Psalm 86
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
We do not know for certain the author, the date, or the circumstances of this psalm; nor for its ministry of help to us is it needful that we should. It is the fervent utterance of a devout and believing but distressed soul. Consider -

I. THE PRAYERS. Even in these few verses we note:

1. How numerous they are! "Bow down thine ear;" "Preserve my soul; Save me;" "Be merciful unto me;" "Rejoice the soul of thy servant."

2. How substantially the same! Repetitions need not be "vain repetitions;" they are often the reverse of vain; indeed, in many moods of our soul, they are indispensable. The soul is slow and sluggish; its vis inertiae hard to be overcome, and it is found by many that repetition, "saying the same words," is a great help in arousing thought and fixing the mind on the sacred duty before it.

3. But varied inform. This is also very helpful in prayer. Stereotyped forms, unless we be very watchful, will flow over the mind and never arouse a solitary thought. It is good, therefore, to compel the mind to express itself in varied form; for so our prayer is likely to be both more real and more helpful.

4. And progressive in meaning. The psalmist begins with simply entreating God to hear him, to give him audience; then he asks for his chief need to be supplied, and that he may be delivered, saved; then, that his unworthiness may be overlooked, that God would be merciful to him; and lastly, that the Lord would rejoice his soul, not merely preserve and save him, but more - give him joy. It is ever an upward advance, as our prayer should be.

5. And confident in trust. The opening petition is one of the many proofs that prior to the Incarnation the saints of God had come to the full conviction of the humanity of God. This cry that God would "bow down" his "ear" is one of those anthropomorphic, as they are called, expressions, of which the Old Testament is so full. How often do we read of the eyes, feet, hand, face, ear, of God! They are not mere figures; but they tell of the recognized truth that God was as we are - apart from our weakness, limitation, and sin. And the psalmist has laid hold of this truth, and it is his encouragement as he pours forth his prayer. Thus in a very real sense the prayers of the Jewish Church were, as are ours, offered through Jesus Christ our Lord. They, as do we, came to the Father by him; for "no man cometh unto the Father but by me," said our Lord, nor otherwise have any ever come.

II. THE PLEAS URGED. They are full of power, and in them, as in the prayers they support, there is variety and advance in thought.

1. His deep need. (Ver. 1.) Unless this be felt, there will never be real prayer.

2. His relationship to God. (Ver. 2.) "For I am one whom thou lovest." This, the rendering of the margin, is preferable to the text either of the Authorized Version, which is, "I am holy," or of the Revised Version, which is, "I am godly." It avoids the self-righteous tone which seems inseparable from these readings, and declares his confidence begotten by favours received from God in the past.

3. His trust.

4. His continued prayer. He had waited on the Lord, confident that his trust would be sustained.

5. The declared Name of God. (Ver. 5.) He who believingly urges that cannot fail of the Divine aid according to his need. - S.C.

Historical associations for this psalm cannot be fixed with any confidence. It may be a fragment of David's which was enlarged and adapted, in a later age, to liturgical purposes. Its fragmentary character must strike every careful reader. It is suitable for any pious soul that is in distress, and is a fitting utterance for our burdened hearts. The point before us now is, that the pious soul feels it has claims on God, and may plead those claims in prayer before him. Right ideas of the sovereignty of the Divine mercy can be held along with clear convictions of man's claims on God, if only we keep fully before us that the claims are wholly based on relations in which God has been pleased to set himself. If he condescends, in his infinite love, to enter into covenant with his people, then we may recognize that he puts himself into the limitations and obligations of the pledges he takes. If we are faithful to our pledge in covenant, we can claim that God should be faithful to his pledge in the covenant. This is in part the feeling of the psalmist; and if associated with a due dependence, humility, and submission, it is a right and worthy feeling. A child has claims on his father; and if he does so in a childlike spirit, he may plead those claims before his father. It has been wisely said of our text, "This is not the highest ground that can be taken in pressing for an answer to our prayer, but it is a ground which God suffers us to take."

