Why do we need to pray? The Heidelberg Catechism answers that “prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us. And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking him for them” (LD 45, Q&A 116).
When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer—a New Testament model for Christian prayer. For an Old Testament model of prayer, the Psalter excels; and for a model of a believer’s cry for deliverance, we need look no further than Psalm 142.
With my voice I cry out to the LORD;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.
–Psalm 142:1, 2 (ESV)
Why does David need to tell his trouble before the LORD, who he confesses in Psalm 139 to “know when I sit down and when I rise up,” and to “discern my thoughts from afar”? First, because God commands it, and second, because it is for his benefit. Charles Spurgeon says, “Note that we do not show our trouble before the Lord that he may see it, but that we may see him.” There is nothing more comforting than to unburden our souls before our gracious heavenly Father, assured that he already knows and cares. The psalmist knew this assurance as well: “When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!” (v. 3).
Next David presents a stark contrast between his earthly “refuge” and his heavenly Refuge:
Look to the right and see:
there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O LORD;
I say, ‘You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.’
–vv. 3, 5
Psalm 142 ends with both a sharp cry and a joyous note of praise.
Attend to my cry,
for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors,
for they are too strong for me!
Bring me out of prison,
that I may give thanks to your name!
The righteous will surround me,
for you will deal bountifully with me.
–vv. 6, 7
Of all the nuances of this closing passage, the one I love most is David’s reaction to his imminent deliverance. The salvation the Lord has wrought for him finds immediate expression in his worship with God’s people. It is there that he praises his Savior and proclaims to his brothers his wondrous works. How can we, who have been delivered from such great depths of misery, fail to unite with Christ’s church to give him thankful praise?
293, “To God My Earnest Voice I Raise” (Psalm 142)
To God my earnest voice I raise,
To God my voice imploring prays;
Before His face my grief I show
And tell my trouble and my woe.
The Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 142 reads more like a paraphrase than like the original text, yet it preserves the tone and flow of thought of the psalm quite well. I think the most powerful words are found in the last three stanzas.
The tune, of course, is instantly recognizable as HAMBURG, sung so often to the words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The plaintive chant-like qualities of this tune (indeed, it was arranged from a Gregorian chant by Lowell Mason) make it perfectly suited for this prayer of supplication. Yet its broadness also provides for a bold and confident final verse, as the delivered singer unites with the congregation in praise. The Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir renders the nuances of Psalm 142 exceptionally well in their arrangement, even mirroring David’s response by having the congregation join them on the last stanza.
And so we find in Psalm 142 a surpassingly beautiful summary of a believer’s prayer in affliction. As Spurgeon puts it, “When we can begin a Psalm with crying, we may hope to close it with singing. The voice of prayer soon awakens the voice of praise.”
The righteous then shall gather round
To share the blessing I found,
Their hearts made glad because they see
How richly God has dealt with me.