What happens when you ask the right questions of Scripture? You get the mother lode. Riches pour forth like water from Moses’ rock. In the case of Psalm 119, the text itself makes it clear what questions we are supposed to ask, and the payoff is pretty sweet. Here are the two questions we should ask as we trek through Psalm 119: (1) What does the psalmist pray for; and (2) What is the psalmist’s posture toward God’s word?
What Does the Psalmist Pray For?
Nearly every verse of Psalm 119 contains some petition from the psalmist to God. One of the most repeated requests is that God would teach the psalmist his word. “Blessed are you Lord, teach me your statutes” (v. 12), the psalmist pleads. “Open my eyes so that I can behold wonderful things in your law” (v.18). “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (v.34). The psalmist not only longs for God’s word, he recognizes that he is utterly dependent upon God to rightly understand it (see also vv. 19, 26, 27, 29, 33, 64, 66, 68, 73, 124, 135, 144, 169, 171). Knowing that it is Christ who provides us with a mind to understand his Word (Luke 24:45) and the Spirit who gives insight into spiritual realities (1 Cor 2:10-16) our prayers should resemble the prayers of Psalm 119. We are foolish to think we can attain to a right understanding of Scripture apart from God’s help (see also John 15:5).
The psalmist further expresses his dependance upon God by regularly asking for divine enablement to keep God’s word. First, his heart must be inclined toward the law of God. “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to selfish gain” (v.36). Then, God must enable obedience to the divine precepts. Even in the first few lines of the Psalm we find the author immediately following his statement on the necessity of obedience with a cry for help: “Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes” (v.5). As the Psalm moves along, the author’s requests become more direct (emphasis added):
- Deal bountifully with me so that I can keep your commandments (v.17).
- Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it (v.35).
- Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and give me life in your ways (v.37).
- May my heart be blameless in your statutes, that I may not be put to shame (v.80)
- Keep steady my steps according to your promise, let no iniquity get dominion over me (v.133).
- Let my soul live and praise you, and let your rules help me (v.175)
Yet, the psalmist knows that devotion to God’s Word inevitably brings persecution, so he also asks for deliverance in times of trial. “All your commandments are sure; they persecute me with falsehood; help me” (v.86), he cries. But the psalmist also recognizes that in some cases deliverance from times of trial will be the means that God uses to enable obedience. He is therefore not ashamed to ask boldly for divine rescue from his troubles: “Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts . . . .With my whole heart I cry; answer me, or LORD! I will keep your statutes. I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies” (vv.134, 145-146; emphasis added; see also v.88, 117, 153, 170).
The psalmist understands that his deliverance must be grounded in the character and promises of God, so he asks for life and strength according to God’s word. “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word (v.25) . . . .My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word . . . .Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise (vv. 25, 28, 154; see also vv. 40, 41, 156, 159). The psalmist also asks for grace (v.58), mercy (v.77), that God would take away his reproach (v.39) and that God would be feared (v.38).
What is the Psalmist’s Posture Toward God’s Word?
When we inquire about the psalmist’s posture toward God’s word, we find that he is spiritually and affectionally inclined toward it. Specifically, he delights in and loves God’s law. The psalmist declares, “In the way of your testimonies I delight, as much as in all riches . . . .I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word . . . .Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors . . . . Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it . . . .I will lift up my hands to your commandments, which I love (vv.14, 16, 24, 35, 48; emphasis added; see also vv. 77, 92, 97, 103, 143). His delight in God’s law, however, does not leave the psalmist morally indifferent when it comes to those outside the covenant community. He is angry when the wicked forsake God’s law (v.53) and he hates, even abhors falsehood (v.163). The new birth is the only way we can experience these feelings toward God’s Word (see John 3:3-15; Eph 2:1-10), but a Christian’s desires can be stoked and maintained by prayer (see above) and continual exposure to Scripture.
The psalmist’s spiritual desire for God’s law even expresses itself physically: “I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments” (v. 131; see also vv. 40, 131). He values Scripture over great riches: “The law of the your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces . . . . I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold” (vv. 72, 127).
Thoughts of Scripture also evoke the Psalmist’s praise: “At midnight I praise you, because of your righteous rules” (v.62; see also vv.162, 164, 172) and bring comfort: “When I think of your rules from of old, I take comfort, O LORD” (v.52).
He has deliberately set out to obey God’s commandments, “I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I have set your rules before me” (v.30), and holds firmly to God’s word, ‘I cling to your testimonies, O LORD, let me not be put to shame (v.31).
The psalmist also expects stability and blessing in the life of one who keeps God’s Word: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD” (v.1). “Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways” (vv. 2-3). “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (v.165).
Yet, Psalm 119 makes it clear that Scripture is neither a lifeless set of rules nor merely a means to satisfy the believer’s intellectual curiosity, for the psalmist is passionate about God himself: “Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart” (v. 2). With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your comments” (v.10). “The LORD is my portion, I promise to keep your words” (v.57). Therefore, he is devoted to meditating on God’s Word (vv.15, 48, 97, 147-148) and committed to keeping it (vv. 4, 44, 51, 55, 57, 60, 61, 69, 157, 161, 166, 167, 168). Thus, the psalmist has confidence in the face of his enemies (vv. 41-42) and declares God’s word to others (vv.46-47).
The Gift of Psalm 119
Psalm 119 is a gift to Christians. The psalmist serves as an example of how a Christian should approach and respond to God’s Word. But Psalm 119 also clears away any doubts we might have about the place Scripture should have in the life of the believer. When someone truly loves Christ, they do not depart from his Word in search for something better; they find Christ in his Word, and they long to dwell there continually (Psalm 1:2).