prayer: Listening > Speaking

Psalm 19

Jason Procopio

Last week we began a short series on prayer. During this time we’re going to be thinking about what it means to pray, how to do it well, and how to integrate it into our lives—not as a religious activity we do, but as an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. Last week Arnaud preached on “the Lord’s prayer”—this prayer that Jesus taught us, which shows us not only what to pray, but in what disposition of heart we should pray. Now I don’t know if you noticed this, but the Lord’s prayer is a sort of summary statement of all that the Bible says about God—that his name is glorious; that he is King, not only of our lives, but of the entire world he’s created and of all of heaven; that he gives his children all they need for life and godliness; that he graciously forgives our sins and teaches us to imitate that forgiveness; and that he is over all and in all. The prayer of Jesus is so powerful because it summarizes the testimony of Scripture about God.

And that’s why today I’d like to go to Psalm 19. I’d like to go there because Jesus’s prayer reflects the truth of Scripture, but the truth is that many of us, when we pray, we do so detached from the testimony of Scripture. We don’t take into account what God says about himself, but rather tell God things about us: what we need, what we want, what we hope for. But that is not what prayer is—that, if anything, is only a very small part of what prayer should be. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to have an important discussion with a young child; often my conversations with Jack are frustrating (to say the least). I say:

“Listen buddy, I need to tell you something important.”

“Look Daddy, I have a lightsaber!”

“That’s great, but listen for a minute—”

“And it’s blue and there’s a red thing on top that spins!”

“Hang on a second buddy, I need you to listen for one minute.”

“Why do dogs go pee-pee outside?”

Prayer is not a speech—it is a discussion between us and God. Prayer is not speaking—it is responding to what God has said before. We cannot claim to be praying if we haven’t listened to what our Master has said to us; all we’re doing is speaking at him, rather than speaking with him. God speaks to us, and invites us into discourse with him; so in order to pray rightly, before we speak, we must listen. That’s what this psalm is about. In this psalm David is going to tell us two ways in which God speaks to us; and then he’s going to pray to God to learn from what he has taught. Let’s go with him.

1) Creation As God’s Voice (v. 1-6)

1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. 4 Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, 5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. 6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat. 

It’s fairly easy to see the point here: the first way that God speaks to the people he has created is through the things he has created. There’s not a single person in the whole world who hasn’t felt this. We have all seen a beautiful sky. We’ve seen stars at night, and we’ve seen the clouds and blue sky in the day. We’ve all looked at that and been overwhelmed by its beauty, even if only momentarily. And if we’ve been to school, we know the complexities of what goes into that: the immensity of the universe—how the stars that we see are several million light-years away, which means that the light we see when we look up at those stars is actually light from several million years ago; it’s just taken it that long to reach us. 

We know why the sky is blue: because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. In the same way, when the sun sets in the west, the sky looks red because the particles of dust and pollution and water vapor in the atmosphere reflect and scatter more of the reds and yellows than they do the blue. Every sunrise and sunset, every blue sky, is mind-bending stuff, and we’ve all witnessed it.

As David wrote his psalm, he was writing from a time in history before science had made these awesome discoveries—but that doesn’t matter, because he describes how we have all experienced these things. The sky definitely looks like a tent for the sun; the sun, when it rises, is so big and bright that it’s not a stretch to see what he saw: the sun…comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. We have seen the truth that the sun’s light is so extensive that nothing is hidden from its heat. Even if our brains know the physics of it all, our hearts tell us an even bigger story: when we look at a sunset we are awed in a way mere physics cannot account for. 

That awe we feel, whether we know it or not, is wonder at the glory of God. All of creation, all of physical science, is telling a story of the One who made it and who sustains it. This is why the apostle Paul said we are without excuse—we have all felt wonder that is bigger than simply being impressed with the complexity of physics. That wonder we have felt is God, speaking to us, saying, “This is what I’m like! This is how great I am! I made all this! I sustain all this! When you look at a sunset, and are amazed at the beauty of the sunset, it’s not really the sunset you’re marveling at: it’s me.

God speaks to us all through nature. The things he has created—the movements of the planets and the sun and the moon and photosynthesis and the intricate workings of the human body—these things are all ways God makes his voice heard, declaring his glory to every human being alive. 

But we must all see that even here, there are limits. These things tell us that God is big, that he is mighty, that he is powerful. But they don’t tell us anything about his character. They don’t tell us anything about his intentions, except to say that he intends, at least for now, to keep it all going. They tell us he created all these things and sustains all these things; but they don’t tell us why he does it. For that, we need something more. And fortunately, he gave us something more.

2) The Word As God’s Perfect Testimony (v. 7-11)

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. 

