Praying Psalm 119

We know that the Word is Spirit and it is life. We know that we should let it sink down into our hearts, that we should let it abide in us, that we should meditate on it continually. We know that blessings and fruitfulness will be our portion as we do these things. Yet many of us struggle to give the Word its proper place in our lives. We may have trouble making time to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching. At times, we may have small appetite for spiritual things and find other things more compelling. We are all too easily distracted and drawn away. As Paul says, What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (Rom. 7:15). Or, we may have trouble comprehending what we read. Our eyes glaze over and our thoughts wander. After our “time in the Word,” we feel nothing has penetrated and nothing has changed.

If you have trouble “getting into” the Word, and keeping your heart in it, I would like to suggest something that I believe will help you greatly: praying through Psalm 119. Doing this has changed my life.

Psalm 119 is the extended testimony and prayers of a believer who seeks to know and follow God’s word more fully. The psalmist acknowledges how true and vital the Word is but needs strength and steadfastness to follow it. His heart is prone to wander and his mind is slow to understand. Throughout the psalm, he appeals to the Lord for help to live according to the Word, as he knows he ought to. He also asks the Lord to give him the life, the blessing, that is promised in the Word.

But this psalm is more than the outpouring of a human heart. It is also the loving provision of our kind and generous Father, who inspired it and preserved it for us. God knows our frame and has compassion on our frailty. In Psalm 119, he assures us that his Word is truth and life. He also shows us that he fully understands us and is abundantly willing to help us. He says, in effect, “Here is how important my Word is. It is life to you. Here is how much you should esteem it and desire it and seek for its promises to be fulfilled in you. And here are prayers that will help you. If you ask these things, which are according to my will and please me, I will give you what you ask for. I will work in you a love for my Word. I will cause you to understand it, to delight in it and to honour it. I will speak my life into you through it, and you will be greatly blessed.”

Some time ago, I became quite distant from the Lord, and therefore spiritually weak. My mind was frequently dwelling on wrong things. I was absorbed (if not obsessed) with schemes for making more money. I had little desire to pray and study the Word. I was in a constant state of disquiet because I knew I was not walking in the Spirit. I didn’t enjoy church much, and I avoided zealous believers because their passion for God exposed my lukewarmness.

By the grace of the Good Shepherd, who seeks his sheep who go astray (v. 176), I discovered Psalm 119, which I was already familiar with, in a new way. As I read the psalm, it dawned on me that I could make it my own prayer. Where the psalmist implores, Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! (v. 5) I also prayed this. When the psalmist says, Do not utterly forsake me (v. 8) and Do not let me stray from your commands (v. 10) I prayed the same words. They expressed my need perfectly.

When I came to statements such as I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches (v. 14), I confessed, “Lord this is not true of me. I do not rejoice in your word. But I know I should. Please make this true in my life. Change me so that I do rejoice in following your Word.” And so on.

Not all at once, but over an extended period of time, with some lapses and returnings to this psalm, I found my hunger for the Word growing. I slowly began to delight in the Word again. I prayed, as the psalmist does, Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law (v. 18). I found my understanding growing. I began to see the Word in a new and wonderful way. It was “coming alive,” and I was, too. I can see now that God was graciously answering the feeble prayers I hardly had the heart or breath to whisper to him. Hallelujah! His word is Spirit, and it is life! Yes, the Lord speaks life to us through his Word!

I continue to pray and meditate in Psalm 119, for I still have great need, and I never want to backslide ever again. Verses 35-37 have become favourites:

Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.

Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.

Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.

Our Lord delights to hear such prayers from his children, and he delights to answer them. His mighty grace is well able to direct us, to turn our hearts, to transform our affections. We simply need to ask—and keep asking—according to his Word. And, to take it one God-pleasing step further, we can pray for the same work of grace to be done in others. As Jesus told Peter, When though art converted, strengthen thy brethren  (Luke 22:32, KJV).

***

Note: Here is the way I believe we ought to read and pray Psalm 119: When we read the words statutes, laws, decrees, commands, etc., we need not think merely of the Old Testament laws, whether ceremonial, civil or moral. In the light of the now-complete Word of God, we can understand these terms, in their fullest sense, to denote something much greater, which both fulfills and surpasses those laws: the totality of what God has declared and revealed concerning himself through Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God—in short, the full truth of the whole Bible. New Testament terms for this life-giving revelation include “the gospel,” “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2). So we are not praying to become obedient to Mosaic ordinances, but rather to become motivated and empowered to live as God intends: according to his full Word, through faith in Jesus Christ, by the Spirit.

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