July 9, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not Your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with You,
a guest, like all my fathers.
When you feel you’ve been faithful, do you feel as if God is more likely to answer your prayers?
When you feel your faith has faltered, do you feel as if God is more likely to ignore your prayers?
On what basis does He answer any of them?
Sunday we argued that the fight for hope is often a fight in prayer. Men’s wickedness, the world’s triviality, our hearts’ sinfulness—the distress they can cause threatens our hope in God. Yet there’s something about prayer that enables us to find reasons for hope.
The psalmist prays in every circumstance, but what is the basis of his hope that God will answer? Apparently not his own faithfulness, since he acknowledges his need for deliverance from faithlessness (v. 8). Instead, his hope in God’s willingness to show mercy is based on something else—something about being a sojourner.
Sojourners dwelt in Israel’s land but were not of Israel’s lineage. The Lord makes it a continuous point, however, to treat sojourners with the same respect as if they were native to Israel. Though they held no land, they were to be provided for and protected in the same way any Israelite would be (Lev. 19:33). Furthermore, they were held to the same standard of obedience as the covenant people of God (e.g. Lev. 17:15, 20:2).
Our psalmist, David, though an Israelite from the house of Judah, declares himself to be a sojourner, one previously outside the covenant care of God but now brought into that covenant care on the basis of God’s prerogative. In fact, David goes so far as to say that all his forebears are likewise sojourners—not an innovative point but one grounded in what God says to Israel in Leviticus 25:23, “You are strangers and sojourners with me.”
Therefore, any confidence David has in God delivering him from his transgressions (Ps. 39:8), removing the stroke of hostility (v. 10), or hearing his prayer and his cries (v. 12), is based not in his faithfulness but in God’s promise to have regard for the sojourner in the land.
Moses does something similar when the Lord uses portentous language toward Israel, threatening them with extermination for their continual faithlessness (Exod. 32:9–14). There Moses centered his appeal for mercy on God’s promise to make a great nation—even through this stiff-necked people. The case Moses makes is persuasive to the Lord.
The disconsolate setting of this Psalm notwithstanding, isn’t what David (and Moses) did a bit cheeky? Isn’t David presuming upon grace?
In a word, no—if by presume we mean supposing something to be true with no evidence to substantiate it. The grace David appeals to is the same grace that motivated God to move toward Abraham, to make a nation through Abraham, to sustain the progress of His plan through the chronically flaccid hearts of the patriarchs.
More to our concern, David appeals to the mercy of God no more presumptuously than you or I do if we are in Christ. For just as sojourners were afforded protection and provision despite their previous distance from the covenant people of God, those in Christ who were once far off “have now been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). God extended mercy to the sojourner on the basis of His prerogative. He extends mercy to the one in Christ on the basis of His prerogative to bless the work of His Son. Our works neither obtained our salvation (Eph. 2:8–9) nor perfected it (Gal. 3:3). Faith in His work does.
But what of James 5:16, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power”? Don’t his words seem to draw a causal relationship between our righteousness and God’s willingness to respond to our prayers? What motivates our good works if He answers our prayers on the basis of His good work in Christ? Welcome to the astonishingly magnificent heart of the gospel.
That “righteous” one whose prayers are powerful—it’s the same kind of person who confesses their sins (James 5:15), who trusts in the work of the Son to bring them to God (1 Pet. 3:18). Their faith may even fail for a time, as Elijah’s did (1 Kings 19:1–8). Rather than presume upon His grace, though, they will necessarily seek to honor it, because they know their righteousness is entirely attributable to Him.
So, the next time you feel like God is more obligated to answer your prayers because of your obedience, think again (and aright). Any good you’ve done has been a function of His work in you (Eph. 2:10, Phil. 2:13).
And the next time you feel like God would never hear your prayers because of your faithlessness, think again. He surely would have us set aside the sin that so easily entangles (Heb. 12:1), but He also would have us draw near to the throne of grace with confidence that we may receive mercy (Heb. 4:16).