Thursday, January 16, 2014

God's Continuous and Daily Teaching in Psalm 119

The Hebrew word yarah lies in the heart of the word usually translated “law” in Psalm 119, towrah.  Towrah itself can be translated by “law, direction, teaching, principles.” These nouns cloak the dynamic nature of God’s interaction with human beings by means of the active Holy Spirit of Jesus in the world. Yarah includes the ideas of throwing, casting, pouring, raining; this active verb takes us directly to Jesus’s teachings about to sowing seed, to rain falling, to casting pearls, and immediately we understand that God is always teaching all humans, always pouring truth over us, always sowing the seeds of God’s life in us, always casting a net to bring us human fish into the boat.  Once we hear this through our awareness of the life and teaching of Jesus, we can read this aspect of Psalm 119 with the joy and gratitude and love expressed by the psalmist toward the law, the towrah, the continuous teaching of God.

The verses from Psalm 119 can be reorganized to reveal the following themes.

Wholeheartedly following the instructions of God brings happiness, peace, and a clear sense the next step to take.
1: Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD!
165: Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble.

Jesus taught us to recognize “the undefiled in the way” by describing those who are blessed: Blessed are the poor in spirit, beggar souls; Blessed are those who mourn, lamenters; Blessed are the meek, gentle trusters; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, cravers of wholeness, integrity, justice; Blessed are the merciful, gracious helpers of the needy and wretched; Blessed are the pure in heart, those who are purified, made whole, pruned in soul, desire, intelligence, will; Blessed are the peacemakers, lovers and nurturers of peace, harmony, tranquility (Matthew 5).

Jesus taught us to “seek first, crave the kingdom of God, the God who is just as God ought to be, the rightness of God, and God will take care of your daily needs” (Matt. 6:33).

The psalmist wants God’s help to see and understand these instructions, and then pays attention and mulls them over.
18: Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things from your law.
34: Give me understanding and I shall keep your law; indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart.
44: So shall I keep your law continually, forever and ever.
55: I remember your name in the night, O LORD, and I keep your law.
97: Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

Jesus taught in parables to separate those who could see, those who could hear from those who couldn’t (Matt. 13:13, 16). He healed the blind, an acted parable of opening the understanding. He warned those who misinterpreted the nature and function of the law by focusing on details and missing the point.  He said that he came to complete the law, to fill it up with himself, to permeate it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus came to open our eyes; after the ascension, God sent the Spirit to give us understanding (John 14:26). We are the friends of Jesus as we live into and out of that understanding.

The opposites of hearing and understanding and obeying what God teaches are dishonesty, divided loyalty, greed, pride, dullness—all interior to the self.
29: Remove from me the way of lying, and grant me your law graciously.
163: I hate and abhor lying, but I love your law.
113: I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.
72: The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of coins of gold and silver.
51: The proud have me in great derision, yet I do not turn aside from your law.
85: The proud have dug pits for me, which is not according to your law.
70: Their heart is as fat as grease, but I delight in your law.

I think of the disciples arguing over who was to be greatest, and then dissembling when Jesus asked them what they were talking about. I think of the rich young ruler who could not part with things in order to follow Jesus. I think of the farmer who sets out to plow and then looks back. I think of the people of Nazareth saying they knew who their father was.  I think of the scribes and lawyers trying to trap Jesus with tricky questions. I think of the “children” in the marketplace complaining about the asceticism of John the baptizer and the exuberance of Jesus.  The call in Psalm 119 and the call of Jesus are coherent: love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. These comprise the essence of the law and the prophets.  Seek with your whole heart; sell all you have to buy the field; take up the yoke, the cross, and follow.  Come with me and I will make you fishers of humanity.

People who disregard God’s teaching frustrate the psalmist; they threaten and entangle the psalmist, who asks God to intervene.
150: They draw near who follow after wickedness; they are far from your law.
61: The cords of the wicked have bound me, but I have not forgotten your law.
109: My life is continually in my hand [I am continually in danger], yet I do not forget your law.
53: Indignation has taken hold of me because of the wicked, who forsake your law.
136: Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep your law.
126: It is time for you to act, O LORD, for they have regarded your law as void.

It is easy to remember the frustration and anger of Jesus against those who saw without seeing, who knew without knowing—the experts in the law who evaded the central teachings of the law.  They treated their parents stingily but tithed strictly; they treated the poor as law-breakers but gave them no help so they could be obedient; they turned converts into hypocrites; they took pride in obeying the purity laws but ignored the truths found in the relationships between God and human beings. Jesus could not abide the duplicity of those who were publicly religious and privately selfish. He wept over them and then went to work cleansing the temple of commercial interests.

The psalmist finds life, delight, justice, and truth in God’s instructions, and as a result trusts God for mercy, deliverance, and salvation.
153: Consider my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law.
174: I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.
92: Unless your law had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction.
77: Let your tender mercies come to me that I may live; for your law is my delight.
142: Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness and your law is truth.

Jesus said that it was like a meal to him to do what God commanded and bring to completion the will of God (John 4:32). God sent him and he spoke the words of God (John 3:34). Jesus said that he spoke and acted as God told him to (John 14:10). Jesus prayed, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). The record of Jesus’s life gives us the great gift of seeing how to be human in relationship with God.  We hang on God’s every word every day, and we welcome the everyday experience of God’s continuous teaching. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

I Have Stuck unto Thy Testimonies

I grew up with testimony times in church. We opened up time, usually on Sunday evenings, for people to testify, to share their experiences with God. I remember in particular two old men who frequently testified in tandem. One told about his experience of two separate works of grace, salvation and sanctification; then the other told of his experience of both salvation and sanctification at the same moment. This created for me as a teenager a glimmer of understanding that God worked in individual lives in individual ways. I also came to understand that testifying means sharing publicly the truth one has experienced or witnessed.

