Starting and Stopping Your Prayers
So I have question for you this morning as we get started. By a show of hands, how many of you try to pray everyday?
Well, this summer we’re doing a series in the Book of Psalms, and of course, the psalms are prayers. There are a 150 psalms in the book, and that means there are 150 prayers, and when we read each one of these prayers, they’re actually modeling for us how to pray — and the Psalms model for us how to pray because they assume we do pray. And that’s just something I want you to know as we’re working through this Book. This Book has been written and composed with the assumption that those who read it are those who pray.
And so maybe you don’t pray everyday but want to, or maybe you’re not good at praying (which is all of us), I want you to know that the Psalms are meant to be a gift. The Psalms are super helpful to us — which is how our five-year-old, John Owen, would say it. If it’s good, it’s super, and so the Psalms are super helpful, and that’s especially true of Psalm 5.
That’s because Psalm 5 teaches us something we have to know about prayer if we’re going to pray. This is something you must do every time you pray — and it’s something we all do but probably never think about. It’s that you have to start and stop your prayers. Every prayer you you pray has to start somewhere, and at some point, it has to stop somewhere.
And I think Psalm 5 shows us how to do this, and so I want to show you. There are two parts to the sermon:
Part One: How to start and stop your prayers
Part Two: Why to start and stop your prayers
Now let’s pray and get going here:
Our Father in heaven, it is you who we worship, and it is to you who we pray, and now in this moment we are asking that you bless the preaching of your Word. We come this morning with souls that are hungry, and we need you to feed us, by your Word and Spirit, in Jesus’s name, amen.
This is Part One: “How to start and stop your prayers.” We see it in verses 1–3.
Part One: How to Start and Stop Your Prayers
Look at verse 1:
Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning. Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray.
Have you guys ever been praying before and it feels like you’re just talking to yourself?
You’ll be saying something or maybe mouthing some words quietly, but then your mind wanders, and the next thing you know you’re way off in another mental land that has nothing to do with what you were praying about, and then you end up feeling a little bit guilty about it — because you came here for prayer but you end up walking away with a to-do list, half of which are probably things you forgot to do the day before. [Yesterday was a great July Saturday; because it was hot and sunny. We might go to the pool this afternoon if it ends up being like yesterday afternoon; but we’ll go during the babies’ nap time, and I’ve got to make sure I bring the floaty vest; and I can’t forget the the sunscreen.]
You might spend a solid ten minutes of praying like this before you realize you ain’t praying, you’re just thinking to yourself. Anybody else have issues with this?
I know you do. I think this is why a lot of us pray as seldom as we do — it’s because it’s not easy — and so often times we end up settling for a multi-tasking kind of prayer life — like praying on the road or while we’re mowing grass or when you’re going a run or taking a shower — and I think it’s great to pray during all those times, but there’s something different happening in a Psalm 5 kind of prayer. This is the kind of praying I want us to grow in.
The Snap Back to Reality
This is the kind of praying that has a clear starting point. There’s this moment when you acknowledge that right now in prayer I’m doing something distinct from what I was just doing two minutes ago. I’m not merely thinking thoughts. I’m not just continuing on in a stream of consciousness, but right now, in this moment I am praying to God. Which means, right now, I am speaking to God and I believe that God is able to hear me.
That’s what David is saying in this first petition, and this is a big deal. We can sort of breeze past these first verses and lose the miracle of what’s going on. But David is asking for the ear of God. David is asking for YHWH to pay him attention.
God, I am about to say stuff. I’m going to think stuff and say stuff in words from my heart, and I want you to hear me. Please listen to me, God, because it’s to you, my King and my God, I’m praying to. In this moment of prayer, I’m not talking to my enemies; I’m not talking to my friends; I’m not talking to myself. I’m talking to you! And so I need you, God, to hear me.
This is how to start your prayers, and it’s what we can call the snap back to reality. Because that’s what it is.
