Back in the spring I read a sermon that Charles Spurgeon preached in London about a century ago. The text he used in that sermon was Job 23:3, 4, where Job says of God, "O that I knew where I might find him! That I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him and fill my mouth with arguments." Spurgeon observed that,
the ancient saints were given with Job, to ordering their cause before God. As a petitioner coming into court does not come there without thought to state his case on the spur of the moment, but enters into the audience chamber with his suit well prepared, having also learned how he ought to behave himself in the presence of the great one to whom he is appealing, so it is well to approach the seat of the King of Kings as much as possible with premeditation and preparation, knowing what we are about, where we are standing, and what it is which we desire to obtain. ("Effective Prayer," Gospel Mission, p. 4)
Then he gave a personal word which also rang true with my experience. He said,
The best prayers I have ever heard in our prayer meetings have been those which have been fullest of argument. Sometimes my soul has been fairly melted down where I have listened to the brethren who have come before God feeling the mercy to be really needed, and that they must have it, for they first pleaded with God to give it for this reason, and then for a second, and then for a third and then for a fourth and a fifth until they have awakened the fervency of the entire assembly. ("Effective Prayer," p. 10)
Ever since reading this sermon by Spurgeon I have become more and more conscious of how the saints of Scripture prayed this way. Especially some of the psalms show David filling his mouth with arguments toward God. I think we will get a lot of help for our prayer life if we look at one of these prayers, namely, Psalm 143.
I would like us to try to answer three questions from this psalm.
1) What did David want?
2) How did he propose to get it?
3) How did he argue with God?
What David Wants
First, what did David want? The best way to answer this is to assemble all his requests and see if they fall into similar categories. There are about fifteen requests:
hear my prayer, O Lord
give ear to my supplication
enter not into judgment with your servant
hide not your face from me
let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love
teach me the way I should go
deliver me from my enemies
teach me to do your will
let your good spirit lead me on a level path
preserve my life
bring me out of trouble
cut off my enemies
destroy all my adversaries
When we try to group these, they fall into three categories. The first is the general desire to be heard and answered as in verse 1 and verse 7: "Hear my prayer, give ear to my supplications, answer me." David wants God, first of all, simply to be open to hearing his more specific requests. If God's face is turned away, ignoring David, then all his supplications and arguments are in vain.
All the other requests fall into two groups, David's desire for safety and his desire for godliness. His desire for godliness is seen in verse 8: "Cause me to know the way I should go," and verse 10, "Teach me to do your will . . . lead me on a level path." There is a great lesson here for us, namely, whenever we plead with God for some material or physical blessing, we should always include an earnest prayer for our own moral and spiritual transformation. David's life was endangered and he was crying out for protection and preservation. But sheer existence, the hunger to stay alive, did not so dominate David's mind that he forgot the point of living. Why go on living? For the believer earthly life is not an end in itself. There are reasons to live which justify the desire to stay alive and one of those reasons is to do God's will, to walk in the way God has appointed (vv. 8, 10). So David does not merely plead for escape and safety. He pleads for God to teach him and lead him in a "land of uprightness" (which is how verse 10b can be translated). He doesn't just want to live; he wants to live for God.
You can measure your spiritual temperature by whether your prayers are richly seasoned with expressions of longing for your own growth in godliness. Do you plead with God to make you more joyful, more loving, more patient, more kind, more gentle, more earnest, more disciplined, etc.? Or do you only pray that he get you out of this and that financial pinch or sickness or predicament at work. If so, call to mind that God did not create us and redeem us merely to live and live well off; he created and redeemed us to be holy as he is holy, to walk in his good will and so bring glory to him. So let's be like David, and every time we hunger for life and safety, let's express to God that we desire spiritual vitality and godliness just as much as life itself.
