“O God, come to my assistance;
O LORD, make haste to help me!”
Who hasn’t prayed this, or something like it, at some time in their life?
It comes from Psalm 70, where it is a strong cry for rescue. But those words are far more than a cry for help. The early desert fathers repeated that verse throughout the day as a way to pray constantly. To say it with meaning, one must become empty. Poor in spirit. As a prayer, it expresses complete dependence on God and trust in his providence for our needs. No wonder these words are the starting point of prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, whether they lead into praise or a prayer for help.* “O God, come to my assistance; O LORD, make haste to help me!” is a password of sorts, an “Open, Sesame!” that opens a door into the presence of God and places us at his feet.
I love what John Cassian (c. 360-433) wrote of this verse:
“And so for keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. […] it embraces all the feelings which can be implanted in human nature, and can be fitly and satisfactorily adapted to every condition, and all assaults. It contains an invocation of God against every danger, it contains humble and pious confession, it contains the watchfulness of anxiety and continual fear, it contains the thought of one’s own weakness, confidence in the answer, and the assurance of a present and ever ready help. For those who call constantly on their protector are sure of having him always at hand.” (Read the whole thing here.)
As is typical of Hebrew poetry, this verse gives us one thought in two parallel ways in order to deepen the meaning. The first line reads, “O God, come to my assistance.” “God” here in Hebrew is Elohim. It’s the name used in Genesis 1:1 of the Creator and Lord of the universe. “God, come to my assistance” almost sounds formal. I need help, and I turn to someone who has power. But in the second line, with “O LORD, make haste to help me,” the psalmist gets personal. “Come quick” implies relationship. It’s something I say to someone on whom I have a claim. And “LORD” is the personal name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush: YHWH. “I AM,” it means. And as the LORD makes clear to Moses, he is the God WHO IS close to his people. He is the one who sees their affliction, hears their cry, knows their suffering, and comes down to deliver them (see Exodus 3, especially vs. 7).
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Whenever “LORD” is written in the Bible in all capital letters,
it translates the Hebrew YHWH: Yahweh, the personal name of the God of Israel.
It means “I am,” which carries a relational meaning in Hebrew.
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Nearly half of the 150 psalms can be classified as some sort of psalm of lament: an expression of sorrow or anguish accompanied by a plea for God’s blessing or intervention. With few exceptions, the psalms cry out specifically to YHWH. And running through them like a thread are cries of urgency like the one in Psalm 70. Make haste! Hurry up! Come quick, do not delay!
The psalms are a school of prayer in which we learn to gather our troubles, fears, inadequacies, and needs and take them to the LORD who loves us. With confidence, we can cry with the psalmist, “O LORD, make haste to help me!” Over the next weeks, I’ll look at some particular psalms that help us see why and how and that give us a pattern for prayer. In the meantime, look up some of these verses that ask the LORD to hurry up and help. Choose one or more to read in context by meditating on the entire psalm. How does it speak to you?
- Psalm 22:19 — But thou, O LORD, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid!
- Psalm 38:22 — Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!
- Psalm 40:13 — Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!
- Psalm 40:17 — Thou art my help and my deliverer; do not tarry, O my God!
- Psalm 70:5 — But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! Thou art my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not tarry!
- Psalm 71:12 — O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!
- Psalm 141:1 — I call upon thee, O LORD; make haste to me! Give ear to my voice, when I call to thee!
- Psalm 143:7 — Make haste to answer me, O LORD!
May God bless you as you read his word.
* Every hour of prayer in the Divine Office begins with a call for the Lord’s help, for without him we can do nothing—not even pray. Except for morning prayer, which begins with the invitatory “Lord, open our lips: and we shall praise your name,” each hour begins with the opening verse of Psalm 70.
© 2016 Sarah Christmyer.