A Prayer for Illumination From the liturgy of John Chrysostom, 4th century:
Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Illumination sounds like a new age word doesn’t it? I can picture two hippies sitting in a coffee shop carrying on a conversation about metaphysics and one of them saying, “Dude, I am just looking for illumination,” and his partner responding, “Me too.” Illumination carries with it the idea of spiritual enlightenment in our culture, but you know that wasn’t always the case. In many Christian church services, it has been the long-standing practice to have a prayer of illumination before one reads the Scriptures. We prayed one such prayer written by John Chrysostom, in the 4th century, this morning as we stood to hear the reading of the Psalm.
Illumination is really just the fancy theological word for saying, “I’m listening Lord, please teach me.” When we are raising children, or talking to friends and coworkers, we have all probably asked the question, “Are you listening to me?” And we expect and desire for the response to be “Yes, I am listening.” Well, the same is true of our relationship with God. He is always ready and willing to speak. His phone is always off the hook and he is eagerly waiting for his people to pick up and begin a conversation. God instructed Jeremiah saying, (Jer. 33:3) ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’
The Lord of the Universe was sending out an invitation to Jeremiah to declare, “I’m ready and listening to you Lord. Teach me.”
And the same invitation is true for each and every one of us. Jesus declared, (Rev. 3:20) Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. Our Lord is ready and waiting to speak with us, to fellowship with us, to dine with us, but he is waiting for us to hear the knock and open the door, or in today’s words to declare, “I am listening Lord, I hear you calling and I am ready to learn.”
Today we are looking at one section of the longest Psalm in the Bible. Psalm 119 is a psalm that echoes the statement, “I am listening” over and over again. It is a psalm that is divided into 22 stanzas, one stanza for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. And each stanza contains 8 lines that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet. So the first 8 lines of Psalm 119 all begin with a word that starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, the 2nd stanza or lines 9-16 begin with beth, and so on until the very end.
The particular section of the psalm we are focusing on is the section on teth, the 9th letter of the alphabet. Unfortunately translating something like this is nearly impossible. It would be like trying to write a poem that begins 8 lines all starting with the letter i, our 9th letter and expecting the new language to be able to carry across the same meaning and the same formatting style. It would be miraculous for such a translation to occur.
Thankfully, the 8 verses we are concerned with have another unique feature, not found in most of the other parts of this psalm, 5 times the various lines all begin with the same Hebrew word, tov, or Good. Verses 65-72 are focused on proclaiming what is good. And what is good is declared to be God’s word, particularly a growing understanding of His word. In fact, psalm 119 seems to carry that basic theme throughout all 176 verses. There are at least eight synonyms used to describe God’s word in this psalm, which include: Law, testimonies, ways, precepts, decrees, statutes, commandments, judgments and Word. Many of which are also found in our 8 verses.
Additionally, the psalmist cries out for understanding at least 30 times that I counted in this psalm saying, things like:
(Psa. 119:18) Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
(Psa. 119:35-36) Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.
Or in our passage,
(Psa. 119:66) Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands.
A prayer of illumination, or saying “I am listening” is the mark of a good student, ready to learn and be taught by the great teacher. Have you ever considered that? In the NIV, verse 65 begins as a prayer of petition. It seems to be stating a request, “God, treat me well according to your character with the rest of the stanza serving as a way to declare exactly what the psalmist desires in the way of goodness, but most of the other translations into English don’t phrase the first line as a petition or request, but as a statement of fact: You have done good to your servant…
Either way, what follows is a heart cry from the writer to be instructed and taught by God himself. Whether the psalm begins with a declaration that God has been good and the writer wants to understand more of that goodness, or if it begins in a petition asking for Good to be done and the rest is a fleshing out of his initial request, the fact remains, goodness is found in knowing God’s word and understanding that we can’t make sense of it, in and of ourselves.
For immediately after declaring that the writer is ready to listen, he admits that there have been times in his life when he wasn’t ready to listen. (Psa. 119:67) Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. The word afflicted can have a number of meanings, and some other translators use the word humbled or needy or answered. Before I was humbled I went astray…, Before I was answered, I went astray…, Before I was needy, I went astray, but now I obey your word. All of these are ways of declaring that when I walked through life in pride, without an ear to hear, refusing to listen, or even failing to listen, the results were disastrous. I sinned.
