24 April 2023

Strengthen me: How do you call on God?

Major Stephen Oliver

Major Stephen Oliver reminds us that God is the source of our strength.

Key text

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, weighing in at 176 verses. Our English translations do not really do justice to the sheer poetic artistry that has gone into this psalm’s composition: an acrostic poem where each stanza represents a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet and commences with that letter. Complexity aside, Psalm 119 conveys a consistent message: a deep sense of intimacy between the psalmist and God in which the Lord reveals himself through his word. In turn, the psalmist’s attention to God’s Law gives him guidance, comfort, hope and inspiration.

Pause and reflect

  • What spiritual practices help you draw near to God?
  • Which passages of Scripture are the ones you find yourself returning to when in need of guidance and comfort?

The fourth stanza paints a picture of the psalmist under pressure. It is a realistic and honest prayer in which the psalmist is open about the realities of struggle and suffering, but also resolute: ‘My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word’ (v28). The source of that strength is found in God’s law, but also in God’s faithfulness and ‘wonderful deeds’ (v27). Many years later, Jesus, in conversation with a teacher of the law, and drawing upon the ancient text of Deuteronomy 6:5, affirmed the greatest commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30).

Jesus’ command to love the Lord with all our strength, reflected through the lens of Psalm 119, suggests there is more to this than putting every effort into devotion to him; God himself is the source of our strength. The psalmist seeks strength from the one who has been faithful, choosing ‘the way of faithfulness’ (v30).

Photo shows someone silhouetted with arms outstretched above a grassy field and in front of a mountain.

Psalm 119:33

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end.

Read Psalm 119

Amid real suffering and difficulty, the psalmist finds confidence in the God who graciously reveals himself in his written word, a God who is faithful, consistent and reliable, not capricious as the gods of the other ancient Near Eastern nations were perceived to be. This is the God who speaks, who sets out his standard of holiness for his people and equips and strengthens them to live the lives to which he has called them.

Pause and reflect

  • What does loving the Lord with all your strength look like for you?
  • How do you draw strength from the Lord?
  • What is going on now in your life that you need the strength of the Lord to face?

The fifth stanza sees the psalmist turn the focus of their prayer into a desire for the Lord’s teaching: ‘Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end’ (v33). There is purpose in the psalmist’s learning: the desire to follow closely and avoid distractions. This is a prayer for understanding, direction and for the awareness that true joy is found in following the Lord. The psalmist realises that without strong guidance from the Lord there is a danger of pursuing ‘selfish gain’ (v36) and ‘worthless things’ (v37).

Jesus teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our minds. This is not a command to understand the deepest secrets of theological knowledge – although the psalmist does pray for that in verse 34 – but rather the reminder to focus our thinking on the things of God and to avoid the distractions that can take our thoughts in unhealthy directions. Paul reminds us that this is the hallmark of the new life in Christ available to all believers: ‘Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things’ (Colossians 3:1 and 2).

Pause and reflect

  • For you, what does loving the Lord with all your mind look like?
  • Ask the Lord to show you those things that distract your thinking and may not be spiritually healthy.

The sixth stanza sees the psalmist expressing the desire for God’s promised ‘unfailing love’ (v41). He proclaims a love for the Law of God in return, but this is a love that goes beyond reverence simply for the written word of God; it is love for God himself, the God we encounter in his living word. Here, the psalmist also references the need to answer the mockers and tormentors (see v42), a theme continued in the seventh stanza (see vv49–56).

Being able to respond in love to those who make life difficult for us is an outworking of our own understanding of God who loves us, and who invites us to love him and others in return. Jesus teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts – that he is to be the focus of our devotion – and with all our souls, every aspect of our humanity offered to him in thanksgiving, worship and praise.

Pause and reflect

  • What does loving the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul look like for you?
  • How do you respond with the love of Jesus to people who make life difficult for you?
  • How do you respond to the love of Jesus when life is difficult? Where is your source of comfort?

‘In the night, Lord, I remember your name’ (v55). May he help us to do just that, both in times of difficulty and in times of ease.

Bible study by

Photo of Stephen Oliver.

Major Stephen Oliver

Unit Head for Higher Education, William Booth College

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