Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sermon: Psalm 141 Prayer for Purity

How healthy is your heart? What’s your heart age? That’s the question being asked in the Flora ads these days - with the suggestion that your heart can be made more healthy by using their range of margarine, you can change your heart age. It’s vitally important to have a healthy heart - not just your blood-pumping organ; but also your spiritual heart. You see, when we find the Bible speaking of the heart, it mostly means the seat, centre of emotions, your very self.

But as Jesus reveals in Mark 7:20, our hearts are sick; they’re not healthy at all: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.’ It’s our heart that produces all these evils. The heart of the matter is it’s a matter of the heart.

In our psalm this evening, we find that David sees the same thing. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen David’s prayers in the midst of difficulties and opposition, identifying the wicked and evil men who were attacking him. But in Psalm 141, David recognises that he too has a heart problem, he too has this propensity towards sin, that he too has to watch over his heart.

Look at verse 4 with me: ‘Do not let my heart incline to any evil.’ The tendency is there, it’s just the way we are in this fallen rebellious world, but David is asking God to keep his heart, to preserve his heart; to ‘lead us not into temptation.’ How does it happen? How does God keep our hearts? As we look at the psalm, we’ll see some of the ways God does this, some of the ways we can, as believers, keep from turning our hearts towards evil. I want to suggest 4 from the psalm - prayer (1-2); watch your words (3); careful company (4-5); and finding refuge (6-10).

The psalm begins, as many other do, with an earnest prayer to the Lord: ‘O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you!’ It’s in these opening verses that we see the first way to keep our heart - by coming to the LORD in prayer, acknowledging that we need his help, as a first priority, not a last resort. David asks that his prayer to God would be counted as incense and the evening sacrifice - part of the daily routine of the tabernacle (later the temple) worship, the incense creating a sweet smell (partly to mask the stench of the dead meat being sacrificed), the smoke rising like our prayer. David is asking that his prayer be pleasing to God, just like the sacrifice, so immediately, David is recognising his need for help, his dependence on God.

You see, it can be so easy to think that we have it all sorted, that we don’t really need God, that we can be pure on our own; but we soon realise that doesn’t happen. We’re quick to turn aside from the way - how long can any of us keep from sin just by ourselves?; being in regular prayer, keeping close to God is one of the ways to keep from inclining to evil.

As David prays, though, he’s aware of that strange situation that James speaks of, that we too easily fall into: ‘The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things out not to be so.’ The mouth we use to sing and pray to God, we also use to speak evil. No wonder then that David has to pray ‘Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!’

Like one of the sentries at Buckingham Palace, carefully monitoring who is coming in and who is going out, David asks God to be that guard. If we’re aware that God is watching what we say, or whisper, or share in confidence, would we be less inclined to share that titbit of gossip, that ‘matter for prayer’? How we describe others, our outbursts of anger or rage? Think of your words over the past week? Do you need a guard over your lips? As Jesus says, our words are the outflow of the heart: ‘out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks’ (Luke 6:45).

James 3 gives us an expanded commentary on how the small tongue has such huge power and potential for good or evil (set on fire by hell). If we’re committed to living lives of purity, of not inclining to evil, then we need to watch our tongues.

We also need to be careful of our company. Verse 4 continues - ‘Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies!’ You see, it’s so easy to be corrupted by bad company, to be led astray by the subtle influence of others. To get involved in questionable business practice and turn a blind eye, to be dragged deeper and deeper into bigger and bigger sins, to go along with the crowd - sure if everyone else is doing it then it can’t be too wrong?

But David is wise to the danger - both in terms of doing evil with the wicked, and of sharing table fellowship with them - ‘let me not eat of their delicacies’. (It’s almost as if we’re back to the healthy eating theme that we started with!) To be enticed by the sweet things, the dainties (as older translations suggest), to get sucked in by the attractiveness and sweetness of sin, and be led astray. You see, sin and temptation doesn’t always come with big red flashing lights; instead you find that it’s sugar-coated sin, attractive to look at, nice to taste, but death (or tooth decay) is the result. Isn’t that how temptation works? Something sweet and attractive, baited particularly for us.

Choose your company wisely - rather than the sweet things of the wicked, David prefers the rebuke of the righteous. Not as palatable to stomach at the time, and yet of infinitely greater worth for the soul. We see this contrast in company illustrated in Proverbs 27:6: ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.’ Which would we rather have? Wounds or kisses? Yet the wounds of a friend are better for us than the flattery and deceit of an enemy.

Just think of David’s experience. His chain of sin, from lust to adultery to murder to cover up; he thought he had gotten away with his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah; but Nathan rebuked him. It was no doubt painful (for both!), but led to David’s repentance of Psalm 51.

Have you got those people in your life who know you well, who can rebuke you? Who can see when you’re taking a dangerous turn and need to be reminded or rebuked? Are you willing to receive a rebuke, or only ever want to rebuke others? Sometimes we can have blind spots, sins that we don’t even notice, and it takes a spouse or friend or pastor to (in love) point these out for your own good and growth. Perhaps the fellowship groups can help provide some sort of accountablity too.

So far we’ve seen that prayer, watching our words, and choosing our company can help us in not inclining our hearts to evil. In the last five verses, we see that finding refuge in the LORD can keep our hearts too. David is reminding himself of the fate of the wicked, of the judgement to come, of God acting for his people, and this too can help keep us from turning away.

In verse 6, David looks forward to the fate of the leaders of the wicked, ‘when their judges are thrown over the cliff [alt reading: when their judges fall into the hands of the Rock] then they shall hear my words, for they are pleasant.’ The leaders will perish because of their sin, and the truth of David’s words, their pleasantness will be evident to those who have been led astray.

While verse 7 is difficult, with almost every translation giving a unique rendering of the Hebrew, it seems to be saying that while David and the people of God are in danger, that even though they may even be killed, yet David will trust in his God, will seek refuge in the Lord. This is not fair weather faith, but real life faith, even in the midst of fierce opposition.

David continues to pray for his own protection - to keep him from the traps and snares of the evildoer; and for God to ensure that the sin of the wicked comes back to them, while David passes by safely.

When we reflect on the fate of the wicked, the looming judgement, eternity separated from God in eternal conscious punishment, this will not only drive us to keep close to God (just think of the warnings of Hebrews - how then shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation - driving us to hold on and to keep on keeping on), but it will also drive us to warn the people who are in danger. We want to see people turned from serving idols to serve the living and true God; turned from hell to heaven, for others to find refuge in God.

Do not let my heart incline to any evil is a prayer that believers need to be praying. As we pray it, we acknowledge that we can’t become holy by ourselves; that we can’t be good enough by our own efforts. As Jeremiah declares: ‘The heart is deceitful above al things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’

We need a heart transplant, the work of the Lord in the new birth, being born again, as we take refuge in the Lord. But our sinful desires need to be mortified, crucified; as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Let’s take some moments to think about the ways our hearts incline towards evil, those sugar-coated sins we’re prone to - remembering our great Saviour and Lord who is at work in transforming us through prayer; our words, our company of the church, and our dependence on God. We’re not able by ourselves, but we can confidently pray: Do not let my heart incline to any evil. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 22nd August 2010.


  1. Excellent sermon, God brought me too. I needed this.
    thank you.

  2. Excellent sermon, God brought me too. I needed this.
    thank you.