Reading the Bible Prayerfully


clockHappy New Year, dear reader!  It’s that time of year where we all make commitments that we know we’ll never keep.  I’m only kidding of course (sort of!).  Although there is nothing inherently different about the beginning of a new year from any time throughout the rest of the year, the turn of a new year is a good opportunity to re-evaluate the direction of our lives, reset our priorities, and even make some reasonable commitments to pursue growth in the coming year.

A couple of helpful posts have been written in the last week about these things here on the PS23 blog. See Dr. Barrck’s post from last week on the significance of the New Year and Greg Pickle’s post from yesterday regarding the advantage to setting goals for the year as opposed to making resolutions.  They are well worth reading.

For Christians, one popular New Year’s resolution is to stick to a Bible reading plan, one that leads you through the Bible in a year, or something to that effect.  These kinds of resolutions typically spring from the desire Christians have to read the Bible more, which is obviously a very good desire.  After all, who couldn’t benefit from more Scripture intake?  We all need more of it, since “man does not live by bread alone, but…by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3).

Yet, as Jason put it last week (in an excellent post that I also recommend to you), it’s not just about reading to read.  Without disregarding the need we have to take in more of the Bible, there is actually a more urgent need we have to see what we do read in Scripture change us, make us more like Christ and deepen our love for God.  That’s one of the great purposes of Scripture; to strengthen our bond with the covenant God who wrote it, as Psalm 119 so richly demonstrates.

prayer-bibleAnd so, I wonder if we could benefit even more from reading Scripture, not just more than we currently do, but differently.  Specifically, prayerfully.  As much as we may need to read more of the Bible, it is just as critical to our spiritual growth to read the Bible in a prayerful manner, asking God to use his Word to make us holier, godlier, more joyful, Christ-like people.

There is a passage in Psalm 119 that has me thinking this.  The He strophe of Psalm 119; verses 33-40.

33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of Your statutes, And I shall observe it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law And keep it with all my heart.

35 Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, For I delight in it.

36 Incline my heart to Your testimonies And not to dishonest gain.

37 Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, And revive me in Your ways.

38 Establish Your word to Your servant, As that which produces reverence for You.

39 Turn away my reproach which I dread, For Your ordinances are good.

40 Behold, I long for Your precepts; Revive me through Your righteousness. (Psa 119:33-40)

This particular stanza in this magnificent psalm is characterized by 9 petitions the psalmist makes to the Lord, asking for God to cause him to live a life shaped and wholly governed by his written Word.  Living that kind of life is not easy.  In fact, without God’s help, it’s entirely impossible.  The kinds of challenges that stand in the way of living such a life are endless.

The challenge to living that kind of life that is in view in these verses is what we might call “the enemy within,”  the psalmists own wayward heart, which wants to obey God, dwell in his Word, and live according to it, but is so easily led astray to “selfish gain” and “worthless things” (vv. 36-37).

In the Gimel strophe (vv. 17-24), the challenge to living life according to Scripture was outward threats; persecutions and opposition of men.  In the Daleth strophe (vv. 25-32), it was the challenge of a difficult life that had his soul clinging to the dust (v. 25).  Here, the challenge comes from within.  From his own conflicted desires and his troubling tendency to chase after things that when compared to God’s glory are easily seen as worthless.

This is a challenge that has him feeling particularly needy, hence the 9 requests he makes to God in these 8 short verses.  He’s really begging the Lord to do what only he can do; to transform his wayward, sin-plagued heart and cause his words in Scripture to have a genuinely transforming effect upon his life.  In these verses, he is asking God to transform him from the inside out, to overcome his rebellious heart and make him conform from the heart to the standard of Scripture.  And the way he prays provides us with a wonderful model to follow.

Briefly, I’d like to look at the 4 types of prayers that the psalmist prays in these verses, and encourage us to be praying them as well, as we seek to read more of the Bible in the coming year.

The first type of prayer that he prays is for a right understanding of his Word.  (vv. 33-34)

In the opening verses of the stanza, the psalmist takes the posture of a learner, a student of the Lord.  “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes…Give me understanding.”  In these prayers he is submitting himself, not merely in what he thinks about the Lord, but how he thinks about the Lord to the authority of his Word.  He is saying to God, “You’re the authority!  I’m merely the student.  I know nothing by myself.  I have no true insight on my own.  I won’t ever see unless you open my eyes.  I won’t ever learn unless you teach me!”

Some of us think too highly of our own thoughts about God, and ourselves, and the world in which we live.  We often look to God’s Word simply to confirm what we already think.  Yet, if we take the psalmist as our model, every time we open our Bibles we should be seeking to be taught by the Lord and pleading with him to teach us what he intends for us to learn (not just intellectually, but practically) from what he says.  Our approach to the Bible should begin with the open admission of the darkness of our own minds, and of our desperate need for the Spirit to shine light in them.

