Sermon on Psalm 141

We are very familiar with Psalm 141, since it is a fixed part of our Evening Prayer liturgy. “Let my prayer rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” It’s a lovely canticle – but by omitting some of the verses we miss the urgency and the danger expressed in the Psalm.

The first verse repeats the crying out of the Psalmist, as one shouting for help in time of trouble. “I call, I call,” he says: 

O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me!

Give ear to my voice when I call to you!

“Hasten to me!” can mean something more like, “Notice me! Do you see what’s happening?” And what’s happening is quite different from many other Psalms. Here the Psalmist doesn’t seem to be in any imminent physical danger. He’s surrounded by enemies, but these enemies are seeking to turn him away from his identity as one who walks with God.

He has people who have set traps for him, “the snares of evildoers” - but the traps seem to be allurements to sin. “Let me not eat of their delicacies!” That’s what the world offers us – items that taste sweet but quickly turn to bitterness. “Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be full of gravel” (Prov. 20:17).

The problem is not really these other people. The problem lies within himself. And it is the same with us, for we share the same inclination to sin and selfishness, we share the same corrupt heart. “Do not let my heart incline to any evil.” That’s why the cry is so urgent. That’s why the Psalmist is shouting to God, “Take notice of me! I feel the temptation pulling on me; it’s strong, and I’m about to give in!”

It’s so easy to have good intentions of speaking well of others, and keeping gossip to ourselves. But how soon we open our mouths and can’t help ourselves, we lie, to tell “just one person.” I don’t think it’s just a metaphor, when the Psalm says, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” The guard is an angel; we’re asking for an angel to help us keep our mouth shut, and only let good words get past the gate.

All of this is in the context of the evening sacrifice, which in the Old Testament sacrificial system would happen at about 3pm each day. A lamb would be burned on the altar, as the incense was stirred up and prayers were sung. Why are these prayers about our speaking, and giving in to temptation, at the evening sacrifice? As the day grows long and night comes, we get weaker, not just in our bodies, but in our resolve. We become more susceptible to temptations of speech and body. So we cry out for help as the time of danger approaches.

But something else is going on. The lifting up of hands in prayer at the evening sacrifice betokened the Lamb of God, who was offered up as our sacrifice at the evening of the world – and whose death itself came about at the time of the evening sacrifice. There on the cross, His arms were lifted up, as He offered prayers for the world’s forgiveness.

He is the one man who never did eat of the delicacies that tempted Him. His heart was not inclined to evil, and His lips were without guile. Jesus is our evening sacrifice, and in Him do we seek refuge. He will not leave us defenseless. +INJ+

Preached on Wednesday, June 20, 2018 at Immanuel, Alexandria, VA