There isn’t much new in Psalm 86. In fact, almost every phrase in the psalm has occurred at some other point in the psalter. This is not a weakness, however, but a reminder of one of the main points about the psalms: we learn to pray by praying others’ words and making them our own. This psalmist, like Mary in her “Magnificat,” has soaked in the prayers and praises of others and put them together in new ways for a new dire circumstance. We don’t need to sound original in prayer.
But there are a few unique things about this psalm. For one, it is absolutely drenched in the language of personal relationship. Some psalms teach the congregation, others address the gentiles; this one addresses God and God alone. A Hebrew suffix which means “you/your” occurs 23 times in this psalm. So, this is a primary place to learn prayer that is personal, relational, and intimate.
The primary way the psalmist refers to God here is “master” or “lord” and the primary way he refers to himself is “your servant.” This should remind us of the rich biblical imagery that casts our relationship with God in servant-master terms. From the Old Testament teachings regarding the temporary slave who has decided to permanently attach himself to a master that he loves (Exodus 21:1-6) to Paul’s own self-description as a slave of Jesus Christ to Mary’s “behold, the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me as you have said,” we are immersed in a world of servants lovingly and confidently looking to their good master for provision, protection, and purpose. Our psalmist is happy to live in that world.
Lastly, our psalmist is in dire straits. We are not given details, but whatever the circumstance, the psalmist has nowhere else to turn but God and his is confident that God will answer. There is a beautiful combination of desperation and confidence in the tone of this psalm. It is not placid and calm in the enjoyment of still waters, but in grim circumstances looks intently but trustingly to the God he knows will answer. I want to end with this tone. It is what Jesus called “importunity” (Luke 11.8); a dogged, almost ridiculously persistent pressing upon God to give what he promised he would give to those who seek him. It is what James refers to as “asking in faith, wavering” (James 1:6). It is why Tertullian could say “prayer alone conquers God.” It is what George Herbert meant when he called prayer an “engine against the Almighty.” May we learn to pray our loving Master’s will with the importunity this psalm exhibits.