Extremely loud and incredibly close: Psalm cxix, part 19.
With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord! I will keep your statutes. I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies. I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words. My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O Lord, according to your justice give me life. They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose; they are far from your law. But you are near, O Lord, and all your commandments are true. Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever. (Ps 119:145–152)
It is an understatement to say that the psalmist was familiar with adversity. And, like most great songwriters, the best lines often come from the darkest places. The majority of composers and lyricists will tell you that their most influential work was done while enduring the worst sorts of trauma in other areas of their life. Songwriting, and singing in general, has a uniquely therapeutic effect — both on those performing it and those hearing it. The blending of words and melodies and harmonies of a song can pierce the heart where preaching can’t. And I would hasten to say that the same holds true for believers in prayer.
The lost art of prayer.
To be sure, I’m not downplaying the importance and significance of preaching in our lives. But, to be quite frank, there is a noticeable dearth of prayer in my own life, and I’d hasten to say that might be the unfortunate normative reality for most Christians. And while I’m not willing to concede that it’s a “lost art,” per se, prayer is certainly the most neglected of the Christian duties. Commentator Charles Bridges goes so far to say that, “Your soul would not be so empty of comfort, if your mouth were not so empty of prayer.”1 Without a concerted effort to pray, we’re often forgetful of its vast blessings. Endurance in our duty is only found when we’re on our knees. Those who often fly to God when things are fine are more likely to find him in the fire. When we feel the excruciating burn of tribulation, we are all the more excited to flee to God’s side for peace and protection. Such was the case for the psalmist, who undoubtedly felt the scalding heat of various trials. And as has been reiterated throughout this psalm, his first resort was to cry unto his God. “Answer me,” he prays, as it says, with his whole heart. (Ps 119:145)
The heart of his prayer reflected the intensity of his resolve. And even while he waited for the Lord’s response, he vowed to continue in his will: “I will keep your statutes.” Thus, we see that God’s will for us isn’t to idly wait for him, but to wait while simultaneously resting and acting upon his promises. That which we know from the Word — about God, his character, his person, etc. — is at once our comfort and our call. It’s this that gives us peace and purpose in the midst of wary and waiting seasons. Never is the heart of God and man more aligned than when in the spirit of prayer. And, like songwriting, praying while enduring extreme circumstances has a distinct way of bringing out our most earnest desires. It is in our extremities that the grace of God is most acutely experienced. The darker the moment, the more desperate our cry for deliverance.
Intervention and intercession.
“Answer me!” or as it’s also translated, “Hear me!” A short prayer, no doubt, but one that wasn’t lacking in fullness. Here we might note that the length of our prayers has no bearing their truthfulness or earnestness. God’s ears aren’t somehow more in-tune with long incantations. The psalmist’s prayer was short, only uttering “Hear me . . . Save me!” (Ps 119:145–146) — and yet this is all that’s necessary. These prayers, notwithstanding their brevity, couldn’t be more comprehensive. (Pss 3:4; 5:2; 39:12; 88:13) In them is contained all that a sinner could need or want. They are, in effect, the cries of a patient to his physician for tender, sympathetic, and immediate attention. The pitiful cries of the sick aren’t unheard by God but acutely heard and heeded. The cries of sinners pierce the depths of heaven and ring in the ears of the Savior.
Through the Spirit’s intervention and the Son’s intercession, our desperate cries are made known unto the Father. “The Spirit,” the apostle reminds us, “helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26) Without the working of God’s Son and Spirit, our prayers wouldn’t even escape the four walls that surround us. That’s the debilitating power of sin. It’s exhaustive and infectious reach go so far as to make our very repentance in need of repentance — even that’s not good enough. So notes William Beveridge, where he writes:
I cannot pray but I sin, I cannot hear or preach a sermon but I sin, I cannot give an alms or receive the Sacrament but I sin; nay, I cannot so much as confess my sins, but my very confessions are still aggravations of them; my repentance needs to be repented of, my tears want washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.2
And so it is that we are so weak and sick with sin that even our repentant cries for help need the washing of Christ’s blood. Never should we enter God’s presence without Jesus’s pardon liberally applied to our account. But with Christ’s righteousness as our own, we can pray in faith, even dire cries such as “Hear me! Save me!” and God will answer. This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He is our Comforter and Helper (Jn 14:16, 26), intercepting our desperate pleas for mercy and making them acceptable to the Father on the basis of the Son’s merit, not yours.
The psalmist’s appeal is to the free grace of God. He asks that his cries be heard according to the Lord’s steadfast mercy and love. (Ps 119:149) He’s not approaching the Lord with any righteousness of his own, with the pomposity of his own piety. No, he draws near to the Father with a heart that knows it’s desperate for his lovingkindness and grace. God accepts us in grace and hears us in grace. Through the interceding work of the Son and the Spirit, our cries and groans to God are heard and attended to without a care or thought for the blemishes or iniquities or downfalls of the one who prays. We approach God with boldness on account of Christ, with his righteousness as our own. (Heb 4:14–16) In prayer, all personal merit and deservedness is swept away. Only on the ground of unceasing mercy and favor can we stand before God.
Diligence and deliverance.
