To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
I met a friend the other day who is working on the great Victorian missionary and explorer David Livingstone (1813 –73). Livingstone was a great hero to nineteenth-century Christians: he combined evangelistic zeal with a restless hunger for both geographical and scientific exploration, and – long before people became cynical about such things – he genuinely believed that he was bringing ‘civilization’ to the vast and hitherto unmapped interior of Africa. ‘I am prepared to go anywhere,’ he said, ‘provided it be forward.’ We today might want to point out the folly of blundering on into the unknown, and of doing things that might have, to say the least, more ambiguous results than he intended. But there is no doubting his sheer courage and energy, which puts most of us (whose efforts are no doubt equally ambiguous, though on a more domestic scale) to shame.
But I was put in mind of such visionary exploration when praying through this Psalm; because it is the prayer of someone who has heard God’s call to set off and go somewhere but is, as yet, quite uncertain where that ‘somewhere’ is. This, to be sure, has been a common experience of God’s people down the ages. There are several times, in the book of Acts, that great tale of early missionary expansion, when Paul and his companions are not sure where to go next, and have to wait in puzzlement for further instructions.
So the prayer at the heart of the Psalm is in verses 4 and 5: ‘Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me.’ That should be our prayer day by day, and especially now as we’ve set off on this Lenten journey. (Experience of past Lents suggests that it can be a time when those who take it seriously find that, like the early explorers, they are going out into a country they don’t know, full of unforeseen hazards as well as glorious possibilities.)
But the problem is not just that we don’t know where we’re going. There are two other difficulties which we will be all too aware of. First, there seem to be hostile forces all around us. The first Sunday of Lent, when traditionally we reflect on Jesus’ temptations, is often a day for reflecting on our temptations as well. Anyone determining to make a fresh start, and to go forward with Jesus into the unknown, is almost bound to find that testing of one sort or another increases dramatically. I was talking recently to a friend who, after many years of pondering God’s call, is finally going forward for training for full-time ministry. Almost at once things began to go wrong: serious sickness in the family, financial problems, sharp opposition from friends believing this was a mistake. This is classic. It’s like what happens when you’re out for a walk and suddenly come out from behind a high wall into the teeth of a gale. That’s when you need to pray, with the Psalmist, ‘Do not let my enemies exult over me!’ (verse 2).
But as well as hostile forces (and perhaps hostile people) there are forces within which can be just as threatening. Here we find four: the sense of shame that will come if we blunder off in the wrong direction (verses 2, 3); our past mistakes and downright sins (verse 7); and, in the later part of the Psalm beyond the verses set for today, loneliness (verse 16) and other ‘troubles of the heart’ (verse 17). They are all familiar, especially to those who set off on the Lenten path of following the Lord without knowing where he’s leading.
But, as so often in the Psalms, the answer is found in the character of God himself, the God we know and see in Jesus. He is trustworthy (verse 2); his ways are truth, and he provides salvation, rescue (verse 5); above all, he is merciful and constant in his love (verses 6, 7). He is good and upright (verse 8). There are times when we need to pick up these attributes of God, almost like picking up a set of large bricks or stones, and place them like stepping-stones, one after the other, in the river we are trying to cross. That is part of what it means to ‘wait’ on God (verse 5).
Then we can walk ahead, not because we know the way or are feeling especially brave, but because we know there is solid ground under our feet. This is not folly; it is humility (verse 9). And if we’re waiting for the Lord and relying on him, we will naturally want (as, left to ourselves, we often do not naturally want) to keep his covenant and his decrees (verse 10). Obedience, in fact, arises most naturally not from an ‘ethic’ being forced on us against our will, but from that sense of humility which comes when we know we don’t know the way but trust that God does. The first Sunday of Lent is the time for looking the enemies in the face and naming them before God. It is also the time to look God in the face and learn to trust him for every step of the way.
Lead me, O Lord, in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.