The other requests in this psalm all come under the category of pleas for safety. First, safety from human enemies: verse 9, "Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies"; verses 11, 12, "O Lord, preserve my life . . . bring me out of trouble; cut off all my enemies and destroy all my adversaries." David was a great warrior and no doubt often from the early days when Saul was after him to the end of his fighting career he was beset by enemies who wanted to eliminate him from the scene. And even in times of apparent peace there was the danger of intrigue within his own courts. Remember his own son Absalom tried to steal the hearts of the people away from David.
How can we go on functioning when we know that there are hostile forces surrounding us who may from time to time break in and do us harm? Won't this rob us of all peace and put us always on edge and make us tense? Yes, it will, until we have sought God like David and prayed earnestly and argued our way before him into his peace.
You may think such a prayer for deliverance from enemies has little to do with your tranquil life in safe, suburban America. And it is true that few of us run the risks with human enemies which David did. But there are hostilities that arise at work and in the neighborhood which could result in abuse. Mary Stauffer probably never dreamed that hostilities against her could linger for fifteen years and then break in against her like they did.
But lest we nevertheless content ourselves that hostile enmity is really not part of our experience, let's remember what Jesus taught his disciples to pray: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." We all have an enemy whose hostility against us never ceases and who is bent on our real destruction, that is, the destruction of our faith. So when we read these psalms it would not be contrary to their spirit if we remember our arch-enemy, the evil one, and then pray that God would deliver us from his power and destroy all his forces. Then we can sing with Martin Luther:
And though this world with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure
For, lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
But there is another person from whose enmity David seeks to escape. He seeks to escape the judgment of God. Verse 2: "Enter not into judgment with thy servant." David not only needs a place of protection from his human adversary, he also needs protection from his divine adversary. But where can you flee from the judgment of God?
How David Prays
That brings us to the second question we want to answer, namely, How does David propose to get the godliness and the safety that he wants? The obvious answer is by prayer. This simple fact is especially encouraging to me because David was a great man; we know he was handsome and strong and wise and sensitive and often had lots of human power at his disposal. Yet David unhesitatingly takes on the role of a beggar before God. That is encouraging for me because if David did not have to do that, then I might get the idea that God requires us all to have the strength and beauty of David in order to overcome our problems. But in fact King David can only pray. But prayer is something all of us can do no matter how homely or weak or slow-witted we are. So it is a great encouragement when we see David submitting to prayer to get what he needs.
In answer to the question, Where can you flee from the judgment of God? there is only one answer which holds out any hope: flee to God. When a little child has disobeyed his father and stirred up his anger, he has got two possibilities. He can run out the back door, which is hopeless not just because his father is faster but because in the father's house are the food and clothing the child needs to live. The other possibility is to run into his father's arms and squeeze his neck and plead for mercy. The only escape from the judgment of God is in the mercy of God. And this is where David flees. In God there is escape from all adversaries including God. Never try to run from him; he is always faster. But even more, with him alone is fullness of joy and pleasures forever.
But there is a surprising use of language in Psalm 143, which makes me think I better qualify my statement that the only escape from the judgment of God is the mercy of God. This surprising use of language jumps out right away as soon as we ask our third and final question: How does David argue his case before God? Or to put it another way: On what basis does he presume to ask God for godliness and for safety?
The surprising thing in verses 1 and 2 is that David does not first flee to God's mercy to escape his judgment. He flees to God's righteousness. "In thy faithfulness answer me, in thy righteousness! Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for no man living is righteous before thee." Now that sounds backwards. If no one is righteous before God, including me, then isn't it suicidal to ask God to answer us in righteousness? It would be, if divine righteousness meant only his strict adherence to a law of distributive justice according to which every person gets strictly what he deserves. But this can't be the meaning of righteousness in verse 1. David the sinner would never plead for God to act in his righteousness if righteousness meant giving a person only what he deserves.
What does it mean then? Well, it is used back to back with God's faithfulness: "In thy faithfulness answer me, in thy righteousness." Perhaps then, God's righteousness is his doing right by his promises to which he is always faithful. Surely it is right of God to keep his covenant with David and with the Israelites in general. But my problem with this solution is that in all the arguments David gives for why God should help him, he never explicitly appeals to the covenant or to a promise.
