Psalm 143: I Am Your Servant

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!

–Psalm 143:1 (ESV)

URC Psalmody’s journey through the Psalter began with the beginning of URC Psalmody itself, back on December 31, 2011.  To avoid getting “bogged down” in one area of the psalms, I decided to split the series into two different trails: one beginning with Psalm 103, the other beginning with Psalm 48. While this journey is still far from complete (with Psalms 1-47, 68-102, and 144-150 awaiting their own posts), it’s a bit surprising nonetheless to come to Psalm 143 and realize that it is the last lament of the Psalter.

Even from the cross-references provided in the ESV Study Bible, we can see the clear connection of Psalm 143 with earlier laments: Psalm 140:6, 31:1, 130:3, and 88:3-6, just to name a few.  Perhaps its closest cousin is Psalm 77, which includes both a desolate cry for help and a call to remember the Lord’s mighty deeds in the past.  But one unique aspect of Psalm 143 is its beautiful confession of guilt in v. 2: “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.”  This psalm also contains a direct appeal to the guiding work of the Holy Spirit in v. 10, and ends on a note of confidence that is both an unusual conclusion to the psalms of lament, and a wonderful transition to the final seven songs in the Psalter:

For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!
And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.

–vv. 11, 12

As is our custom, today we’ll briefly consider the blue Psalter Hymnal’s two versifications of Psalm 143.

294, “Lord, Hear Me in Distress”

When it comes to psalms of lament and imprecation, the 1912 Psalter and, by extension, the Psalter Hymnal have a nasty habit of dialing down the weight and power of the inspired text.  Thankfully, for Psalm 143 that is not the case.  In fact, the text of number 294 is one of the best I’ve seen throughout the Psalter Hymnal.  Despite the challenge of setting the words to a short and rather unusual meter (6.6.6.6.D.), the creators of this versification managed to preserve the nuances of the psalm exceptionally well.  The poetry is conducive, too, especially in stanzas like the fourth:

My failing spirit see,
O Lord, to me make haste;
Hide not Thy face from me,
Lest bitter death I taste.
O let the morn return,
Let mercy light my day;
For Thee in faith I yearn,
O guide me in the way.

DENBY is a fairly unique tune composed by Charles J. Dale in 1904.  A number of tunes have been implemented for this psalm setting in its various incarnations, but I tend to like the flow and mood of the melody included here.  Just let the musician be careful not to speed through these powerful words of desolation and hope!

295, “When Morning Lights the Eastern Skies”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

In some United Reformed congregations, this excerpt from Psalm 143 has traditionally served as a response to the silent prayer at the opening of morning worship.  Basically it is a setting of Psalm 143:8-11, less literal than number 294 but no less accurate to the inspired text.  The tune, also composed in 1904, is sufficiently meditative for these solemn yet hopeful words.  “When Morning Lights the Eastern Skies” would serve well as a response to the reading of God’s law, or in many other places in the worship service.

Perhaps it is particularly fitting that Psalm 143 should wrap up the genre of laments within the Psalter.  It starts with the realization that the Lord owes us nothing but punishment—“for no one living is righteous before you”—yet it rests in the assurance of his unmerited grace.  It acknowledges the terrible threats posed to us by our mortal enemies, but declares God to be our everlasting refuge.  It looks back on his mighty deeds of old as proof that his mercies are new every morning.  And it ends with this intensely personal confession:

And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.

Remove mine enemy,
My cruel foe reward;
In mercy rescue me
Who am Thy servant, Lord.

–MRK

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