Read any work of literature, any historical account, any science text, any operations manual, or any “how-to” book, and you will note an absolute correlation between your intellectual level and your understanding of the material you are reading. The only exception to the nearly mathematical exactitude of this correlation involves the Word of God. Certainly it is true that intellectual capacity plays a part in the potential to understand the Word of God, but it is neither the sole nor even the most significant factor in determining the capability to understand the Bible. Were that the case we would have no reason to marvel at a story published in the February 1962 issue of Parade magazine, which reported that Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the communist Soviet Union, had memorized all four of the Gospels. He, of course, remained not only an unbeliever, but an avowed atheist, neither believing nor understanding anything that he had read and memorized. The apostle Paul explains the principle in the following terms: “But a natural man [i.e., one who is not saved] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (I Cor. 214). Clearly, the psalmist understood this principle as well because the 119th Psalm records five occasions on which he prays for understanding of God’s Word. Take brief note of what follows.
“Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law And keep it with all my heart” (v. 34). “Observe” and “keep” are synonyms meaning to “watch, keep, guard,” all of which denote, not the action of securing something and hiding it in a safe place but of believing and obeying the truth. The psalmist prays for an understanding of the Word, not in an intellectual sense that results only in the obtaining of knowledge, but in a spiritual sense that results in an increase of faith, love, and obedience.
“Give me understanding, that I may learn your commandments” (v. 73b). This verse states the truth in stark simplicity: it is impossible to learn the Word of God apart from the divine imparting of understanding. Apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, the profoundest intellect will misunderstand, misconstrue, misapply, and misuse the Word of God. Though a multitalented genius, Thomas Jefferson had not the slightest genuine understanding of God’s Word, as attested by his creating of his own “New Testament” by cutting out all the supernatural passages attests.
“Give me understanding, That I may know your testimonies” (v. 12b. Among other things, the word translated as know here means to “ascertain by seeing.” The truth of God is more concrete and substantial than even the globe on which we stand. The psalmist desires that the Word of God would be more real to him than any circumstance in his life. In other words, if the affairs of his life suggested one thing but the Word of God declared another, if life prompted fear and doubt but the Word of God proclaimed faith and confidence, the psalmist wanted to believe the Word rather than the situation confronting him in the world.
“Give me understanding that I may live” (v. 144b). Eternal life is the fruit of a proper understanding of and faith in what is revealed in God’s Word. Addressing the church at Sardis, God declared that “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1): many were still lost. Furthermore, for those who are saved, abundant life is the product of a proper relationship with God’s Word. No one experiences the wealth of salvation apart from a rich understanding of God’s Word.
“Give me understanding according to your word” (v. 169b). The psalmist does not wish to be deceived by any false notion that human knowledge, worldly understanding, or even natural wisdom is the genuine understanding that pleases God and fits him for time and eternity. He desires both to possess an understanding of the Word and to possess the understanding provided by the Word. Man is not the measure of what is right and good, but only God. Through the Word, he would have his heart and mind in accord with the One who created and redeemed him.
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