Psalm 17: Lessons from David For Effective Prayer

Introduction: Here, David turned to God in prayer during one of the many times when his enemies attacked him. The exact threat that he faced is not identified. What mattered was his response. Through his example, God reveals seven lessons for effective prayer. These include: (1) a clean heart, (2) humility, (3) submission, (4) trust, (5) faith, (6) petition, and (7) gratitude.

First, David began by proclaiming that God had previously exposed and then cleansed his sins. Thus, he called upon God to hear his prayers. In Old Testament times, God would not hear the prayers of an unrepentant sinner. Today, effective prayer still requires a clean, repentant heart. Second, David’s prayer included a request for God’s will and not his own to be done. Effective prayer also requires that you ask for God’s will to be done, not your own. Third, David thanked God for testing his heart to expose what was evil and to allow him to submit to God’s will. Effective prayer also requires submission to God’s will. Fourth, David thanked God for ordering his steps to protect him from harm. Effective prayer also requires trust in God’s guidance. Fifth, in faith, David thanked God in advance for answering his prayers. Effective prayer also requires faith that God will answer your prayers. Sixth, David then petitioned God for protection from his enemies. Effective prayer also requires that you petition God for your needs. Finally, David professed that he would be content with God’s answer to his prayer before knowing His answer. Effective prayer also requires gratitude, no matter how God answers your prayers.

1. A Clean Heart: Effective Prayer Requires a Clean, Repentant Heart. Ps. 17:1.

  • David professed that his motives were pure as he called out for help. When faced with enemies who sought to destroy him, David cried out to God to hear his prayers for help: “Prayer for Protection against Oppressors. A Prayer of David. 1 Hear a just cause, Lord, give Your attention to my cry; listen to my prayer, which is not from deceitful lips.” (Ps. 17:1). David began many of his psalms with similar requests for God to “hear” his prayers: “A Psalm of David. 1 Answer me when I call, God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; be gracious to me and hear my prayer.” (Ps. 4:1). “Hear, LORD, when I cry with my voice, and be gracious to me and answer me.” (Ps. 27:7). “A Psalm of David. Hear my cry, God; give Your attention to my prayer.” (Ps. 61:1; 142:6). David was not lacking in faith. Instead, he was humble in approaching God. He knew that God would not respond to prayers when he was concealing his sins.

  • Unrepentant sin can “hinder” your prayers to God. Unrepentant sin separates mankind from God: “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God . . .” (Isaiah 59:2(a)). As a consequence of the separation caused by sin, God warned that He would not hear the prayers of sinners: “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.” (Is. 1:15). “And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken falsehood, your tongue mutters wickedness.” (Is. 59:2-3(b)). “We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but He does listen to anyone who worships Him and does His will.” (Jo. 9:31; Prov. 15:29; 8:9; Ps. 66:18). In the New Testament, He warns that sin can “hinder” a believer’s prayers (1 Pet. 3:7). Thus, you should always repent of your sins. When you repent and pray in humility, God will hear your prayers: “He has regarded the prayer of the destitute and has not despised their prayer.” (Ps. 102:17). Is there sin in your life that might hinder your prayers?

David repented of his sins to approach God with a clean heart1

  • Confess your sins before you petition God for help. In the Old Testament, every hero of the faith sought to avoid approaching God with unrepentant sin. For example, Ezra led the people in repenting for the Jews’ sins before he petitioned God: “and I said, ‘O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens.”’ (Ezra 9:6). In preparation for Jesus, John the Baptist also called all sinners to repent. ‘“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”’ (Matt. 3:2). Jesus also began His ministry with a call to repentance: “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”’ (Matt. 4:17; Lk. 18:13.) If you say that you are without sin, the truth is not in you (1 Jo. 1:8). Yet, if you confess your sins, Jesus will forgive you: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jo. 1:9). Have you confessed your sins for Jesus to forgive you?

  • If a person or nation repents, He will deliver the person or nation. God promises to deliver any person or nation trapped in sin if the person or nation repents: “and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chr. 7:14). It is the role of the Church to pray and be His salt and light in leading others to repent. Are you fasting and praying for others to repent?