God did not leave us with vague feelings of awe at who he is: he told us all we need to know about himself. And he did it in such a way that as we learn about him, we learn everything we need to know about ourselves. God spoke to the people of Israel first and foremost through his Law. This is all David had at the time he wrote this. The Law was the list of rules God gave to the people of Israel through Moses. This Law was the way he communicated his perfect character to the people of Israel, saying, “This is what I’m like, so you must live like me.” God’s Law was then completed through the written history of Israel, the works of wisdom (Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes), the written works of the prophets, and the writings of the New Testament. These works fleshed out the Law, showed the point of the Law, and gave us the testimony of how God completed the Law and fulfilled it through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So for us, today, as we read these things, we know that whatever David said about the Law of the Lord is also true of the written works that completed it.

Let’s look specifically at what David said: 7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. What God has revealed about himself revives us and comforts us. It reminds us of who he is, and stirs our hearts to know him as he has revealed himself in his Word. The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. What God has revealed about himself teaches us and educates us; it enlightens the most feeble-minded among us, makes it so that even a child who knows the Bible can be wiser (in all the ways that really matter) than a 60-year-old professor who doesn’t. 

The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. This is something many of us have a hard time understanding: why a law, a set of rules, would do anything but hinder our joy. Because that’s how we view rules in our culture, isn’t it? We see rules handed down by authority figures as suspicious: they are there to keep us from being happy, to keep us submitted and in check so that authority can continue to abuse us. But that is not what the Law of God is like. The commandments he gives are there to bring us into the fullest joy possible for us—and it makes sense, since he is the one who created us. 

My dad is fairly handy, so he’ll always try fix things himself. My brother and I went to a movie last week,  and as we were leaving the cinema his car broke down, wouldn’t start. So my dad came (we thought, to give him a jump), and when that didn’t work, he ended up trying to mess around with the fuses of the car. In so doing, he inadvertently shattered a perfectly good fuse, so that not only would the car not start, the wipers wouldn’t work either! If he had simply read the instruction manual, he would have immediately seen what to do. (To his credit, he ended up figuring out the problem and fixing it.)

God’s commandments are like an instruction manual written for a new machine: if you want the machine to work properly, follow the instructions. The “machine” in question here is us; he created us, and gave us instructions on how he made us and how we are to work. So his commandments and precepts really do rejoice our hearts and enlighten our eyes, when we take the time to learn them and follow them. He really does know better, and we really can trust him. When we respect him, when we fear him as our Creator, we know him as righteous and learn what it means to be righteous. And this is way David continues by saying:

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. In other words, David is echoing the sentiment of every human heart that says, “I want to be happy!” This is a good desire, a right desire. God knows that we want to be happy; he put that desire in us! And he told us how to achieve it! We try to find happiness in a myriad of disappointing ways; our Western culture is constantly throwing at us new ways to be happy, new things we need to be fulfilled. But ultimately, we are happy when we know God as he is. His Word tells us who he is, and so it is more valuable for our happiness than gold, sweeter than honey, more tactile than any smartphone, more useful than any new toolbar on a Macbook Pro. (Have you seen the new interactive toolbar on the new Macbook Pro? It’s awesome. I got to play with it while we were in the U.S. And there’s a part of me that so loves that kind of technology that I think, “Nothing can be better than this!” So false.)

In God’s Word, he tells us who he is; he tells us what he is like; he tells us how he made us; he tells us how to be happy; and he tells us that if we follow what he has said, if we trust in what he has told us, if we have faith in the plan of salvation he accomplished through the death of his Son, there is great reward. This always blows my mind. God gives us his Word so that we can know who he is; he gives us his Son, to pay the penalty for our sin; he gives us faith by his Spirit, so that we might believe all that he has said; and then he rewards us for the faith that he has given us. What an amazing God, to reveal himself to us in this way!

So David has just laid out for us the beautiful fact that God speaks to us through his Word, which tells us all we need to know about him. And so now, David will respond. Faced with the knowledge of the perfect righteousness of God as revealed in his Law, how does David feel? What is his reaction? His reaction is to recognize that he is a sinner, and that he needs grace from a sovereign Savior.

3) david's response to god's word (v. 12-14)

12 Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. 13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. 14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

This is incredible. Though David doesn’t know how, he has faith that somehow, God will fulfill righteousness for him. After proclaiming the greatness of God’s law, he shows his trust that this law will somehow transform him—to the point that even those sins of which he is unaware today will be dealt with.

You see, he’s not asking God to show him how to make penance for things he has done, and that he is aware of. It’s not as if he’s saying, “Lord, I have done ________—I'm sorry, I'll make it right.” He’s saying, “When I look at your Law, and see how holy you are, I see how painfully wicked I am: there are sins in my heart I’m not even aware of! How could I ever make amends for those things? How could I ever be good enough to make up for them? I can’t! So I need you! I don’t know how you’ll do it, but in your mercy, please declare me innocent!”

