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You Asked For A Sermon On Psalm 119: The Law of God: Sweeter Than Honey


Psalm 119


“She’s a legalist, you know, a legalist!” What comes to mind when we hear someone described like this? Most likely we think of someone who is always found with a rulebook of some sort in her hand, which rulebook she peers into in order to handle developments old and new in her life, the rules looming larger for her than any human suffering or human complexity.

“What’s wrong with this?”, someone asks, “If a legalistic approach to life gets her through stresses and strains that would otherwise submerge her; if a legalistic approach helps her cope where she would otherwise collapse, isn’t it preferable to having her break down?” The argument isn’t without point: none of us wants to see someone break down.

“Furthermore”, our questioner continues, “what you call ‘legalism’ has kept many people on the ‘straight and narrow’ morally. Would it be preferable for someone to wander off the straight and narrow into moral swamps and quicksands?” The argument isn’t without point: none of us wants to see someone plunge herself into moral disaster.

Nonetheless, when scripture speaks against legalism scripture is correct: legalism ultimately shrivels our hearts and corrupts our spirits. The gospel repudiates legalism for several reasons. Most importantly, legalism means that our entire life is oriented to an “ism” instead of to Jesus Christ. In other words, if we are legalists we are “ism-ists” where we should be Christians, oriented to our Lord himself. In the second place, legalism is to be repudiated in that while it initially seems helpful to us, it always ends up making us disdainful of others. As soon as we measure our life against a rulebook we invariably come to regard as inferior those who don’t measure up, don’t measure up the way we do, or who even have a rulebook that differs from ours, a rulebook manifestly inferior to ours. In the third place, legalism falls short in that no rulebook covers all the situations and developments that life brings before us. More rules have to be invented to fill the gaps, and then more still, until the humanness of human existence is crushed by the weight of regulation upon regulation.

I: — And yet in all of this we must never confuse legalism with the law of God. Scripture condemns legalism; scripture just as surely upholds the law of God. Legalism is a denial of living faith in Jesus Christ; honouring the law of God is part and parcel of living faith in Jesus Christ.

Our foreparent in faith, the psalmist, doesn’t confuse the two. The psalmist never finds the law of God orienting him away from the heart-throb of God himself. He never finds the law of God rendering him snobbishly disdainful or fatally crushed. On the contrary, the psalmist finds the law of God life-giving; it yields blessing, riches, joy. So far from shrivelling our humanness, the law of God expands our humanness. Listen to him (or her) in Psalm 119: “I will delight in thy statutes…I love thy commandments…My soul is consumed with longing for thy ordinances.” For the psalmist, plainly, the law of God has nothing to do with legalism. Not surprisingly he exclaims (Psalm 19) that the law of God is “sweeter than honey”. Psalm 119 happens to be the longest chapter in the entire bible: 176 verses. It is a sustained paean of praise to God for his law.

The church today urgently needs to recover the conviction that the law of God is sweeter than honey. How are we going to do this? The psalmist himself gives us a clue when he writes, “I will run in the way of thy commandments when Thou enlargest my understanding”, and then writes two verses later, “Give me understanding that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” It is only as we profoundly understand the law of God that we are going to find it sweeter than honey, and only as we find it sweeter than honey that we are going to delight in it.

Since we are Christians it is crucial that we understand how the law of God is related to Jesus Christ. To do this we need a brief lesson in theology. In reading through 1st Corinthians (chapt.10) you must have noticed Paul saying that when the Israelites were in the wilderness they were sustained by Christ. Sustained by him? He wasn’t to be born for another 1200 years. Nonetheless, it’s the apostle’s conviction that what Jesus Christ is to God’s people after Christ’s appearance among us he was to God’s people before his appearance among us. The sixteenth century Protestant Reformers, reading Paul closely, underlined this truth. No one underlined it with heavier pencil than John Calvin. Calvin insisted tirelessly that Jesus Christ, the one and only Mediator, in his sin-bearing capacity and also in his disciple-making capacity was present to the Israelites as surely as he is present to you and me. Calvin insisted that Jesus Christ was present to Abraham, Deborah and the psalmist; present to our ancestors in faith under the economy of the Torah. When believing Israelites heard and heeded Torah (what we call the law of God), they were receiving the same Christ, the one Mediator, that Peter, James and John received.

Jesus Christ is given to Israel under the economy of the Torah. The Torah is the revelation of God, including God’s claim upon us. It all adds up to this: the law of God (so dear to the psalmist) is the call of Jesus Christ to us, calling us to be his disciples. He calls us to himself and soaks us in his pardoning mercy; he also seizes us and holds us fast in order that we might learn of him. Discipleship, after all, entails discipline. He disciples us, disciplines us, as he places his yoke upon us, all the while reminding us that his yoke is easy and his burden light. Yoke is a common Hebrew metaphor for obedience to the Torah. Jesus Christ insists that he is the Torah of God. In shouldering his yoke we bind ourselves to him to learn of him and obey him as surely as our Israelite foreparents bound themselves to the Torah; better, as surely as our Israelite foreparents bound themselves to the one who was given them under the economy of the Torah.

