Psalm 141: As Incense before You

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!

–Psalm 141:1, 2 (ESV)

The beauty of Psalm 141 is its balance of lamentation and self-examination.  Although the psalmist David calls for judgment on those who try to ensnare him, he turns directly to God to pray that his own heart and mouth might be kept pure.

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
keep watch over the door of my lips!

–vv. 3, 4

Another focus of Psalm 141 is the importance of righteous reproof.  Just as the proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17), David exclaims:

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it.

–v. 5

In short, Psalm 141 contains wise words on a variety of themes, and it’s to the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of this psalm that we turn today.

292, “O Lord, Make Haste to Hear My Cry”

It ought to be acknowledged that Psalm 141 can be quite a challenge to interpret and paraphrase.  An ESV footnote comments that “The meaning of the Hebrew in verses 6, 7 is uncertain,” and even Charles Spurgeon, commenting on v. 6, admits that “This is a verse of which the meaning seems far to seek.”

That being said, in a few places I am equally puzzled as to the intents of the creators of this setting.  The first stanza is spot-on.  Verses 2 and 3, however, interpret a kind of “morning” vs. “evening” contrast into the second verse of the psalm, which I simply don’t see (the text merely refers to an “evening sacrifice”).  Similarly, the fifth stanza somehow manipulates Psalm 141:5 to read instead:

O righteous God, Thy chastisement,
Though sent through foes, in love is sent;
Though grievous, it will profit me,
A healing ointment it shall be.

As Spurgeon and the ESV indicated, verse 7 presents a real challenge to versifiers: “As when one plows and breaks up the earth, so shall our bones be scattered at the mouth of Sheol.”  Overall I suppose I am satisfied, if not thrilled, with the treatment of this verse in stanza 7 of number 141.  And there are no complains to make about the final stanza:

Themselves entangled in their snare,
Their own defeat my foes prepare;
O keep me, Lord, nor let me fall,
Protect and lead me safe through all.

As far as long-meter (L. M.) tunes go, QUEBEC (HESPERUS) is both a common standby and a beautiful selection.  The opening measure makes it easily confusable with tunes like MARYTON (#169), TRENTHAM (#276), and ST. CRISPIN (#252), but playing through a full stanza before singing should avoid any mix-ups on the part of the congregation.  Strangely enough, my only criticism of this tune is that it is surprisingly low for the blue Psalter Hymnal.  As I just sang through it I had trouble reaching the low F in the bass line; perhaps raising the key a bit would make the range more accessible.  Other than that, QUEBEC fits these heartfelt lyrics perfectly.

O Lord, make haste to hear my cry,
To Thee I call, on Thee rely;
Incline to me a gracious ear,
And, when I call, in mercy hear.


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