Theme: Praying for Instruction
This stanza of Psalm 119 tells us that studying God’s Word will bring delight in his decrees.
Scripture: Psalm 119:33-40
Christianity and learning have always gone hand in hand. Wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ has gone in this world, grammar schools, literacy classes, scholarship and schools of higher learning have inevitably followed its advance. This is because the gospel opens the mind not only to matters of the soul, but to the mind itself, to nature, man, history and the marvels of the world God created. In the fifth stanza of Psalm 119 we have this important combination: learning and religion. But the kind of learning the psalmist has in mind is learning God’s Word. Moreover, he wants to learn God’s Word so he might walk in it or obey it. In order to make progress in this school he asks God to be his teacher.
This is not the first time the writer has asked God to be his teacher. He did it first in verse 12, then again in verses 26 and 27.
This stanza is filled with prayers, nine in all. There is a linguistic reason for this. As Leslie Allen points out, this is the fifth or he stanza of the psalm (he being the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet), and it is a characteristic of Hebrew that he is used at the beginning of verbs to make them causative.1 In English we would translate such verbs as “Cause me to learn,” “Cause me to have understanding,” “Cause me to walk” and so on. This is awkward in English. So the verbs are better rendered as petitions, which is what the Hebrew sentences actually are. As a result, we have: “Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees” (v. 33); “Give me understanding” (v. 34); “Direct me in the path of your commands” (v. 35); “Turn my heart toward your statutes” (v. 36); and so on throughout the stanza.
Putting these two ideas together then, what we have in the fifth stanza of Psalm 119 is a series of prayers for acceptance, progress, assistance and perseverance in God’s school of spiritual learning.
Often when a person is applying to a school in this country, one of the questions on the application form will be: “Why do you want to come to this university?” Or, “What do you hope to get out of our institution?” A clever student will usually commend himself by the way he or she answers. For example, “I hope to become the well-rounded, intelligent contributing person I know I can be, and that I believe only your school can make me.” Or, “I think your institution is the best one for helping me develop and employ my considerable talents.”
In the first two verses of this stanza the author is doing something like this. That is, he is applying for matriculation in God’s school. Only in his case, he is applying not because of what he has and wants to develop, but because of what he does not have but needs to have to live a holy life.
These verses ask God to “teach” him to follow God’s decrees and “give… understanding” to keep God’s law, both of which are virtually the same thing. And the reason he is asking for this instruction is so he might be able to keep God’s decrees “to the end” and be able to obey God’s law “with all my heart.” “To the end” means without limit as to time, and “with all my heart” means without reservation. What the writer says he is lacking is twofold: 1) he lacks understanding; and 2) he lacks the ability to do even what he is brought to understand. Charles Bridges observed this and wrote wisely, “We are equally ignorant of the path of God’s commandments, and impotent to go in it. We need therefore double assistance. Our minds must be enlightened; our hearts constrained.”2 True enough! We too must start with this confession, if we would learn God’s ways.
1Leslie C. Allen, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21, Psalms 101-150 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), p. 142.
2Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Edinburgh, Scotland, and Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), p. 84. Original edition 1827.
How are learning and religion related?
What series of prayers is in the fifth stanza?
How do we see wisdom exhibited by the psalmist?
What is the starting point of learning to walk in God’s ways?
Reflection: Do you come to God with the attitude of the psalmist?
Prayer: Ask God to teach you his Word and to give you the strength to keep his decrees “to the end” and “with all your heart.”
For Further Study: Download and listen for free to Philip Ryken’s message, “The Law and the Gospel.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)