C. S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcom, says that prayer for him is the reawakened awareness that his own thoughts are not rock-bottom realities. In other words, prayer reminds us that there’s more. There’s more than what we’re able to see and know, and more than what we’re able to do, which is what mostly consumes our thought life. We tend to only think about the things within our reach. But prayer is that moment when we remember the world is much bigger than us, and there are desires in our souls that exceed our abilities, and we need God. This is the snap back to reality that prayer is — it starts with this recognition that God is real, that we are weak, and that he must help us. So we’re praying to him: “My King and my God, to you do I pray.”
Please hear me, God, because it’s to you — not me or anybody else — but it’s to you, God, who I’m praying to.
And there are all kinds of ways that we can say this, but the point is that there’s a starting point. We want to start our prayers with this snap back to reality.
So that’s how we start; now how do we stop.
Wait on the Lord
Look at verse 3.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.
Now again here we see the mention of the morning, which goes back to Psalm 3. Pastor Joe mentioned a couple weeks ago that Psalms 3–6 alternate as morning and evening prayers. They represent prayers that we would pray at the beginning of the day and then at the end of day, which is a great practice to follow.
I think there’s a good chance that God created the day like it is for the sake of prayer. We pray when the sun comes up, and then we pray when the sun goes down, and they’re like bookends because most of our life happens in that in-between. At the start of the day, we’re asking God to do things in the in-between of that time and the end of the day. And then at the end of the day, we thank God for what he’s done. That’s the morning and evening rhythm.
And Psalm 5 here is a morning prayer, and at some point morning prayers have to end — right? The whole idea is that you’re praying for the day because you can’t pray all day. David knows there’s stuff he’s gotta do. There’s business he’s got to take care of. God knows that too.
And so I think David knows how he’s going to stop his prayer before he starts it. I think we all know this when we pray. We all know, in the act of praying, that we’re going to come to a moment when we have to move on from the prayer to what’s in front of us. This is something that’s built into the praying itself. It’s almost like every prayer is about getting to this moment.
David says it in verse 3: “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice” — that’s is another way to say I’m praying. And then he says: “in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch” — that’s another way to say I’m waiting. Which is where every prayer must end.
The key word in verse 3 is the word “prepare.” It’s the Hebrew word that literally means to “lay out” or “arrange.” The word “sacrifice” here is not actually in the original, but it’s been added in our translation because many translators think that David is talking about laying out a sacrifice to accompany his praying. That’s the context of the word “prepare” when it’s used in other places like Genesis 22 when Abraham prepared or laid out wood for the sacrifice of Isaac. That’s also the word used for the Levites when they prepared sacrifices for Israel (see Leviticus 1:8). And so David may be talking about a sacrifice here. But the word “prepare” is also used other ways, and here it could just refer to the meaning of morning prayer in general because that certainly applies.
The idea is that in the morning, when you pray, you are looking out at all that is in front of you, and there are things that you desire to happen — there are things God must do — and so you start your day by laying them out before the Lord. God, here they are. You just put them out there, you tell God what they are. And then: You wait.
That’s what David is doing. He starts the day by prayer, by laying out before YHWH all of his issues, all his needs, his longings, his cries.
In the morning I’m laying it out here for you, God. Here it is. All of it. Here you go, take it, and now I’m going to watch.
I’m praying to you because I need to give this to you, and then I’m going to stop praying because I have given this to you.
That is the moment of waiting.
We start our prayers with a snap back to reality, and then we stop our prayers by waiting on the Lord. And this waiting requires a different gear of faith. We all know it takes faith to start a prayer, but it also takes faith to stop a prayer. And sometimes it’s hard.
Get Out of the Kitchen
It’s kind of like cooking with your kids. If you’ve ever cooked and you have small kids, or you’ve ever seen small kids, you’ll get what I mean here. My oldest two daughters love to bake, and a few years ago, when Elizabeth (our oldest) was in third grade, she would check out cooking books from the library and we’d try some new recipes together. (My favorite was this one time we tried a creme brûlée that turned into more like an egg bake — I thought it was pretty good.)
