Oct 3, 2018

Like King David, Let Us Love God's Law

By Heather Smith

As part of our daily devotional routine, my husband and I read a psalm, or a portion thereof, before breakfast.  Recently we made it to Psalm 119, and in the week or two we spent on it, I was daily struck with its joyful praise for the Law of God.   I remember as a child being taught that Psalm 119 was “a love-song to the Law,” but this time through I was awed to realize more deeply what this means.  

I have often encountered the reminder in regard to Psalm 119 that the term “Law” can refer to the whole of Scriptures.  That is, it can be a shorthand for the whole of “the law and the prophets” rather than always taking on a Waltherian “Law vs. Gospel” tinge.  No doubt, the psalmist’s expansive meditation on the Law does encompass a broad love of the whole counsel of God.  Nevertheless, arguing that Psalm 119 does not focus on the psalmist’s love of the moral law is disingenuous.  Over and over he expresses his love not simply for the “Law” or “word” of God, but for His rules, statutes, commands, precepts, and decrees.  This psalm is an astonishing serenade to God’s righteous commandments.

Seeing this in my recent encounter with Psalm 119 has made me wonder if Christians in general, and Lutherans in particular, sometimes forget that “the Law of God is good and wise” in the midst of reminding ourselves that it “dooms to death when we transgress” (“The Law of God Is Good and Wise” by Matthias Loy, st. 1).  While it is true that sinner-saint Christians cannot escape the condemnation of the Law against their sinful nature’s deeds, it is also true that the more they read and understand the Law, the more their sanctified hearts will rejoice in its goodness and wisdom.  Like the child who grows to appreciate his father’s household rules, the Christian who learns to value the Law of God will find his love and esteem for the heavenly Father continually deepening.

Reading through Psalm 119 (yes, it’s the longest psalm, but it still will not take you more than 15 minutes!), one cannot help but notice the abundance of affectionate terms which the psalmist lavishes on God’s Law.  He longs for it (v. 20, 40), rejoices in it (v. 162), deems it wonderful (v. 129), and finds in it joy (v. 111), peace (v. 165), safety (v. 117), favor (v. 58), sweetness (v. 103), blessing (v. 56) and comfort (v. 50, 52, 76).  

Between our society’s anti-authoritarian mindset and our frequent Lutheran reminders that lex semper accusat (“the Law always accuses”), it is hard to comprehend this effusive praise for divine rules.  Even if we reject the societal message that rules were made to be broken, we are likely to approach God’s Law with more of a downcast dourness than a passionate thrill.  Yet ebullient love is precisely what the psalmist expresses, over and over again for 176 verses.  The key, I think, is that the psalmist views the Law not as arbitrary commands handed down by a Divine Majesty, but rather as the loving expression of the LORD’s goodness and wisdom, which He desires His children to share.

Consider how earthly families illustrate this truth.  In a loving family, the parents establish rules for their children.  They do this not out of arbitrary, authoritarian desire for submission, but in order to ensure their children’s safety and to mold their character so that they may enjoy a good and peaceful life.  As parents carry out discipline, they hope that their children will see the love that lies behind the rules they enforce.  When children do begin to understand the deeper good that shapes their parents’ rules, their respect and love for their parents will deepen.  

The author of Psalm 119 has come to this point of realization, and he is awed at the heavenly Father’s good care for him.  The love of God, manifested in His Law, elicits a reciprocal love from the psalmist.  Nearly twenty times he speaks of his love for the statutes of God, and almost another ten times of his delight in them.  He sees that the Law is not really given to test his obedience.  Instead, it shapes his heart to love what God loves and thereby grants him life.  Fifteen times he speaks about the Law’s influence on his heart, and just as many times he confirms that it gives him life.  

Indeed, the Law always works on the heart.  However, whereas it molds the obedient Christian heart to love God more deeply, it also works to harden the sinner’s heart.  In nearly every stanza of Psalm 119 the psalmist laments over those who reject God’s Law.  Even when these unbelievers afflict and persecute him, he maintains that he is in the better position since he follows in the ways of the Lord’s commandments.

This, too, we see in earthly families.  Not all children come to appreciate the love behind parental rules (nor, in a sinful world, is all parental discipline a worthy picture of the divine Law).  Some rebel against their parents’ discipline and take a path that seems less difficult or unpleasant.  When they do, it is impossible for them to respect and love their parents.  Ultimately, this rebellion leads them not to joy but to pain, even if their lives give the appearance of success. 

For the Christian, however, daily following the paths laid out by the Law, even when difficult and unpleasant, brings joy.  The joy of obedience for the child comes first when he receives the love and approval of his parents and later as he sees the good ends his parents desire for him.  The joy of obedience for the Christian similarly comes as he understands his heavenly Father’s love, then perceives how the Law keeps him on the pathway toward eternal life.  Along the way of this earthly life, he also rejoices in the bodily good that obedience brings him, and endures more willingly the unjust ills he suffers.

Ultimately, it is the Father’s love—not the Father’s Law—that works to mold the heart toward obedience.  Nevertheless, the Law brings delight to the submissive child because it is the concrete expression of the Father’s love.  It shows the His concern for His children, and His desire that their lives be shaped only by what is truly good. 

The obedient child, like the rebellious one, may still go astray, but love for the good and wise Law will perpetually draw the willing son or daughter back to the Father.  The last verse of the psalmist’s love-song to the Law confesses this truth:  “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” (Psalm 119:176).  

Meditation on the Law will never result in our perfect obedience to it, but it will deepen our love of God and our willingness to submit to Him.  When we do stray, we bleat out for our Father to rescue us, and we confess that we have not kept His Law, which we know so well.  Then we trust in His love, not only as we know it from His law, but also as we see it in His gracious, undeserved mercy.  We trust in Christ to seek and rescue us, and we sing anew the praises of our good and wise Lord and His good and wise Law.


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Heather Smith is a pastor's wife in rural Illinois, prior to which she was a teacher in a classical Lutheran school in Wyoming and spent time in the Washington, D.C. area working on a master's degree in English.  She has an abiding love for reading, baking, deep intellectual conversations, and persistent Lutheran matchmakers.

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