The “he” section of Psalm 119 (vv. 33-40) notably puts the psalmist in the posture of learning. The verbs are so clear in this psalm:
Teach me (v. 33)
Give me understanding (v. 34)
Direct me (v. 35)
Turn my heart (v. 36)
Turn my eyes (v. 37)
Like the posture of Mary before Jesus, who sat at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:38-42), I wonder what our posture is when we sit before the Living Word — and the written word? Do we sit to listen? To learn? I don’t believe our Lord asks us to surrender critical thinking, but I do think he asks to begin by listening. A loving relationship with someone implies, first of all, the relationship of listening in love, of trusting that the words said are the words meant, and that genuine communication and learning begins in the listening mode.
If the posture of learning is to listen, the source of our learning, the source to whom we listen as we listen to the Bible being read, is God. There is a danger in some circles to equate Bible with God, and that leads (almost inevitably) to bibliolatry. Most, however, who equate God with Bible are simply using careless language. But it is worth our time once again to ponder this question and to see how Psalm 119:33-40 reveals what Bible is.
It is God speaking to us through and in and with Scripture. Notice these words and ponder how Scripture is God speaking and teaching us in and through Scripture:
Teach me, LORD (Yahweh) — v. 33.
Give me… that I may keep your law — v. 34.
Direct me … in the path of your commandments — v. 35.
Turn … toward your statutes — v. 36.
Turn … preserve .. your word — v. 37.
Fulfill your promise so that you may be feared — v. 38
Take away … for your laws are good — v. 39.
How I long for your precepts — v. 40.
It’s all pretty simple: Scripture is God’s communication with God’s people, for God’s people, and designed so God’s people may glorify God in this world of ours. If we listen aright, we hear God.
I am as guilty of this as anyone, and many of us “theological types” are the same: we read in order to learn, in order to know, and in order to master. Scripture, however, is God’s communication with humans, with God’s people, not just so they can know and master. It goes further. Notice how the psalmist in Psalm 119:33-40 goes beyond mastery. Before I say another word, let me remind pastors today that studying Bible for sermons is not why God speaks to us in Scripture. Sure, we are called to preach. But, before we preach, we must adopt the posture of learning and grapple with the Source of learning, so we can experience the purpose of that learning.
So that I may keep your law (34a).
So that I may obey it with all my heart (34b).
There I find delight (35).
… and not toward selfish gain (36).
Preserve my life (37).
So that you may be feared (38).
There you have it: we listen and we learn in order that we may live aright. To know about God is not the same as knowing God (JI Packer said this long ago). To love the Bible is not always the same as loving God. To know Scripture is not always to be known by the God of Scripture. To comprehend theology is not the same as being comprehended by theology.
We are fond of the word “repent” at times, and we learn that the Hebrew behind our “repent” is to turn (shuv). But that is not the word used in Psalm 119:36-37, but its central idea is present in these two verses: the “turning” of learning. The turning of learning involves a positive and negative:
First, we are to “incline” our hearts toward God’s communicative intent in Scripture — to the very words of God in Scripture. To turn toward God involves turning away from selfish gain (36).
Second, we are to “turn our eyes away from worthless things” (37). This “turn” means to “pass over” (avar).
The turnings of learning is to say Yes to God and to say No to selfish gain and worthless things, to false glitter and vanity.
“How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life” (Ps 119:40). To long for (taev) is how the psalmist caps this section of the psalm. He yearns for God’s precepts. This word is also used in Psalm 119:174, and there the psalmist longs for “salvation.” This psalmist, who is in the posture of learning, pointed toward the Source of learning, focused on the purpose of learning, and knows the turnings of learning, now confesses what drives the whole: he yearns to learn by yearning to know God’s will.
Our question is obvious: What do we really yearn for? If our ultimate yearning is not focused on God, who in that perichoretic dance of love establishes the central meaning of all of life, then our learning will fall to bits. But, if our yearning is oriented to God, we will “follow” God “to the very end” (v. 33).