Psalm 141 - Let my prayer be as sacrifice
A Psalm of David.
1) I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;
give ear to my voice when I call to you.
2) Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
3) Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;
keep watch over the door of my lips.
4) Do not turn my heart to any evil,
to busy myself with wicked deeds
in company with those who work iniquity;
do not let me eat of their delicacies.
5) Let the righteous strike me;
let the faithful correct me.
Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head,
for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.
6) When they are given over to those who shall condemn them,
then they shall learn that my words were pleasant.
7) Like a rock that one breaks apart and shatters on the land,
so shall their bones be strewn at the mouth of Sheol.
8) But my eyes are turned toward you, O God, my Lord;
in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless.
9) Keep me from the trap that they have laid for me,
and from the snares of evildoers.
10) Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
while I alone escape.
Not included in the Revised Common Lectionary.
So many of the psalms stand right in the place where being right with God is important. They stand in a place of need. When we need God's help, God's intervention, God's active presence, we don't want anything standing in the way.
In Ancient Israel, atonement - getting right with God - was expressed in sacrifice. Giving something precious to the Lord is a tangible way of repenting from wrong, and for re-orienting towards the One who is Righteous.
Yet sometimes we do not have the prescribed offerings: no bull, no ram, no lamb, not even a turtledove. There is no incense to burn, and we have no access to the altar on which to burn it.
When we cry out, "I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me," we mean it. We may fear that something stands between us and God. In fact, we know our sin, our mortality, our fear, our failure to be obedient, to tr at others justly, to love... all are obstacles between us and our Lord.
This is our reality. So we pray that God accept our prayer as our sacrifice, our atonement, that it rise up the the Lord as the incense smoke rises from the altar.
This psalm places our own weakness and temptations squarely in our prayer, before and alongside the prayer that our enemies be defeated. Do we not know, even if we only hint at it, that our internal enemies, our malign habits, our "personal demons," need to be conquered? "Turn not my heart to any evil," we pray.
The wicked are our problem, whether they are out to get us, or whether they are in us. No matter how many bulls we bring to the altar, we justly fear they are not enough to clear away the obstacles which stand between us and God.
But we may fail to appreciate that there are no obstacles between God and us. Our enemies, inner and outer, may get in our way, but are as grass before God's good desire for us. The God who aches to deliver us, breathes in our prayer as incense. Of course God accepts our prayer, just as God accepts every part of creation, even those broken, wounded, hurting ones.
"My eyes are turned toward you, O God, my Lord;
in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless...
When we turn towards God, with no bull, with our hands raised in prayer, we make it easier to know God's will for us. And that is always anchored in love. God's loving presence - by itself - is a strong defense again all enemies. "Let my prayer rise before you as incense..." These wisps of smoke may seem transient and insubstantial. But they smell so sweet to those who know the fire from which they rise.
Scott Dexter (Flickr: ampersandyslexia), Incense smoke Aarti, Ganges, Varanasi.. Used under (CC BY SA 2.0).
* New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.