But the thing I noticed about cooking with my kids was how reluctant I was to leave them alone in the kitchen. We’d start each recipe, of course, by laying out all the ingredients. We made sure we had everything there, and then we’d start the step-by-step process. And Elizabeth would do most of the steps, but I would sort of hang over her shoulder and monitor everything she did, and it felt like necessary micromanagement. My trust for her was appropriately low because she was a child. It was hard for me to leave the kitchen.
But here’s the thing: God is not a child in the kitchen.
What I mean is, we may pray about something, and we think we’ve laid it out before the Lord, but then we keep thinking about it throughout the day, and we can’t get it off our minds — and it’s not because we’re continuing to pray about this thing, but it’s because we’re carrying this thing around like a burden. And it becomes like a pebble in our shoe. And we act like we’ve got to keep carrying this thing because God needs our help.
But hey, he doesn’t need our help.
A lot of times when we pray we just need to put it out there before the Lord and then we need to get out of the kitchen. We can wait on God. God can handle it.
David knows that. It’s why he says: Here it is, my King and my God. Here’s everything. I’m bringing it to you, and now I’m going to wait on you. That’s how you stop your prayer.
Part One is how to start and stop your prayers. You start your prayers with a snap back to reality, and you stop your prayers by waiting on the Lord.
Part Two: Why to Start and Stop Your Prayers
Now Part Two is the why. What is the basis for how we start and stop our prayers? What is the grounds for our praying to God and then leaving our prayers with God?
We see this in verses 4–12, and we can summarize it this way: The basis for starting and stopping our prayers is the character of God and the promises of God.
First, look at the character of God.
The Character of God
This is verses 4–9.
Right away in verse 4 David is explaining why he can wait on the Lord. He says, verse 4:
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
In other words, David is saying that God is righteous.
God Is Righteous
David can pray to the Lord and wait on the Lord because he knows who the Lord is. David is praying to God according to his knowledge of God. And this is important. This is why theology matters. What you know about God matters. David is not just throwing out a bunch of stuff hoping that something might stick; instead, David is coming to God based on the ways that God has revealed himself. David knows the character of God.
The the character of God includes his absolute moral purity. God always does what is right and he only delights in what is right. And here in Psalm 5 it’s said in the negative. It’s that God does not delight in wickedness, and evil may not dwell with him. The righteousness of God means that he does not tolerate sin. God is never easy on sin — never. In fact, God hates it.
And this gives David confidence when he prays. Those who are set against David — those who, in defiance of God, are trying to destroy David — are those whom God despises because God is righteous. David knows that no matter what — however this thing ultimately shakes out with Absalom — God is going to do the right thing because God only always does the right thing.
So David can leave it with him.
All that David has laid out before the Lord he needs to be worked out according to what is right and true, and he knows that God will do that because God only does what is right and true.
And you can pray the same way. If you’re in a situation where you’ve been wronged. If you’ve been sinned against; maybe you’ve been lied about and there are people who are set against you, you can pray to the Lord and leave it with the Lord because the Lord is righteous. Ultimately, all that there is will be all that is right.
The basis of David’s prayer is the character of God. He knows that God is righteous, and he also knows that God is merciful.
God Is Merciful
Look at verse 7.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.
So something important has happened here in verse 7. If you think hard enough about the righteousness of God — like, if you really consider the unspotted moral purity of the holiness of God — it won’t take long before you think about your own soul and your own story, and you say Wait a minute.
You know that there’s a lot of evil out there. The world is full of evildoers who set themselves against God, but then what about the evil in my own heart? What about the sin in my own story? Because David had that too, right? I mean, we can see that right here in the Bible. We can read about it. David sinned too. So what makes David any different from the wicked?
In verse 4 David says that evil may not dwell with God, and then in verse 7 David says that he is entering into God’s house. Now how does he do that? How does David enter God’s presence?
The answer is at the beginning of verse 7. It’s through the abundance of God’s steadfast love.
Verse 7 begins, “But I” — as in, different from the wicked; unlike the deceitful men — “I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house.”