This was a remarkable leap of faith for David, because he was writing from a time before the Messiah had come, before Jesus Christ had lived a perfect life for him and died the death that he deserved. But we know this is precisely how God can declare us innocent even of those sins of which we’re unaware. Jesus lived our life, and died our death, so that God can now look at our record of sin, and see that all of it has been paid for! Justice has been done; the slate of our sins—past, present and future—has been wiped clean. 

So now we can, in full knowledge of how it all works, pray with David, “Forgive me of these sins! Protect me from sin! Make me more like you, so that I can not only be innocent in your sight, but really and truly resemble your Son! Please, Lord, guide me by your Word, so that my words, and my thoughts, and my actions, might be pleasing to you, my rock and my redeemer.”

4) Prayer: Listening > Responding

Brothers and sisters, this is prayer. David has modeled it for us. He listens to God’s voice in creation; he listens to what God has specifically revealed about himself in his Word; and then he responds to what he has heard. And we desperately need to hear this, because most of us will do one (or even two) of these things, but neglect the others. 

Some of us listen to creation—in other words, we see the world around us, we see our lives and the lives of our friends and colleagues, we see creation in all its glory, and we feel no awe of God for it. We see the things that are corrupted in creation—we see violence and hate and injustice, and we simply write off all the beauty as a happy accident. We don’t let the amazing things we see drive us to ask, “Might there be something behind all this? Why are things beautiful? Why are some things ugly? What’s behind the beauty? What’s behind the ugliness?” The Bible gives us answers to all of these questions. But we don’t want to listen.

Some of us listen to creation, and do see God there. So we pray to God. This is good. But for many of us, it is woefully incomplete. It’s incomplete because we jump straight from our lives and what we see around us, to speaking to God. And the inevitable result is that our prayers are profoundly self-centered: “Lord, give me this! I don’t understand this! Why am I unhappy? Why am I unsuccessful? Please give me a family! Please stop the pain! Please look at me!” We talk and talk and talk to God, never stopping to ask ourselves what he might be saying to us. 

And if we do wonder what he’s saying to us, weirdly we seldom actually open the Bible to find out, or we’ll do it in a way that’s foolishly random. We’ll hop from verse to verse, from passage to passage, reading whatever floats our fancy that day, and we’ll be confused when whatever we’ve read isn’t all that helpful. While all the while, God’s saying, “I gave you a book. I didn’t do that on accident. If you want to understand a book, you need to read the book, not random snatches from random pages.” Is it any wonder we can’t make sense of this book when we haven’t read the whole thing? If we try to pray without being patient and persevering in the knowledge of this book, our prayers always end up being off-base and self-centered: they are always, “Lord give me what I want!” rather than, “Lord give us this day our daily bread.” They are always, “Look at me, love me, help me!” rather than, “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

(If this is the case for you, don’t worry. Some of you are new Christians, and simply haven’t had time to learn about the whole Bible—this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pray the best you can, at your level. But know that our prayers must be based on what we see in this book, and as we persevere in our knowledge of the Bible, as we grow in knowledge and in faith, our prayers will inevitably become more and more centered on him, and will honor him more and more.)

Some of us are different: we love the Bible. We pour over it verse by verse, line by line. We played a game at our Christmas dinner, where we wrote the names of Bible characters on Post-Its and stuck them on our heads, then had to ask questions to guess which character we had. Some of those names were pretty obscure. But there are those of us who know them all. We can rattle off the genealogy of Cain in our sleep. But here’s the thing: far too often, we don’t respond. We read what God says about himself, we’re intellectually stimulated…then we say, “That was great!” and close the book, and move on with our lives. And the end result of this is that none of it means anything. None of it makes any difference. We keep on being just as selfish, just as prideful, just as unhappy as before. We’ll keep on trying to be fulfilled by a million other things, all the while not realizing that the one thing we need to be happy is the one thing we know so well.

Brothers and sisters, prayer is a conversation. God speaks to us through his Word; and we respond to him in prayer, in the light of what he has told us. We CANNOT pray without the Bible. Have you ever anticipated a discussion you’ll soon have with someone, and rehearsed what you want to say there? Most of the time that discussion never happens, or it doesn’t happen the way you anticipated—so your little rehearsal didn’t make any difference. Well, praying without the Bible is merely rehearsal for a conversation we’ll never have. 

Let us go to God’s Word in prayer, asking him to reveal himself to us there; let us respond to God in the light of what he has told us there; and let us apply what we have read and prayed for to our lives, and see that God is always speaking to us, applying his Word to our hearts in the most unlikely of circumstances. This is how God designed prayer to work: it’s a two-sided discussion. So let’s listen before we speak.