The longest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 119. The Psalm is divided into twenty-two sections, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section speaks about God’s Word in a vast variety of ways. We hear God’s Word referred to as His precepts, testimonies, Law, statutes, commandments, rules, ways, and of course, Word.
Psalm 119 is a masterpiece of meditation and prayer. It brings the reader or hearer of the psalm back again and again to a love of God’s Word, a delight in learning and understanding more about God.
Martin Luther held up Psalm 119 as an example for people. Within the psalm, he saw a cyclical reality that trained God’s people for a life of faith. He labeled this journey with the Latin phrase oratio, meditatio, tentatio.
In my experience, people tend to separate prayer from the reading of God’s Word. These may be adjacent activities, but they are often loosely connected at best in people’s devotional life (at least in my own).
In the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” commenting on Psalm 119, Luther writes, “But kneel down in your little room [Matt. 6:6] and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.”*
Luther points out that this is what David is up to in Psalm 119: “Thus you see how David keeps praying . . . ‘Teach me, Lord, instruct me, lead me, show me,’ and many more words like these.”*
Psalm 119 as both God’s Word and a prayer to God mingles together a beautiful example for us. Psalm 119 as God’s Word shows us how to pray as we enter into God’s Word.
As you read, hear, and study the Bible, this constant conversation with God to show us, teach us, lead us, and enlighten us is always a great place to begin.
Meditatio—Meditation on the Scriptures
Meditation perhaps brings a visual to your mind. For me, it brings to mind a stillness and silence—a calmed and calibrated attention. I imagine deep breaths and peace. These are all good things, but Luther points us beyond these, saying, people should meditate “not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them.”*
I find that adults and adolescents tend to grow bored quite quickly. Even with the joyful gift of God’s Word, people rarely repeat aloud what they are studying. In this way, I think children can teach us the joy of repetition. Many of us as children probably had that one film, TV show, or book that we could watch over and over and over again, never getting enough of it. (Mine was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.) Luther encourages us to treat the Scriptures with a similar insatiability.
Luther continue, “And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe.”*
Again, Luther brings us back to David and Psalm 119. Psalm 119 teaches us how to pray and meditate upon God’s Word. Luther writes, “David constantly boasts that he will talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, read, by day and night and always, about nothing except God’s Word and commandments. For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that.”*
One of the things that helps me meditate upon God’s Word is asking questions. As I read and hear and speak God’s Word, I find part of the seeking and understanding involves asking, seeking, and knocking. There are always things I do not understand upon a first, second, or twenty-eighth read, so I keep asking in the places I notice I do not yet understand. Such questions about God’s Word lead us, more often than not, deeper into conversation with God and meditation upon His Word.
Tentatio—the Assaults of Satan
After we have prayed and meditated upon God’s Word, something happens that seems counterintuitive and counterproductive to our learning from the Lord: we are attacked by Satan. Luther writes, “For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word.”
Satan seeks to drive us away from God and His Word with these attacks. But God utilizes Satan’s attack to drive us back to prayer and Scripture.
Again, Luther insightfully shows us this, saying, “This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”*
In this way, we see a pattern in the life of faith that Joseph articulates. After Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, God raised Joseph up to save Egypt and many neighboring nations from famine. After their father’s death, Joseph’s brothers were still fearful Joseph would destroy them, so they begged for his mercy. But Joseph said this to his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Satan attacks and means evil against us, but God always intends for such attacks to drive us back to conversation with Him in prayer and to further meditate on the sweet comfort of His Word.
This cycle of prayer, meditation, and the assaults of Satan is a marked pattern of every Christian. It is our cross to pick up daily and bear in faith until the return of Jesus.
Asterisk (*) indicates the quotations from Luther’s Works in this publication are from Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 34 © 1960 by Augsburg Fortress, used by permission of the publisher.
Questions about God’s Word lead us deeper into conversation with Him.
In Ten Questions to Ask Every Time You Read the Bible, explore the Word of the Lord using questions that help you enhance your meditation on Scripture.