I. THE PLEAS BY WHICH THE PSALMIST'S PRAYER IS URGED. Notice that they concern the psalmist himself, and the conditions in which he is placed. It may seem unworthy thus to speak of himself; but if a man is to be sincere, he must say the truth about himself; and no harm comes when he says it out to God, because we cannot be boastful before him. In vers. 1-3 we find four descriptions of the psalmist himself, made into pleas.

1. He is poor. This may refer to circumstances, but more probably it is a word for humble mindedness; the feeling of the man who wants God because he knows he cannot help himself.

2. He is needy. Which may mean in distress, or may express an actual longing for, and crying for, God's help.

3. He is holy; which simply means, "one of thy saints;" "one who is in the full covenant relations with thee;" "one whom thou favourest;" "one whose habit of life is piety." If this is true of us, it need not be a wrong thing to say so.

4. Trustful and prayerful. Actually reliant; honouring God by a full confidence. And God surely responds to all who put their trust in him.


1. Bow down to the poor.

2. Preserve the godly.

3. Save the trustful.

4. Be merciful to him who cries.

The requests for precisely adapted grace. - R.T.

Preserve my soul. In the Old Testament the term "soul" is often used as we use the term "life." But there always seems within the term more or less perfect apprehension of the truth that the soul is the man. The commonly received division of man's being is into "body "and "soul;" but a more scientific analysis divides into body - which includes animal soul, or life - and spirit. The "tripartite division" is body, soul, spirit. As a moral redemption, the work of Christ has brought prominently before us that man is a spiritual being. As Dr. George Macdonald expresses it, "We are accustomed to say that we are bodies, and have souls; whereas we should say - We are souls, and have bodies."

I. MAN'S SOUL IS THE SPHERE OF GOD'S MORAL TRAINING. We may see God in history; but his supreme interest is in characters, not in events. We may see God in providence; but we fail to see him aright, unless we trace the influence of incidents on our principles and on our spirit. Everything has a moral side and a moral mission. God is ever moulding disposition and character, which are the shapings of the soul. This is true of every man. Humanity to God is a collection of spirits, or spiritual beings, set for their moral training in varied bodily forms and relations.

II. MAN'S SOUL IS THE SPHERE OF GOD'S REDEMPTIONS. The mistake made about Christ the Saviour in the days of his flesh was quite a representative mistake. Men thought he came to deliver a nation from foreign dominion; whereas he came to save souls from sin. The body redemptions follow on as the natural consequences of the spiritual redemptions. God's great work is saving souls from death. Therefore it is that before we can hope that Christ and his work will ever be appreciated, we are compelled to awaken soul anxiety; or, in other words, seek to produce conviction of sin. When our Lord's saving work is fully studied as a moral redemption, a quickening of souls with a Divine life rather than an adjustment of broken external relations, the full mystery of it will be revealed and realized.

III. MAN'S SOUL IS THE SPHERE OF THE DIVINE SANCTIFYINGS. The present work of the living Christ, realized by us as the inworking of the Holy Ghost, is not the change of the things with which we have to do, but a change of the relations in which we stand to the things; a change wrought in us - wrought in the souls that we are. This change, in effect, changes the character of the things with which we have to do. - R.T.

Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord. It may be asked Why should God be compared with gods that Scripture so vigorously declares are no gods? It is enough to reply that all teachers must come down to the level of those whom they would teach; and begin by accepting their ideas in order to lead them on and up to higher and worthier. Calvin puts this point well. "Should any one assert that it is unseemly to compare God to the empty fictions, the answer is easy; the discourse is accommodated to the ignorance of men, because we know how daringly superstitious men raise their whims above the heavens." The psalmist has in view a basis of comparison which is foreign to our mode of thinking. In his day the deities were conceived as limited and local beings, who belonged to particular countries. If the general name Baal was used, some qualifying name was added, which indicated the Baal worshipped in a particular district. With this idea in their minds, men might say of Jehovah, "He is only the God of Palestine." This view of God the whole Bible vigorously protests against, and claims for Jehovah sole Divinity; he is out of the range of so called "gods;" he cannot be compared with any. This subject may be opened out, with present day applications, by showing that -

I. God is incomparable as the ONLY UNCAUSED BEING.

II. God is incomparable as an UNSEEN SPIRITUAL BEING.

III. God is incomparable as an INFINITELY HOLY BEING.



VI. God is the BEING WHO REQUIRES A SERVICE OF CHARACTER, expressed in act and conduct - not of conduct alone. Scriptures dwell on this uniqueness of God (see Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 3:24; Isaiah 40. etc.). Being what he is, God alone, God all-mighty, God all-holy, he rightly claims that we should love him and serve him, "with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength." He must be first with us, because he stands forth before us as incomparable. - R.T.

