Prayer [Part 5]

Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
—Psalm 85:6

We are learning how to pray. We are seeking the Lord. What have we seen thus far? The first essential to prayer is a spirit of praise to God. Our needs do not come first. His glory comes first. So we’re learning to adjust to the centrality of God moment by moment. It’s life-giving to us.

The second essential to prayer is a spirit of confession. A common objection to the gospel today is that Christians are hypocrites. Skeptics don’t mind when they see Christians sinning. They do mind when they see Christians concealing their sins. We’ll see more repentance among skeptics when the skeptics see more repentance among us. Let’s have a spirit of confession, because Jesus is the Friend of sinners. He did not come to call the righteous but only sinners. When we converted to Christ, what were we saying? We were saying, “I’ve been completely wrong about everything all my life.” But then? Too often, Christians are never wrong again! But the Bible says, “The sacrifices pleasing to God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12). He said to the church in Laodicea, “You say, I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Those Christians looked at themselves and all they could see was their strengths. But the Lord said to them, “Those whom I love, I correct and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19). Repent of what? Repent of saying, “I need nothing.” We live by spiritual breathing – exhaling the CO2 of our sins and inhaling the oxygen of the gospel. A spirit of confession – it’s how we walk with God. It’s how we pray.

The third essential to prayer is a spirit of expectancy and confidence and faith. When we shoot an arrow into the air, it lands somewhere. We go looking for it. Even so, when we raise a prayer to God, it lands in heaven. And we have every right to look for answers to our prayers. It’s a terrible thing to pray without expectancy. It’s a terrible thing when our words ask God for his blessing but our hearts are saying, “Like that’s gonna happen!” What an offense to God. The Bible says, “Jesus did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). Maybe in a letter or an email to a busy friend you’ve written at the end of it, “No need to reply.” Do we pray that way? Praying to God with no expectancy takes his name in vain. But it is honoring to God and exciting to us to pray with confidence, because the One to whom we pray died to unlock the floodgate of heavenly blessing.

Psalm 85 teaches us how to pray with expectancy. The key is verse 6: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” That verse is so confident, another version paraphrases it, “Surely you will revive us again” (JPS). How can we be so confident in prayer? Is it because we use just the right words or catch God in a good mood? No. In the Hebrew text, the emphasis falls on “you”: “Will you not revive us again?” We expect God’s blessing because of who he is. Who we are deserves judgment. But who God is teaches us to forget what we deserve and look for what God promises. Deep in the heart of God he has purposed “the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:6). God calls us to Christ for this purpose – to draw up out of our hearts glad praise to him for the glory of his grace to us. We have every right to expect the glory of God’s grace in answer to our prayers. It’s who God is.

But what should we expect? God isn’t guaranteeing our perfect designer life or our own selfish dream. What should we expect from God? There is a verb repeated five times in this psalm. It’s the Hebrew verb shûb, which means to turn. It is translated in different ways here in the psalm: “restore” (verse 1), “turn” (verse 3), “restore” (verse 4), “turn back” (verse 8), and it’s hidden behind the word “again” in verse 6. That word shûb tells us what to expect from God: restoration, renewal, things turning in a better direction. God is not the chaplain of the status quo. He turns our lives around. Do you need to turn a corner in your life today? Are you fed up with who you are? Do you long for new purpose? Go ahead and long for it. That is so good. But you can go beyond longing. You can expect it because of who God is.

Psalm 85 is all about expecting change. It breaks down into four parts. It looks gratefully at the past. It looks realistically at the present. It looks expectantly into the future. Let’s think it through and receive it as God’s Word to us today.

Blessings remembered: wonderful, but past

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
     you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
     you covered all their sin.
You withdrew all your wrath;
     you turned from your hot anger.

Obviously, there is a back-story to Psalm 85. We can think of it this way. The Bible clearly teaches that God and his people are like a husband and wife in love. And the background to Psalm 85 is that God and these people had been walking together, hand in hand, lovingly and wonderfully. But she broke away. She got tired of her heavenly Husband. She committed spiritual adultery. Every sin is an act of spiritual adultery. It happens when we start thinking God doesn’t love us, that he won’t provide for us or defend us. We become fearful and restless. We give ourselves into the arms of other lovers who promise to take care of us. Worldly prestige promises us significance. Worldly power promises us safety. Worldly wealth promises us security. Worldly pleasures promise us happiness. All our other lovers ask of us is that we give ourselves to them. All they ask is that we cut corners and make compromises and give in a little here and there. And these false lovers tell us, “Then everything will get better.” They tell us our problem is God, he’s such a limitation. But they’ll take care of us, they say. They’re lying. They let us down. We realize too late we’ve degraded ourselves for nothing. And we’ve all done it, many times. But what does God do? Our heavenly Husband comes looking for us and finds us and loves us again.

Verses 1-3 are looking back to a time of revival in the past: “You restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people.” God took his adulterous wife in his arms and loved her and forgave her and smothered her with kisses. The people felt forgiven. They felt loved. They felt the smile of God. It was beautiful. And it happened through the cross of Christ. At the cross Jesus pulled down God’s wrath on himself, so that God could forgive us. And we experience his forgiveness in a fresh and powerful way when we stop believing the lies around us and go back to God, just as we are, in all our mess, and fall into the mighty arms of grace.

These people did that, and it was wonderful. They remember it so well, in verses 1-3. But by now, they’ve drifted again. That’s why Psalm 85 was written. The people of God have fallen again. There is something compulsive about us. The Bible says there is madness in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 9:3). We sin and taste the bitterness of it and God forgives and we taste the sweetness of it, and then we go back to our old sins! What can we hope for from God when we sin not for the first time but after we know better? What can repeat offenders dare to expect from God?

