“Happy are those who way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD” (Ps 119.1, NRSV)
In our previous two posts linked here Renewed Perspectives on the Old Testament (Part 1) and Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament: Law and the Story of God’s Love (Part 2), we laid the ground work for this article and the next. In the first we noted that since the time of the Protestant Reformation, Evangelicals have projected backwards onto the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism foreign concepts of “law,” “legalism,” “self-salvation” and the like. In the second we demonstrated how we need to reflect on the meaning of the word “law” and see that it is nothing like what Americans think of when the word “law” is heard. The “law” is the Story of God’s Redeeming LOVE, as well as God’s gracious instruction to people already redeemed by his own mighty hand and outstretched arm. There is no “legalism” in the Hebrew Bible.
Exodus always comes before Sinai; Calvary comes before Pentecost; Grace always comes before faith; It always has and it always will.
Psalm 119, the great “law” Psalm is the great Rocky Mountain Range strategically located in the Psalter and the Hebrew Bible itself. It single handedly demolishes the Marcionite notion that Israelites were “saved” by works and they had no sense of personal relationship with the Father of Jesus. Psalm 119 challenges us on the meaning of law, to hunger for God himself, and it challenges us with the notion of “blamelessness.”
Blamelessness is grossly misunderstood by both legalists who think they are somehow saved by flawlessly obeying God’s law, and it is misunderstood by those who point to it as “proof” that Israel had a “law-works” system with God. I think we have sufficiently destroyed both of those notions in our previous posts.
So what does it mean in the Hebrew Bible to be “blameless?” Psalm 119 will once again show the way by being a “light unto our path” (119.105).
The Hebrew Bible teaches, as Paul himself quotes it, “no one is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3.10 quoting Psalm 14.1-3) and “no human will be justified in his sight by deeds of the law” (Rom 3.20 quoting Psalm 143.2). The Hebrew Bible does not teach humans are ontologically righteous in God’s sight by doing works of “law.”
But whatever, “no one is righteous means” it is not a denial of Psalm 119.1. So we need to know what “blameless” is not in order to understand what it is. Throughout the “Old Testament,” and Psalm 119 especially it is abundantly clear that blamelessness is no claim on the part of our Spiritual forefathers and mothers to precision understanding of God’s word/law.
As I noted in my previous post, Psalm 119 is fundamentally a prayer. It is directed to Yahweh as Creator and Redeeming God. There is no doubt that Israelites, in Gathered worship, confess their love for God’s torah/word/promises (remember our previous post). But they do not anywhere confess to have mastered that word/decree/torah/promise. Instead we find them pleading, in communal prayer, with the Lord of Grace to teach them, to give them insight, and even to turn their hearts to God’s Story of redeeming love with Israel.
Eight times in the Psalm we see the petition “teach me” and seven times we see the plea “give me understanding.” Neither the author nor the congregation of God’s People claim any precision in grasping the law but they do claim to love it.
“Praise be to you, O LORD;
teach me your decrees” (v.12)
“I recounted my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees” (v.26)
“Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end” (v.33)
“The earth is filled with your HESED, O LORD;
teach me your decrees” (v.64)
The same petition is found in 119.68, 124, 135 and 171. In fact the first and last petition for God to teach is combined with praise (vv. 12 and 171), “May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees.”
The Gathered congregation asks the Lord in his HESED to grant “understanding.” Now “understanding” in Hebrew is more akin to “insight” or “discernment” in our language. It is not the mastery of facts but perception of purpose like wisdom. Seven times this prayer is lifted up.
“Let me understand the teaching of your precepts;
then I will meditate on your wonders” (v.27)
“Your hands made me and formed me;
give me understanding to learn your commands” (v.73)
I am your servant; give me discernment
that I may understand your statutes” (v.125)
“May my cry come before you, O LORD;
give me understanding according to your word” (v.169)
This same plea is found in 119.34, 104 and 144. There is nothing in Psalm 119 that remotely indicates that the author or the congregation thought they had arrived when it comes to understanding, comprehending, and mastering the torah of God with precision understanding.
“Open my eyes, SO THAT I may behold
WONDEROUS things in your torah” (119.18)
The ultimate plea of our Spiritual family in the Old Testament is stated rather boldly in Psalm 119.102 is that Yahweh himself will be the personal teacher of the Israelite. The Israelite desperately wants GOD (cf. 119.57, 135, 151).
Blameless does not mean precision or perfection of understanding of God’s torah. Perhaps “blamelessness” has more to do with hungering for God than perfection in understanding. It is as Jesus said, some imagine that mastery of the word is the key to eternal life. But as the Psalmist knows, if you love the word you actually seek GOD, or as Jesus put it “come to me” (John 5.46-47).
