Not a One-Trick Pony

I’ve always loved trivia of all kinds (What’s sweeter than answering Final Jeopardy correctly?), but as a kid, I especially loved Bible trivia. I know the shortest verse (John 11:35), the longest verse (Esther 8:9), the names of all 12 disciples (Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James, John, Simon Peter, Andrew, James the son of Alpheus, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew), and just how old the oldest man (Methuselah) was when he died (969 years). And, of course, I know the shortest chapter in the Bible (Psalm 117) and the longest (Psalm 119).

In fact, Psalm 119 is a wealth of trivia. Not only is it the longest chapter (well, technically psalm) at 176 verses, but it’s also a exquisite acrostic poem. It’s divided into 22 stanzas of exactly 8 verses each. And each verse of every stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter. For instance, the first 8 verses each begin with the letter aleph in Hebrew; the next 8 with the letter beth; and so on through the entire Hebrew alphabet. Finally, nearly all of its 176 verses, in one way or another, refer to God’s Word. Because of this, we tend to think of the psalm as a treatise on Scripture, the Bible’s autobiography, so to speak. It is that, I suppose; but Psalm 119 speaks to your life much more profoundly than you ever realized. In this post and the next two, we’ll investigate together what this masterpiece of Hebrew poetry teaches about praying, suffering, and knowing God.

Lessons About Prayer

Former editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, the late David Powlison notes that Psalm 119 is the “most extensive ‘I-to-you’ conversation in the Bible” and that while much is made of the volume of references to Scripture, the entity most frequently referred to is actually the psalmist himself.[1]  In verses 4-176, the poet pours out his heart to God in masterful poetry that would make Shakespeare and Tennyson jealous. Read through it and listen. Listen to the psalmist’s heart, listen to how he addresses God and interacts with the Holy One. If you do, you will notice at least the following three elements of prayer (and maybe a whole lot more).

Be Yourself

If you grew up in church, you know the “lingo.” You know that prayers are supposed to start with “Dear Heavenly Father” and end with “inJesus’nameAmen” (yes, all one word). You sprinkle your prayer with some “measure of grace”s, “hedge of protection”s, and “be with so-and-so”s. You also follow certain rules: don’t get over-emotional, try to avoid uncomfortable pauses, don’t repeat yourself, and don’t spend too long on any one thing. That’s just awkward.

However, the psalms know nothing of prayer like that. From just Psalm 119, we see that the psalmist doesn’t dress up his feelings or use “pretty prayer words.” He’s not concerned with following the “rules” so that no one thinks his prayer is “awkward.” His prayer is raw and gutsy. He holds nothing back, unafraid to say surprising things—and he’s writing for public consumption! Although crafting an unparalleled literary opus, the psalmist doesn’t seem concerned that he come out looking strong. Instead, he tells God that he feels like a wineskin in the smoke (v. 83), that his very soul weeps (v. 28) and cleaves to the dust (v. 25).

Not only does he level with God about his feelings, but he asks honest questions: “When will You comfort me?” (v. 82); “When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me?” (v. 84); or “How many are the days of Your servant?” (v. 84). Questions can seem irreverent, and, of course, they can be. However, Scripture gives many examples of godly men asking questions of God (Abraham, Moses, David, Habakkuk). We certainly must never be blasphemous or ask questions with an attitude of superiority—that’s purely Satanic. However, God is not afraid of your questions or raw feelings. Prayer is the most intimate of spiritual disciplines, especially in private, but also in community. Psalm 119 teaches us that it’s okay to let go of some inhibitions and be ourselves before God—even when others are listening.

This is not to say, however, that prayer is tantamount to “getting in touch with ourselves” and merely spouting off our feelings to God. Such an exercise can be dangerous. Our hearts are wily and bent on deceit. Even as the psalmist lays out his heart in brutal honesty, he does so in tension with who his God is. Prayer is not a monologue, but a conversation. God has spoken to us in His Word; we speak back to Him in prayer. This psalm is rife with references to Scripture, not because the psalmist wants to provide pithy axioms for godly living, but because Scripture is the bedrock of his existence, the foundation for his honesty with the Almighty.

Worship

If you’re like me, your prayers tend to become more like letters to Santa, a litany of requests, than a conversation with the King of Creation and sovereign God of the universe. Of course, He is also our Father and tells us to bring our requests before Him; that’s an important and legitimate component of prayer. It’s not the only component, though. The psalmist here teaches us that prayer is worship—even when we’re bringing requests to God. Notice how the psalmist weaves adoration and asking together. We ought to pray based on the character of God. That’s the example of the entire canon, and it’s on full display here in Psalm 119:

  • “Blessed are You, O LORD; teach me Your statutes” (v. 12)
  • “You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes” (v. 68).
  • “Your hands made me and fashioned me; give me understanding” (v. 73)
  • Revive me according to Your lovingkindness” (v. 88)
  • “You are my hiding place and my shield…Sustain me according to Your word” (vv. 114, 116)
  • “Turn to me and be gracious to me after Your manner with those who love Your name” (v. 132)
  • “Hear my voice according to Your lovingkindness” (v. 149)
  • Great are Your mercies, O Lord; revive me according to Your ordinances” (v. 156)
  • Let my soul live that it may praise You; and let Your ordinances help me” (v. 175)

Of course, not every request has to be married to an attribute of God; not every request in this psalm is, as we’ll see in just a minute. However, it may be a helpful exercise to try for a week (or maybe five minutes) not to ask God for anything without also praising His character. Your prayers may not be poetry—they may barely be complete sentences—but may they be informed and molded by the awesome nature of the God who hears them.

Bold Requests

Perhaps in the interest of “saving face” or not appearing too needy, we are often hesitant to ask truly bold things of God (or maybe that’s just me). Maybe because we don’t want to be disappointed if He doesn’t answer the way we want Him to, we “hedge our bets” with phrases like “if it’s Your will.” Of course, it’s right to be submissive to God’s will—that one’s modeled by Christ Himself. However, because of Christ, we don’t come wimpily into the throne room. A final lesson we can learn from Psalm 119 is just what it means to “come boldly before the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) as the author makes one audacious request after another. Take a look:

  • “Do not let me wander from Your commandments” (v. 10)
  • “Deal bountifully with Your servant” (v. 17)
  • “Take away reproach and contempt from me” (v. 22)
  • “O LORD, do not put me to shame!” (v. 31b)
  • “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to dishonest gain” (v. 36)
  • “Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity” (v. 37)
  • “May the arrogant be ashamed, for they subvert me with a lie” (v. 78)
  • “Help me!” (v. 86)
  • “Save me” (v. 94)
  • Turn to me and be gracious to me” (v. 132)
  • “Make Your face to shine upon Your servant” (v. 135)
  • Look upon my affliction and rescue me” (v. 153)

No hedging, hiding, hemming, or hawing. The psalmist unabashedly asks God to change his circumstances, to shame his enemies, to keep him from sin, simply to save or help him—and much more. Pray boldly, my friends!  

Just a cursory read-through of this jewel of the psalter shows that it has much more to offer than mere facts about God’s Word. If you’ve got a few extra minutes, why not read through the longest psalm (it really doesn’t take that long) and see what lessons about prayer you find.


[1] Speaking the Truth in Love, pg 13.

3 thoughts on “Not a One-Trick Pony

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