10 Jan 2017

Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament: Law and the Story of God’s Love, Pt 2

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Discipleship, Faith, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Love, Precision Obedience, Psalms, Spiritual Disciplines

We have seen in my previous The New/Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” that the Hebrew Bible is a grace/faith document and is not a system of self-salvation through obedience to law/commandments.  This truth was recognized in the New Testament writings themselves but through the centuries, especially after the Protestant Reformation, this fundamental truth was cast aside with multiple caricatures of “law” and “Jewish legalism.”

Blame … What?

Psalm 119 begins with a declaration that disturbs those informed by traditional Protestant/Evangelical piety while it is misunderstood by those who believe it teaches believers are in a relationship with God on the basis of precision obedience (I briefly examined these two misunderstandings in the previous blog linked above).

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD” (119.1)

The words “blameless” and “law” are lightening rod words with many.  These words are heard through centuries of polemic against all forms of works righteousness, Judaism, and the notion that “no one is righteous, no not one” (a teaching that is quoted in the NT from the Hebrew Bible btw!!).  But this begs the question of what does the Bible mean by both “blameless” and by “law” in texts like this.  Psalm 119 is not alone in these kinds of words.  In fact in other places “blamelessness” is expected (even demanded) by the biblical authors. So we read,

O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

The answer is given …

Those who walk blamelessly,
and do what is right
” (Ps 15.1-2)

Many do not realize that both Jesus and Paul, in full continuity with Moses and the Psalms, say the same thing.  Paul tells the Philippians that they as a congregation are to be “blameless and innocent” (2.15)  and to the Thessalonians he writes “that you may be blameless before our God” (1 Thess 3.13) and Jesus ups the ante by declaring “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48).

All of these (and many more) are rooted in Moses’s words in Deuteronomy 18.13 where the People of God are commanded,

you must be blameless before the LORD your God.”

Again many point to these texts in Moses and the Psalms and immediately assume this is salvation by perfectionism, precision obedience or some such heresy. But as we shall see both the word “blameless” and the word “law” is radically misunderstood.  In fact they are simply caricatured.

What is “Law?”

Perhaps one of the greatest hindrances for Protestants/Restorationists to hear the Scriptures related to our theme is the massive amount of not only misunderstanding but outright prejudice towards the term “law.”  In most Restorationist writing the term “law” and “law of Moses” is simply a cipher for “legalism,” “Judaizer,” or “Jewish dead ritualism.”  We have inherited this from Martin Luther (see previous blog) who simply equated medieval Roman Catholicism for the religion of Israel and Second Temple Judaism.  This is a massive exegetical faux pas and has had devastating results for believers since the Reformation.

In the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, the word traditionally rendered “law” is the word torah. Torah is not in any way, shape, fashion, or form equivalent to what most Americans consider “law.”  Torah is not like the US Constitution or the IRS Tax Code or the millions of pages of international LAW.  The English word “law” is in fact a pretty terrible translation for torah, but this is also one of the short comings of translation.  The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of Psalm 119 renders every occurrence of torah as simply “teaching.” Teaching is not a semantic equivalent to “law.”  So we need to be careful and ask what is “law” that Moses talks about and that the Psalms talk about? It is illegitimate to impose modern western ideas of “law” upon Moses, the Psalms or Paul.

In fact “commands” are not the largest literary form of the ‘Law” of Moses itself. The “Law” of Moses is Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch. The majority of the “Law” of Moses is in fact narrative. All of Genesis, two-thirds of Exodus, and over half of Numbers is “story.”  Even in Leviticus there is narration.  Deuteronomy is in the form of three speeches but the first one recounts historical narrative. All, that is all, of the “commands” that are contained as part of the “Law” of Moses are embedded within the Story of Redemption.

This biblical fact is significant and essential for understanding what the Bible means by “torah.”  It is not only Leviticus, or the Ten Words, that are “torah.” Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy are as much “torah” … that is they are “teaching” … but a Story/Narrative is not remotely like the IRS Tax Code or the US Constitution.

These observations, easily verifiable from the text of the Pentateuch itself, are confirmed from Psalm 119 and many other places in the Bible.  Psalm 119 is a prayer, apart from three verses the entire Psalm is addressed, by individuals within the Gathering, to God.  The prayer of Psalm 119 is the plea of God hungry people to be plugged into his power for living and his gracious presence for enjoying.  That is, it begs for God to provide his power and for God to grant his presence, both according to his hesed and grace.  So when we read the term “law” in our English Bibles in 119.1 we cannot simply say “oh that is the Ten Commandments,” some “ceremonial” code, or something list of RULES that WE do.

When we read Psalm 119 we discover that the congregation, in the mouth of the individual, uses eight terms that are synonymous in meaning.  They help us understand what the Holy Spirit means by “torah” (one of the eight terms).  These terms are:

torah (25x)
‘edoth (21x)
piqqudim (21x)
huqqim (23x)
miswoth (22x)
mispatim (23x)
dabar (28x)
‘imrah (19x)

The last two terms, word and promises, make it especially clear that torah is not simply rules.  Note the context of 119.105, “your word {dabar} is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”  Or note well the context of 119.103, “How sweet are your words {dabar} to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  Or the “promises” …

My comfort in my suffering is this:
Your promise {‘imrah} preserves my life” (119.50)

Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live;
do not let my hopes be dashed” (119.116)

Defend my cause and redeem me;
preserve my life according to your promise” (119.154)

God’s promises are an integral part of the “LAW” of Moses. They are repeated frequently as the source of great hope and the sign of Yahweh’s infinite hesed and grace. For more on “The Promises” that Paul makes a very big deal out of in the “New Testament” see my linked blog, The Promises: The New Testament Gospel is the Old Testament Promise.  This torah that we are encouraged to walk in (119.1) is so unlike the IRS Tax Code or the usual notions of “law” as Americans conceive it, that the congregation confesses,

I will keep your torah continually,
forever and ever.
I shall walk in FREEDOM,
for I have sought your precepts …” (119.44-45, see v.32 [NIV])

The “law,” as the Psalms intend it, is the following things all rolled into the same concept.  It is the word or STORY of God’s salvation for Israel.  It story and history of God’s promises to Israel.  It is the loving teaching of God to his people.  It is the witness to God’s hesed and faithfulness to all Israel. It is the reflection of God’s glory.

