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. (Psalm 86:1-4, ESV)
“Who is Essential?”
On March 24, the governor of our state issued an executive order, “to suspend activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life.” This was, of course, in response to the worldwide, nationwide, and now statewide COVID-19 pandemic. She wasn’t the first governor to issue such an order and will almost certainly not be the last. In the fourteen subsections that follow, the order attempts to explain what is meant by “necessary” activities. That’s good, because if we were pressed, I imagine each of our definitions of “necessary” might be very different right now!
I did appreciate the Governor’s use of the phrase “critical infrastructure workers,” to describe the work that is considered “necessary” in the eyes of the state. This term avoids the more common designation of “essential” and “non-essential” to describe activities, jobs and personnel. In this time of fear and national crisis, when the rhetoric can get loud and loose, I’m uncomfortable with the thought that any of us might be considered “non-essential.”
There is no disputing that King David was one of ancient Israel’s “essential personnel.” He was Israel’s clear leader in virtually every aspect of daily life—economics, military, international and domestic politics, public safety…and even spiritual matters. Whatever David did or said was considered “essential” and “necessary”—every executive order, every action, every word.
And so, we should look at Psalm 86 in the light of something the people of God considered “essential” and “necessary.” David’s song begins with an inscription, “A Prayer of David.” While most of the psalms can rightly be considered prayers, this one David himself designates as a tephillah, or liturgical prayer. It is only one of five psalms that carry this inscription. Apparently, these particular songs weren’t simply for the writers’ own reflection and prayers, they were written for and intended to be used by everyone in public worship.
David’s tephillah is a remarkably straightforward and “simple” prayer, avoiding much of the poetic and evocative language of many of his other songs. It begins with a series of imperatives in verses 1-4: incline your ear, answer me, preserve my life, save your servant, be gracious, gladden my soul. In each case David offers God a reason God should respond. And he connects the reasons to each of the petitions: for I am poor and needy, for I am godly, (for I) trust in you, for I cry out to you, for I lift my soul to you. David appeals to God on the basis of who David is and what he has done. David is asking God to listen to him because he is poor and needy; David is asking God to be gracious to him because he is crying out all day long.
But then David turns his eyes to heaven and changes his appeal. “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call on you” (vs. 5). “You, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (vs. 15). After beginning his prayer by telling God what to do and why to do it, David finally acknowledges that it isn’t really about who David is or what he is doing that counts…it’s all about who God is and what God does that really matters. God is the one who listens…God is the one who loves…God is the one who saves. It’s because of God’s love for us that we can come before Him at all.
In God’s eyes, there are no “essential” and “non-essential” designations for people. In His eyes, we are all equal—equally deserving of God’s wrath and judgment, and equally invited to receive God’s forgiveness and grace (Romans 3:23-24). The only reason we can come to God and ask for anything, is that God considers every one of His children to be precious and essential.
As we continue to walk through the “valley of the shadow of death” that is the coronavirus pandemic, I encourage you to follow David’s lead. Take your fear and anxieties, your anger and frustrations to God. Pray with desperation because you are “poor and needy;” pray with confidence because of your godly faith; ask for grace and gladness because of your persistent cries for help. But remember this: what is truly “necessary” and “essential” for your prayers to be powerful and effective right now is simply the love and grace of a loving and gracious God.
And so, David’s tephillah prayer eventually leads us to ask for the one thing that is most “essential” in this time of crisis: Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness (Psalm 86:11).
If we can begin to understand who God is and how much He loves us, if we can find comfort in belonging to Christ, we will not only survive through this crisis, we will be changed. Turn to Him; learn to rely on His faithfulness. He is essential. He is Living Water for your soul…stay thirsty for Him.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)