as it began [1-4], with David making an urgent appeal to God: Turn to me and be gracious to me. David recognizes his own weakness and dependence upon the strength of God. Anticipating the Lord’s answer, David concluded: Show me a sign of your favor. David’s deliverance by God would be a strong witness to others that God is worthy to be trusted and can deliver his people from their most desperate and precarious circumstances.
Conclusion. John Calvin once wrote, “The only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete.” If we are to be saved, we all need divine mercy, not justice. This is true whether the salvation be God’s eternal deliverance from His wrath in hell or His temporal deliverance from the wrath of men on the earth. Salvation is always by the undeserved mercy of God, never by His inflexible justice. If the Lord ever gave us what we deserved, we would suffer eternal punishment in much affliction. So it is not justice that we need, but mercy. It is the tender compassion of God toward those in great danger and stress who need His saving, sustaining grace. So it is mercy that we must request of the Lord, and it is mercy that will activate God’s unlimited power to work for our good.
Questions for Discussion:
1. What is mercy and why does David pray so earnestly for it?
2. List the fifteen requests that David makes of God in this psalm. Why does David ask God for these things?
3. List the eight reasons that David gives for why God should answer his prayer. What do you learn about prayer from David in this psalm?
4. What are the four points of application that we can make from this psalm?
5. Make verse 11 your prayer this week. What must you do in order to have God teach you His way, enable you to walk in His truth and give you an “undivided heart?” What does verse 12 say should be your response to God working in your life?
Psalms, Volume 2, James M. Boice, Baker.
Psalms, Volume 2, John Goldingay, Baker.
Psalms, EBC, William VanGemeren, Zondervan.
Psalms 76-150, Steven Lawson, Holman Reference.