The declaration of God's ultimate possession of all hearts, which is involved in this verse, is found not here alone (cf. Psalm 22:27; Psalm 66:4; Isaiah 66:18, 23; John 12:32; Philippians 2:10, 11, etc.); and, assuredly, it is the spirit of the whole Scripture. And such considerations as the following sustain such blessed belief.

I. THAT IT IS A FAITH WHICH SO COMMENDS ITSELF TO THE CONSCIENCE OF MEN. It is what ought to be, what we cannot help hoping may be, that God's will may be done everywhere and by all.


(1) that either God would save all men, but could not - in which case he would not be God, because some other had evidently greater power than he; or

(2) that God could save, but would not, which is plainly contradictory of the whole Scripture, and, were it true, God would be no longer God. Either theory leads direct to atheism.

III. IT IS INCREDIBLE THAT GOD WOULD HAVE CONTINUED TO CREATE BEINGS WHOM HE KNEW MUST ETERNALLY SIN AND SUFFER. Creation involves redemption. Had he been unable to redeem, he would not have created.

IV. CHRIST WAS MANIFESTED TO DESTROY THE WORKS OF THE DEVIL. But if any are forever unsaved, then Christ has not accomplished the work he came to do, and the victory belongs not to him, but to Satan.

V. THE WORTH OF CHRIST'S ATONEMENT. It is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. But some may say, "It is of no use to any one unless he trusts it." That is so; but our contention is that the resources of God are adequate to bring men to give up their own evil will, and to cast themselves in penitence and trust on God. Has he not already brought round the most stubborn of human wills? He knows how to make the prodigal come to himself, and to say, "I will arise," etc.

VI. HE HAS TAUGHT US TO PRAY, "THY WILL BE DONE ON EARTH AS," ETC. But this is what our text predicts; and he would not have bidden us pray that prayer if it was never to be fulfilled. All this is no encouragement to sin, for it teaches that God will leave no means untried, no matter how terrible they may be, and for the hardened sinner they will be terrible, to subdue to himself the perverse and unruly will of man. - S.C.

By letting that Name be known among the Gentiles, so that they glorify him. At last all the world shall unite in lifting up holy hands and loving hearts to God, and unite in singing, "Praise God, praise God; This conception of the universal acknowledgment of Jehovah is strange for an exclusive Jew, and is a foreshadowing of Christian ideas. We are to think of God as seeking the glorifying of his Name in this - that every creature made in his image unites in the glorifying. "All nations shall come and worship." "The Gentile deities being obviously inferior to Jehovah, the psalmist foresees that one day the Creator will become known to the Gentiles, and the Church of God be extended without limit." "The pious Jews believed that God's common relation to all would be ultimately acknowledged by all men." The name of God is usually and properly regarded as any term which gathers up and expresses the attributes and characteristics of God. Illustrate by the way in which a simple term will express a scientific theory.

I. THE NAME, OR NAMES, GOD HAS GIVEN US OF HIMSELF. The earliest name men knew seems to have been El, which, in a general way, expresses the Creatorship of God. This name is common to the human race. It is found in the singular and plural forms, and in combination with some other name, as El Shaddai. Then, one race knew God in special covenant relations; and as the covenant God he is known as Jahveh, or Jehovah. As if the thing which man pledges to preserve were the truth of the self-origination, unity, and spirituality of God! Then God found a name for himself which would make constant appeal to man's experience of his dealings, and called himself "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Then God found precise names for himself, suitable for individuals, or for the nation in particular circumstances. Compare the name for Abraham, "I am thy Shield;" for David, "The Lord is my Shepherd;" for the nation, "The Lord our Righteousness." Lead up to the fixing of one name for God by the Lord Jesus Christ - "our Father." If God gives us a name for himself, he pledges himself to all that is involved in the name. In faithfulness to what it demands and involves, he will glorify it.