2. Humility: Effective Prayer Seeks For God’s Will to be Done, Not Your Own. Ps. 17:2.

  • David asked for God’s will to be done, not his own. In humility, David also prayed for God to address his plight according to God’s perfect justice and not his own vengeance: “Let my judgment come forth from Your presence; let Your eyes look with integrity.” (Ps. 17:2). “David did not want a vindication that came from himself. In his long struggle with King Saul, David had several opportunities to set things right himself, but he refused all waiting until vindication came from the presence of God. This was an important way that David left his problem to the LORD. ‘God, I refuse to take matters into my own hands. I will wait for vindication to come from Your presence; I want to know that this is Your work and not mine.’ Let Your eyes look on the things that are upright: David phrased his request in a way that put more emphasis upon God’s justice than on his own cause. He did believe that his cause was just; but he spoke in a manner that gave more importance to the things that are upright. David’s idea was something like this: ‘LORD, I believe my cause is just and I have searched my own heart for deceit. Yet I wait for Your vindication, and I want You to do and to promote what is right. If I’m not on Your side, move me so that I am.’” (David Guzik on Ps. 17) (emphasis in original).2 Your prayers should also seek for God’s will to be done, not your own.

David approached God in humility on his knees3

  • Jesus also prayed for the Father’s will do be fulfilled. As our example, Jesus always prayed for God the Father’s will to be done: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10). “saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”’ (Lk. 22:42). Most people assume that they know what is best and a loving God must answer their wish list. Yet, we may ask for the wrong things. We may unknowingly ask for something that will either harm us or God’s greater plans for us. Thus, you should always pray for His will.

  • Depend upon God to deliver you and God’s people. David prayed in humility. He did not plan on convincing God. Instead, he put his trust in God and in His will. Paul also found his strength by depending upon Jesus, not himself: “I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Cor. 12:9). David also did not trust in either his own strength or other powerful people to save him: “Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3). “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.” (Ps. 118:8). “How blessed is the man who has made the LORD his trust, and has not turned to the proud, nor to those who lapse into falsehood.” (Ps. 40:4). Are you turning to Jesus for your needs? Or, have you put your trust in your own abilities, powerful people, or your political party to deliver you?

  • God will lift you up when you humble yourself before Him. David approached God in humility (e.g., Ps. 9:13). He knew that God lifts up the humble: “Arise, LORD; God, lift up Your hand. Do not forget the humble.” (Ps. 10:12). God wants His leaders to humble themselves before Him, like David did, so that He can exalt them: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.” (Lk. 1:52). God will also humble you before He exalts you: “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (Jam. 4:10). “So that He sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety.” (Job 5:11). God can also lift up a nation when it humbles itself (2 Chr. 7:14). Are you praying in humility for God’s deliverance?

  • Pray for God to vindicate you instead of seeking your own vengeance. Also as our example, David prayed for God to vindicate him when he was attacked (Ps. 9:4). David did not attempt to seek vengeance or take matters into his own hands: “A Psalm of David. Contend, LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. . . Judge me, LORD my God, according to Your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me.” (Ps. 35:1, 25). “Vindicate me, God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation; save me from the deceitful and unjust person!” (Ps. 43:1). For example, David told Saul that God would judge their dispute: “May the LORD judge between you and me, and may the LORD take vengeance on you for me; but my hand shall not be against you. . . May the LORD therefore be judge and decide between you and me; and may He see and plead my cause and save me from your hand.” (1 Sam. 24:12, 15). Instead of trying to right the wrongs against you, God also wants you to give your burdens to Him. Even if His timing is not your timing, He will be just and fair to you.

3. Submission: Effective Prayer Requires Submission to God’s Will. Ps. 17:3-4.

  • David submitted his heart to God for testing and guidance. David also praised God for testing his heart to show where it was evil. David then repented from any sinful path: “You have put my heart to the test; You have visited me by night; You have sifted me and You find nothing; My intent is that my mouth will not offend. As for the works of mankind, by the word of Your lips I have kept from the ways of the violent.” (Ps. 17:3-4). David knew that he was a sinner. Thus, he submitted to God’s testing and guidance.

  • Invite God’s testing to allow Him to remold your heart. David was a man after God’s heart because he invited God’s testing to show him where he needed to change: “Search me, God, and know my heart; put me to the test and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” (Ps. 139:23-24). After the Jews had escaped from Egypt, Moses explained that God frequently tests His people: “for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” (Ex. 20:20(b); Dt. 8:2). David also warned that even the righteous are not beyond God’s testing: “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked . . .” (Ps. 11:5). “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, . . .” (Jer. 17:10). God’s testing and discipline are done out of love (Heb. 12:6). When you are tested, you may find that your heart has hidden anger, lust, or covetousness. When God exposes wickedness, He expects you to repent of it: “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). God’s testing and trials also produce the fruits of perseverance and endurance: “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance;” (Ro. 5:3). “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (Jam. 1:2-3). When Paul faced death in Asia, he revealed that God put him through trials so that he would rely upon Him and not his own strength (2 Cor. 1:8-10). Are you inviting God’s testing and submitting to Him?

