Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Goodness of the Law of Moses

The impression is often given in Protestant circles that the law is something negative. Sure it may reflect God’s moral standard, but it cannot do us any good in the sense of bringing us life. But would the Old Testament writers agree with this opinion?

There is a lot in the Old Testament which would suggest that the Old Testament writers would not agree with this opinion, because the teaching of the Old Testament regarding the law of Moses is primarily positive!

Moses considered the law that he had received from God to be a wonderful source of wisdom and righteousness, the envy of the peoples of the world: “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deut 4:5-8).

Indeed, the law of Moses was so precious that it was to fill the hearts of the people of Israel, be the key subject of a child’s education, and the main topic of discussion through the day and even at night. In fact, the law of Moses was so precious that torah graffiti was a recommended practice: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9).

As far as Moses was concerned, the law of Moses was the key to life: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it” (Deut 30:15-16).

In fact, from the Old Testament perspective, the law of Moses is so wonderful that the longest chapter of the Old Testament (or even the Bible for that matter), namely, Ps 119, is a song of praise to God because of the wonders of his law.

The author of Ps 119 delighted in God’s commandments (v. 47). In fact, he absolutely loved God’s law (vv. 47-48, 97), even more than fine gold (v. 127)! The law of Moses was to him “better … than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (v. 72). The law was “sweeter than honey to [his] mouth” (v. 103). It was “a lamp to [his] feet and a light to [his] path” (v. 105). So wonderful that the psalmist could proclaim: “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end” (vv. 111-112)!

Reading Ps 119, you get the impression that the best thing that could have happened in that guy’s life was having the opportunity to know the law of Moses! It brought him life and salvation (vv. 155-156)!

But then we Protestants stand up and assuredly proclaim: “It was a misunderstanding of the law that led the Jews to believe mistakenly that life could ever be found through the law of Moses.”

Really? I wonder what Moses and the author of Ps 119 would say to that?

P. S.: I do believe that the law of Moses has been eclipsed by a greater revelation in Christ, but surely there was more to the law of Moses for those who had it written on their hearts (in the old covenant age) than many of us have given credit.


sujomo said...


I think Psalm 19 is an important passage to consider. This psalm has two definable sections. The first section refers the failure/inadequacy of natural revelation. The second section focuses on God revealing Himself to mankind directly through His torah or through His word (fulfilled as you point out in Christ in terms of John 1:1-18). That is why the psalmist holds the torah in such high regard.

I think we should also consider the canon of Scripture. Some of Paul's letters are not extant (ie not in the canon) even though they are referred to by name. The letters were important to their recipients but God did not include them in the canon. So they are not relevant for us. The OT refers occasionally to works not extant and therefore not in the canon (eg 1 Kings 14:19 refers to "the book of the annals of the kings of Israel". The question is : (in terms of the number of verses statistically)why is there so much concerning torah in the OT? If the torah was meant exclusively for Israel in OT times then why is so much of it in the canon? If the torah is in the canon to enable us to better understand the finished work of Christ then, again, why is there so much torah in the canon? It must be there because it is relevant to us through Christ. That is why we should be positive about torah - but view it through Christ in the context of the message of the whole canon ie from Eden to New Eden.
cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Sujomo. Yes, why is torah so prominent in the Old Testament? Good question! And I like your thinking when you say that old covenant torah is relevant to us, but that it needs to be viewed through Christ in the context of the whole canon.

Ultimately the Old Testament prophets were positive about torah in the new covenant age too (e.g., Deut 30:1-14; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26-27), as was the Apostle Paul (Rom 2:14-16, 26-29; 8:2, 4; and also Rom 8:7 when read in the converse)!

John Thomson said...


Peter would not agrre with you.

Acts 15:10 (ESV)
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

Paul refers to it as a 'yoke of slavery' gals 5:1.


Gal 3:23 (ESV)
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.

In fact, Paul even tells the Galatian gentiles that to embrace law is equivalent to returning to the slavery of their old religions.

Gal 4:9 (ESV)
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

None of this sits comfortably with a rosy picture of the law.

In fact it is to a generation under law that Jesus says

Matt 11:28-30 (ESV)
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

These texts must be borne in mind when we are likely to be enamoured by law. the law could not give rest in the land (Hebs 3,4), rest is found in Christ.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

I agree that the law of Moses was a yoke on the nation of Israel. It led to exile and death. But we still have to explain the psalmist's exuberance for the law in Ps 119.

Any thoughts?

John Thomson said...

I think Ps 119 corresponds to Roms 7. In Roms 7 we have a godly Jew knowing what sin is through the law and glad that it informs him (7:7; knowing that the law is spiritual (7:14); and the commandment holy, righteous and good (7:12. He delights in the law of the Lord in his inward being (7:22) but for all of this has no power to keep it, feels condemned by it, and wishes to be free from the body of death that is unable to obey it. The commandment that prosed life delivered death. With his mind he serves the law of God but in his flesh the law of sin. Thus he feels his wretchedness.

This is not the NT believer's struggle of flesh against Spirit in which he has victory but the OT believer's struggle (apart from the indwelling Spirit) as a renewed heart with the law of God in which he has constant defeat.

Psalm 119 decribes both. We have the renewed mind delighting in the law of the Lord but we have also the wretchedness of failure.

Ps 119:5-6 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! ​​​​​​​​Then I shall not be put to shame

A great deal of the psalm is aspirational. Moreover, it acknowledges failure.

The Psalmist looks to God's covenantal love as his refuge in failure

Ps 119:124 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love, and teach me your statutes.

In fact as you say elsewhere law here is broader than 'the law' it is the whole Pentateuch. It contains Patriarchal promise and these promises expanded in the Pentateuch. Moreover, the Psalmist sees the need for the Lord to enable him.

Ps 119:133 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me.

Ps 119:147-148 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words. ​​​​​​​​My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.

In a sense his faith enables him to live beyond the law as 'this do and live'.

I don't claim this answers all the questions, far from it. I accept that the Psalmist has victory beyond that which Roms 7 seems to allow, however, I am persuaded this is the right general direction though my understanding is limited.

In truth, I cannot really understand how people without NC experience of God can live lives of faith.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

I'll do a post in the next day or so in response to your comment. I don't think we can get around Ps 119 that easily.

The saints in the old covenant age could live lives of covenant faith, because they had the law written on their heart by the Holy Spirit.