Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament:” Happy are the ‘Blameless,’ What it is! (Part 4)Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Exegesis, Faith, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Precision Obedience, Psalms
We now come to our fourth, and final, blog in this series on a “Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament.” We set out to understand the word “blameless” which is drastically misunderstood by Protestants who view it as cipher for Jewish legalism and also by Protestant (genuine) legalists who assume the word means a person has standing before God based upon the precision of their human performance. Both of these perversions are rather common in the American Evangelical/Restorationist scene. So to understand this concept as God’s Spirit gave it we have had to spend some time on how the Hebrew Bible came to be seen as a legalistic document because Luther and Protestant scholars superimposed their existential experiences with medieval Catholicism back upon the Judaism of Jesus’s day and the “Old Testament,” I think this is essential to understand (See The New or Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament (Part 1)). In the second blog we examined the notion of “law” and saw that in the Bible “law” is one of eight words used to describe a Story, a story of redemption, a Story of Love that has nothing to do with American conceptions of “law” (See Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament,’ Law and the Story of God’s Love (Part 2). The third blog article examined the word “blameless” within its context in Psalm 119 and the rest of the Hebrew Bible to show what the Israelites are NOT claiming, it has nothing to do with either flawless obedience or precision understanding of God’s will but points to where we are today, what modern folks might call “a relationship” (See Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament’ Happy are the Blameless? (Part 3).
Happy are the Blameless
The Hebrew word tawiym, rendered “blameless” in 119.1 has a wide range of meaning. Knowing these ranges of meaning sheds light on the word. Tawiym means “wholeness” or “completeness” or “integrity” or “without blemish” (as for the sacrificial animals) or “fitting” and several other possible translations of the word. In none of the possible renderings of tawiym is it an abstraction for moral perfection or doctrinal flawlessness. It is a way of life.
Psalm 119.1 significantly pairs tawiym with the words “way” and “walk.” These echo words from Israel’s foundation narrative of who they were supposed to be. From the beginning the Lord of Mercy appeared to Abram and said, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17.1).
To walk in the torah is not, as we have shown in our previous post, merely the commands of the Decalogue or what is termed the ceremonial requirements. It is the entire Story of God creating and calling Israel by his Hesed, inviting them into a covenant of Hesed to be his kingdom of priests for the sake of blessing the entire creation.
Numerous saints in the Hebrew Bible are described as blameless. Noah (Gen 6.9), Abraham (Gen 17.1), David (2 Sam 22.24), Job (12.4) and in the Middle Testament Aaron (Wisdom 18.21). When we flip to the New Testament writings we find that this “Old Testament” theme shows up for Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1.6). The apostle Paul says that he was “blameless” in Philippians (3.6, the NIV’s translation as “legalistic righteousness” here is totally baseless and is exhibit A of the prejudice of Evangelicals. Paul is claiming exactly what we have been talking about thru this series and what Luke claims for Elizabeth and Zechariah). In fact all of Israel was called to be blameless before the Lord.
“You [plural] must be blameless before the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 18.13).
In none of these cases for individuals or Israel as a whole is more flawlessness or doctrinal precision being claimed. The history of these individuals and the people of God laid out in the Scriptures more than deconstructs such misguided notions. What is being claimed is that these people are on the Lord’s side! They choose him!
From the beginning of the history of the people of God, from the gracious election of the pagan Abram to their redemption by grace from the house of death in Egypt, they have been called to “walk” with God in his or the “way.” The Psalmist of 119 would have known the torah in Deuteronomy.
“And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but
to fear the LORD your God,
to walk in all his ways,
to love him, to serve
the LORD your God with all
your hearts and with all your soul,
and to observe the LORD’s commands
and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?”
Moses explicates this as “doing” two actions: circumcising our hearts and caring for the aliens (Deuteronomy 10.14-22). The “ways” of the Lord are demonstrated in his own personal integrity and faithfulness (thus the call to circumcise our hearts) and by practically caring for justice for the marginalized/powerless/aliens in our communities. This is the “way” of the Lord.
There is something of an imitatio dei to the notion of “blamelessness” … that is that we set our lives to the imitation of God. We want to be like God (he is, after all, our Father. “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you,” Deuteronomy 32.6)
To be blameless is to follow God with integrity. It is the desire to be like him. It is to be in a genuine relationship with the God of Israel. When the “chips are down” we choose his side. In the Psalter, David becomes a projected “ideal” image of blamelessness. He is not ideal in that he is flawless in any way. He is ideal in that the “headings” of the Psalms help the average Israelite see what God can, and will, do in them (see James Luther Mays essay in Interpretation, “The Image of David in the Psalter”). David, like our the congregation in Psalm 119.1, claims to be blameless (Ps 18.23). David is then portrayed as pouring his heart out before the Lord in a pathos filled “confession” for his lack of faithfulness in Psalm 51, “against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (51.4). And like Psalm 119 itself the congregation “confesses” the blessedness of the blameless and ends with nearly a “Davidic” confession, “I [we] have gone ASTRAY like a lost sheep; seek out your servant” (119.176).
