Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Law of Life in Psalm 119

It was suggested in the course of discussions on my post entitled “The Goodness of the Law” that Ps 119 needs to be read through the lens of Rom 7, and that when we do so, this psalm is not nearly as positive about the law of Moses as I suggested in my blog. But we need to allow Ps 119 to speak without running it through the grid of Rom 7 in a non-discerning way. A positive attitude to the law dominates the psalm as a whole. The positive statements in the psalm about the law are not just aspirational, but real. The law in the heart could and did bring life to the righteous in the old covenant age in a genuine but limited sense.

In Rom 7 Paul is speaking about the effect of the law of Moses on carnal Israel (see Rom 7:14). But the author of Ps 119 (although sinful) is not carnal in the biblical sense, because he had the word of God in his heart. The biblical idea of being carnal or fleshly describes the person whose heart is devoid of the word of God, and therefore not animated by it. But the psalmist had the word of God in his heart, and claimed to have been a keeper of torah.

The verse that proves that the author of Ps 119 had the law in his heart is v. 11:
I have stored up your word in my heart.
And there are many verses that prove that the psalmist was a keeper of torah:
I have kept your testimonies (v. 22);
I do not turn away from your law (v .51);
I … keep your law (v. 55);
This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts (v. 56);
I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments (v. 60);
I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts (v. 63);
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word (v. 67);
... with my whole heart I keep your precepts (v. 69);
I have not forgotten your statutes (v. 83);
I have not forsaken your precepts (v .87);
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts (v. 100);
I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me (v. 102);
I do not forget your law (v. 109);
I do not stray from your precepts (v. 110);
I have done what is just and right (v. 121);
Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them (v. 129);
I do not forget your precepts (v. 141);
I do not swerve from your testimonies (v. 157);
I do your commandments (v. 166);
My soul keeps your testimonies (v. 167);
I keep your precepts and testimonies (v. 168);
I do not forget your commandments (v. 176).
We Protestants are so quick to say that no one (apart from Christ) can keep the law, but the author of Ps 119 clearly claimed to have kept God’s law. Either the author of Ps 119 was wrong, or we have to nuance our view of Paul in some way.

But if the psalmist truly kept God’s law, how was this possible? He was able to keep the law because God had taught him (v. 102). The psalmist acknowledged that it was only as God enlarged his heart that he would be able to run in the way of torah (v. 32). He prayed that God would incline his heart more and more to torah (v. 36). In other words, the psalmist kept the law (in the context of covenant grace) because the law had been written in his heart. But how did it get there? The only way that God’s law can ever get into a person’s heart is through the operation of the Holy Spirit writing it there as per the principle reflected in Ezek 36:26-27.

When a person has the word of God in their heart, they will live. This is a basic biblical truth (1 Pet 1:23). The word of God that the psalmist knew was the teaching (i.e., the torah) of Moses and the prophets. The word of God that was in his heart was the law of Moses. Therefore, the law of Moses made him live. This is not just my opinion, but also that of the psalmist:
I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life (v. 93).
The psalmist believed that he had received life through the law of Moses. This is why the law was his comfort (v. 52). The law to him was not just command, but also promise and grace; therefore, it was able to give life.

Taking God at his promise that those who (through the grace of God) keep covenant with God will be blessed, the psalmist also prayed that God would be gracious to him and save him on the basis of the fact that he was a keeper of torah (unlike the wicked):
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight (v. 77);
I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts (v. 94);
Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name (v. 132);
Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law (v. 153);
Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek your statutes (v. 155).
So I think it is wrong to say that Rom 7 applies to the author of Ps 119 in a straightforward way. Romans 7 only applies to the psalmist in an indirect way, in the sense that the curses of the covenant came down upon everyone in Israel, upon the spiritual as well as the carnal, meaning that the torah of Moses was not able to bring the fullness of blessing and eternal life in a realized sense to anyone.

But the law did give life to the psalmist in some sense. Surely we have to acknowledge that, otherwise we are ignoring the plain content of the psalm. But at the same time, in the bigger picture of Scripture, we have to say that the law of Moses was only able to bring life and blessing to the psalmist in two ways: (1) in a limited way he was blessed to some extent during his lifetime, because he was in a positive covenant relationship with God; but (2) the fullness of life was experienced by the psalmist through the law only in a promissory sense, since the fullness of salvation could only come through Christ and the new covenant (as per Heb 11:39-40).

We need to be able to admit that the law of Moses could bring life, albeit in a limited and promissory sense, during the old covenant age for those who had it written on their hearts. If we can’t admit this, then it seems to me that our understanding of Paul will lack the necessary nuance that reading him in the context of the whole of Scripture provides.


John Thomson said...


A good blog. I think you are right that the remnant in the OT (including the writer of Ps 119) had the law written on the heart. In this regard, I may well need to nuance my understanding of Roms 7. I'll think more about this.

