“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”
In our Psalm for today, King David says to God, “oh how I love your law!”
Does that strike you as unusual? It does me! How often do we think in terms of loving the law? We respect it. We try to obey it. Sometimes we get a chuckle out of it. Not long ago I was driving to Philly and saw signs on the turnpike that say “Speed limit enforced by aircraft.” I always expect to see some big claw coming down out of the sky…
But love the law? Can you imagine walking into the local police station and proclaiming “oh how I love the law!”? They’d probably take you in for questioning!
God’s law must be a different kind of law, then. God’s law is not a book of regulations a mile thick like our federal government has. God’s law is found in a book, but that’s where the similarity ends.
So what is David talking about when he says he loves God’s law? Four things I’d like to look at:
- What exactly is God’s law? How can we define or describe it?
- How can human beings, mere mortals, comprehend God’s law? God is so much greater than we are – how can we grasp it?
- What is the purpose of God’s law? What’s it for?
- What’s up with loving the law? Can we come to a point of agreeing with David on loving the law?
David wrote all of Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it – as a poem praising God’s law. That’s longer than a lot of entire books in the Bible. Where does he get his enthusiasm?
What exactly is God’s law?
For us as Christians in the 21st century, when we think of God’s law we usually think either of the Ten Commandments or the whole Old Testament. And we would not be wrong about that.
For David, though – who was writing in approximately 1000BC – God’s law was a bit different. It included the Ten Commandments, but it was more. There was a covenant – promises made by God to the people, and by the people to God.
The Law, especially as found in the book of Leviticus, was written in the form of a treaty. We don’t see it that way today, but in ancient times someone reading the book of Leviticus would have instantly recognized it as a treaty: the kind of treaty a conquering king would make with a nation he had just conquered.
For example, let’s say the king of Moab went out and conquered the Philistines. In order for peace to be restored between the two nations, the King of Moab would give terms in the form of a treaty. (Nations do that even today.) The treaty would start out by talking about how very great the King of Moab was, and how amazingly glorious his armies were, and how the people of the Philistines should count themselves fortunate indeed at having the opportunity to live under Moab’s national laws. And in exchange for protection and peace, Moab would claim tribute from the Philistines: it might be half the crops the Philistines grew, or maybe $20,000 in gold bars every year, whatever the King of Moab thought was reasonable.
This kind of treaty was called a suzerain-vassal treaty, which means basically conqueror and conquer-ee… ruler and servant.
What’s unique about Leviticus is that God – who speaks in the voice of the conquering King – did not conquer Israel; God saved Israel. God bases the treaty with Israel on the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And in return, the Israelites will now live under God’s protection and God’s system of laws. Israel’s ‘tribute’ was to worship God – and God alone – and to obey the laws of the covenant: not because Israel was conquered but because Israel was redeemed: redeemed to be a witness to the nations around them of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.
If this begins to sound familiar, it should – because it’s the same covenant God has with all God’s people throughout history. In our day, we have been rescued from slavery – slavery to sin – by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and in return we are called to worship God alone and to obey God’s word as a witness to the people around us of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.
Going back to ancient Israel, the covenant that David read and fell in love with included things like: instructions for daily living; or how a ruler can deal with law-breakers like murderers, adulterers, and thieves; or things to do (or not do) in order to live a long and happy life. The covenant included detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle: for the use of fine fabrics and gold furnishings and incense and oils. Worship in ancient Israel involved all the senses – it overwhelmed the worshipper with beauty, through their whole being.
So the Law as David knew it was a covenant between God and God’s people. It spoke of God’s grace and Israel’s responsibilities, which included obeying God’s commands as a living witness to the nations around them of God’s greatness.
Second – How can we understand God’s law, now in our own time?
Understanding God’s law is not easy, either then or now. Nowadays some people say the Old Testament is “outdated” and therefore irrelevant. To me that’s like saying the movie Casablanca is ‘irrelevant’ just because it was filmed in black and white. Nonsense!
Yes, there are challenges for us, reading the ancient laws across a distance of thousands of years. We’re not Middle Eastern, we’re not Jewish, there are major cultural differences, and there are translation issues. But in spite of all these, we have some basic tools for understanding God’s law that we can use.
The first and most important tool when reading God’s covenant is to remember we are meant to apply God’s words to ourselves, each of us individually. We are to use it for self-examination. When we read God’s covenant, it’s like looking in a mirror, spiritually speaking. We can see our strengths, our faults, places where we can improve. And we bring all these things to God in prayer. God’s law is not meant for us to measure others by. It’s between each of us and God.