Thus “blamelessness,” as Frederick J. Gaiser noted in his study of the word, is not about “a state of perfection, reached once and for all.” Rather it is a “walk” or “a way of life” that is oriented whole heartedly toward God. It is an orientation to life. I walk toward God rather than away from God. It is to “not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps 1.1). It is in the final analysis the stated desire, as evidenced by our life, to live out the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.4.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”
This is why the torah is so important to the Israelites in Psalm 119. The torah reveals the Story of GOD’S LOVE and we love him who first loved us. David is a very flawed human being by anyone’s definition. But he is the model of what it means to be blameless before the Lord. He is blameless because he seeks to honor God, he seeks to imitate God, he seeks God himself and he does so with integrity. But both Samuel and the image of David in the Psalter show us that David was never morally flawless nor doctrinally precise. He was in a relationship … he was “true” to that relationship. That is what it means to be blameless.
The Gifts of Torah and Blamelessness
I can look back on my life with the Lord and see lots and lots of mistakes and down right error. I see flaws in my understanding of God’s word. I see dangerous notions in my conceptions of God himself. I am so thankful that in his grace the Lord has “opened my eyes to wonders” in his Story (119.18). Interestingly enough it is God’s torah/promises/word that the Israelites praise Yahweh for that has God’s own power to help us fall in love with him, to open our eyes, to even turn our hearts (to WANT) to be in that relationship with him … thus the torah not only calls us to “be” blameless it provides the divine grace for that to happen. From Psalm 119 we learn more about what God’s torah does than what the “commands” actually are. So the Spirit inspired Psalm 119 declares that the torah …
revives (v. 25)
strengthens (v. 28)
it is “good” (v. 39)
gives comfort (v. 50, 82)
gives life (v.40, 93, 116)
gives FREEDOM/LIBERTY (v.45, a very non-Evangelical idea)
gives shalom (v. 165) etc.
How does this relate to “blamelessness?” How do these amazing gifts of torah come to God’s people? It is in another “torah” psalm that we see how this takes place. Psalm 19 declares that that “the law/torah of the LORD is perfect” (19.7) and moves in an “inclusio” to v.13 “THEN I shall be blameless” (which btw comes from the same Hebrew root as “perfect” in v.7). What how the Spirit unfolds this for us.
the torah of the Lord is Perfect (v.7)
decrees of the Lord are sure (v.7)
precepts of the Lord are right (v.8)
commands of the Lord are clear (v.8)
fear of the Lord is pure (v.9)
ordinances of the Lord are truth (v.9)
God’s torah is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. But note the contrast in verses 11-13. Humans are not perfect, sure, right, pure and true.
by them your servant is warned (v.11)
who can detect their hidden errors (v.12)
CLEAR ME from my hidden faults (v.12)
KEEP your servant from the insolent (v.13)
note the conclusion:
THEN I shall be blameless (v.13)
Even though “blamelessness” is not moral or doctrinal precision but the orientation of one’s relationship to God, even that is not the product of human effort. It is the GIFT of God! It is the work of God in the Israelite to make this happen. God “cleared” the faults (even hidden errors) for the sake of the Israelite’s relationship with himself.
This is why the Israelite takes such joy and delight in God’s torah. It protects, it teaches, it enlightens, it ENLIVENS. All this is the magnificent grace of God that flows from his infinite hesed for his creation.
The torah is the Story of God’s creating and redeeming love for all he has made. To be blameless is to walk in imitation of God’s ways in a genuine, authentic relationship of integrity with the Lord. This is result of God’s own gracious hesed as he clears us of our sins and enables us to love him. As the Psalmist prayed “turn my heart to your decrees” (119.36).
There is a certain eschatological thrust to this blamelessness. Paul who grew up chanting Psalm 119 clearly echoes the psalm in many places in his writings. Even the notion that God is the one who clears us so that we can be in that genuine relationship with him. Paul notes God has done this in the Messiah.
“HE will also strengthen you to the end, SO THAT you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1.8, said to the dysfunctional Corinthian church of God)
“May the God of shalom HIMSELF sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be KEPT sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5.23)
“HE chose us in Messiah before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1.4)
Blamelessness is having an orientation toward the Lord that is a true representation of who we are. It is to be in an authentic relationship with the God of Jesus that expresses our wholehearted devotion to be like him … to imitate the Father in integrity and care for those the world does not. Blameless is not a claim for moral perfection before the Lord nor is it a claim that we have the doctrine of the Bible down with precision. It means that God in his grace has, in his grace, cleared us from sin so we can walk with him. That is why the Bible declares …
“BLESSED/HAPPY are those whose way is blameless
who walk in the torah/story of the LORD”