“That’s not what my Father in Heaven would do,” said the older gentleman in the second row. He was a first-time visitor, the step-father of a young lady who teaches her own Sunday School class, and we were about thirty minutes into the lesson when he spoke up.
It was a lesson built around Psalm 119. I picked that particular psalm for three reasons: because it’s the psalm most often quoted in the hymnbook, because of the features of Hebrew poetry it demonstrates, and because of its message.
I had hoped that Psalm 119’s presence in the hymnal meant that it was slightly more familiar. This familiarity is important because it seems that I’m not the only one who learned from a seminary teacher that “we don’t make doctrine out of poetry.” And he was perfectly correct: we don’t. However, the authors of the OT and the NT as well as the rest of Christendom do. Regularly.
The poetic qualities of Psalm 119 are well-known even among those who are limited to appreciating it in English. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two strophes. These strophes are easily delineated because each strophe has precisely eight lines and each line in any given strophe begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In other words, it’s an acrostic, and the most developed example of its form in the OT.
Psalm 119 also features the repetition of eight near-synonyms. Depending on your translation, these are: teachings, ways, words, sayings, laws, precepts, rulings, and commands. All eight near-synonyms are found uniquely in four strophes: heth, yod, kaph, and pe. Elsewhere, six or seven are found in each strophe, with one or two of the terms repeated.
But it’s the message of Psalm 119 that really attracts the close reader. Simply put, it glories in the idea of God himself pointing out the way for his people (v.33):
Teach me, Lord, the way shown in your laws
……that I may observe it as my reward.
It sings of God’s communication of moral truth and the demonstration of his grace in our appropriation of that truth (vv. 9-12):
How can a young man keep his path pure?
……Indeed by complying with your word.
I have sought you with my whole heart
……let me not stray from your commands
I have hidden your sayings in my heart
……so as not to sin against you
You are blessed, Lord
……teach me your laws.
The lamed strophe invites the reader to meditate on what makes the difference between things that endure and things that perish (v. 89-91):
……your word stands firm in the heavens
For generation after generation your faithfulness endures:
……you have fixed the earth and there it stays
Today they still stand ready for your rulings,
……since all things are servants of yours.
The universe, then, is the premier example of something that endures, while human aspirations, including even the desire to live by God’s commands, inevitably fall short of the mark (v. 96). By grace alone we come to life and permanence through our response to God (vv. 92-94):
Had not your teachings been my delight
……I would have died of my suffering
Never will I forget your charges,
……since through them your give me life.
I am yours—save me
……since I apply myself to all your charges.
The greatest of them all, however, is the mem strophe. This strophe contains no supplications but is instead a pointed meditation on just what compliance with God rewards us with (v. 97-104):
How I love your teachings!
……all day long it is my meditation
Your command makes me wiser than my enemies
……since it is always mine.
I have greater understanding than all my teachers
……because your terms are my meditation
I have more insight than the aged
……because I observe your charges.
Away from every evil path have I kept my feet
……in order to comply with your word
From your rulings I have not turned aside
……since you yourself have been my instructor.
How palatable I find your sayings
……more so than honey to my mouth!
I gain insight from your charges
……and so I hate every faithless path.
What does an appropriate response to God’s commands bring? Wisdom to deal with enemies, unsurpassed understanding, insight beyond your years, freedom from evil outcomes based on bad decisions, and a sweet experience of God himself. Can you think of anything else you might need?
It was at this point that the older gentleman spoke up. “My Heavenly Father doesn’t issue commands and expect us all to “hop to it.” And in the dead silence that followed he went on, “That’s not what my Father in Heaven would do. He’s not like that at all.”
I stood there then as I sit here now, absolutely clueless. How do you listen to the 119th Psalm and then gripe about unhesitating obedience? And since I bobbled the answer then, let me ask now: What should I have said? Is there any other appropriate response to God’s grace than obedience? Anything at all?
Teach me, Lord, the way shown in your laws
that I may observe it as my reward.