Can We Love the Law the Way We Love Creation?
Psalm 19, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church October 8, 2017
How does God communicate with us? In Psalm 19, God speaks in at least two ways, through the “voice” of the created world and through the teaching given in the Torah. Some say that we need to be bilingual to hear God, speaking the language of the world as well as the language of the Bible. It seems to me that the last part of this psalm turns inward, so I’d say there are actually Three Books of God: nature, scripture, and conscience.
The first book is the one we start with; it’s easy to grasp on an emotional level, although its content is vague. The sky is always talking about God, day or night. There are so many nights on Block Island—especially in winter when the air is clear and the lights are few—when you look up and see the Milky Way, the way you never saw it in the suburbs. Our own star and all of earth’s inhabitants are a tiny boat adrift on that huge river of light. And we are told that our entire magnificent galaxy is just one boat on the great sea of the universe. The stars almost ask the question, “Who made us? How did we get here?”
But the day-sky, too, is whispering of wonder and pointing beyond itself. Above all, there is the sun, which is not, as Israel’s neighbors thought, a god, but a created thing made by one far greater than the sun. As the sun fills the world with light and warmth, it tells us that God does, too.
Of course, the psalmist says, the natural world uses no words. It speaks to us with no speech, with no voices that can be heard. The voice of God speaking in creation is a silent voice. And yet that “sound,” as it were, goes all through the world, reaching every person and nation. As Paul says in a sermon in the book of Acts (14:17), “God has not left himself without a witness.” The created world bears witness to God’s goodness. Paul says in Romans (1:20) that God’s essential nature can be seen from what God made, so that people of all nations conclude from the message the sky and the world are giving that there is a great and powerful creator behind it.
Very few people actually believe that the world just happened on its own. Most religions, however primitive by our standards, have a story of how divine beings brought the world into being. Our New Age friends who speak of The Universe in a pantheistic way still say things that reveal their belief in a force behind the universe. And yet, in academic and scientific circles, people do argue that the world just is, and that it says nothing about anything beyond itself. Biblical scholar Claus Westermann wrote in connection with Psalm 19
There remain only two alternatives: materialism or faith in the Creator. Either the stars, the atoms and the earth are only matter—then we human beings must be understood as coming from matter and consisting of matter—or else the sun and earth are related to God just as we are; they are creatures. In that case the ultimate meaning of their existence is the same as that of humans: existing to the praise of God’s glory.
The fact that the heavens are declaring God’s glory means that they are doing the very same thing that we are doing in worship—in their own quiet language. The sky is singing “Glory to God in the highest” and professing “I am God’s handiwork.”
But there is another way God speaks: in holy writings. Verse 7 seems to change the subject, but it is related to the subject of how God makes himself known to us. Our translation (CEB) reads, “The Lord’s Instruction is perfect, reviving one’s very being.” That word they translate “instruction” is Torah, which means not just “law” but the first five books of the Bible, all the Bible the Jewish people had at the time the psalm was written. Many versions of the Bible in English render verse 7, “The law of the lord is perfect,” which is a little misleading. This is not just about the Ten Commandments. This is about the whole project of God communicating to humans with written words.
Christians tend to have a negative view of “the law” when it comes to the Bible. Some of that has to do with Martin Luther’s emphasis 500 years ago on the importance of distinguishing between law and gospel. Law, to him, was the old way of making yourself righteous, whereas the gospel was about becoming right with God by God’s grace through our faith. So, some Christians scratch their heads when they hear the psalmists singing about how wonderful the Law is.
There are two correctives to that: First, “the Law” the psalm is talking about is God’s Instruction, the Torah, which includes the stories of creation and deliverance, everything about how God’s people got to be God’s people and how they should live together; and second, the Torah does not see the giving of the Law to Israel as the delivery of a set of conditions for receiving God’s favor. In Israel’s story, grace comes before Law. God chose the people and saved them from slavery before he gave them the Law. The giving of the commandments was understood to be an act of grace, the good gift of God’s guidance to help his people live in relationship with him and with one another.
That's the tone you hear in Psalm 19. The Torah is all-encompassing like the sun that runs from one end of the sky to the other, giving life. God’s instructions revive your soul or the core of your self. Yahweh’s laws are trustworthy, faithful, because the Lord does not change like the fickle pagan gods—you never know what to expect from them. God reveals who he is and what he wants and you can trust it. I love this phrase about his Word: “making naïve people wise.” We humans are so naïve about how good and evil work in this world, and so sure that we can choose the best for ourselves—as Adam and Eve did. But the gift of God’s written life-instructions can help naïve people become wise.