II. THE NAME, OR NAMES, MEN HAVE GIVEN TO GOD OUT OF THEIR EXPERIENCE OF HIS WAYS. The work of a man's life may be represented as "finding a name of his own for God." It may be the same that some one else has found, and yet be the man's own. In faithfulness to what each man's name for God claims, each man glorifies him. Then point out that God's name is glorified

(1) by being duly sustained;

(2) by being efficiently responded to; and

(3) by being widely made known. Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King, and they will swell the chorus of his praise. - R.T.

I. THE ESSENCE OF ALL TRUE RELIGION IS THE FEAR OF GOD. "To fear thy Name," says the psalmist, and so saying he sets forth the central nature of real religion. But this fear

(1) is not the fear which has torment; or

(2) that which is simply the reasonable dread of penalty, - the fear of the law-abiding citizen; but it is

(3) the fear begotten of love, - the fear of an affectionate child, which makes it careful to obey. Whatever we love we are careful to obey the laws of - whether it be art, science, parents. And so with the fear of God. It is seen in all saints.

II. THERE CAN BE NO SUCH RELIGION UNLESS THE HEART BE IN IT. Intellect may be there, Reason give her assent. Approval may be expressed - it often is. Deep feeling experienced, this not unusual; but unless the heart, the will - for this is the real meaning of the word "heart" - be in our religion, we practically have none.

III. NOR THEN UNLESS THE HEART BE UNITED IN IT, Some minds are not fixed on anything; they are perpetual waverers. Others are fixed, set, wrongly but "steadfastly to do evil." But they are blessed who are described in our text. Oh to be able to say, "O God, my heart is fixed, my heart is fixed"! - S.C.

This verse contains a prayer "against distraction and division of heart, of course with the desire of its being knit as a whole to God." Perowne expresses the idea skilfully, "Suffer my heart no longer to scatter itself upon a multiplicity of objects, to be drawn hither and thither by a thousand different aims; but turn all its powers, all its affections, in one direction, collect them in one focus, make them all one in thee." Our Lord impressed the importance of this unity of aim and purpose by his teachings concerning "singleness of eye." And he taught us the secret of unifying all our powers and affections. It can only be done by making God and his service our Centre - "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." To the earnest, right-hearted man, the tendency to distraction of mind is a constant anxiety. He is troubled by distraction in devotion, in worship, in motive, and in service. Consciousness of this forces the prayer of our text.

I. DISTRACTION IN DEVOTION. All books on the "interior life" deal with this difficulty, and suggest methods by which it may be overcome. But even if good habits can be formed, we are always liable to the intrusion of things in which, at the time, we are specially interested - matters of business, engagements to be kept, etc. The hurried character of modern private devotion puts in serious peril the unity of our hearts in such seasons. The mind is sure to be elsewhere.

II. DISTRACTION IN WORSHIP. When the words are known, they may be spoken while the mind is otherwhere. When the words are unknown, the mind may fail to be exercised with them. The difference between times of devotion and worship lies in this - in private devotion, the mind must be active; in worship, another mind than ours is active, and ours is passive and recipient. To the passive mind the intrusion of other interests is easier than to the active mind. Therefore our worship should be arranged so as to excite the active cooperation of all who take part in it.

III. DISTRACTION IN MOTIVE. Probably none of us do things from absolutely pure motives. If we read our hearts aright, we find evil and unworthy motives really swaying us, when we half deceive ourselves with the idea that our motives are high and noble. And at best the motives are "mixed." The self is prominent.

IV. DISTRACTION IN SERVICE. Our purpose may be to set God first, and with this we may begin. But division of interests soon comes in, and we find that we are but "following the devices and desires of our own hearts." There is hope in the desire to be undivided, whole-hearted. We want a single, steady aim. We want to have no object before our minds save the glory of God. And we want every force and faculty of our being brought into a unity of consecration. - R.T.

Unite my heart to fear thy Name.