4. Trust: Effective Prayer Requires Trust in God’s Guidance. Ps. 17:5.

  • David trusted God to direct and guide him. Because David knew that he would have chosen a path leading to his destruction, he praised God for guiding his every step: “My steps have held to Your paths. My feet have not slipped.” (Ps. 17:5). “LORD, lead me in Your righteousness because of my enemies; make Your way straight before me.” (Ps. 5:8). “Establish my footsteps in Your word, and do not let any wrongdoing have power over me.” (Ps. 119:133). Solomon made a similar prayer: “then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and Your people Israel; indeed, teach them the good way in which they are to walk. And provide rain on Your land, which You have given to Your people as an inheritance.” (1 Kgs. 8:36). God also wants you to turn to Him to guide your every step. Trusting in your own wisdom frequently leads to disaster.

  • Read God’s Word and pray to let the Holy Spirit guide your actions. David trusted God’s Word to light the path and to guide him every step of the way: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19). When you read God’s Word and pray, the Holy Spirit can speak to you: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (Jo. 14:16). “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (Jo. 16:13). Are you reading the Word and praying on a daily basis for God to guide you?

  • Don’t rely on your own understanding. God freely gives wisdom when you ask for it: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (Jam. 1:5). “For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Prov. 2:6). “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in secret You will make wisdom known to me.” (Ps. 51:6). If you reject God’s wisdom and instead rely upon your own understanding the result is frequently disastrous: “There is a way which seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25).

5. Faith: Effective Prayer Requires Faith that God Will Answer Your Prayers. Ps. 17:6-9.

  • David had the faith to know that God would answer his prayers. As a sign of his faith, David praised God in advance for answering his prayer and protecting him from attack: “I have called upon You, for You will answer me, God; incline Your ear to me, hear my speech. Show Your wonderful faithfulness, savior of those who take refuge at Your right hand from those who rise up against them. Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings from the wicked who deal violently with me, my deadly enemies who surround me.” (Ps. 17:6-9). David professed that God was his “refuge” from his attackers (Ps. 17:7). Thus, David knew that God was his shield (Ps. 18:30). He further knew that God loved him as “the apple of [His] eye” (Ps. 17:8; Dt. 32:10).

David had the faith to know that God loved him and wanted to protect him4

  • David believed that God would answer his prayers. As our example, David’s psalms are filled with examples where he thanked God in advance for answering his prayers: “I was crying out to the LORD with my voice, and He answered me from His holy mountain. Selah.” (Ps. 3:4). “I have called upon You, for You will answer me, God; incline Your ear to me, hear my speech.” (Ps. 17:6). “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried to my God for help; He heard my voice from His temple, and my cry for help before Him came into His ears.” (Ps. 18:6). “For I wait for You, LORD; You will answer, Lord my God.” (Ps. 38:15). Thus, David always praised God: “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His faithfulness is everlasting.” (1 Chr. 16:34). If you fail to make a habit of thanking Him, you may take Him for granted. Even in times when he was jailed and persecuted, Paul worshiped God and gave thanks: “always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to our God and Father;” (Eph. 5:20). Are you thanking God for both the prayers that He has already answered and the future ones?

  • God is faithful. Also as our example, Moses celebrated God’s faithfulness: “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments;” (Dt. 7:9). “ . . . I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, . . . showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Ex. 20:5-6). “and I will remember My covenant, . . .” (Gen. 9:15). Nehemiah, another prayer warrior, also praised God’s faithfulness when he prayed (Neh. 1:5). Do your prayers also praise God for His faithfulness?

  • Jesus is also faithful. As part of the triune God, Jesus is also faithful to keep His promises to you: “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:9). He is faithful, even when we are not: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13). This means that you can trust His many promises to you. But you cannot have faith in His many promises if you don’t know them. How many of Jesus’ promises can you name?

6. Petition: Effective Prayer Requires That You Petition God for Your Needs. Ps. 17:10-14.

  • David petitioned God for protection from his enemies. Only after repenting of his sins, praying for God’s will and thanking him did David petition God to deliver him from evil: “10 They have closed their unfeeling hearts, with their mouths they speak proudly. 11 They have now surrounded us in our steps; they set their eyes to cast us down to the ground. 12 He is like a lion that is eager to tear, and as a young lion lurking in secret places. 13 Arise, Lord, confront him, make him bow down; save my soul from the wicked with Your sword, 14 from people by Your hand, Lord, from people of the world, whose portion is in this life, and whose belly You fill with Your treasure; they are satisfied with children, and leave their abundance to their babies.” (Ps. 17:10-14). His enemy sought to tear him apart like a lion (Ps. 17:12). Although the exact context is unknown, this may have been when Saul chased David into the mountains to destroy both David and his followers (1 Sam. 23:26). Whenever David faced such attacks, he turned to God.

