On Divine Illumination (Psa 119.18)

Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law (Psa 119.18).

Some biblical prayers are so timeless and general that saints adopt them for their own and offer them to the Lord throughout their lives. Such is our text in this, the next verse of Psalm 119, which teaches us to

Pray to God for more light from Scripture.


“Open thou mine eyes.” This is a request both simple and profound.

Its Spiritual Sense. The psalmist obviously uses figurative language, as he already possessed physical sight and literally seeing the text of Scripture was not his problem. He also was an intelligent man, able to read and comprehend the basic meaning of sentences. The Scriptures were not written in some kind of unintelligible hieroglyphic to be deciphered by those only with esoteric knowledge. No, but this was an appeal directly to God, whom the psalmist had been addressing in the immediate context of this verse, to “open” (Heb. lit., uncover, as when one’s eyelid is raised so one can see) his “eyes,” his comprehension and appreciation, of the true meaning and application of God’s Word in Scripture.

Its Candid Confession. The Scripture is open, plainly stating many things for his salvation and edification, but by nature his eyes were not open. Sometimes the concept of divine illumination is misunderstood, as if we pray that God would throw light on His Word so we can see what it says, something like one holding a Bible in his lap in a dark room and figuratively needing a flashlight or lamp to see it. This is entirely wrong. The Word itself is a blazing light, radiating God’s glory from its pages, but because of our sin we are naturally insensitive to this glory. The unconverted man is completely blind in a spiritual sense, and even regenerate souls, with our remaining sin, suffer from a degree of residual spiritual blindness. Overcoming this blindness, in both cases, is not something we ourselves can effect by an act of the will or in any other way. Unless the Lord is gracious to us, we will continue either totally blind to His Word or with relatively little light, no matter how many sermons we hear or theology books we read or discussions we entertain for the blessing of divine illumination.

I confess my indebtedness on this topic to Jonathan Edwards. He received great insight as reflected in his sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine” (preached 1734). In it he described this divine illumination positively as

a true sense of the divine excellence of the things revealed in the word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them thence arising. This spiritual light primarily consists in the former of these, namely, a real sense and apprehension of the divine excellence of things revealed in the word of God. A spiritual and saving conviction of the truth and reality of these things, arises from such a sight of their divine excellence and glory; so that this conviction of their truth is an effect and natural consequence of this sight of their divine glory.

And further, Edwards preached,

There is a divine and superlative glory in these things; an excellence that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature, than in other things; a glory greatly distinguishing them from all that is earthly and temporal. He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness. There is not only a speculatively judging that God is gracious, but a sense how amiable [worthy of love] God is on account of the beauty of this divine attribute.

Such illumination is needed not only by sinners under God’s wrath, but also by saints for their growth in grace. Just as the granting of divine illumination to unbelievers prompts them, by the Spirit, to seek Christ and eternal life, so the invigorating experience of greater spiritual light quickens the believer to more vigorous pursuit of fellowship with God and advances in genuine personal holiness. Therefore divine illumination is a blessing much to be desired and sought by all.

Its Hope-filled Optimism. The psalmist prays as a believer with a measure of confidence that as he prays for this blessing of divine illumination, it will come to him by God’s abundant grace. This we infer from the very fact that he makes the petition, for had he no hope of an answer, he would not count it worthwhile to make the request. The very existence of a heart to petition God sincerely and earnestly for divine illumination proves that He has already begun granting it, and will supply that which is lacking, until the blessing is fully imparted.

This greatly motivates all believers to seek divine illumination by prayer, and to maintain confidence in the grace of God which will be manifested in His generous response (cf. Jas 1.5-7).


“That I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” The Hebrew for “behold” can have the sense of gazing at something. “Thy law” is stock language for written Scripture. “Wondrous things” (“things to be marveled at, extraordinary,” NOAD), in the Hebrew, has a more technical and theological sense, namely,

Preponderantly both the verb and substantive refer to the acts of God, designating either cosmic wonders or historical achievements on behalf of Israel. That is, in the Bible the root refers to things that are unusual, beyond human capabilities. As such, it awakens astonishment in man. . . . The function of God’s wonders is ultimately to make mercy available to the recipient or reciter, and not just to make a demonstration of power (TWOT #1768).

The most stupendous display of God’s grace and power in the Scriptures of both the OT and NT is the person and work of Christ—that is, the Savior and the gospel. Above all, then, we understand this petition as a plea for the spiritual ability to gaze in awe upon the Redeemer and redemption as revealed in God’s Word.

Edwards’ own testimony of the experience of divine illumination is recorded in his memoirs. In the following passage he relates the first motions of his soul as a newly born again Christian, although he was serious and religious in a sense from his youth.

The first instance, that I remember, of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Tim 1.17, Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to Him in heaven; and be as it were swallowed up in Him for ever! I kept saying, and as it were singing, over these words of Scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy Him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do, with a new sort of affection. But it never came into my thought, that there was any thing spiritual, or of a saving nature, in this.

In this second passage Edwards testifies of further experiences of divine illumination as one who was already a true believer.

After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. . . . I had then, and at other times, the greatest delight in the Holy Scriptures of any book whatsoever. Oftentimes in reading it every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders [recall “wondrous things”].

In this third excerpt, we see Edwards’ illumination was Christ-centered.

From about that time I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by Him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellence of His person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in Him.

Of course true saints do not experience these things in exactly the same way, and few can express them anything like Edwards. Nevertheless, is this not in some degree the inward spiritual reality known to all sincere Christians, and the increase of which we ought to seek earnestly from the Lord by persevering prayer? I know of no more heavenly or succinct petition for it than the one in our text: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” Let each of us make it our own personal plea, and let us plead it together for this congregation, and for our brethren everywhere.

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