When I read psalms I often try to imagine who the narrator is and why he or she composed the psalm. Sometimes I imagine the psalmist as a liturgist, rousing a congregation to praise. Sometimes I imagine the psalmist as a person like me, alone and unable to sleep, conversing with God in the wee hours.
The composer of this psalm draws on lines from many other scriptures; it is less a striking original composition and more a holy mashup. That does not mean that this prayer has less worth; it holds powerful statements that experienced persons of prayer have handed down in their hours of need.
One person I can image praying this psalm is Ishmael, the child rescued by God in the wilderness. Can you imagine this as his lament? The themes of seeing and hearing are present, as is being the child of a servant. In the reference to many nations bowing down to Yahweh, I hear a longing for the healing of the breach between the sons of Abraham. That kind of mutual worship may seem only a dream today, which makes it our lament as well.
The narrator expresses sorrow as well as certainty that God listens to our prayers, including our middle-of-the-night sighs and groans. Lament, doubt, and questioning are healthy and perhaps even necessary elements to forging a lasting faith. But our certainty that our prayers matter to God allows us to lament without bitterness, to lament with humility and power. Our spiritual formation is a long and sometimes circuitous process that seeks to make us into children of God who can pray with power.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, and the prayers of your servants and their children. Heal every division within your house, that all your children will glorify you in spirit and truth. Amen.
The story of Isaac and Ishmael resounds through human history down to today. According to Genesis, tensions between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael go back to the lifetime of Abraham himself. These are complex issues, and we are wise to understand them theologically, not just politically. The psalmist calls out to God from a place of desperation, yet even in desperation there is confident hope in God. Paul attacks a theology of “cheap grace” in Romans. Yes, God forgives us; but this does not give us license to do whatever we want. When we are joined to Christ, we die to ourselves. Jesus tells his disciples that following him is a sort of death. We sacrifice a life under our own control yet find something much greater.
Read Genesis 21:8-21. Consider an action you regret or wish you’d handled differently. How might a daily examen practice help you correct or move on from your mistakes?
Read Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17. With whom do you need to reconcile? How might this psalm help you begin that process?
Read Romans 6:1b-11. Consider the author’s question, “What does freedom from sin look like?” Allow the author’s suggestions and questions to guide your searching for an answer.
Read Matthew 10:24-39. How do you see the tension Jesus identifies between inclusion and separation in your Christian life today?
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