1. It is prayer against double-mindedness. "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh," etc. Two masters in the house whom we alternately serve - the heavenly and the earthly. Two steering the boat of our lives.

2. For wholeness or entireness of mind in the service of God. That the divided heart may be made one. That the conflicting aims should be destroyed by the strength and superiority of the one aim - to love and serve God as our Father.


1. A sense of oneness with God. Let a man honestly and truly give himself to God, and make no reserves; let him determine to be true and faithful, - then he comes at once into the secret of faith and acceptance and fellowship with God, and he keeps the secret pure and bright.

2. Triumphant strength. Secret of strength is concentration upon a supreme aim and singleness of purpose. We cannot work out two plans of life that are in their nature mutually exclusive. When we can set aside all compromises and serve God with a united heart, we shall no longer be constantly baffled and defeated by our temptations, but able to cry with joy, "Thanks be unto God, that giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"

3. This will give us real peace. The peace of conscious rectitude; feeling that our purpose is honest and simple - to be Christ's without reserve. The peace of a great deliverance; and feel that we are the subjects of a great salvation. The peace of a great fearlessness; nothing to terrify the man who is at one with God; sits above all storms, and is secure and at home with God. - S.

What God has done is made into a ground for pleading that he would do even more abundantly. A psalmist can ask great things when he is well assured that he who has given much grace can give more grace. The plea based on what God has done is made to include two things - soul redemption, life benediction. These are well expressed in the Revised Version of Psalm 56:13, "For thou hast delivered my soul from death: hast thou not delivered my feet from falling?" The review is more complete in Psalm 116:8, "For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling."




IV. WHAT GOD HAS DONE SETS US UPON MAINTAINING THE CONDITIONS ON WHICH THE BLESSINGS HAVE COME TO US. For we are not straitened either in God's power or God's will. If straitened, it can only be because we fail to respond to the Divine conditions. - R.T.

Full of compassion, and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy and truth The term "gracious," as applied to God, brings in ideas of tenderness, gentleness, considerateness, in dealing with those who are frail and weak. It is like "pitiful," but does not imply conditions of special poverty or distress. "Gracious" fits into God's ordinary ways with ordinary people. If we used the term of our fellow men, we should single out those who were sympathetic and sweet mannered and gentle toned. It brings in a somewhat fresh, and a very attractive, view of God, thus to associate the word "gracious" with him. The precise shades of meaning that may be attached to the term will come to view upon a study of the following passages: Exodus 22:27, "And it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious;" Exodus 34:6, "And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious;" 2 Samuel 12:22, "Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?" Nehemiah 9:17, "A God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful;" Psalm 4:1, margin, "Be gracious unto me, and hear my prayer;" Isaiah 30:18, "And therefore will the Lord wait, that he may be gracious unto you;" Jonah 4:2, "For I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil." Evidently the term is used to express God's relations with sinners, as distinct from his relations with sin; and it especially describes the Divine response to penitent sinners. "Grace," as favour, mercy, was the highest blessing under the Old Testament dispensation. Joseph, in the fulness of his feelings on seeing his brother Benjamin, cried, "God be gracious to thee, my son!" The synonyms of the term "gracious" may be found suggestive - kindly, beneficent, benignant, condescending, pleasing. Bring out the point that not only does God save and sanctify, but he saves and sanctifies in a gentle, considerate, and delightful way. Put into a figure, he never "breaks the bruised reed, or quenches the smoking flax." - R.T.

We remark upon the prayer contained in this verse -

I. THAT SUCH PRAYER MAY BE AN IMPROPER ONE. Our Lord said to the people of his day, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe." And how many today are like these people! Now, such request for tokens is wrong:

1. When we presume to select tokens for ourselves. God may allow this, as he did to Gideon in connection with the fleece of wool; but it is very improper for us to be stipulating for specific signs. With how many their religion is one dependent on their feelings, and varies as they do! Naaman "turned, and went away in a rage" (2 Kings 5.), because God's prophet did not fulfil his idea as to the way in which be should be healed.

