Two kinds of prayer

Psalm 26

There are two ways to read this psalm.  First, read it as a prayer of the self-righteous; second, read it as a prayer of humble faith.


Can you believe this guy? It's people like him who give religion a bad name. You have met him before. You have heard his prayer. Jesus tells a story about two men who went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself, careful not to be defiled by these sinners and prayed, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other people, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get."  (Luke 18.9-14).

Jesus said that the Pharisee, "prayed thus by himself." And why not pray by himself? He doesn’t really need God for a religion in which "I" is the center of everything. God, I thank thee, for me.

Mark Twain spoke of someone as, "A good man in the very worst sense of the word.” Here he is! Psalm 26:                                                           "God, I thank thee that I am so good. I have not wavered, have not sat with false people, evildoers, dissemblers, drug takers, heavy drinkers, adulterers, blasphemers, or other people who do those things which are described in the Bible with big words which we're not sure of what they mean but that sound bad."

It is the prayer of the older brother who always stayed home and did what duty told him to do; not the prayer of the younger Prodigal Son who had a taste for harlots and loose living.

His prayer, what the Psalmist has to say to God, is thus an inventory of his virtues. He's in church to remind God of how well he has kept up his side of the bargain. God's job is to make rules. Our job is to keep the rules.

He doesn't ask anything of God, for what is there to ask? The relationship to God is fixed, settled, complete, finished. All you come to church for is to reiterate the settlement, to go over the terms again each Sunday. We are God's cherished ones. Let's check each other out to be sure that we are still right with God. 

Count the times that “I”, "me", “my” is used in Psalm 26: I have walked…I have trusted heart, my mind, my eyes…I walk…I do not sit, nor do I consort, I hate, I wash my hands, I love, my life, I walk, redeem me, I will bless.”

The end result of this dull, frozen, religion of the I, and the me and the of real relationship with God. Because you don't need God for a religion where you are as good as God.  Self-worship is inevitable.  


Second, we can read/pray this prayer in humble faith.

This psalmist comes before God with a request:  ‘Establish justice for me.’  And he has the audacity to protest his integrity, his innocence before God.   The word translated ‘my integrity’ however, does not mean sinless perfection but rather complete devotion to or total orientation of one’s life to God.  Notice later, in verse 11 he prays:  ‘So redeem me and show me mercy.’ 

This prayer is aware of his shortcomings but the whole emphasis on the psalm is on the steadfast, unwavering love of God who alone has power to save and deliver justice.

This ‘steadfast love’ of God is not mere emotion, but involves a Divine decision to remain faithful come what may.  In return to God’s faithfulness, the psalmist also commits to be faithful.

  • The psalmist claims to exercise daily care in the choice of relationships. He will not ‘sit’ with the wicked (v.4-5).  ‘Sit’ here means a long-term settled residence.  Such sitting would not be a redemptive relationship.  Even Jesus associated with the darker elements of society but he also called them to the light.  By our lives we illuminate the darkness. 
  • I wash my hands in innocence.’ (v.6). This brings to mind the story of Pilate whose hand washing hardly makes him an innocent in the death of Jesus (Matthew 27.24).  Like Jesus, this psalmist is being falsely accused but trusts God for vindication.
  • ‘Walk’ (v.1,3,11) connotes life-style.  Note the comprehensiveness of the psalmists walk: 
    • heart and mind (v.2)                                                        
    • Eyes (v.3)                                                                         
    • Hands (v.6)                                                                       
    • Feet (v.12)

The psalmist’s whole self belongs to God.

The readings paired with this psalm in the Lectionary include Job 1-2, and Mark 10.1-16.  Job, a righteous man, suffers but his whole argument with God is a plea for divine vindication of who he is and how he has lived.  In Mark, Jesus holds up little children as models of humble trust; they do not engage in self-justification or pious boasting.