Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Martin Luther’s Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (Part 2 of 6)


The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission. Quotations of Luther’s preface are from the following English translation: “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68. An online version of Luther’s preface is located at http://www.rockvalleybiblechurch.org/ResourceLibrary/LutherPreface.htm .


II. Luther’s Basis for his Prescription


Luther rather confidently commends his three-step method for theological study. In fact, he claims, “If you keep to [this method of study], you will become so learned that you yourself could . . .write books just as good as those of the [church] fathers and [church] councils. . .” (p. 65). On what basis can Luther make such an audacious claim for his prescribed method of study? He can make such a claim because he does not believe a human authority stands behind the prescription, but a divine one. Luther’s derives his method from Psalm 119 [the lengthiest psalm in the canon, as you know]. Luther notes that throughout the psalm, David repeatedly mentions three things:


(1) David cries out to God for understanding of his Word (prayer, Oratio)

(2) David thinks on, recites, sings, and variously ruminates on God’s Word as he seeks to understand and apply it (meditation, Meditatio), and



(3) David is repeatedly oppressed by enemies and difficulties (trial, Tentatio).


A superficial reading of Psalm 119 will quickly note these motifs. For the purposes of this short paper, I will choose a few examples of each theme. Many more could be listed, and hearers of this paper are encouraged to search Psalm 119 for themselves.


First, Psalm 119 models a prayerful approach to studying God’s word.


Psalm 119:5 [David, addressing the Lord]

Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!


Psalm, 119:10

With my whole heart I seek you [Lord]; let me not wander from your commandments!


Psalm 119:12

Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!


Psalm 119:17-20

Deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and keep your word. Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me! My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times.


Psalm 119:34-37

Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.


Second, Psalm 119 models a meditative approach to studying God’s Word.


Psalm 119:11

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.


Psalm 119:13-16

With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.


Psalm 119:27

Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.


Third, Psalm 119 presents trials as integrally related to the psalmist’s prayers and meditations.


Psalm 119:23-24

Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes. Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.


Psalm 119:28

My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word!


Psalm 119:41-42

Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word.


Psalm 119:49-55

Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life. The insolent utterly deride me, but I do not turn away from your law. When I think of your rules from of old, I take comfort, O LORD. Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, who forsake your law. Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning. I remember your name in the night, O LORD, and keep your law.


Psalm 119 has 176 verses. In this short survey above, I draw from less than the first third of the psalm. Even from such a superficial analysis, one cannot miss the prominent repetition of prayer, meditation, and trial. In other words, Luther stands on firm evidential ground in asserting the importance of Oratio, Meditatio, and Tentatio in the psalm. And, as the psalm is about God’s word and his people’s approach to it, the text seems very fitting as a basic hermeneutical or theological method. It may also be of passing interest to note that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the custom of requiring incoming theological students to memorize Psalm 119. One wonders – if prospective students were informed that they must memorize a 176 verse psalm before beginning study at Southern Seminary, how this new requirement might affect matriculation rates.


We will now look in more detail at the individual components of study recommended by Luther.


NEXT TIME: Oratio (Prayer)


Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is author of Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006).

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