The Bible records many great prayers. Some of the most prominent come in the form of psalms and, of all these, David’s heartbroken, soul-sick prayer of Psalm 51 may be the most haunting. In a desperate bid to cover up a grievous sin, David has committed yet another grievous sin. He has been exposed as nothing less than a murderous adulterer. As he has grappled with his own sin and sinfulness, he has been cut to the quick. And in that frame of mind he prays to God to express his sorrow and repentance and to seek the Lord’s mercy.
While the circumstances and gravity of David’s sin may not be universal, certainly we can all identify with his alarm as he has realized the depths of his own depravity, with his shame as has grappled with how he has failed God and man, and with his desperate hope as he now pleads with God that He will extend undeserved favor to so great a sinner. In that way this prayer speaks to all of us and gives us all words to speak to God. This prayer is the subject of Jonathan Parnell’s short book Mercy for Today: A Daily Prayer from Psalm 51.
Parnell proposes that words from this psalm can become an important part of the believer’s daily walk. He tells how this has become one of his crucial devotional habits, describing how one day, “during a time of Bible meditation and prayer, I found my way to a short daily devotion in The Book of Common Prayer. The devotion included a prayer of four petitions, each taken from the infamous Psalm 51. I was determined to stomach through this abbreviated form, and so, repeating David’s original words, I simply prayed ‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.’”
This simple practice of praying God’s Word back to God proved significant. “It was short and straightforward, and yet, to my surprise, God met me with a powerful experience of his mercy. Just like that, completely unexpected, I became convinced that this prayer was full of truth and relevance that I needed, not once or twice, but again and again. And so I went back and prayed it the next day, and then again the next day, and then the next day after that—and I haven’t stopped praying it since.” This little prayer has become indispensable to him. He is clear that there is no magic in it. In fact, the joy and power in the prayer has been in how it has changed and shaped him as he has continued to pray its words and come to a deeper understanding of them. The Prayer of Jabez this is not. In fact, Parnell’s burden in the book is much less to have the reader pray this verse than to simply understand it. But then, perhaps to understand it is to pray it!
Because the prayer is made up of four petitions, he dedicates one chapter to each of them. He titles them simply “Praise,” “Change,” “Presence,” and “Joy.” Through 116 pages he mines just enough of their depth to provide the context of the psalm and to teach how it applies to us today. As a talented writer with a pastoral bent, he writes in a way that is likely to be appealing and beneficial to any believer. He shows how God’s divine mercy is at the heart of this psalm and, really, at the heart of the Christian life.
Mercy for Today is an excellent, challenging, encouraging little book. I very much expect it will lead you to both praise and prayer.