“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
rather, his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and he meditates on His law day and night.”
Thus begins the book of Psalms with this observation about a blessed life, a life dedicated to the study of the law of the Lord. In the next verse, the psalmist claims that the law is a source of life, comparing the one who abides in God’s law as a strong and fruitful tree whose leaf does not wither. The law has not always been characterized in such glowing terms. In my experience in Christian churches, it is often thought of as a burden from which Christ has set us free. Without denying the freedom that we experience in Christ, it is important to push back against the maligning of the law as burdensome. Sin is burdensome, but the law is sweeter than honey (Psalms 19:10; 119:103). The law of the Lord is divine instruction, God’s self-revelation, and a gracious gift. The law is good, bringing life and wisdom (Psalm 19:7)
The Hebrew word Torah, used in the first psalm to signify “teaching” or “law,” evokes a broad concept that incorporates all instruction from the mouth of God, from the command spoken at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:3), to God’s arbitrating word of peace flowing out of Zion (Isaiah 2:3), and to the climactic divine Word expressed in the incarnation of Jesus. Torah has always been and remains God’s self-disclosure, revealing the divine character and will. Keepers of Torah simply seek to live out the will of God as an expression of thanks and submission: not my will, but yours be done.
While there are numerous laws that deserve Christian reflection, including ordinances for ritual purity, morality, and ethical treatment of neighbors and foreigners, the ten commands of Exodus 20 express the core from which all other biblical law flows. They move from commanding loyalty to Yahweh alone, to keeping of the holy day, and to righteous treatment of family and neighbors. The final commandment legislates against coveting, which is unique insofar as it is concerned with internal thoughts and motivations. These laws are expounded upon multiple times throughout the Old and New Testament. For example, Deuteronomy is a retelling and exposition of God’s law, told as a reminder of the covenant that Israel made with God before they cross the Jordan into the promised land. Most notably, Jesus himself, in the spirit of the tenth command on internal motivations, reinterprets the precepts set out at Sinai in order to show God’s heart of the law (Matthew 5:17-48). Jesus also quotes Leviticus 19:18 as a way of summing up the core of the law, calling his disciples to love God and love one’s neighbor. Jesus did not come to do away with the law, but to demonstrate the law and to live the will of God.
So why is the law so good? Why is it worthy of our meditation? Because it teaches us about the identity of the Lord. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus, who points you to the law. Moreover, biblical law provides instruction about life in the kingdom of God. The law is an invitation to the imitation of God, inviting us to be holy as Yahweh himself is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2) and instructing us to be just, to care for the oppressed just as Yahweh has cared for us. Obedience to the law is the means by which Israel lived out its identity and calling as the community of the redeemed.
Finally, God’s grace is from the beginning. Israel trusted in the grace of God even while seeking to be obedient to his expectations. The psalmist of Psalm 1 no doubt knew the struggles of living up to the standards set out at Sinai, but he also knew the grace that accompanies life within the covenant. “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God who is compassionate and gracious” (Exodus 34:6). The law is a delight because it is an expression of God’s grace, a gift to teach us and to lead us. There is no greater joy than to know God and live out his will.
This year as we reflect together on the law of the Lord at Harding School of Theology, “May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
Lance Hawley, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Old Testament