In Psalm 119, and the Hebrew Bible itself, it is impossible to equate “law” with the Bible.  It did not exist.  No Israelite had a copy of the then extent “bible.”  God’s story, his teaching, his torah, his word was inculcated to the average Israelite through the Festivals (all of which told the Story of God’s salvation of Israel from Egypt and Scripture was publicly read), the Sabbath (which weekly reminded Israel that the world exists by grace and Israel exists within the world by grace), and worship in the temple (where psalms like 119, 103-107, etc were memorized). The Story, the Promises, the Instruction comes to Israel in various ways but it is all God’s.

To make a long argument short, the “torah” is the story of redeemed people walking in grace, gratitude and obedience to God.  Since the “word/torah/teachings” expend great energy in telling how Yahweh has saved Israel and promises to be with them, it is not difficult to see why such a word would be a “delight” to meditate upon.  Paul, who had prayed Psalm 119 many times in concert with God’s people, confesses (though many sweep it under the rug) “I delight in the law in my inmost self” (Rom 7.22).

The Torah of Love

Happy are those who way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.” (119.1)

Happy are those who …
delight in the law of the LORD” (Ps 1.1-2)

In the previous section we noted that neither the psalmist nor the Hebrew Bible means by the word “torah,” rules and regulations by which human beings keep precisely in order to get saved.  There is almost no correspondence between American law codes (all of which are devoid of any STORY OF GRACE) and the torah that delights the soul in the Psalms.

There are few things in life that are as enjoyable and delightful as love. When the Bible says God’s people enjoy, or delight in, torah it is not suggesting that they love fractions and micromeasurements of mint, dill and cumin. We have already shown that torah cannot biblically be reduced to such things.  The delight, and this is so counter intuitive for so many Evangelical/Restorationists, is that “torah” is love! The Israelite delights/is happy because the “law” tells the Story of God’s never ending, infinite, new every morning LOVE for his creation. It is the story of PASSION.

No Israelite that sang the Psalms in worship could not know that Yahweh was passionately in love with her or him. Over one hundred and fifty times in the Psalter the Israelite is confronted with God’s hesed! This hesed is connected to the story of the torah (see Ps 136, 103, 104, 105-107, etc).  So the Israelite in communion with fellow worshipers delights in the “law ” because it is there God tells us how much he loves us. The greatest of all words of God’s love are those spoken to Moses after the “fall of Israel” with the Golden Calf, Exodus 34.6-7, whose central word (hesed) shows up repeatedly in Ps 119.

Let your HESED come to me, O LORD,
your salvation according to your promise” (119.41)

the earth is full of your HESED, O LORD,
teach me your statutes” (119.64)

Let your HESED become my comfort
according to your promise” (119.76)

In your HESED spare my life;
so that I may keep the decrees of your mouth” (119.88)

Deal with your servant according to your HESED,
and teach me your statutes” (119.124)

In your HESED hear my voice;
O LORD, in your justice preserve my life” (119.149)

Consider how I love your precepts;
preserve my life according to your HESED” (119.159)

Hesed is the foundation of not only the torah but the earth itself.  The Israelite prays that God enable, that God preserve,  that God instruct, that God save … all according to Yahweh’s hesed. There is nothing even remotely smacking of self salvation, keeping the law legalistically to get saved, or such.  The Torah proclaims to the Israelite that God is Love.

Conclusion: Torah Reveals Promised Love

Because the Torah is the Story of Love the Israelite loves the Torah.  “It is not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you … it was because the LORD loved you … and brought you out of the house of slavery with a mighty hand … Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains his covenant of love … (Deuteronomy 7.7-9, NIV). The torah is the promise of love!

Psalm 119 is about those who hunger and thirst for GOD.  Those who walk (and we will come back to this word) in the torah, those who delight in the torah, those who meditate on the torah are walking in God’s love, delighting in God’s love, and meditating on God’s love.  This is why they are “blessed” and why they are “happy.”

In our next we will explore the first part of Psalm 119.1.  Now that we have a better handle on “law” we can come within understanding distance of “blameless.”

Happy are the those whose way is blameless …

I hope to see you there.

One Response to “Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament: Law and the Story of God’s Love, Pt 2”

  1. Karen Guenther Says:

    Hello Bobby. It’s cool the way topics that have caught my attention keep reappearing for me. Our church recently spent weeks working our way through Psalm 119. You’ve added to my appreciation and understanding of this Psalm. Thank you for helping me understand a better meaning for the word “law”. I’m just now coming out of a lifetime of legalistic teaching in a very conservative Church of Christ. And…I’m in a wonderful Bible study group, Community Bible Study, and we are studying Red Sea to the Jordan River. I’m amazed that I never “got” the real story of redemption of God’s people. Anyway, I appreciate your lesson on the Torah and God’s love story!!


  1. Stoned-Campbell Disciple » Blog Archive » Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament:” Happy are the ‘Blameless,’ What it is! (Part 4)

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