The prayer of the Psalms not only echoes in Jesus’s words but those of the apostle Paul. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes to people who have heard the word, they have believed, the Gentiles have become citizens of Israel through faith and baptism. But he prays, just like Psalm 119, “the Father of glory may give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him” (Eph 1.17) or as the New English Bible renders it, “the all-glorious Father, may give you the spiritual powers of wisdom and vision, by which there comes knowledge of him.”
There were no medieval Catholic scholastic theologians in ancient Israel mired in ritualism as a key to placating a distant angry deity. There were no “legalists” in ancient Israel seeking to be “saved” by meticulously observing the “law” to garner praise from the Lord for their “precision obedience.” Being blameless is not a claim to have fulfilled any of the torah of God precisely. This was evident already in the petition for God to teach.
“Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees;
THEN I will keep them to the end” (v.33) “
This clearly implies that the congregation is aware that they do not keep God’s torah as he wills. But we do not need to depend upon an inference to know that “blameless” does not equate to precision obedience in the “Old Testament” (nor the New). We see this in how the term is used throughout the Hebrew Bible. There are many examples but I will use one that connects with the book of Psalms. King David is “blameless” according to 2 Samuel 22.24. For those who imagine that “blameless” means following God’s will/law with precision and perfection, this is a difficult text. From 2 Samuel 11 to 2 Samuel 20, called the Succession Narrative, is dominated by David’s breaking all the “Ten Commandments” with his wanton rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. In 2 Samuel 24, Israel again suffers from the arrogant sin of David when he numbers his army. But there in between in 2 Samuel 22 we have a long song (same as Palm 18) where we read,
“I was BLAMELESS before him [God],
and kept myself from guilt” (2 Sam 22.24)
If David is claiming some sort of precision obedience to God’s law here then the entire narrative of 2 Samuel reveals such to be pure folly. But that is not the meaning of “blameless.”
Just as the congregation had no delusions to understand God’s torah perfectly and with precision, Israel in the Psalms, also knows they do not obey God’s torah with precision. Note the confession of these Gathered worshipers.
“How I HOPE that I shall be faithful
in keeping your instructions” (119.5, TEV)
Or the astonishing appeal to grace, all the more shocking when we misunderstand the word “blameless,” in Psalm 119.
“I am yours; SAVE ME,
for I have sought your precepts” (119.94)
“Keep my steps steady [from stumbling, BV] according to your promise,
and never let sin have dominion over me” (119.133)
“I call out to you; SAVE ME
and I will keep your statutes” (119.146)
These verses reminds us of the words of the Song of Ascent following Psalm 119, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither sleep nor slumber. The LORD is your keeper …” (121.3-7)
God is the Savior. The Israelite gets saved by God. This is not done by some precision obedience. Obedience follows the divine indicative and this is explicit in these texts. But perhaps the most wonderful demonstration that “blameless” is not equated with the precision of our obedience or flawless understanding is the last verse of Psalm 119. It forms an “inclusio” with verse 1. Recall that verse one opens the prayer with our theme.
“Happy are those whose way is blameless …”
The back of the “envelope” reads
“I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek out your servant,
for I do not forget your commandments” (119.176).
Here is the confession of the congregation that they have not been faithful. They are not precisely obedient. They have “gone astray like a lost sheep.” They have gone astray even though they have NOT forgotten God’s will. They just are a failure at precision obedience. But notice their failure does NOT mean they 1) do not love God; 2) do not love his word; 3) that they are not “blameless.”
Yet they need to be “saved” by God? Precisely because they have never had perfect understanding and they have never lived out God’s torah precisely as they were expected. They have “gone astray” but they still love God’s torah. They need to be sought by God the Shepherd but they are, ironically, blameless!
Blameless is not equated with the quality of human precision in grasping the depth of God’s word nor is it that our obedience is the kind of precision that demands micrometers to determine. Blameless, as has been hinted at, is best related to the Shema which explains why the word “heart” occurs so frequently in Psalm 119. What is the direction of our heart? Sometimes like our ancestors we need to confess that we know our hearts are not as they should be but we pray that God will make them. That is the blameless prayer of the Israelites in worship.
“Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.”
Blamelessness is no claim for precision in the depth of our understanding of God’s word, nor a claim to have precisely fulfilled that word we do not quite “get.” But perhaps “blamelessness” is a willingness, or better a hunger for Yahweh to “turn our hearts” toward him so that HE can give us life. We will finish this series in our next blog by exploring that further in Psalm 119.