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.

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