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Prayers, Like Incense

Prayers, Like Incense

Psalm 141 (BCP, pg. 797) moved me powerfully when I read it this week. Unlike many of the psalms that ask God for deliverance, or that call down punishments down upon the wicked, this psalm continuously pleads for the strength to resist wickedness in its many and varied forms.


The psalmist focuses on what they need to be a better, less wicked, person instead of spending most of the verses complaining about how evil-doers are trying to trip them up.


Instead of laying a burden on God to fix everyone else in the psalmist life, they ask for God’s assistance in resisting wickedness.


Instead of seeing the potential for evil and wickedness as being a solely external threat coming from others, this psalm calls out all of the outlets for the psalmist’s own personal wickedness.


They start by invoking God’s presence in their life.


They invite God in:

I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;

give ear to my voice when I call to you.

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,

and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (v. 1-2)


From there they tell God all of the ways they can fall into evil and wickedness through their own mouth, lips, heart, work, and company.

Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips;

let not my heart incline to any evil thing.

Let me not be occupied in wickedness with evildoers,

nor eat of their choice foods. (v. 3-4)


The next verse uses opposite ends of the spectrum as a way to highlight a way the psalmist can use their own community, with God’s help, to resist falling in evil ways.

Let the righteous smite me in friendly rebuke;

let not the oil of the unrighteous anoint my head;

for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds. (v.5)


While I’m not a fan of anyone being physically smited (or smitten in the pre-1650’s meaning of the word). I can take the first part of this verse more metaphorically, in the sense of being brought up short by a friend one trusts when one is on the verge of making a bad choice. Having been brought up short (and maybe had the metaphorical wind knocked out of one), the psalmist turns to the other end of the spectrum of temptation– that of being sweetly lured into wickedness in ways that may seem easy and harmless to start.


In verses 6-7 there is a familiar call for the wicked to face some consequences:  

Let their rulers be overthrown in stony places,

that they may know my words are true.

As when a plowman turns over the earth in furrows,

let their bones be scattered at the mouth of the grave. (v. 6-7)


Finally, the psalm takes a turn back to the earlier theme of the psalmist focusing on God and the way God can help them, not only to not stray into wickedness on their own; but also, to not be ensnared by the wickedness of others:

But my eyes are turned to you, Lord God;

In you I take refuge;

do not strip me of my life.

Protect me from the snare which they have laid for me

and from the traps of the evildoers.

Let the wicked fall into their own nets,

while I myself escape. (v. 8-10)


In this season, the beginning of Advent, and the New Church Year it is a good time to remember that our faith starts with an invitation that goes both ways.


God invites us into his Grace through the incarnation of Jesus. However, God’s action it is just that, an invitation.


In our turn, we can accept that invitation and choose to call the Grace of God into our lives and into our hearts.


The psalm is from the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer containing both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at:

Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.

© 2018 Kristin Fontaine



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