David knows that God is merciful, and that’s his only chance. That’s the only way that he can be near God; it’s the only way he can worship God. It’s because God is the merciful God who forgives the sins of everyone who seeks his mercy. And David has done that.
So David is near God not because David had never sinned, but because he has been forgiven for his sins. Because he sought the mercy of God.
And that leads us to an important question. The question is: how can God be both righteous and merciful? How can God never tolerate sin — never let sin go unpunished — and yet at the same time he can forgive those who have sinned?
If God lets the sin go then he fails to be righteous, but if God doesn’t forgive the repentant then he fails to be merciful, and so how does this work?
And the answer is the cross of Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on the cross, we see the righteousness of God in that all the sins of God’s people were punished. Nothing gets swept under the rug. Every sin, every wrong, every injustice by the people of God was met by the wrath of God. God punished sin because God is righteous, and it was Jesus who took that punishment because God is merciful.
And so God, in his divine forbearance, forgives David by looking ahead to the cross of Christ (see Romans 3:21–26). Forgiveness is because of the cross.
And this is what it means for you: It means that if you seek the mercy of God — right now, whatever your story is, whatever you’ve done — if you seek the mercy of God you will be forgiven because the punishment you deserve is the punishment that Jesus took in your place.
That is the abundance of God’s steadfast love. That is the love that Jesus demonstrated when he died on the cross.
And it’s through that love that David is forgiven, and brought into a covenant relationship with God. And based upon that love, David knows that God is for him and so he prays, verse 8: “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”
David still has enemies. There are enemies set against him, and they are full of deceit. That’s how he describes them in verse 9: “there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.”
And David prays, in the middle of all that, because of God’s love: God, lead me. Be with me. Make my path straight.
David can pray to God and leave his prayers with God because he knows that God is righteous and merciful. David knows the character of God.
The Promises of God
And David also knows the promises of God. And when I say promises I mean all the things that God has committed to do in the future according to his character. So if the character of God is who God is; the promises of God are what God will do because of who he is. And verses 10–12 show us two things.
God Will Judge the Wicked
First, because God is righteous, he will judge the wicked.
David prays in verse 10 for God to make the wicked bear their guilt. He’s basically asking for them to implode. Make them fall by their own counsels. Make them trip by their own feet. Because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out.
Because they have rebelled against God, because they are enemies of God, David knows that God will judge them. That’s why he can pray and leave this with God. The character of God is that he is righteous; and the promise of God is that he will judge the wicked.
God Will Bless All Who Take Refuge in Him
Then second we see that because the character of God is merciful, God will bless all who take refuge in him.
Listen to this. Verse 11:
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield.
This is one of those places in my Bible that years ago I highlighted and scribbled all over because I think what David says here is amazing. It has to do do with how he explains God’s blessing. We know God will bless those who trust him. We’ve seen that in Psalm 1:1 and 2:12 and 3:8, and we see it here in 5:11, except now there’s more content about that blessing.
It’s that God blesses his people by protecting their joy in him.
Look at the third line three in verse 11: “and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.” In other words, protect them so that they are happy in you. Get this: God must guard our gladness in him.
And I think that hope is behind why we pray. It’s what we most need. Of all the things we need to be protected from, isn’t this the main thing? Of all hardships we face, however difficult our circumstances might be, the biggest threat on our souls are the attacks that seek to drain our joy in God. At the end of the day, the details of your experience are not ultimate. What is ultimate is God and your rejoicing in him. So God, protect that. Bless your people by protecting our joy in you.
And God will. That is God’s promise, because of his character, and that’s why David can start and stop his prayers.
How does David start and stop his prayers? By snapping back to reality and waiting on the Lord. Why does David start and stop his prayer? Because of the character of God and the promises of God. God is righteous, and he will judge the wicked. God is merciful, and he will bless all who take refuge in him.
Which is what this Table is all about.
At this Table, as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we remember together that Jesus is our refuge, and that in Jesus alone we are blessed by God. The bread represents broken body of Jesus, and the cup represents his shed blood, and this morning if you trust in him, this Table is for you. For all who take refuge in Jesus, now, together, we give thanks.