In other words, it ought not to surprise us that the psalmist finds delight and joy and satisfaction in the law of God. Isn’t this what we find in Jesus?

To honour the law of God is to become Christ’s disciple. To become his disciple is to have him shape our lives. Now to have Jesus Christ shape our lives (as surely as the law of God shaped the psalmist’s) is to avoid the shapelessness of a blob. A blob is certainly shapeless; it’s also useless and unattractive. Not to take Christ’s yoke upon us is to remain shapeless, a blob.

At the same time, if we happen to have a “flighty” personality then our shapelessness is like a gas. A gas has no shape of itself; it takes on the shape of its container. As soon as you change the shape of the container, the gas takes on a different shape. The same thing happens with people: lacking shape in themselves, they take on the shape of their environment.

Think of the developments which unfold before us every day: pressures, challenges, temptations, opportunities. As these unfold before us some people are inert blobs: they do nothing. Others, the flighty ones, react like gasses: they take on the shape of their environment. But we who belong to Jesus Christ are going to be neither shapeless nor environment-shaped. We are going to be shaped by the master himself. We have taken his yoke upon us. We have found his yoke to ease us, the weight of it no burden at all. As his disciples we know that to love him is to love the shape he gives our lives. To love the shape he gives us is simply to love that law which the psalmist loved 3000 years ago. Loving our Lord, we don’t want to be blobs or gasses. We want only to be those men and women in whose lives the shape of Christ’s life is recognizable just because in us it is being replicated.

The psalmist wrote, “I will run in the way of thy commandments when Thou enlargest my understanding.” Centuries later Jesus called out, “Come quickly and follow me now!” Centuries later still you and I are those whose understanding God has enlarged, even as we are those whom Christ has called to himself. Simply put, we know what the psalmist means when he extols the law of God in the single longest chapter of the entire bible; we know too why the law of God delights him like nothing else. After all, who delights us more than Jesus?

II: — We should look now at the shapely contours we acquire as disciples of Jesus. We could look at such aspects of our shapeliness, such aspects of the law of God, as the Ten Commandments. But this morning I think we should look at some less familiar contours that we are prone to overlook; for instance, our Lord’s oft-repeated command, “Take heart; be of good cheer; take courage!” It is a command, not a suggestion; a command, not a counsel. Many times in the written gospels Jesus says, “Take heart; be of good cheer!” Cheerfulness, courage, the affirmation of life in the midst of relentless deadliness — it’s part of the shape that our Lord wills for all his disciples.

To be sure we are never without eversomuch deadliness: disappointment, loss, grief, shock, and the worst form of deadliness, betrayal. Yet in the midst of it all Jesus says, “I am here; I am resurrection and life; I have triumphed already and will shortly display my triumph. So you take heart!”

Our Lord says this over and over throughout his public ministry. Plainly it’s a major aspect of the shape he intends to impart to his people. It’s a major dimension of the law of God. Jesus says it to a man he has pardoned. Only because we are sinners do we need to be pardoned. But to know ourselves sinners isn’t to wallow; it isn’t to languish; it isn’t perversely to try to make ourselves feel better by first making ourselves feel worse. To know ourselves sinners in the presence of Jesus Christ is to know ourselves pardoned. We honour him as and only as we take heart and rejoice in our pardon.

Our Lord speaks the same word to a desperate woman in a crowd. This woman lacks verbal sophistication and theological subtlety and social acceptability, yet she knows if she can only touch him, simply make contact with him, she will be helped.

Our Lord speaks the same word to a group of frightened disciples who stare at the storm surrounding them until they are near-paralyzed. He doesn’t tell terrified disciples, “It’s nothing.” He doesn’t tell them that things aren’t as bad as they appear. He doesn’t tell them to paste on an imitation cheerfulness in order to appear composed in public. He insists, rather, that because he is resurrection and life, the victorious one, they can take heart, and they must.

Another dimension to the law of God, another contour to the shape that Jesus Christ imparts to his people, is articulated this time by the apostle Paul: “Keep on taking your wife in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust like the heathen who do not know God.” (When did you last hear a sermon on this text, “Keep on taking your wife in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust like the heathen who do not know God”?) It isn’t a putdown of libido and vigorous sexual activity in marriage. As a matter of fact when Paul came upon some Christian couples in Corinth (Gentiles, be it noted, who had not yet been to school in Israel) who thought they’d be godlier people if they abstained from intercourse, he told them they were silly, misguided and courting disaster. His one concession to them (in a situation where he didn’t want to make any concession at all) was that they could refrain from intercourse while they prayed together as long as praying together didn’t take more than ten minutes.) When the apostle urges us to continue to take our spouse in holiness and honour he means that Christians are never permitted to regard their spouse as their tool or instrument or possession. Just because my wife is wife and not servant or employee or implement or robot I must continue to cherish her, court her, woo her, esteem her. I am never permitted to take for granted or exploit or presume upon the personhood of the one person who is legally bound to me. We must always keep in mind the Greek Gentile world that forms the context of Paul’s ministry. Even so fine a Greek philosopher as Aristotle had said that a slave (whom Paul regarded as a human being equal with any free person) was no more than a tool that had to be fed, while a woman was a bizarre creature half-way between an animal and a man. Christians are to be known by the way they continue to honour, esteem and cherish their spouse.

