Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! ⁴Do not let my heart incline to any evil...—Psalm 141:3-4
What would it feel like to be pursued to death by the king—and that, after years of serving him faithfully at great personal cost? Such is the setting for David’s prayer in Psalm 141. How might he, the Lord’s anointed, have been tempted to respond to murderous King Saul? David’s plea for God’s help with his mouth and heart offers us some clues.
He doesn’t start by asking God to deliver him from his enemies, or to strike down his enemies in judgment. Instead, David starts with his own mouth and heart. “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! Do not let my heart incline to any evil…”
David may have been tempted to retaliate against Saul. We know from David’s response to Nabal’s insulting behavior in 1 Samuel 25 that he could be tempted to anger, wrath, and even vengeance. The circumstances surrounding Psalm 141 were even more unjust. This psalm is part of a “linked group,” says theologian Alec Motyer, placing it with Psalms 140-145. These psalms can be seen together, he says, in light of the deadly peril David faced “from Saul and his court.” It was no short-lived peril. David was on the run for his life for 10 years.
In the midst of this flight, David knew something about his own heart. Facing danger from without, David pleaded with God for self-control. Circumstances that threatened to rouse his passions were cause for crying out for help. And God answered twice, causing David to spare Saul’s life (1 Samuel 24; 26). David repeatedly entrusted himself to the God who judges justly. David is, by God’s grace, a picture of Romans 12:19 restraint, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Our hearts, like David’s, are naturally inclined toward evil. They are the source of our sin (James 1:14-15). Psalm 141 is the prayer of a man who knows this about his own heart, at least enough to know it is dangerous if untethered. He knows he needs the constraints God sets, the restraining power of the Holy Spirit.
God was David’s refuge, not only from Saul but also from David’s own sin. David cried out to God, knowing his own temptations. When we accept God’s diagnosis for what causes our sin, then we can pray aright, echoing David:
Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth;
keep watch over the door of my lips!
Do not let my heart incline to any evil,
to busy myself with wicked deeds
in company with men who work iniquity,
and let me not eat of their delicacies!
How might Psalm 141 apply to our lives?
We can encourage our children to entrust themselves to God when they are treated unjustly by friends.
We can pray for our enemies and look for opportunities to love them, in real life as well as online.
We can hold our tongue when we want to lash out with spoken, as well as written, words.
When we feel the limits of our own self-control, we can cry out to the Spirit, who works the fruit of righteousness in those who trust in the Lord.
When facing trials and temptations, ask God to help you discern your own heart before focusing on tempting circumstances and bad influences.