Psalm 5 — The God who hears & the words we speak

The first worship song that lodged itself in my heart was the Maranatha version of Psalm 5:1-3 from the early 1980s. Its minor key longing echoed inside of me, stirring a yearning for God that was new for my teenage soul.

Give ear to my words, O Lord
Consider my meditation
Harken unto the voice of my cry
My King and my God
For unto Thee will I pray
My voice shalt Thou hear
In the morning
O Lord, in the morning
Will I direct my prayer
Unto Thee and will look up

As much as I love the old song, by lifting the first three verses out of the 12-verse psalm, their meaning was changed. They lacked the struggle of the rest of the psalm, sounding more like a simple desire to sit and pray and be with God each morning. That is good and right, but there’s so much more to this great David psalm.

The psalm is all about speaking and hearing. We who speak our prayerful complaints. Those who speak their malicious lies. And God who speaks his just and loving judgments. The quality of our words determines the quality of our lives.

The psalm begins with a request for God to hear. “Listen to my words, Lord. Consider my lament. Hear my cry for help ….” If anything is going to change in my world, God’s got to be at the center of it. And that means he’s got to hear my cry.

How do I know God will hear my lament? How do I know he will respond to my cry? Is he even listening?

The story of God’s interaction with humanity is one of our crying and of his hearing and responding. Here is one of our key passages.

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. [Ex. 2:23-25]

The cry of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt because of their oppression leads to four responses in God: He hears their groaning; he remembers his covenant relationship with them; he looks intently into their situation; and he is personally moved by their plight. Could God have moved into action without their cries for help? Of course. But that’s not how the Scriptures tell the tale.

Our God is the God who listens. Our prayers are not purposeless. He hears us and is moved by our pleas.

What’s important here is these groans and prayers are directed to God. Not to David’s neighbor. There’s no gossip here, no slander, no trying to get people on his side. As we’ll see later on in the psalm, that’s the method of the enemies. They use words to manipulate and kill. Instead of this typical human method of using our words to defend ourselves and attack others, David uses his words differently. He turns them toward God, asking for help instead of defaming those who stand against him.

And he does this as the first thing of his day. Before he gets busy securing his life on his own terms and by his own strength, he turns to God and speaks. “In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” This is a significant corrective for me, since I find myself turning to others and to my own abilities far too often.

But having turned to God, David does turn his eye on those who stand against him in verses 4-6. And it’s primarily their words he contends with.

The essence of the wicked lies less in their violent actions than in their violent words. Their bloodthirstiness is seen in their deceitfulness. It comes out in their lies and intrigues.

The words of the wicked are the very indictment against them. Their words and the deeds that arise from them banish them from God’s presence. Their worship, if they offer it to God and some do, is empty.

Interestingly, David doesn’t offer himself as a pure contrast to the wicked. He doesn’t claim pure words, a pure heart, or pure deeds. Rather, he looks to the character of God to save him.

“By your great love” (5:7) and “in your righteousness” (5:8) — these are the right and left arms of God’s salvation. God’s love and justice work together and are what David leans on, not on his own holiness. David has come to know this God of love and justice and finds himself at home with him as he bows down in God’s house and worships.

Where the wicked are banished and their worship rejected because of their deeds, we are welcomed in and our worship received not because of our righteousness, but because of who God is in his love and justice.

Verse 9 turns its gaze on the wicked again, this time surveying the organs of their malice and lies — their mouth, their heart, their throat, their tongue. One in particular captures my imagination. Their throats are Sheol, the grave opened up to swallow their victims. It’s an image that reminds me of a horror film that gave me nightmares as a teenager.

And after hearing our voices and those of the wicked, God is called on to speak: “Declare them guilty, O God!” (5:10). The righteous and loving Judge is called on to speak his verdict in favor of those who rest on his justice and against those who speak death. This judgment is to include refuge, a shield of protection for those who come to God.

When God hears and acts, our speaking changes. Our complaints become praises. What we knew to be true of God is confirmed and we, in return, confirm out allegiance to and love for him in worship.

The third commandment warns us not to empty our relationship with God by emptying his name of value by speaking it in jest, in mockery, without weight, without relational value. But as Psalm 5 begins its conclusion, we see the opposite: “Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.” Those who thrill in and give gravity to the name of God and the relationship the name opens up find themselves with protection spread over them. How we speak God’s name determines our relationship with him.

And so David ends the psalm confident in what God will do, because he is confident in God’s character. Our Lord is reliably consistent, matching character with deed without fail. The just will receive his justice for he himself is ever just.