Divided into five sections of descending numbers of verses, Psalm 17 teaches us how we are to lament correctly before God.
Note that lament is not exactly the same as complaining. To complain before God is to despair over circumstances while at the same time distrusting his goodness. The Israelites complained before God whenever their circumstances seemed bleak on the surface. They did not trust God’s sovereignty over their situation, even though He continually saved them from destruction (Exodus 17:1-7).
Biblical lament, on the other hand, is an expression of sorrow poured out to God, and it is able to believe in His goodness in the midst of temporal pain. Lament willingly bends under the pain of earthly circumstance and continues to trust in the face of doubt. Lament doesn’t need to understand “why”; God’s perfect record of promise-keeping is enough.
Let’s inspect each section of this “blueprint”, and then we will make our own lament prayer.
- Verses 1-5: Repentance and a clean conscience
O Lord, hear my plea for justice.
Listen to my cry for help.
Pay attention to my prayer,
for it comes from honest lips.
Declare me innocent,
for you see those who do right.
You have tested my thoughts and examined my heart in the night.
You have scrutinized me and found nothing wrong.
I am determined not to sin in what I say.
I have followed your commands,
which keep me from following cruel and evil people.
My steps have stayed on your path;
I have not wavered from following you.
The psalm begins with the declaration to God that his heart is clean. He has lips free of deceit. He has been tested and nothing was found evil within him. He states his prior decision and determination not to sin, and so confirms his whole-hearted allegiance to God’s ways instead of his own.
- Verses 6-9: Declaration of God’s goodness
I am praying to you because I know you will answer, O God.
Bend down and listen as I pray.
Show me your unfailing love in wonderful ways.
By your mighty power you rescue
those who seek refuge from their enemies.
Guard me as you would guard your own eyes.
Hide me in the shadow of your wings.
Protect me from wicked people who attack me,
from murderous enemies who surround me.
He says “you will answer me, listen closely and hear”. It is a statement of confidence. He isn’t praying to God liek so many of us do after all other avenues of hope are exhausted. He says “display the wonders of your faithful love”. This is something not new or hoped for from afar, but an intimate cry that knows from experience, that rescue is possible. He asks for protection from “those who rebel”, the ones who turn away from God.
- Verses 10-12: Description of Lament
They are without pity.
Listen to their boasting!
They track me down and surround me,
watching for the chance to throw me to the ground.
They are like hungry lions, eager to tear me apart—
like young lions hiding in ambush.
This third section reveals the circumstances which prompted this prayer. Danger and malicious slander stalk him. Notice that even though this section sits at the center of the psalm, it only comprises 20% of the whole, while the other 80% focuses on praise and confidence in God. Likewise, we also are to pour our hearts out to God, and then in faith, let it sit and stay at the foot of the cross. We learn that we should not continue to dwell on the pain unnecessarily.
- Verses 13-14: The Confident Ask
Arise, O Lord!
Stand against them, and bring them to their knees!
Rescue me from the wicked with your sword!
By the power of your hand, O Lord,
destroy those who look to this world for their reward.
But satisfy the hunger of your treasured ones.
May their children have plenty,
leaving an inheritance for their descendants.
This is the careful direction the believer takes. After having poured out the report of injustice and raw emotion, we then turn to reliance on God;s vengeance and timing. He will act in his own way and we are not to assume the position of judge and thereby sin in our anger.
- Verse 15: Declaration of Assurance
Because I am righteous, I will see you.
When I awake, I will see you face to face and be satisfied.
This is the true assurance of salvation, which is not connected to the circumstance in question. He is sure that he will see God’s face in righteousness, and that full satisfaction exists in the presence of God. David understood something crucial that many others of Israel did not – that our own salvation and righteousness are given totally through God’s mercy and love toward us, not from anything we could possibly do on our own. When he says “because I am righteous I will see you”, he is acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit within him and the power of God to bring about a “new creation” (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 5:17).
Now create your own lament prayer using the Psalm 17 template:
First choose a situation in your life that needs God’s intervention, then fill in the blanks:
- Repent – What sin needs to be acknowledged and confessed?
- Goodness – How has God revealed his goodness?
- Lament – What happened? Explain the situation.
- Ask – What do you need?
- Assurance – Declare the truth of God’s promises
By following scripture’s pattern, our prayer becomes something much larger than the sum of its parts. It shows the natural progression of how prayer can transform from urgent distress into earnest praise and worship – even through nothing external has actually changed. David’s enemies still pose a very real threat. What has changed is his perspective. Hearts aligned with the truth of the word of God never really lose in the end. “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15 NIV).
All scripture references taken from NLT unless otherwise noted.
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
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