Monday, March 5, 2012

Holy, Righteous, and Good Law

"The heavens declare the glory of God" begins Psalm 19.  The Psalmist goes on to speak of God's creation as God's own words to us.  Every new day is a new speech from God, every new night a new revelation.  This word from God goes forth throughout all of creation since creation itself is the word that God is speaking.  In v. 5-6, the Psalmist focuses specifically on the daily movement of the sun across the sky as one of God's greatest works.  Wherever its light touches, the glory of God is revealed.

However, the Psalmist also acknowledges that while creation might be a word from God to us, it is not the whole conversation.  We are not left to make every inference about God from creation alone.  Indeed, though the Psalmist doesn't explicitly state it here, any faithful Israelite would certainly see that as a quick path to idolatry.  We need something more.

So after praising God for God's revelation in nature the Psalmist gives thanks for God's revelation in God's law.  This law the Psalmist describes as perfect - that is, it is complete, blameless.  It brings wholeness and clarity to what would be an otherwise fuzzy and potentially misleading picture of God's character. It tells us what we could never surmise about God from creation alone.  We are told that this law revives the soul, makes the simple wise, gladdens the heart, brightens the eyes, endures forever, and is altogether righteous.  Therefore, it is to be desired more than the finest gold and the sweetest honey.  The law is not a burden or a list of rules.  It is something to be cherished and enjoyed because it reveals God to us.  Without it, we would be left worshiping dumb idols of our own making.

The final verses of the Psalm turn from words of praise to words of request.  The Psalmist recognizes that he, even with the law as a guide, can not discern his own faults (v.12) so the Psalmist prayer is for forgiveness for when he does sin and for safe keeping from the ways of sin.  In v. 13:
"Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression."  
This is a telling request for in it is a recognition, that even the law, for all of its perfection and revelation of the character of God, is not itself able to prevent the Psalmist from sinning.  The Psalmist not only needs God's law to know what is right but also needs God's power to do what is right.  As the Psalmist says "let them (sins) not have dominion over me!".  There is a recognition that even with the law before us and even as we confess that it is a good and perfect law, the law itself is still powerless to defend us against sin.  We need God himself to act on our behalf in order to keep us blameless.

As Christians, we confess that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are that act of God on our behalf.  It is precisely this idea for which the apostle Paul argues in Romans 5-8.  By his death and resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated a new age in which we are not only forgiven but in which the power of sin has been broken so that it no longer has dominion over us.  We are now empowered by the Spirit to fulfill the law of Christ so that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are indeed acceptable to the Lord who is our rock and redeemer.


J. Thomas said...

I wonder how the psalmist would have responded to Jesus' revelation in Matthew 19:8-9 that the permission given by Moses in the Torah regarding the matter of divorce was not reflective of God's will for marriage?

David Young said...

I suppose a lot of that might come down to what one thinks the Psalmist means when he calls the law "perfect". If that is a more Greek idea of static perfection then Jesus saying that parts of the law are a concession is probably going to be problematic. However, if my interpretation of the final verses of this Psalm is correct then I think its clear that is not what the Psalmist means by perfection. Whatever the Psalmist means by perfection must be qualified by the Psalmist confession that the law itself is not enough. Maybe I'm reading too much of Paul (and my own epistemology) into these few verses but it seems to me the Psalmist is saying that the law is really only perfect if/because the Lord acts through it. If that's the case then one might argue that the law's perfection is not so much about having gotten everything "right" as it is about providing a medium through which God works to bring about righteousness in us even in our brokenness. Perhaps, if such a reading is plausible, then the Psalmist could acknowledge even a concession within the law as having a certain kind of perfection. Your thoughts?

J. Thomas said...

I really like the distinctions you've drawn in your response, Dave. I also think that reading the Psalms in light of the ministry of Jesus and the writings of the apostles helps to bring a fullness to the writings that may or may not have been in the mind of the original author(s). With that said, I agree that the Hebrew concept of perfection is more in line with what you've articulated. I might even want to borrow the language of Isaiah to say that the Torah, as the Word of God, does not return to God void, but always accomplishes the task for which God sent it. In that way, it is complete, it is perfect. Good stuff, my friend, and careful--oh, how I love careful thinking!