My father-in-law has challenged us as a family to learn Psalm 86:10–13 this year. It’s a wonderful psalm full of rich encouragement of how to live when under pressure. At the end of the psalm, David even fears for his existence, and the main message of the psalm is how to lay hold of God in times of personal need. The key to the whole psalm is the last phrase of verse 11: “Unite my heart to fear your name.” There is nothing like pressure to show how divided our hearts are. It is as if the circumstantial pressure exposes the spiritual fault lines of our hearts.
The structure of the psalm is like a sandwich; verses 1–7 and verses 14–17 are a cry for help, and in between, in verses 8–13, is the meat with a section on the praise of God.
The psalm begins with David pleading for God to answer him: “Incline your ear . . . answer me . . . be gracious . . . gladden my soul” (Ps. 86:1, 3, 4). He addresses himself to the “LORD,” using the name that God revealed to His covenant people. David recognizes that he is in a relationship with God. It is as if he is saying: “This is who I am, and this is who You are, so Lord, be all that You are to me.”
As we move into verses 8–13, God, and not David’s circumstances, dominates. You’ll notice the Lord is spelled without the small capital letters—it’s a different name in the Hebrew from “LORD.” The “Lord” (without small capital letters) focuses attention on God’s might and power. God is immeasurably great. There is nowhere else to go when dealing with life’s difficulties. The majestic power of God marks Him out as unique. There is no alternative deity that can demand universal worship, and that is the big reason that he prays, “Unite my heart to fear your name” (Ps. 86:11). God is One, there is no other. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses tells the people: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus calls this the first and the greatest commandment in Matthew 22.
David knows that only God can transform his mind and unite his heart. He is praying, because of who God is: “Give me an undivided heart to reflect Your nature.” “Let there be one controlling, dominating passion in my life—to fear Your name.” Verse 11 really is the prayer of life:
- “Teach me your way”—we learn God’s way by His Scriptures.
- “That I may walk in you”—we learn God’s truth in order to live it out.
- “Unite my heart to fear your name”—the fear of the Lord is the recognition that He and He alone is God and so we enthrone Him as God in our life. To fear His name is to bow in submission to who He is, and David’s prayer is that he would give his whole person to that.
We know our hearts are easily divided, going our own way, away from the Lord. David is praying that God would keep him from being two-faced and double-minded, and that God would give him a single, steady aim, unmoved by the threats and pressures, only looking to God and His great name.
Direct, control, suggest this day, All I design or do or say,
That all my powers, with all their might. In thy sole glory may unite.1
Verses 12 and 13 give us a beautiful picture of the present and the future, of what David is currently doing and what he will do. He gives thanks now and he will glorify then, and the reason for that is a past act: God has delivered his soul from Sheol. There is a certainty that this is going to happen, so he speaks of it as already having happened because God has said it. It is exactly the same as when Paul speaks of us as having been glorified in the New Testament. It’s so certain that he speaks of it as if it is in the past.
Verse 14 sheds light on what David’s trials really are. He faces sinful men. There are the pressures of life. But what God is doing in David’s life is knocking away every prop so that David might rely on the Lord and so come back to dependence on Him. In verse 14, we are reminded that the difficulties haven’t gone away. The pressures remain, but the psalmist applies what he has just told us. He is vulnerable, and the problems have not been removed. But in the words of verse 15, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” The psalmist takes the very words of God that He spoke in Exodus 34, revealing His character, and he applies them to his situation. He is proclaiming with every child of God that his God could not be more committed to him, and so he makes strong requests of God: “Turn to me and have mercy on me; give your strength . . . save” (Ps. 86:16). In verse 17, he asks for relief, “a sign of your goodness” (Ps. 86:17, NIV). He recognizes that the Lord has helped him and comforted him.
May we echo David’s prayer in whatever pressures and problems we find ourselves: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
- Thomas Ken, “Awake My Soul.”