The second type of prayer he prays is for wholehearted obedience to his Word.  (vv. 33-35)

Notice the goal of God teaching him and giving him understanding.

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. (v. 33)

Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. (v. 34)

Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. (v. 35)

What is the goal of a right understanding of his Word?  Or better, what is the evidence that I have rightly understood his Word?  The evidence is wholehearted obedience.

Yet wholehearted obedience is at its root, a work of God.  So, in these verses he is asking God to make him truly obedient to his Word.  Verse 35 makes it abundantly clear:  “Make me walk in the path of Your commandments” (NASB).  He’s essentially praying that the Lord would overcome his will; even violate it to some degree, to the extent that his will would lead him into sin.  What a desperate prayer this is!  Make me obey!  Don’t give me over to my sinful tendencies!  Because deep down, I really do take pleasure in your commands.  I know you only command what is best for me.  So, cause me to do it!

I think what we see here are the thoughts of a man who is well-acquainted with the mischievousness and deception of his heart, and of the inconsistencies in his own life  and his common failure of not living up to what he knows is right.

Can you relate to that struggle?  I sure can.  Every day I see this dynamic at work.  I know what’s best and yet am consistently drawn to do what I hate.  Examples of this abound in my life.  I know it’s right to spend time with the Lord and yet I’m consistently drawn from within my own heart to spend time doing other things.  I know it’s best to be a loving and patient husband and father and yet I’m often easily angered and irritated.  I know it’s best to persevere in relationships, and yet I so easily give up on people.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

And that struggle helps me remember, as the psalmist remembers in Psalm 119, that the work of God in my life is my only hope!   If I am going to be truly obedient to God and his Word, he has to bring about that obedience in my heart.  As the Scripture says “it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).  And so, we ought to pray that God will do this work in us and lead us into wholehearted obedience to his Word.

The third type of prayer he prays is for an undivided focus upon his Word.  (vv. 36-37)

There is a strong similarity between the requests in the next two verses as well.

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! (v. 36)

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. (v. 37)

John Calvin nails the implications of verse 36 when he writes, “In this verse, he confesses the human heart to be so far from yielding to the justice of God, that it is more inclined to follow an opposite course. Were we naturally and spontaneously inclined to the righteousness of the law, there would be no occasion for the petition of the Psalmist, Incline my heart.  It remains, therefore, that our hearts are full of sinful thoughts, and wholly rebellious, until God by his grace change them” (Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, p. 256).

As Christians, when we pray for God to turn our eyes from worthless things and to give us life in his ways (v . 37), what we are ultimately praying for is that he might help us see the glory of his Son in his Word.  Here is what we should be asking:  Help me see Jesus.  Show me Christ!  Turn my eyes away from all the counterfeit lords and counterfeit saviors in my life and help me behold the beauty and glory of your Son in your Word.  That’s what we need; to “behold the glory of the Lord,” so that we might be changed “from one degree of glory to another” into his own image (2 Cor 3:18).

That’s how God uses Scripture to change his people.  And so, we should be asking God to show us his glory as revealed in his Son every time we open it up. That is how our eyes will be turned away from worthless things and where we will find life in God’s ways.

The last type of prayer in this passage is for ongoing refreshment through his Word.  (vv. 38-40)

That seems to be the theme running through the last three verses of this stanza.

Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared. (v. 38)

Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good. (v. 39)

Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life! (v. 40)

In these verses the psalmist is asking God to demonstrate the truthfulness and trustworthiness of his Word (v. 38) and to turn his persecutions away that he might continue finding strength to walk in obedience (v. 39), summing it all up in v. 40, “in your righteousness give me life” (NASB – “revive me”).  Revive me! These are prayers for ongoing refreshment through the truth of God’s revealed Word.

I can’t tell you how much I need this refreshment.  This life is too hard and too long to go through on the fumes of my own resolve and good intentions.  I can’t live on bread alone.  Or sleep.  Or play.  I need God to speak truth into my life, breathing life into my lungs through the pages of Scripture, or I’ll putter out in no time.  I need the ongoing refreshment of God that he promises to give me through his Word.  And so do you.

Here in this wonderful passage we have a Spirit-inspired example of how to engage with God’s Word prayerfully.  I pray it encourages you as it continues to encourage me.  It’s exciting to think of how much God might do in our lives through his Word if we are consistently praying these prayers as we read, study, and meditate upon it in the coming year.

***Note:  I elaborate on these points in a recent sermon at our church entitled “The Word & Prayer in 2017” – if you are interested in listening.