The rules that God gives are not meant to cramp our style and make us miserable; in fact, they gladden the heart! They give light to the eyes. The psalmist goes further: The Torah is more desirable than gold, even tons of pure gold. It is sweeter than honey, sweeter even than fresh honey dripping off the comb. It doesn’t come natural to us Christians to say that the law is sweet; the law is something you swallow like bitter medicine with your nose pinched. But the psalm has something to teach us! If we understand God’s revelation of himself in historical writings of the people of Israel as a great gift to humanity, we will think of those writings as precious and sweet.
This Thursday evening is the beginning of the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. It comes after the new year’s celebration, Rosh Hashanah, and the day of atonement and forgiveness, Yom Kippur. On this day, the annual cycle of reading sections of the Torah every week starts over, and it’s traditional to take the Torah scroll out of its cabinet and parade around the room with it—with singing and dancing and drinking. Two of the traditional foods for Simchat Torah are cabbage rolls and blintzes —both of which I love! — because they are cylindrical and look something like rolled-up scrolls. The Torah was originally written in scrolls, of course, and is kept that way in synagogues that can afford it.
I don’t know if that holiday is the reason that Psalm 19 is our lectionary reading for this Sunday, along with Exodus 20 about the Ten Commandments. Maybe not, because our calendars are not usually in synch. But Psalm 19 certainly suggests that we have something to learn from Jews in this regard: seeing the Torah, and by extension the whole Bible, as a precious and sweet gift to be celebrated rather than some weight tied around our necks.
Nowadays, and perhaps especially on Block Island, we prefer the Book of Nature to the Book of Scripture. We would rather look for God in the waves and rocks than in the words of the Bible. But the gift of the written record of God’s self-revelation to people over centuries is every bit as precious to us as the wonders of nature. and a lot clearer. The Book of Creation speaks to us in only the most general way about God’s greatness and goodness, but the Bible revives our souls, makes us wise, gladdens our hearts, enlightens our eyes. It says in actual words—even if they have to be interpreted wisely—how to live as a humble people of God and as a community of God-lovers who love one another.
Let’s not think that we have outgrown the Bible intellectually; most of us have not even begun to learn its contents or plumb its depths. Let’s not surrender the Bible to fundamentalists and let them define for the public what the Bible teaches—things like anti-science and homophobia and sexism. That is not what the Bible teaches, and we need to reclaim its message of love and mercy and justice and peace. We need to reclaim the Bible the way Jesus reclaimed the Hebrew Scriptures; he said “you’ve heard that it means X, but I tell you that it means Y.” What God wants is mercy, not ritual; love, not hate.
Can you imagine a world in which we did not have any written record of what God wants human life to be like? Can you imagine a world in which there is no divine source of our understanding of right and wrong, but we have to make it up for ourselves every generation? It might not be too difficult to imagine such a world, but I’d say that even nonbelievers operate on the basis of the vestiges of Torah and Christian values. Even nonbelievers operate as if there were things called justice and truth that actually exist and have a source beyond our imaginations.
John Paul Sartre was a leader among those who tried to grow up and live without God in the mid-twentieth century. In his book Existentialism Is a Humanism, he wrote of facing the consequences of God not existing:
[Existentialists] think it very distressing thatGod does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of values disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky said, ‘if God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.’ That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.”
Wow. Do you see now why someone could say that the Law of the Lord is a gift, precious and sweet, compared to the alternative of having no revelation of God as a source of values for our lives? Let’s dance with the Torah and eat cabbage rolls! Thank God we don’t live in a universe where the only source of right and wrong is our own consensus.
In verse 11 of our psalm, the writer becomes personal. “No doubt about it: your servant is enlightened by them.” “Your servant” is an old formal way of saying “I.” I am enlightened by Torah and there is great reward in keeping Torah. But, he worries, what about the things I’ve done wrong accidentally? What about all those parts of myself and even my behavior about which I am unaware? Nobody can know what they’ve done wrong without intending it. On Yom Kippur, my Jewish friend Elliot asked forgiveness for anything he’d done wrong to me without knowing it. The psalmist asks God to forgive the same thing: “Clear me of unknown sin”—and also save me from those sins I do on purpose. Don’t let me be controlled by evil appetites and cruel instincts. Keep me from temptation and deliver me from evil.
Then the psalm closes with familiar words. What matters, ultimately, is not following a set of rules. Here is what matters: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord.” Not just what I say out loud—as the sky is speaking and the Torah is speaking—but also what I think in my heart in secret. May all of me, revealed and hidden, be what you want, Lord. You are my rock, my foundation, my unchanging one. And you are my Redeemer. That word in Hebrew, ga’ol, is the same word used in the story of Ruth about Boaz; it means a near relative who is obligated to save you when you are in distress. God, you are my near relative, whom I trust to come and rescue me. Let me live my life oriented toward you. Amen.