But now that I have been humbled and set in my place, now that hardships and the hard knocks of life have come my way, I realize that I need to listen to you. Now that suffering has come my way, a poor spirit has birthed itself in me and I obey your word, and I become an inheritor of the Kingdom of God. That sounds vaguely familiar doesn’t it? Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, began with the words, Blessed are the poor for yours is the Kingdom of heaven (Luke 6:20).
Coming to know God’s word, begins in understanding that we can’t make sense of it on our own, we need to be instructed and taught. Isn’t that the whole history of Judaism as rabbi’s struggled and argued with one another and it turned out that all of them were wrong, for Jesus himself gave the definitive interpretation and teaching of the law, showing how it all pointed to him and his ministry? Our intelligence will only fail us if the Spirit is not teaching us.
Coming to the scriptures, apart from a posture of prayer, apart from humbly requesting God to teach you and declaring, “I am listening;” there is danger in the water. Why? Because our minds are darkened and as sinful human beings we are prone to distort and ignore those things we don’t like. Sin has affected every part of our person – body, mind, emotions and soul. As Paul so forcefully declares, humans excel at suppressing the truth by their wickedness (Rom. 1:18), sure he is talking about those who refuse to acknowledge God but that same spiritual reality is being fought by every believer as we struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. If our sinful tendencies didn’t raise their heads and every believer could just naturally interpret and understand the word without requesting God’s help, then the Pauline epistles would never have needed to be written, but the fact that they do exist, correcting the arrogant way the churches were interpreting the word and causing distress in the lives of believers should serve to show all of us that we need to say, “I’m listening Lord, teach me.”
When we come to the word in humility and with a heart ready and a body eager to learn and practice what is taught, the effect is life giving. In fact, it is transformative. It will develop in us a refined sense of taste for what God desires. Verse 66 declares, teach me knowledge and good judgment. These words are so full of meaning. Knowledge is not just facts and figures, but experiential wisdom for living life. The psalmist wants God to instruct him in the practical ways of getting along each day. He says, I am listening – will you teach me how to handle money, treat my friends, how to care for family and how to live righteously. That is what he is asking when he says, Teach me knowledge. Instruct me in living life, I am ready to listen Lord.
Doesn’t that make a lot of sense why Jesus came talking about giving liberally, praying for enemies, helping the needy. These weren’t just nice ethical things, these are the very foundations of knowledge, the experiential way we live life. When you come to the word of God, do you come asking for God to teach you something about how you practically live in this world? That is what a prayer of illumination is all about. Help me to understand how you want me to live this life Lord. Teach me; I’m listening.
But there is another request that is made as well. Teach me…good judgment. The word for good judgment is a culinary word, meaning taste or flavor. Refine my palate, the psalmist asks. Teach me to savor good flavors, to take in the good things of life and to be rid of the bad. He is asking for a new mind and new eyes to see and perceive life. He is like a guy who has been drinking 2 buck chuck from Trader Joe’s his entire life and suddenly finds himself sitting at a table with a master wine maker and a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite. Assuming the wine was actually drinkable, wouldn’t he be wise to ask the master to teach him how to savor this glass of the most expensive wine ever, $160,000 a bottle?
Of course he would, and that is the very place every person, and ever believer in particular, find themselves. We are novices, mere children at life, but our Lord is the master or life, in fact all life originates in him and he is ready and willing to teach us how to live it. We simply need to declare, “I’m ready and listening. Teach me Lord.” The disciples, did this with prayer and we now treasure the Lord’s Prayer, memorizing it, teaching it to every young child and reflecting on it, but until we ask the Living God to help us understand it and experientially apply it to life, until we are ready to have our tastes changed to kingdom tastes, the mere reciting of “your kingdom come, your will be done” is little more than rote words rolling from our tongue. And so we cry, “Change me, I am ready!” Teach me, I am listening.