  • Cry out to God, when you need deliverance. David cried out in faith “Arise, Lord,” (Ps. 17:13). He used the exact same words in one of his prior petitions for God to deliver him (Ps. 9:19). He was not being presumptuous. He instead knew that he could cry out to God for deliverance from his enemies. “I was crying out to the LORD with my voice, and He answered me from His holy mountain. Selah” (Ps. 3:4). “But know that the LORD has set apart the godly person for Himself; the LORD hears when I call to Him.” (Ps. 4:3). “Leave me, all you who practice injustice, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.” (Ps. 6:8). “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried to my God for help; He heard my voice from His temple, and my cry for help before Him came into His ears.” (Ps. 18:6). “Blessed be the LORD, because He has heard the sound of my pleading.” (Ps. 28:6). If you are in need of deliverance, cry out to God for His help.

  • Jesus’ model prayer included a petition for deliverance. In His model prayer for believers, Jesus also urged believers to include a daily request for deliverance: ‘“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matt. 6:13). This is also His prayer for believers: “I am not asking You to take them out of the world, but to keep them away from the evil one.” (Jo. 17:15). Are you praying for God’s daily protection?

  • Pray also for others in need of deliverance. God also wants you to pray for others. In response to Moses’ prayers, God repeatedly spared the Jews (e.g., Ex. 32:11-14; Nu. 14:18-22; 16:21-24). The apostles also continually prayed for others. “. . . I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day,” (2 Tim. 1:3). “. . . we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,” (Col. 1:9). “do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers;” (Eph. 1:16). “as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, . . .” (1 Thess. 3:10). You are part of Jesus’ holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6). As His appointed priest, you too have the power of intercessory prayer. But it is unlikely to work if you lack faith. “But he must ask in faith without any doubting, . . .” (Jam. 1:6). If you know someone who is under physical or spiritual attack, are you earnestly praying for their deliverance?

  • The effective fervent prayer of the righteous can accomplish great things. Once you cleanse your heart of sin, God promises that those who pray fervently and in faith can accomplish much: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (Ja. 5:16). As an example of this, God heard Elijah’s prayers to both stop and later restart the rain in Israel: “17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” (Ja. 5:17-18). As another example, Nehemiah prayed continually for God to see and hear the prayers of His sinful people: ‘“ 6a let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open, to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants,”’ (Neh. 1:6 a). God also wants you to pray fervently to Him to intervene when you need deliverance.

7. Gratitude: Effective Prayer Requires Gratitude For God’s Answer to You. Ps. 17:15.

  • Regardless of God’s answer, David swore to be satisfied and grateful to God. As our example, David professed that he would be satisfied with God’s answer to his prayers: “15 As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.” (Ps. 17:15). If David were driven by the flesh, he might have only been satisfied with the death of his enemies. Instead, he trusted in God’s solution. God also may not answer your prayers in the way you desire. Regardless of His answer, you should be grateful and praise God for doing what is best (Ro. 8:28).

Even when you are alone or in a dark place, give thanks for God’s provision5

  • When you thank God, thank Him in advance for the prayers He will fulfill in the future. Although God is faithful, His timing is frequently not our timing. David had to wait for God to answer his prayers. He also had to wait to become king as God molded Him as a servant within Saul’s court. He then suffered under Saul’s rule. God also forced Sarah and Abraham to wait 25 years in the Promised Land before He transformed her 90-year-old womb to allow her to conceive Isaac (Gen. 17:17). God uses suffering to mold believers for His greater glory: “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” (Is. 48:10; Ps. 66:10; Zech. 13:9(a); Dt. 8:2-3). Thus, if God does not answer your prayers according to your timeline, be patient for His timing: “Rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.” (Ps. 37:7). “I waited patiently for the LORD; and He inclined to me and heard my cry.” (Ps. 40:1(b)). “I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope.” (Ps. 130:5). Even when you don’t know God’s plan for you and things seem hopeless, will you praise Him while patiently waiting for Him and His timing?

  • True gratitude requires contentment. David was grateful because he was willing to be content with whatever God gave him. Paul also revealed that Jesus will strengthen you when you are content: “I know how to get along with little, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:12-13). Are you content with what God has given you in life? Or, are you ungrateful and constantly striving for something else?

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