Second, we need to keep in mind that ‘the Word of God’ is Jesus. We worship Jesus, not the Bible. We worship God, not a book. Steven Tuell, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, recently wrote in his blog: “[C.S. Lewis wrote:] ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God.’ [Therefore] if the Bible is a means rather than an end, we cannot read it as a list of rules for life. We must rather listen carefully for the voice of the Living Word of God speaking through the words of Scripture. We must be attentive to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit. As the author of Hebrews declares,
God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates […]It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).”
The 18th century British theologian Charles Simeon said something similar: (paraphrasing from his old English) “Many people today (that is, back in the 1700s) deny the necessity of knowing God’s teaching in order to know God’s truth; [while] others ridicule those who expect to be guided by the Holy Spirit as they read.” [Things haven’t changed much in 300 years!] [Simeon continues:] “But [in the words of Paul] “it is by the Spirit of God alone that we can know the things which are freely given to us by God.” (I Cor 2:12)
So for those of us reading the Old Testament today, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us.
And we have one other advantage, living in the 21st century: we have the New Testament. We can see in the life of Jesus a perfect illustration of perfect obedience to the law – someone we can pattern our lives on. Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” And he did. When we look at Jesus, we love him – and we love how he brings God’s law to life! When we compare the religion of the Pharisees to the faith of Jesus, we can see the difference between mere rule-keeping and truly living the spirit of God’s law.
One side note: one of the theologians I read said, “spiritual discernment is not the same thing as intellectual ability.” I think that’s an important point. He said, “A person may have vast knowledge… and yet still be under the influence of their own desires.” I quote this because it is all too easy to read God’s law just as a historical document. Without the Holy Spirit’s insight, the true meaning will be missed.
So in terms of understanding the law, Jesus said the summary of the law is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves.” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said. I find in everyday life this is a very practical summary for daily living.
Third – What is the purpose of God’s law? Why do we study it?
One theologian said: “True religion is a practical thing.” It’s not just talk. It’s where the rubber meets the road.
- God’s law gives us guidance. In verse 105 of Psalm 119, David says: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” God’s law gives us direction. Who would get on board a ship where the captain refuses to look at navigation charts? God’s law gives us navigation for life.
- God’s law increases in us God’s likeness. Paul says, ‘when we see him face to face we will be like him’. As we read God’s law, the words open us to God and God to us. The ‘active’ aspect of God’s word works in us to make us more like God.
- God’s law teaches us to hope in God. In both the Old Testament and the New, God’s people find we are not able to please God without God’s help. So we learn to rely on God – for this life and for the next. And God’s law teaches us what God’s kindgom will be like. It gives us hope for the future.
- God’s law teaches us what is important to God and therefore what’s worthy of our time and attention. Let’s face it: life is short. There is never enough time to do all the things we want to do. So we’re forced to prioritize, to choose some things and leave others behind. God’s law teaches us how to put spiritual things first. God’s law sets priorities for doing the ‘soul work’ of our inner selves, as well as our ministries and our outreach.
Fourth – Can we love God’s law?
If someone were to walk up to me and ask, “do you love God’s law?” I’d probably hesitate to answer, because in my mind I don’t typically think of God’s covenant as being law. But of course it is law, in the sense that it is ultimate truth. Just like darkness can’t exist where light is, sin can’t exist where God is. We need to know what’s possible and what’s not, what lasts and what doesn’t.
But if you put it another way and asked me, “do you love the Scriptures?” Now that’s different! I’ve spent ten years studying the scriptures, and they’ve been the happiest ten years of my life (in spite of many personal sadnesses along the way).
There is a depth and a beauty in God’s words that can’t be matched anywhere else. Nothing else is so satisfying – and I think that’s because it’s a taste of who God is – who it is we’ll be spending eternity with. It’s a taste of heaven.
Here’s what David says about God’s law:
- How sweet your words are! Sweeter than honey!
- It makes me smarter than my enemies.
- It makes me wiser than my teachers.
- [Speaking to God] You yourself have taught me.
- I am protected from evil and falsehood
And ultimately, God’s law leads us to Jesus
- Because Jesus fulfilled the law
- Because Jesus died for us who are not able to keep the law. Jesus did for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
So what does all this mean for us today? Three things.
First, don’t be shy about reading these ancient books of the Old Testament. As you read them, even though the cultural context is different, the wisdom is still very much there.
Second, as we read, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to teach, and correct, to improve us. Let the text hold a mirror up to us so we can learn and grow in God’s likeness.
And third and above all, love what God has given us in this covenant: God has given us (from the very beginning) ‘salvation by grace alone through faith alone’, wisdom to live in this world, and a road sign that points us to Jesus, and to His eternal Kingdom. And that is sweet. Amen.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/16/16.