So that has been a lot of philosophic discussion, but really a prayer of illumination, saying I am listening is a very concrete and practical thing. So let me give you a few ways in which you can tangible put this discipline into practice.
First, begin every session of scripture reading or study with a prayer asking for God to open your heart and eyes and give you a desire to practice whatever He reveals to you today. We must never become cocky as we approach the Word of God, for it is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword (Heb 4:12). Sure it can awaken a dead soul and many of us could testify to the ways we have non-chalantly treated the word only to have it jump out and convict us, but wouldn’t it be better if that was always our encounter with the word instead of infrequently being our experience? Wouldn’t it be better if we eagerly approached the Word expecting for God to make it real and transforming in our life – convicting us of sin, encouraging us in faith, challenging us to love… It can be, but it all begins in declaring to the God who is knocking, I am ready at this moment to hear your word, teach me.
Second, we can be prepared to hear our Lord by carrying his word in our heart. Meditating upon it as we walk through our daily life. Many of us approach the Scriptures much like ice skaters. I am guilty of this. I come to the word and skim across the top as the skater glides across the ice. It’s fun and it can be fancy, but it isn’t deep. I don’t come to really understand ice if I just stay on the top. Meditation is the opposite of figure skating. Meditation is pushing into the word, carrying it along with one throughout the day, reflecting on it as we go about routine tasks.
Who read their bible this morning before coming to church? Is it the same passage you read yesterday, or the day before that? Is there more that could have been learned from that passage? Can you tell me what you read 3 days ago? Most of us probably can’t because we are still skimming the surface, but if we want God to teach us, to challenge and change our experience of life then we must push into the word and carry it with us. Praying throughout the day or days, asking God to teach us his truth from this passage and refusing to leave until we understand.
(Psa. 119:97) Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Memorize passages and think on them all day long. Think about the words- why these words and not those? Imagine a picture that would declare the truth of that passage. Pray the scripture, confess it, thank it, ask for it, and talk with others about it. Sing it. Dwell upon it until it becomes you.
I once read a quote that went something like this, “I would rather learn from a man who knew one passage of scripture well, who had carried it with him his entire life and practiced its teaching every day, than to learn from someone who knew all about the word, but who never lived out any of its teachings with abandon and devotion.” This man was talking about the reality of meditation and how it is a declaration to God to truly teach us and change us for we are ready to listen and gain new tastes and savor new flavors from life. Are you ready to listen? Will you consider adding meditation to your life and wait for God to instruct you?
Third and finally, another way of declaring to God that you are ready to listen and learn is by making room for silence. In our world of multi-media and constant bombardment, when was the last time you truly sat down at the feet of Christ, without any other things to distract you. No bible, no devotional book, no prayer list, or any other spiritual accoutrement and you simply sat at the feet of Christ in silence asking him to search you, try you and teach you. For some, the mere thought is terrifying. That much silence I couldn’t stand. Maybe it is fear of ourselves, if we were quiet, we would have to deal with this sin, or that area of life we have closeted away – the pain of a past abuse, the anger of a past relationship, or whatever. Maybe it’s the fear of what God will find if he were to truly have my undivided attention. Maybe it’s something else, but whatever the reason we fail to still ourselves, God continues to invite us saying, Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10). And when we open up the time to sit at his feet, quietly, unhindered and without agendas, we are declaring, “I’m listening Lord, teach me.”
All of this reminds me of a story in the life of Jesus:
Martha had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted and came to the Lord complaining. In closing listen to these words of Jesus:
Only one thing is needed, Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:42)
Are you ready to listen? Prayers of illumination, and a life of meditation and silence at the feet of Jesus are a few ways of declaring to our Lord, “I’m listening, teach me knowledge and good taste.” Amen.
- Illumination definition: I’m listening, teach me, instruct me
- Psalm 119 overview
- Listening begins in humility (v. 67, 71)
- Why we must ask to learn? Minds are dark, we cant understand, we distort….
- Listening grows a refined taste, learning of law, obedience, cherishing of word
- Practical ways of practicing illumination:
- Asking god to teach us before we read/study
- Meditation upon passage
- Taking time of quiet stillness to sit and listen as Mary did with Jesus