Tommie was recently a guest on Table Talk with Tyrell, a Friday-morning talkshow on Radio Pulpit. The topic of discussion was masculinity. At one point, Tommie related a recent encounter with a man, who confessed that he often struggled to know what to pray. Tommie opened his Bible to one of the psalms and began reading it, converting it into a prayer as he did so. He was looking to illustrate that one of the most helpful practices we can employ in our prayer lives is to pray the psalms. As Christopher Ash has written, “If you want your prayer life to be shaped by the word of God—as I hope you do!—you cannot do better than to make the psalms a central part of your prayers. For in the psalms we have words that God has given us to speak to God.”
For a few years now, we have systematically promoted a “prayer psalm of the week,” encouraging church members to use the psalm to guide their prayers during the week. Some psalms hit us exactly where we live and seem almost as if they were written about our particular circumstances. They are easy to pray. Some—well—less so.
Just a few weeks ago, our prayer psalm of the week was Psalm 21. I wonder how many members found this psalm an easy one to pray.
Psalm 21 is a psalm about the king’s relationship with God. In our context, we might say it is about government’s relationship with God. Consider some of these words: “Oh LORD, in your strength the king rejoices, and in your salvation how greatly he exults!” (v. 1). “For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved” (v. 7). Did you try praying those words? Did you try substituting “the king” for “our government” or “our president” or something similar? How easy did you find it?
I wonder how many Christians in the world today can confidently pray Psalm 21 about their governing authorities. How do North Korean or Chinese or Afghan Christians pray these words in the face of open government opposition? How do Christians pray these words when they are more concerned about the godlessness of their governing authorities than they are confident of their righteousness?
The second half of Psalm 21 shows how the Lord uses this righteous king as his instrument of judgement against the wicked. David rejoices that the wicked do not succeed in the evil they plan or the mischief they devise. How did that translate into your prayers a few weeks back?
If anything, Christians tend to be highly sceptical of governing authorities. We tend to view our leaders as men and women of frail character who too often abuse their power. They certainly don’t sound like the righteous leaders that David envisions in Psalm 21.
Think about it: How often do you hear South African Christians commending our ruling authorities? How often do you hear them complaining? Just moments before I started writing this, a South African Christian friend posted on social media, “I have no president (king) but Jesus.” Have you heard the sentiment? Have you perhaps uttered it—or at least thought it—yourself?
Of course, we should recognise that this wasn’t always an easy prayer for a devout Israelite to pray. What faithful Jew would devoutly pray this prayer about Ahab or Manasseh? Most of the kings of Israel were as big, if not bigger, tyrannical scoundrels than our rulers. And yet God gave this psalm to be a part of Israel’s worship.
Thankfully, however, Christians can pray this psalm far more confidently than we might first think. N. T. Wright correctly observes that psalms such as this “are not random exaltations of a militaristic monarch. They express, in the language and idiom of the time, the conviction that it is through the coming king (the human one, Israel’s anointed representative) that YHWH will establish his rule on earth as in heaven.” In other words, Psalm 21 should point us to Jesus Christ, the perfect King—the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Perhaps you find a prayer like this impossible to pray when you consider the rulers of our land. Perhaps you take a very dim view of the efforts that our government has exerted in trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Perhaps you are forced to hold your tongue when discussion turns political because you find you have nothing good to say. If so, it may be time for you to read—and pray—Psalm 21 differently. It may be time to read and pray this psalm reflecting on the great King of kings and Lord of lords, who always does what is right, and through whom God will ultimately execute his perfect justice. He is a king worthy of such a prayer.