This makes it interesting to think about the testimonies of God. God witnesses everything, and what God says about it is true.  Also, these testimonies are public. That’s the essential aspect of testimony—the public repetition of what is true. Two words from Psalm 119 that are translated as “testimonies” are the words ’edah and ’eduwth; both come from ’ed, which comes from ’uwd. In Psalm 119, ’edah and ’eduwth are most often translated in the KJV as “testimonies”; ’edah is translated a few times as “witness”; ’eduwth is translated once as “testimony.”

Here they are in the unvarnished King James Psalm 119:

2: Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.
22: Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept thy testimonies.
24: Thy testimonies also are my delight and my counselors.
46: I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.
59: I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies
79: Let those that fear thee turn unto me, and those that have known thy testimonies.
95: The wicked have waited for me to destroy me: but I will consider thy testimonies.
119: Thou puttest away all the wicked of the earth like dross: therefore I love thy testimonies.
125: I am thy servant; give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies.
138: Thy testimonies that thou hast commanded are righteous and very faithful.
146: I cried unto thee; save me, and I shall keep thy testimonies.
152: Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever.
167: My soul hath kept thy testimonies; and I love them exceedingly.
168: I have kept thy precepts and thy testimonies: for all my ways are before thee.

7: I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches.
31: I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame.
36: Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness.
88: Quicken me after thy lovingkindness; so shall I keep the testimony of thy mouth.
99: I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.
111: Thy testimonies have I taken as a heritage for ever: for they are the rejoicing of my heart.
129: Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them.
144: The righteousness of thy testimonies is everlasting: give me understanding, and I shall live.
157: Many are my persecutors and mine enemies; yet do I not decline from thy testimonies.

True confession: I don’t read Hebrew or Greek, so I rely on concordances like Strong’s or Young’s to help me get inside important words. One of the ways I like to explore words is to see how they are used in other contexts.

The root words make it clear that “testimonies” are public events.  In the very heart of the Hebrew words are the ideas of repetition, restoration, relief, and solemn admonishment. A public symbol of commitment to a course of action, a true statement of what one has personally witnessed (an eyewitness), the physical evidence of a shared experience, these are shared with a group and help center that group of people in their shared history and their future commitments.

In the Old Testament, the root word ’uwd shows up importantly in Deuteronomy 30, where Moses gives a final word from God to the people of Israel.  He admonishes them to be faithful and obedient to the Lord their God, and warns them that if they wander and disobey, they will scatter as captives to the nations around. The Lord promises that when they are scattered and lost, and they remember the testimony of God and return to God and obey wholeheartedly, they will be freed and brought home.  The Lord promises to change their hearts to love God wholeheartedly, which is the way to live fully. The Lord tells them that God’s commandment is very near them, even in their mouths and hearts, so that they can do what God says to do.  In verses 19-20, the choice is made plain: life or death, blessing or cursing, and they are admonished to choose life, to love, obey, and stick tightly to the Lord. “I call heaven and earth to record this day”—heaven and earth as witnesses, as testifiers to what God is saying to the people.  This word from God embeds itself in our universe, is cosmically accurate.

No wonder the testimonies of God fill the writer of Psalm 119 with delight, wonder, and joy. Choosing to love, obey, and stick tightly to God opens up just that kind of life. Jesus echoes both Deuteronomy and Psalm 119 when he says, “I come so that they might have life and so that they might have life over and above what they need, superior, extraordinary, surpassing, uncommon life” (John 10:10).  Jesus reinforces that loving God is the way into this life when he cites Deuteronomy to answer the question, “what is the greatest commandment”: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind (Deut. 6:5, Matt. 22:7, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27). The life of Jesus testifies that love is obedience to what God says.

Yet just as the two old men testifying about their experience raised the possibility that God moves people in many ways, just having the testimonies is not enough. The psalmist asks repeatedly for understanding; this word contains the ideas of discernment, intelligence, perceptiveness.  The request itself reveals that the psalmist needs God’s help in order to make good use of God’s testimonies.  The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are a visual image of God’s testimonies.  In Exodus, these are the witness of God’s presence with and interest in the Hebrew people, and they are kept with honor in the ark of the covenant. It is probably too obvious to point out, but keeping the tablets in a place of honor while not obeying God in day to day actions is a travesty, yet this happened in history and happens today. 

As Paul wrote, the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ so that by our faith in Jesus, we can be what Jesus means us to be (Gal. 3:24). Paul also wrote that because he knew the law, he knew himself to be a law-breaker; the law against coveting taught him to lust (Romans 7:7). His inability to obey testified to him of his need for a present savior and teacher, Jesus, to lead him in the law of the spirit of life (Romans 8:1,2).  “If any of you lack wisdom (understanding, skill in interpretation, intelligence, discernment), ask God for it; God gives openly and simply, without scolding, and God will give you wisdom” (James 1:5, my paraphrase).  “The Spirit of truth will come and guide you into all truth, telling you what God wants you to know and do” (John 16:13, my paraphrase).  Jesus lived in that Spirit, saying, “I do nothing myself, but I speak and do only what my Father has taught me.”

“I have stuck unto thy testimonies,” writes the psalmist. Paying attention to them, asking questions about them, allowing them to measure our lives are ways we stick to God’s testimonies. And when we get understanding, we need to obey.

When we love God and place every bit of ourselves we know about at God’s disposal, when we ask for guidance and then do what we hear from God, when we believe that God is true, and when we cling tightly to God, God promises us abundant, extraordinary, uncommon life, a life free from shame and condemnation and full of the companionship of the Lord, the One who is.  Since the testimony of love is obedience, we can ask God what the next good thing is to do, and then go do it. And we are then the city on the hill which people see doing good, causing them to glorify God.