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March 22, 2015
How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
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.
There are a number of psalms in the Psalter that extol the benefits of keeping God’s law. None, however, is as extensive, expressive and insistent as Psalm 119 is. The author of this psalm can’t say enough good things about God’s law. He’s crafted an alphabetical acrostic that uses all twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. With this poetic device, he expresses his conviction that God’s statutes are all-encompassing, covering everything in life from A to Z. He sometimes refers to God’s instructions as God’s Word, other times as commandments, and still other times as law, or statutes, ordinances, decrees, precepts, or promises. Whatever word is used, the psalmist insists that these God-given instructions are to be valued and pursued above all else. Thus over and over again, the Psalmist promises to guard these instructions, seek them continually, treasure them in his heart, declare them with his lips, delight in them, meditate upon them, fix his eyes on them, and never forget them.
Now, while we can appreciate the psalmist’s zeal for God’s law, we may not share his whole-hearted delight or single-minded devotion to the rules. For one thing, praise for God’s law may strike us as slightly Old Testament-ish. Accordingly, we tend to associate God’s law with something restrictive and burdensome—a series of rules to keep, and obligations to fulfill.
Furthermore, as Christians we may feel somewhat ambivalent about the law. We know that interpretations of the law were a matter of some controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees. And in his letters, Paul attempts to reframe the meaning of the law now that God’s grace has freed us from what Paul calls “the law’s curse.” So while the psalmist embraces the law with unrestrained delight, we moderns may be somewhat less enthusiastic.
But in spite of these hesitations, let’s revisit this Psalm with an open mind. This Psalm speaks with such passion, conviction, and joy that it compels us to take a closer look.
Notice, for example, that Psalm 119 is not set forth as a list of tedious rules. Rather, it is a spirited invitation to know God and walk in God’s ways. It’s significant that in this lengthy psalm not one specific ordinance or statute is actually named. That’s because, for this psalmist, God’s law is not a set of rules to be obeyed, but a way of life that promises human fulfillment and happiness. Psalm 119 begins, “Happy is the one who walks in the law of the Lord.” Far from the law’s being an oppressive burden, the psalmist sees God’s way as a source of endless delight.
Also, please note that there’s not a hint of self-righteous piety in this compelling psalm. The psalmist has no illusion of moral or spiritual perfection. Rather, throughout the psalm he continually calls on God for correction, understanding, guidance, and mercy. Relying on God’s help, he commits his whole being to the high purpose of knowing God, and walking in God’s ways–his mind, his heart, his eyes, his feet, and his lips. In short, this psalmist is seeking to love God with all his heart, mind, and soul.
Given that this is the case, it occurs to me to wonder whether Jesus’ understanding and practice of the law were formed, at least in part, by Psalm 119. Like the psalmist, Jesus was single-minded in his desire to do God’s will. It’s true that Jesus was sharply critical of how many of his contemporaries twisted the law into burdensome rules that did nothing for the welfare of their neighbors. Yet Jesus never rejected the law itself. To the contrary, he organized his whole life around it. “I’ve come not to abolish the law,’ he said, “but to fulfill it.” And like the psalmist, Jesus taught that God’s law was more than outward observance. It involved the whole person–one’s inner attitudes and outward actions, right thinking as well as right action. While there’s no way to know Jesus’ attitude toward Psalm 119, it’s certainly the case that Jesus embodied its spirit and echoed its teaching.
Which is exactly what we’re called to do as Christians today. As you know, our Lenten theme this year is “Drawing near to God through the Psalms.” Psalm 119 can draw us nearer to God by reawakening our interest in, and devotion to, God’s law without our falling under what Paul called “the law’s curse.” The law can be a curse if obeying it becomes a requirement for attaining favor with God. In that case, the law becomes a heavy burden that weighs us down with guilt. When we attempt to win God’s approval through our own righteous behavior, we end up imagining a God who is forever shaking a finger at us in disapproval, because we inevitably fall short of the law’s impossible demands.
But in Christ, we have a way of understanding and following God’s instructions that is liberating. In a film called “The Art of Possibility,” Benjamin Zander, a former conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, tells a story involving a college professor at a prestigious school of music. This professor was puzzled by the hesitant and constricted playing of his students. The problem was not their technique. Indeed, these students were among the brightest and most talented in their field. Still, their playing was stilted; it lacked emotion and joy. It didn’t take long for the professor to discover the problem. The students were playing under the strain of competition, fear of failure, and the pressure of attaining a top grade in the class. So one day the professor said to the students: “I have an announcement. Even though it’s only the second week of the semester, I’ve already given every one of you a grade for the class and recorded it in your permanent record. Your final grade for this class is an A+!” With that out of the way, a transformation occurred. The students began to play the same music, but now with freedom and great delight.
Friends, God is like that professor of music. God doesn’t withhold God’s favor until we prove ourselves worthy. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ, who is our righteousness. We are accepted and favored, and we are stamped in our baptism with God’s approval. Now, with that out of way, our understanding of the law becomes transformed. It is no longer an oppressive obligation that we must fulfill. Rather, it is a love to live out and a blessing to enjoy.
So now, in company with the author of Psalm 119, let us walk in the ways of God, doing good works with whole-hearted delight.