As I've written often in these Reflections, I find the Psalms most meaningful and make them a part of my morning devotional time. (See Twenty Two & Twenty Three Say It All.) However, I never could understand the psalmists with their many thoughts of "loving the law." Such as written in Psalms 119:97, "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long." Sounds just a bit weird, as if written by some pious so-and-so divorced from reality.
Even the first psalm starts with this thought: "Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked ... Their delight is in the law of the Lord." (Psalm 1:1-2) Delighting in the law? I can't imagine would-be attorneys pondering over volumes in nearby Villanova University's law library and experiencing delight. "Happy are they who fear the Lord, and have great delight in his commandments!" (Psalm 112:1) Clearly, the psalmists and I were not on the same wavelength. And, "I will walk at liberty, because I study your commandments. ... I delight in your commandments, which I have always loved." (Psalm 119:45-47)
(You may want to take time to read the longest of the Psalms, Psalm 119. Most of its 176 verses center on this "delighting in God's law" theme.Psalm 119 is not only the longest psalm, it is the longest chapter in the entire bible! As just a chapter, it has more verses than 14 Old Testament Books and 17 New Testament Books. As an acrostic poem, its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two stanzas, one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet; within each stanza, each of the eight verses begins (in Hebrew) with that letter. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote many meditations on various scripture passages. He started a meditation on Psalm 119, but made it only through verse 21 (or at least scholars have found his work on only the first 21 verses). All his other work, and finally his execution, prevented completion of the remaining 115 verses.
But, (and I can't believe I'm writing this) it was Washington Post conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer who opened my eyes and made this "love of the law" thing start to make sense. (Although I rarely agree with Krauthammer, I do consider him a good columnist ... and a voice I need to hear.) It was a September 24, 2015 column that spurred my change of thought.Washington Post, "Double suicide: the presidential campaign of 2015", Charles Krauthammer Column
In that column, Krauthammer takes issue with Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson's statement that "a Muslim should not be president of the United States," and the GOP campaigner's reason for his view, saying that Islam is incompatible with the constitution. Krauthammer takes Carson to task: "On the contrary," Krauthammer says, "Carson is incompatible with a Constitution that explicitly commands that 'no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.' Ever."
Carson later said that he was not calling for legal disqualification of Muslims; he was just advocating that a person should not vote for one. Responding to Carson's original statement and his somewhat tempering of it, Krauthammer says that Carson is missing the point (of the constitution). And his following comments are what opened my eyes to how a psalmist might love the law. The column continues:
"The Constitution is not just a legal document; it is a didactic one. It doesn't just set limits to power; it expresses a national ethos. It doesn't just tell you what you're not allowed to do; it also suggests what you shouldn't want to do."
In short, the Constitution (and perhaps most law) isn't written simply to put barriers around our behavior; it exists also to tell us what we should aspire to. The Constitution's first amendment to prohibit the establishment of a religion nor impede the free exercise of religion is there not just to limit and draw lines; it also gives us an idea of what we should aspire to. We should aspire that all religions be welcome and free in our land, and that no one religion should dominate public discourse.
This view of looking at the law not only as rules to limit, but as statutes to teach what we should aspire to makes the psalmists' statements about loving the law understandable. God's Law is given to point the way, to let us know what God wants us to aspire to so that we can live full lives. And this law is given by a Just and Loving God, the creator of the universe and our own lives. This creator God should know what it takes to lead a full life!
I recommend a pause here and take time to read Leviticus chapter 19. (Yes, Leviticus!) Although the chapter contains a number of often-called "purity laws," which deal with a nomadic people and focus on promoting good heath at that time, it seems to captures a spirit and intent of God's laws. I suggest reading it with the tone of a holy, just, yet loving God who wants the best for his people.
In similar tone, Presbyterian pastor, speaker, and author Tim Keller, in his blog, writes that God's laws exist not so much to constrict, but to guide:
"... the law of God is a gift of grace that is the foundation of human flourishing. It is not 'busywork' assigned just to please the arbitrary whims of a capricious deity. The law of God simply shows us what human beings were built to do -- to worship God alone, to love their neighbors as themselves, to tell the truth, keep their promises, forgive everything, act with justice. When we move against these laws we move against our own natures and happiness. Disobedience to God sets up strains in the fabric of reality that can only lead to break down." (See full blog, "The Grace of The Law" in Resources below.)
However, it can be difficult to view God's Law in a positive light because often the laws are written as negatives. Eight of the Ten Commandments are in this negative "Shalt Not" sense. So it is natural to first view them as just limiting. In an adult Sunday School class I taught, we studied the Ten Commandments. At the end of our study, someone thought it might be interesting to develop positive corollaries for the negative ones. It ended up a most meaningful exercise and opened a new realm of understanding. If you "shall not" do something, what is it "you should do"? (If you are in a small group, you might find this exercise interesting.)
For example, if you "Shall Not Take the Name of the Lord Your God in Vain," what is it you should do? Does the commandment mean just not use God's name as a swear word? How do we use God's name properly? As people of God, do we represent God to others true to God's nature, or do we represent God in ways that are self-serving? If I boast of my "label" of Christian to gain the favor of certain groups, am I "taking the name of the Lord in vain?"
Try developing a "positive version of, "Do Not Commit Adultery." Might be an interesting challenge! Does "Not Commit Adultery" involve more than simply not crossing the line and having sex with someone other than your spouse? Thinking of the commandment in this positive sense may emphasize many more meaningful implications.
Often it is easier to just keep the negative aspect of the law. The positive aspect may be more of a challenge. But, it can also open more doors to acting in love. Did you know that there is a "Negative" Golden Rule? "Do NOT do unto others what you would NOT like done to yourself." Pretty good advice, good rule. But, now hear the Golden Rule, the familiar, positive one: "Do to others what you would have them do to you." The former may be helpful, but the latter opens a myriad of opportunities ... and, yes, challenges.
The season of Lent is here, and in our church service the processional's stirring hymn is replaced by a solemn responsive recitation of the Ten Commandments. I think this year I will hear the words not so much as commands of a God who wants to restrict, but the challenge of a loving creator who wants to show us the way to a free and full life.
Thanks, Charles. Through your columns, we rarely see eye-to-eye; but, you have expanded my mind to see the aspiring aspect of The Law. Don't know if I'll ever say I love the law ... or delight in it. But, while I still see the expectations, and am very much aware of the judgments inherent in God's law, I now also recognize the positive aspects designed to guide us and help us live abundant lives. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus meant when he said, "I have come in order that you might have life -- life in all its fullness." (John 10:10b; Good News Translation.)