As I near the end of reading through the Psalms – as part of my read-the-Bible-in-a-year regime – a few things are worth highlighting. One is how differently the psalmists seem to regard God’s law than we do. While the writers of the Psalms exalt in the law of God, we seem to take a quite different approach to it.
Now before I go any further, let me make a few necessary qualifications. I am not here writing about the law and grace dichotomy as such, nor about which aspects of the Old Testament law carry into the New. Nor am I at all suggesting that we somehow can get saved by keeping the law.
In both Testaments, God’s people have always been saved by grace through faith. For example, Israel was first saved, delivered, rescued by God out of Egypt, and only after the exodus (as we read about in the opening chapters of Exodus) did he give them the law (Exodus 20 and onwards) as an expression of how he wanted his redeemed people to live.
Keeping God’s law did not save them – they were already saved. Keeping the law was an expression of loving gratitude for this salvation, and the appropriate way to interact with God in this covenant relationship. And as Yahweh informed Moses, he gave the law to his people for their good (Deut 10:12-13).
So the law was always to be viewed as a wonderful gift of God, not as an odious burden. It was to be the delight of God’s people, and it was something they were to cling to, adhere to, rejoice in, and happily affirm. That differs markedly from today’s believers who often take an antinomian approach to God’s law.
The Psalms throughout extol the law. In the very first Psalm we read these words: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).
Or consider how the 19th Psalm speaks to the beauties of God’s law: “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8).
Or as the psalmist continues in vv. 10-11: “They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” Wow, that sure stands in marked contrast to the way most Christians think about the law of God today.
But it is of course in Psalm 119 that we read the most magnificent and sustained celebration of God’s law. As Derek Kidner comments, “This giant among the Psalms shows the full flowering of that ‘delight . . . in the law of the Lord’ which is described in Psalm 1, and gives its personal witness to the many-sided qualities of Scripture praised in Psalm 19:7ff.”
Psalm 119 uses a number of terms to refer to Yahweh’s covenant instructions with his people. The term ‘law’ is perhaps most often used (torah in Hebrew), along with other terms such as precept, commandment, judgement, word, instruction, way, testimony, statute, rule, and so on. Some eight or nine different Hebrew terms are translated in various ways into English. They are found in all but several of the 176 verses in this acrostic psalm.
As James Montgomery Boice remarks in his exposition of this wondrous Psalm, when the Bible speaks of ‘law’ it has something much bigger in mind than mere prohibitions and restrictions. “It is referring to the whole of God’s spoken and written revelation, containing all the various elements that the other words for law in this psalm suggest.”
The psalmists are telling us that “we are to understand that this keeping of the law is a practical matter, a way of life and not merely a course of academic study”. We are to know and obey God’s law, as it is the path of life, and the way of blessedness.
But let me here just highlight a few lines from this great Psalm:
Psalm 119:113: I hate double-minded people, but I love your law.
Psalm 119:136: Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.
Psalm 119:139: My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words.
Psalm 119:158: I look on the faithless with loathing, for they do not obey your word.
Of course all throughout this Psalm there is a very clear love of, and delight in, the law, and a real disgust with those who spurn God’s laws. But these four lines certainly show us the heart of the psalmist. In these verses we see that the law is not only deeply loved and treasured, but those who do not know it and obey it are the cause of great concern.
So deeply revered is the law of God that the tears pour like a faucet when the psalmist reflects on the ungodly who reject the law and disobey it. We need to deeply ponder this passage. Just what brings tears into our life? When our favourite sports team loses a major game? When we don’t get that new plasma TV? When we miss out on an overseas vacation?
The psalmist had his priorities right. He intimately shared the Father’s broken heart. Do we? Do we shed tears when God is rejected, his laws are spat upon, and his ways are dismissed? Does it grieve our heart when the name of Christ is mentioned merely as a swear word, and the holy nature and character of God is mocked and ridiculed?
Do we delight in the law of the Lord? Is it a source of great comfort, joy and rejoicing? Or have we bought into the spurious notion that being in relationship with Christ means we have absolutely nothing to do with law, or regulations, as so many in the emerging church movement teach?
That is not the understanding of the biblical writers in either Testament. Keeping God’s law is always seen as one with loving God. Consider just a few words of Jesus for example as found in the Fourth Gospel:
John 14:15: If you love me, you will obey what I command.
John 14:21: Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
John 15:10: If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
John 15:14: You are my friends if you do what I command.
All devout Christians have recognised the wonder and beauty of God’s law. C.S. Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms speaks about Psalm 119. He notes that the attempt to please God and keep his law, while never perfect in this life, “does not spring from servile fear. The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life? His ‘delight’ is in those statutes (16); to study them is like finding treasure (14); they affect him like music, are his ‘songs’ (54); they taste like honey (103); they are better than silver and gold (72). As one’s eyes are more and more opened, one sees more and more in them, and it excites wonder (18). This is not priggery nor even scrupulosity; it is the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty. If we cannot at all share his experience, we shall be the losers.”
In his recently released systematic theology, The Christian Faith, Michael Horton puts it this way: “God’s law is nothing more than a stipulation of the proper exercise of love toward God and neighbor (Mt 22:37-40). Law and love are typically contrasted in contemporary theology and in popular thought. But the theology of covenant brings these together. . . . [L]aw and love are synonymous. Law prescribes the dictates of love.”
But let me conclude with three quotes from an important volume by Ernest Kevan, Moral Law:
“But the bestowal of the power for a holy life needs to be accompanied by instruction in the pattern of it. In what does sanctified behaviour consist? It consists in pleasing God. What is it that pleases God? The doing of His will. Where is His will to be discerned? In His holy Law. The Law, then, is the Christian’s rule of life, and the believer finds that he delights in the Law of God after the inward man (Rom. 7:22). The Christian is not lawless, ‘but under the law to Christ’ (1 Cor 9:21).”
“To insist upon this function of the Law of God in the life of the believer is not to become legalistic. Legalism is an abuse of the Law: it is a reliance on Law-keeping for acceptance with God, and the proud or the servile observance of laws is no part of the grace of God. The joyfully rendered obedience of love, however, is a quite different thing and is of the very essence of Christian life. For a man to obey God because he loves to do so is not legalism; it is liberty: but, let it be remembered, it is still obedience.”
“A sovereign is no less a sovereign because his subjects love him. God does not cease to be God as soon as His people are reconciled to Him; He does not forfeit all rights to command as soon as people come to love Him. There is, therefore, nothing incompatible between love and obedience; for in the truly sanctified life there is loving obedience and obedient love.”
The psalmists loved God’s law. So should we. If we find this difficult to do, I suggest that we go back to Psalm 119 and read it and keep reading it until God’s Spirit grabs us and enables us to hear what is being said in this jewel amongst the Psalter.