Blessings desired: wonderful, and possible

Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
     and put away your indignation toward us!
Will you be angry with us forever?
     Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
     that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
     and grant us your salvation.

God revives his inexcusably sinful people so that they become his happy people. We can ask God for that. We don’t deserve it. But what we deserve is now irrelevant because of the cross. What matters to God is the praise of the glory of his grace. That’s why we can pray for this and even dare to expect this. Verse 6 is a theology of revival in itself. It answers five questions. One, what is revival? It is God reinvigorating sinners who ought to know better. It is God breathing new life back into us by making himself more real to us than our sins are real to us, through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Revival is God visiting his people with more mercy than we’ve ever known before. Two, who needs revival? God’s people do. Can we be above it? Would we even want to be? Do we really want to say, “I need nothing”? Three, who is the reviver? God himself and God alone. Remember, the word “you” is emphatic. We are weak. We are unworthy. This is all about the display of God in our lives and in our church. Four, what is the impact of revival? God’s people rejoice in him again. He puts a new thrill in our hearts. He puts a new spring in our step, a whole new outlook on life. Five, according to verse 6, what are our chances? Excellent. Verse 6 is not the psalmist wringing his hands and wondering, “Will you revive us again?” He asks with expectancy, “Will you not revive us again?” In other words, “Given who you are – let’s not talk about who we are, since that’s depressing – but given who you are, surely you will. We’re a mess. But we’re your mess. Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

What could be more precious to the heart of God than his people being forgiven, being forgiven again, being forgiven with a forgiveness so free, so over-the-top, that we are reduced to rejoicing in God? Octavius Winslow was a minister about 150 years ago. He looked at the cross and saw the heart of God:

The cross of Jesus displays the most awesome exhibition of God’s hatred of sin and at the same time the most august manifestation of his readiness to pardon it. Pardon, full and free, is written out in every drop of blood that is seen, is proclaimed in every groan that is heard. O blessed door of return, open and never shut, to the wanderer from God! How glorious, how free, how accessible! Here the sinful, the vile, the guilty, the unworthy, the poor, the penniless, may come. Here too the weary spirit may bring its burden, the broken spirit its sorrow, the guilty spirit its sin, the backsliding spirit its wandering. All are welcome here.

The death of Jesus was the opening and the emptying of the full heart of God; it was the outgushing of that ocean of mercy that heaved and panted and longed for an outlet; it was God showing how he could love a poor, guilty sinner.

If this is the heart of God at the cross, may we not dare to receive it and rejoice in it?

We rejoice when we feel forgiven again. We rejoice when we feel God’s anger passing away because of the cross. We rejoice when we stop fearing what people think of us and we go to God for the love we need and we find him smiling on us in Christ. We rejoice when we look at the sins we’ve committed and defy them all because Jesus died for them all. We rejoice when we settle it once and for all that Jesus meant it when he said, “It is finished.” We rejoice when we see in Christ the Friend of sinners and can say to him, “When others abandon me, you will take me in. When others let me down, you will lift me up. When others judge me, you will defend me.” We rejoice when we throw away the props we’ve been leaning on to make our lives okay – the money that gets taxed away, the pleasure that shames us, the social prestige that makes us feel small, and everything else. We hurl ourselves at Christ alone, the One we have offended, the One we didn’t turn to as our first and highest joy but only as our last resort, and then we come to him very unwillingly, and he still shows us his steadfast love. That’s revival. And that’s what we pray for, with expectancy. “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

Pause: How will God answer this prayer?

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
     for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints;
   but let them not turn back to folly.
Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,
     that glory may dwell in our land.

In verses 8-9, the psalmist is speaking. He has been leading the people in prayer. Psalm 85 comes out of a public ceremony, a prayer service. Verses 1-7 are the prayer. Now the inspired psalmist steps forward as their leader and says, “Let me hear what God will speak, how he will answer our prayer.” There are so many voices demanding our attention – talk radio, cable news, advertisers, iTunes, an endless stream of voices. But the only voice that finally matters is the voice of God. What does he say?

“He will speak peace to his people.” That is God’s verdict – peace, shalom, wholeness. God’s answer to our prayers is generous. Remove all uncertainty about God from your mind. When we come to God through the cross of Christ, we may expect peace. We don’t deserve it, and we can’t force it, but he gives it – a new era of shalom for broken sinners.

Our part is not to return to folly: “…but let them not turn back to folly.” The word translated “folly” doesn’t mean stupidity; it means complacency. It’s the wrong kind of confidence. It’s a smug apathy: “God’s going to do what God’s going to do. Whatever.” God can’t put his blessing on that. We don’t need to deserve him, but we must desire him. Verse 9 says that his salvation is near to those who fear him, who say, “I cannot live without your blessing!” Elsewhere the psalmist prays, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). God will satisfy that desire. Do you see the word “surely” at the beginning of verse 9? “Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him.”

A better future: God’s realities flowing into our experience

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
     righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
     and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Yes, the Lord will give what is good,
     and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him
     and make his footsteps a way.

It’s hard to understand exactly what God is saying here. But we know this much. When God revives a church, his steadfast love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace stop being mere concepts and they become our experience. It’s a foretaste of heaven on earth. And God doesn’t need favorable social trends or a good economy to do this for us. His own righteousness makes his footsteps a way, and nothing can stop him.

Wouldn’t you love to see what only God can do – for you? You need to raise your expectations. You are dealing with God. Your routine is not the measure of your expectations. Who God is is the measure. We can pray that way, and he will answer us.