To see this, let's list all the arguments David assembles, or all the bases on which he appeals for help.
in your faithfulness
in your righteousness
for no one living is righteous before you
for the enemy has pursued me
he has crushed my life to the ground
he has made me sit in darkness
my spirit faints within me
my heart is appalled
my spirit is failing
lest I be like those who go down to the pit
for in you I put my trust
for to you I lift up my soul
I have fled to you for refuge (covered myself in you)
for you are my God
for your name's sake
in your righteousness
in your steadfast love (mercy)
for I am your servant.
Surely this is what Job meant by ordering our cause before the Lord and filling our mouth with arguments. But notice that David does not say "for you made a covenant with me" or "for you promised me." Therefore, I am inclined to seek another meaning for the divine righteousness of verse 1, instead of "doing right" by his covenant.
I take my clue from one other place in the psalm where God's righteousness was back to back with his faithfulness. In verse 11 God's righteousness is back to back with his commitment to his own name: "For thy name's sake, preserve my life, in thy righteousness bring me out of trouble." It seems to me, therefore, that the faithfulness of verse 1 probably means primarily God's faithfulness to his own name, and only secondarily his faithfulness to his covenant promises. If so, then God's righteousness probably means: doing right by his name, that is, seeking to preserve the honor of his name. In support of this we could look at Psalm 7:17 where God's name and his righteousness come together again: "I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, I will sing praise to the name of the Lord." If I am tracking with David, then, God's righteousness is his commitment to honor his name. God would do the ultimate wrong if he allowed his name to be indefinitely dishonored or belittled. David knows this and so he knows that this is a solid, unchanging rock that he can appeal to.
How David Argues
But how can David hope that God's allegiance to his own honor will prompt him to save David, instead of punishing him for his sin which he admitted in verse 2? The answer to this question comes when we look at the other arguments David uses with God.
Besides calling attention to God's faithfulness, righteousness, mercy, and allegiance to his own name, David brings in two other sorts of arguments: one is his desperate plight, the other is his faith in God. Verses 2–4, "Don't enter into judgment with me," because if you aim to punish me I am done for as a sinner, and if you aim to humble me, look: I am already crushed to the ground, my spirit fails, I am appalled at my condition, I am gasping like a parched land. You don't need to level me. I am on my back. So David argues from his desperate plight.
But that in itself is not very persuasive until the other set of arguments is added, namely, the argument that he has faith. These are crucial. Verses 8–10: "For in you do I trust . . . to you I lift up my soul . . . for I cover myself in you (refuge) . . . for you are my God." Verse 12: "For I am your servant." This is the crucial link between the righteousness of God and the answer to David's prayer. David's assurance is that if he is trusting in God with all his heart, lifting up his soul with longing to him only, seeking refuge in him alone, and claiming him for his only God, then God's honor is at stake in David's deliverance. It would be a blotch on God's name if one who banked all his hopes on that name was finally destroyed.
So David did find a way to escape the judgment of God—by fleeing into the arms of God and filling his mouth with arguments that showed God's very name was at stake in whether David was delivered or not.
There is so much for us to learn here. Let me just review three things briefly in conclusion. First, don't let your sinfulness hinder your seeking help from God. David confessed from the start that if God judged him only with a view to his sin he was done for. We are all sinful beggars before God.
Second, when you come to God, fill your mouth with arguments. Argue from your helpless crushed plight; argue from God's righteous character, that is, his faithfulness to uphold the honor of his name; and argue from your faith or your hope in God. Run into the arms of your Father and fill his ear with arguments.
Finally, always and only ask for what will honor God. And one of the best ways to make sure you do that is to season all your prayers with requests for godliness as well as safety. That is, pray not only like Psalm 79:9 which says, "Help us, O God, . . . for the glory of thy name deliver us and forgive our sins, for thy name's sake"; but also pray like Psalm 31:3 which says, "You are my rock and my fortress, for your name's sake lead me and guide me."