You, O Lord, are good and forgiving — Psalm 86

Psalms of the Sons of Korah?

There are a whole bunch of commentaries on Psalm 86 which look at the meaning of the psalms in isolation: This is not one of them, I am looking at how the psalms fit together, and also at the poetic structure and how that affects my understanding.

This Psalm is the only one attributes to David in Book 3 of the Psalms. All the psalms in Book 3 except two are attributed to either Asaph of the Sons of Korah, and this one is placed in the middle of the Korahite Psalms. What I am trying to find out is why is this Psalm here?

A sorrowful looking cartoon face is behind the words 'so sorry' on wooden tiles. The background is blurred.

The books of Psalms are roughly themed like this:

Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.

A Prayer of David.

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am godly;
    save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all the day.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
    for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my plea for grace.
In the day of my trouble I call upon you,
    for you answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
    nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
    and worship before you, O Lord,
    and shall glorify your name.
10 For you are great and do wondrous things;
    you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    unite my heart to fear your name.
12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
    and I will glorify your name for ever.
13 For great is your steadfast love towards me;
    you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

14 O God, insolent men have risen up against me;
    a band of ruthless men seeks my life,
    and they do not set you before them.
15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me;
    give your strength to your servant,
    and save the son of your maidservant.
17 Show me a sign of your favour,
    that those who hate me may see and be put to shame
    because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

Psalm 86 ESV UK with added paragraphs that reflect the ESV

The latter part of the 3rd. book of psalms is arranged like this:

  • Psalm 84 – A song about Jerusalem, by the Sons of Korah
  • Psalm 85 – A song of national mourning, by the Sons of Korah
  • Psalm 86 – A plea for personal help, by David
  • Psalm 87 – A song about Jerusalem, by the Sons of Korah
  • Psalm 88 – A song of mourning, by the Sons of Korah
  • Psalm 89 – A plea for help, by Ethan the Ezrahite

Two groups of three psalms, each group being a song of Jerusalem, a song of mourning and a cry for help. That is why I am including this psalm, along with Psalm 89, among the psalms pf the Sons of Korah.

Psalm 86 has an internal structure,as would be expected in a poem. It is divided into three stanzas,

vv. 1 – 7. vv. 8 – 13 and vv. 14 – end. Each of these stanzas is divided into three parts which form a chiasm with verse 11 at its centre, a structure where each subject is introduced and then developed in teverse order, giving this structure:

vv. 1—4
vv. 5—6
vv . 8—10
v. 11
v. 12—13
v. 14
v. 15
vv. 16—17

In the first section David outlines his complaint in verses 1 to 4. This is followed by an appeal to God’s nature in verses 5 and 6, together with its parallel in verse 15, based on Exodus 34:6-7:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my plea for grace. (Psalm 86:5-6)

15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15).

The middle section of the psalm is concerned with the future in contrast with the first and last which are about the situation that David is in. God is all around us and David professes faith in the one God to whom all nations will come. Gad will come to rule over all and gives thanks as if that has already come about.

The chiasmatic structure of the psalm has its pivot in verse 11. “Teach me,” cries David. He knows that unless God leads us, we cannot do his will. But he continues in saying, “Unite me,” make me one with you God, let me submit to you and I am united not only with you but with all who submit themselves to you. It is around this pivot of being united to others in submission to God that the psalm revolves; the pessimistic outlook of verses 1 to 7 becomes the optimism of 14 to 17.

But if verse 11 is the pivot it is not the main point of Psalm 86. The chiastic structure in not only a poetic device but also used in teaching, and the main point comes when it returns to the beginning, as this does in verses 16 and 17. David asks God to “Turn to me,” in effect asking God to repent. Not because God has done anything wrong but because he knows what will happen when God looks on his people: God blesses them. Verse 16 paraphrases the priestly blessing in Numbers:

22 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

27 “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27)

David knows that those who follow God will be blessed because God has promised to bless them.

< Psalm 85 | Psalm 86 | Psalm 87 >
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