Another contour: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” It’s easy to weep with those who weep. Only the most hardened person is so inured to human distress that he would fail to weep with those who are weeping. But to rejoice with those who rejoice is a different matter. When someone suddenly rejoices we know that extraordinary good fortune has overtaken him. His “ship has come in”. A windfall has befallen him. Something unexpected has magnified his elation a hundred times. It’s difficult to rejoice with such a person just because it’s easy to envy him. We never envy the grief-stricken or the ill or the unfortunate, and therefore we find it easy to weep with them. But we are prone to envy the rejoicing, and therefore we find it difficult to rejoice with them. It takes grace to rejoice with those who rejoice. It takes grace to rejoice in their rejoicing. Yet since our Lord’s burden is light, since his yoke is easy, we are never without the grace to do just this.

Three thousand years ago the psalmist exclaimed, “I love thy law”. Of course he did. Not having heard of Jesus Christ, he was yet visited by our Lord under the economy of the Torah, God’s law. It was as fitting for him to love God’s law as it is fitting for you and me to love God’s son, since the son of God, Jesus Christ, is Torah incarnate. Three millennia ago the psalmist knew that the law of God is a yoke that fits well, a burden so light as to be no more burden than wings are a burden to a bird or fins a burden to a fish.

III: — There is one final point we must mention today: our Israelite foreparents in faith insisted that the law of God is the key that unlocks the door to freedom. The psalmist wrote, “I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought thy precepts.” Most people think that the law of God cramps freedom, curtails freedom. They think this, of course, because they think that the law of God has to do with legalism, when in fact the law of God has to do with the most intimate relationship to God himself.

Centuries ago some oafs in a mediaeval village ridiculed a rabbi for his people’s preoccupation with Torah. They likened Torah to a large body of water: cold, murky, unappealing. Whereupon the rabbi told them that Torah is indeed like water: Torah is to the Jew what water is to the fish. It’s the only place the fish can thrive. Does any fish feel better for being out of the water? Does a fish look happier when out of the water? Is a fish profoundly free when it’s “free” of the water? The law of God is the natural habitat of God’s people; it’s where God’s people thrive.

The world at large thinks freedom to be the opportunity of doing anything at all. This isn’t freedom; this is the leading edge of bondage. Freedom, rather, is the absence of any impediment to acting in accord with our true nature. Think of a car engine. A malicious person has put sugar in the car’s fuel tank. Now the engine is clogged, and it won’t run. As the gummy “goo”, the impediment, is removed the engine is freed to run; that is, it is freed to act in accord with its true nature, propel the car. If someone remarks, “But is the engine free to make popcorn?”, the obvious reply is, “Don’t be silly: it isn’t a car engine’s nature to make popcorn. An engine is intended to propel a car. And now it is free to do just that.”

When we come to discuss what it is for human beings to be free the first matter we must be clear on is, “What is our true nature? Since freedom is the removal of any impediment to our acting in accord with our true nature, what is that nature?” What is the impediment? Who removes it?

It is our true nature to be and remain a child of God by faith. The impediment is the arch-sin of unbelief. Jesus Christ removes it as he surges over us in his truth and quickens by his grace that faith within us that we must now exercise ourselves. One aspect of the faith we now exercise is the obedience we owe him. To speak of the obedience we owe him is to speak of the law of God. Is it unfreeing to obey? Is it more freeing to have one’s life overtaken by bondage? Would the fish be better, feel better, appear better if it were “unencumbered” by water?

Ancient rabbis used to say, “When Torah entered the world, freedom entered the world.” Our Hasidic Jewish friends, known for their long black coats and their black hats and their untrimmed earlocks and their women with kerchiefs on their head and their large families; our Hasidic friends dance every Sabbath night in their ecstasy at God’s giving the Torah.

Jesus Christ is Torah incarnate. We his people rejoice at the freedom he has given us to be his people, the freedom to act in accord with our true nature. We know that his claim upon our obedience, so far from being irksome, is lifegiving. If we ever doubt this all we need do is glance at the living death of those who disdain his claim. One sidelong glance and we can’t wait to exclaim once more with the psalmist,

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;

The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;

The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;

The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;

The ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.

More are they to be desired than gold, even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.

(Psalm 19)

To know Jesus is to love him; to love him is to find his yoke easy and his burden light. It is to find obedience a privilege. It all adds up to something an ancient believer knew long before any of us were born: the law of God is sweeter than honey.

Victor Shepherd    

November 2002