21 Jan 2017

Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament’: Happy are the Blameless (Part 3)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Faith, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Prayer, Precision Obedience, Psalms

Psalm 119: Interpreter of God’s Torah

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).

Fox’s translation is a work of art. He makes us work with the text.

Blamelessness is Not a Claim to Precision Understanding of God’s Will/Law

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.”

Blameless is Not a Claim to Precision Obedience

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.”

Wrapping Up

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.
(Psalm 119.36-37)

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.

3 Responses to “Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament’: Happy are the Blameless (Part 3)”

  1. Robert Limb Says:

    Thank you for the study, Bobby. I think you a right that our understanding is often biased by being too attached to a forensic understanding of sin and righteousness.

    Thank you too for leading me to look more intently at ‘Aleph’ in the Ps 119 collection. It’s all there, isn’t it? God’s perfect law, blamelessness, need for instruction, and for God’s help and compassion.

    I will have to embark on a study of the Hebrew words and concepts surrounding this idea – Justice, Righteousness, Sin, Judgement…because you are right, I am sure, that our understanding is often read back into the Tanakh, even though we know that when Paul uses a word like dikaiosuné in his mind is the Hebrew construct, more even than the actual meaning of the Greek word.

    We are, I think, shackled, also, be the English word “blameless”, which indicates a lack of something, like shameless or clueless, and “blame” is a loaded word, too: “‘Thou shalt not’ on the wall” (Dylan Thomas); “It’s all your fault!”

    The Hebrew root “TMM”, although it is used thousands of times to indicate sacrificial animals which must be “without blemish” does not really have the negative connotation, does it? It could be translated “wholesome, whole, complete, pure” Our French Bibles (Ps 119 et al.) translate “intègre” – having integrity – both in a literal (being whole) and a moral sense – trustworthy.

    I’m having a semantic field day….
    God bless you, brother,

  2. Dwight Says:

    While this may be true, by the time you come to Jesus era, the Pharisees and others have taken countered “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.””
    And then you have before this the prophets complaining that God hated the worship and sacrifices, because they were not done for God, but out of selfishness.
    And we must also remember that Psalms was written by David and not Israel who had a love-hate relationship with God.
    But this only makes the case for God’s grace stronger in that he maintained the relationship even during the time Israel rejected Him.
    But Israel also had moments of a powerful love towards God as well. And there are people coming into the Gospels that love God and seek to keep His word. In fact those there on the day of Pentecost were there because of the Law and they found God willing to accept them even after they had rejected Jesus.
    I like Gen.17:1 “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless.”
    “blameless” here means “complete or whole or free from blemish”, because Abraham wouldn’t have been complete without walking before God.

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      Dwight always pleased to have you comment on my blog.

      I will however disagree with you on a number of points.

      1) Amos and other prophets say that Yahweh detests the worship in his day because of the injustice of the people.

      2) I do not believe all the Psalms were written by David and even if that was so it would be irrelevant. Israel preserved them and the songs become the property of ALL Israel and expresses their faith.

      This is just like the songs in the hymnal you use. You likely did not write any but you sing them as expressions of YOUR faith. The Psalter is the witness of Israel’s faith not only David … who was as imperfect as anyone.

      But this series has focused upon Psalm 119 that no where mentions David. It has no heading (and the headings are not necessarily indications of authorship btw).

      3) I would argue that Israel’s history follows the exact same pattern as the history of the church. In fact I believe the People of God in the Hebrew Bible and now are the same. There are great times and there are times like the Judges (i.e. medieval western Christianity!!) but as the Lord himself said to Elijah he had 7000 that were devoted to him.

      4) Finally, I would argue that you have been influenced by the very Protestant idealogies that this series is protesting against. To say that there was a legalist here or there does not mean that Judaism was a legalistic religion in Paul’s day. It does not mean that any more than the presence of legalists in Churches of Christ in the 1950s means that Christianity is legalistic.

      We do a lot of projecting backwards onto the first century. Paul did not think he became saved when he encountered Jesus. He did not think he “converted” from one faith system to another. There is no evidence of this at all.

      If one takes the time to read the Hebrew Bible, get to know the festivals, read books like Tobit, Judith, Prayer of Manasseh, the Hymns from over in Qumran … you will be stunned. Grace is not the issue.

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