In prayer, we’re not only made to feel our guilt and to be acquainted with mercy, but it is the very exercise of faith, of absolute dependence upon the faith and favor of God. Despite its shortness, the psalmist’s prayer of “Save me” is reflective of the weight of his distress. The intensity and passion behind his prayers is indicative of his heart. He longs to serve God and continue in faithfulness to his Word, as is suggested by his subsequent thought, “Save me, that I may observe your testimonies.” (Ps 119:146) Here we might notice that he isn’t necessarily praying for uninterrupted safety, but for unobstructed service. He yearns to keep and follow God’s will without the pains and pitfalls of his old nature, to be delivered from the iniquity in the midst of his obedience. His cry was to be rescued from the clutches of sin itself. He cried and cried and cried again, the repeated petitions demonstrating his acute awareness of where his strength and safety would be found. (Ps 119:145–147 KJV)
Deliverance from these trials was his first and last thought, summoning an early rise and late slumber (Ps 119:147) He didn’t need the night watches to tell him the hours that had passed (Ps 119:148) — every hour his heart was flying to Jesus and seeking refuge at the Savior’s side. The soldiers might have changed their guard, but the psalmist was never diverted from his purpose and persistence in prayer. Here we might learn of the hope of prayer that is found in the diligence of prayer. Our vitality in life is dependent upon our vitality in prayer. Acclaimed preacher Charles Spurgeon says that “he who is diligent in prayer will never be destitute of hope.”3 Indeed, this is the channel by which we are encouraged, reinforced, and rejuvenated by God’s transcendent peace. (Phil 4:7) Prayer was the psalmist’s food and drink, his life. It’s what fueled his hope in the midst of his sorrow.
So it goes that the psalmist made it his first and last practice of every day to meet his God in prayer. (Ps 119:147–148) It should be the earnest desire of all God’s children to turn their hearts to God upon the first opening of their eyes and to the same at night when lying upon their bed. Spurgeon, likewise, notes that “he who rushes from his bed to his business and waiteth not to worship, is as foolish as though he had not put on his clothes, or cleansed his face, and as unwise as though he dashed into battle without arms or armour.”4 Engaging in the duties of the day without first going to God in prayer is entering the day woefully unprepared and unsteady. What steadies our otherwise unstable hearts is solid, unsinking foundation of prayer. The hope of a believer is founded upon God’s Word and is fortified in prayer. By the Word we’re made knowledgeable to the good news of the crucified Christ. Like the psalmist, our one refrain ought to remain the blessed Word from the Lord which testifies of the glorious Substitute and Savior of sinners. By this we’re made, in the same way, to say, “I hope in your words.” (Ps 119:147)
Hope in Prayer
Without hope, there would be no prayer; and without prayer, we are without hope. Our prayers aren’t dire pleas without real knowledge, shots in the dark, or mere wishes — they’re prayers of confident expectation and assured hope with the understanding of who God is, what he has done, and what he has promised to do. Thus, our prayers shouldn’t be mere formalities but, rather, the fervent cries of desperate hearts seeking their Deliverer. What’s more, the comforting aspect of prayer is that it doesn’t matter if our diction is correct or our expressions accurate. All that matters is a heart that’s sincere and honest in its desire. There’s no cause for eloquence or artfulness when talking to God the Father. Flowery words and extraordinary speech aren’t prerequisites for God’s presence.
God looks not at the elegancy of your prayers, to see how neat they are; nor yet at the geometry of your prayers, to see how long they are; nor yet at the arithmetic of your prayers, to see how many they are; nor yet at the music of your prayers, nor yet at the sweetness of your voice, nor yet at the logic of your prayers; but at the sincerity of your prayers, how hearty they are.5
In the wreckage of our troubles, God would have us be known for our sincerity with the firm recognition of his sovereignty. Our mayhem isn’t outside his dominion or providence — indeed, there’s nothing outside of his control nor anything to which he can’t bring peace. (Ps 119:150–151) Our enemies may be near to destroy us, God is nearer still ready to deliver. One of the greatest comforts of the Christian can enjoy is the closeness of his God. As close as we feel the enemy, God is closer. He’s not afraid to draw close to sinners. By grace we experience God’s proximity. And regardless of who forsakes us, he never will. This nearness is the active enforcement of our Father’s most oft-repeated promise, “Fear not.” We could never endure the enemies’ pursuit if God weren’t near to protect. In prayer, God comes close to reassure us of his gospel.
The gospel is a covenant made by God before the world was even created. These testimonies and promises of what the Son would do for sinners were made in eternity, “founded forever” in the goodness and holiness of the Father. (Ps 119:152) It’s this gospel of grace that tells us we’re forgiven and favored by the Father. The noise of the soul that shouts our guilt is overwhelmed by the voice of the gospel that reminds us of his grace. This is what happens in prayer. Our confidence is shaken from ourselves and established in God’s sure and steadfast Word. The voice of God speaks to us, reminding us of a grace extremely loud and a forgiveness incredibly close.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 387.
William Beveridge, Theological Works, edited by James Bliss, Vols. 1–12 (Oxford: John H. Parker, 1846), 8:166–67.
Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vols. 1–3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 3:1.402.
Thomas Brooks, quoted in Spurgeon, 405.