Psalm 141 – My Prayer as Incense before You
From the earliest centuries of its use in the Church, Psalm 141 has held a place of special importance. It became “the” psalm of Vespers, the Church’s evening prayer. The image in v. 2 of prayer rising to God like incense offered at an evening sacrifice made this psalm the epitome of all prayer—the lifting up to God of our praise and gratitude for all the gifts we receive from him. This image is followed by what sounds like an examination of conscience: the Psalmist asks God to “set a guard” at “the door of [his] lips” (v. 3) that his speech might not be marked by sin; to keep his heart from evil intentions (v. 4a); to keep him from joining with sinners in wicked deeds (v. 4b); to stop him from feasting with them (vv. 4c, 5b); to help him recognize authentic concern in others, whatever form it takes (v. 5a); and to sustain his prayer in opposition to their malice (v. 5c). The Psalmist knows that God has accepted our prayer (v. 1) when our lives come to reflect both divine law and God’s goodness. Thus may we rightly examine our thoughts and actions to be sure they conform to God’s call to righteousness. All of us have experienced that quiet interior voice that suggests to us “Do this,” or “Don’t do that,” or “This is the right way to go in this situation.” Whether we call that our conscience or the voice of the Holy Spirit within us, its quiet and unassuming influence leads us to compassion, understanding and kindness in our actions, if we but listen attentively. But when we turn our hearts to the Lord and truly take refuge in him (cf. v. 8), nothing can turn us from that path, even in the midst of trial and tribulation. Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English mystic, writes succinctly and powerfully of such trust: “[God] did not say ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted’. But he did say, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to heed these words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.” Indeed, trust can be a fragile virtue. All seems to be going smoothly, but suddenly some unforeseen disaster throws us off track, and we wonder, “Why me? … How could God let this happen? … What did I do wrong?” Such situations truly put our trust to the test. But when we strive to believe that God will be with us through these trials, we find ourselves able to return to the path of peaceful trust. St. Paul remained confident through trials and disappointments that God would not fail to assist him in whatever situation he encountered. “For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him” (2 Tim 1:11-12).
1 A Psalm of David.
I have cálled to you, Lórd; hásten to hélp me!
Héar my vóice when I crý to yóu.
2 Let my práyer be accépted as íncense befóre you,
the ráising of my hánds like an évening oblátion.
3 Sét, O Lórd, a guárd on my móuth;
keep wátch at the dóor of my líps!
4 Do not túrn my héart to thíngs that are évil,
to wícked déeds with thóse who are sínners.
Néver allów me to sháre in their féasting.
5 If a góod man stríkes me it is kíndness;
but let the óil of the wícked not anóint my héad.
Let my práyer be éver agáinst their málice.
6 If they fáll into the mérciless hánds of their júdges,
théy will grásp how kínd are my wórds.
7 As clóds of éarth plowed úp on the gróund,
so their bónes were stréwn at the móuth of the gráve.
8 To you my éyes are túrned, O Lórd, my Lórd.
In yóu I take réfuge; spáre my sóul!
9 From the tráp they have láid for me, kéep me sáfe;
kéep me from the snáres of thóse who do évil.
10 Let the wícked togéther fáll into their tráps,
while Í pursúe my wáy unhármed.
Prayer for Psalm 141
Lord God, whose ear is ever attentive to the prayers of the upright: watch over us, your children and servants, that we may faithfully walk the paths of righteousness, confident of your loving care. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.