2. When we trust to a token more than we do to the Word of testimony. St. Peter, though he had seen the glorious vision on the Transfiguration mount - a token for good, if ever there was one - is yet careful to add, "But we have the more sure word of prophecy." And of all our tokens, as well as all our opinions, we are bound to bring them "to the Law, and to the testimony," and there test them; for "if they be not according to this word, it is because there is no truth in them." And not a few of men's fancied tokens have turned out to have no truth in them.

3. When we withhold faith till we have some token which we think will justify it. (See Luke 1:18.) And when the Jews demanded a sign from heaven, as they were perpetually doing, it was refused them, as such requests ever will be (cf. Luke 1:18).

II. SUCH PRAYER IS NEVER ONE WHOSE ANSWER IS ESSENTIAL. For without any such special tokens as we might wish for, there is no child of God but has tokens for good in abundance.

1. There is the Lord Jesus Christ. Is he not God's great and eternal token for good to us?

2. And the fact that God has created us, brought us into being. Would he have done that had he meant evil to us? "Known unto God are all his works."

3. And the further fact that we have come to Christ, are trusting him now, and the Holy Spirit is doing his blessed work in us still.

4. All the promises of God, so exceeding great and precious, - are not all these tokens for good? Assuredly they are.

III. BUT IT IS, AT TIMES, A PERMISSIBLE ONE. It was so in the case of the psalmist. For in spite of all difficulties he looked to God; his troubles drove him to God, and to God only, and not to the help of men. Such a man was not one who would arbitrarily select some given token, or who would trust it more than the Word of God, or who would withhold his belief until it was given. But he desired it for the convincement and discomfiture of his enemies, as well as for the confirmation of his own faith.

IV. AND GOD HAS OFTEN GIVEN SUCH TOKENS. Moses and the rod; Gideon with the fleece; Hezekiah with his dial. And he gives the like still, in answers to prayer, in providential help, in support under trial, in unlooked for events.

V. THE RESULTS WHICH HAVE FOLLOWED. God's enemies have been ashamed. See in, Israel's history when. God gave them such tokens, how we read of their enemies having "no more spirit in them." And still, when God visibly sustains his people, unbelievers look on and are silent, in fear, because conscious of the presence of God. But let us remember that we are never without tokens for good. - S.C.

It is a subject of inquiry that we find God sometimes granting, and sometimes refusing to grant, signs and tokens. The reason of his various dealing appears to be this - he is willing to help weak faith; he is unwilling to give opportunities to unbelief. These points may be illustrated from Old and New Testament narrative; e.g. to Gideon God granted the sign or token of the "fleece," because Gideon wanted to believe, but needed help to believing. The scribes and Pharisees who sought a sign, or token, of the Messiahship of Jesus were refused, because they had no intention of allowing themselves to be persuaded by it, but meant to turn it to account in intensifying their prejudice against Jesus. A pious man may always freely ask God for a token; but whether one is given to him will entirely depend upon the attitude and mood of his mind, and upon the Divine judgment that a token will be a real good to him. Withholding the tokens for which we long and pray is sometimes a form of Divine discipline. What is referred to by the psalmist here is not a miraculous sign, such as Gideon had, but some evident striking proof, in ordinary daily relations, of God's good will to him. Tholuck says, "Is it not the fact that the more we recognize in every daily occurrence God's secret inspiration guiding and controlling us, the more will all which to others wears a common, everyday aspect to us prove a sign and a wondrous work."

I. THE DESIRE FOR TOKENS OF GOD'S GOOD WILL. Those reconciled to God want to keep up the sense of reconciliation. Modern tokens may be expected in two ways.

1. In an evident ordering and controlling of our outward circumstances. We may see the "good hand of our God, upon us for good." Doors opened. Ways made plain. Hindrances taken out of the way.

2. In the comfortable sense of God's love in our souls; the inward communications of Divine grace.

II. THE PURPOSE FOR WHICH THE DESIRE WAS CHERISHED. That God's service might be commended to others. And that the proofs of Divine favour might so influence the foes of the psalmist, that the strain of their enmity might be relieved. He felt that those who were bitter against him would change their ways if they saw, by some plain sign, that God was on his side. - R.T.

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