On the other hand, I think you must nuance further yet your contention that the law brings life in the light of NT considerations. Is not the Psalmist simply saying what we may say when we live out gospel obedience, namely, that living God's way, the way of godliness, is 'life', that is, it is existentially life-giving.
As one of a remnant chosen by grace, renewed by faith in the promise revealed in the law and prophets, the Psalmist has experience beyond what the OC could formally supply; he has 'the law written on his heart'. His heart is 'circumcised'. While not knowing the NC perfection that we know he neverthess is regenerate and experiences what this means at his stage of salvation history.

He experiences within the context of the law covenant and its more limited revelation what we do within the fuller context of gospel revelation

Rom 8:12-13
So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to flesh; for if ye live according to flesh, ye are about to die; but if, by the Spirit, ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live'

(Language such as putting to death would be meaningless to the OC believer for it carries NC freight of dying with Christ. The OT shadow equivalent would be to circumcise your heart on a daily basis.)

Again, a very helpful blog for those interested in exploring these issues.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John. Yes, I do think that doing torah from the Old Testament perspective basically means living God's way. For them, doing torah meant accepting God's revelation and living it out. And, yes, a similar principle applies today as Paul points out in Rom 8:13.

I think, however, that I wouldn't say that the author of Ps 119 experienced something beyond what the old covenant could formally offer. I know that Paul is very black about the old covenant, and very white regarding the new. But he actually calls the righteousness that he had according to the law “gain,” at least until Christ arrived on the scene (Phil 3:6-7). Certainly such law righteousness was gain in a limited but nevertheless significant way for the author of Ps 119, and for Zacharias and Elizabeth despite their infertility (Luke 1:6), and for Nathanael (John 1:47), up until the Messiah was revealed to Israel. Paul also describes the old covenant ministry of condemnation as glorious (if only for a time), and despite the fact that its fading glory was going to be thoroughly eclipsed by the glory of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:7-11). So we have to understand Paul’s black-and-white language in the light of the whole of Scripture (and particularly the Old Testament in this instance) to help us arrive at a more nuanced view at the edges.

Think about what happened at Mount Sinai and how this experience was subsequently replicated for Israel in the tabernacle/temple. In Exod 24, 74 of the people of Israel actually get to go up the mountain, and eat and drink in God's presence. This is a picture of access and fellowship. Sure it's limited: they only get to see God's feet basically, and there's only 74 of them, not the whole people. But notice v. 11: “Yet he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” The privilege of coming into the presence of God, and having fellowship with him in safety, was experienced under the old covenant in a strictly limited yet nonetheless genuine way. The old covenant offered a genuine but limited access into the presence of God, and promised a greater experience of access into the presence of God as the people walked in the way of “all this commandment” (Deut 11:22), i.e., as they walked in the way of the whole counsel of God as known at that particular stage in redemptive history.

I think what the psalmist is saying (among other things) is that God's word gives life in the present, but he too looked forward to a greater salvation experience in the future (vv. 94, 146). He was already experiencing life (v. 93), but he longed for a fuller realization of this life as God acted to achieve for him the fullness of salvation (vv. 25, 40, 88, 107, 149, 154, 159).

Perhaps it comes back to "now and not yet" ... even for the Old Testament saints. The whole word of God brings life, and promises more yet to come, no matter what salvation-historical epoch we're talking about, at least prior to the consummation. But the difference between the old and the new is that under the new covenant the "not yet" is becoming "now."

John Thomson said...


I pretty well agree with all you say. I was merely keen to underline the superior revelation in Jesus Christ. A point with which you concur, I know.

If you can come to affirm that as NT 'life' is faith in the object of revealed promise (Christ) resulting in or involving 'walking as he walked', that is, 'faith expressing itself in love', and that as a corollary OT 'life' is faith in the promise resulting in obedience modelled on the law we would be singing from the same hymnbook.

Questions remain as to the differences between the imperfect and the perfect. The OT revelation was glorious but like the moon it is eclipsed by the sun, the more glorious; shadow gives way to reality.

Plus we must take into account Paul's negative comments. In fact, simply put, what would it be like to go back to relating to God through all the laws of Judaism. No wonder it is termed 'slavery'.

Oh and one final point. If you could concede that in principle the OC is a covenant of works AS A COVENANT though the remnant (living by grace through faith)approached it as God's revealed direction for godly living we would be as one.

sujomo said...

Hi Steven,

As several scholars have pointed out, 'covenant' as a translation in English for berith (diatheke) has its limitations. Particularly when we tend to look at the biblical understanding of berith through the eyes of a bilateral pact or treaty. Even if we refer to models such as suzerain treaties there is no treaty if the vassal does not fulfill the 'conditions' imposed upon it by the vassal.

The message of the the Bible (both OT and NT) is about the relationship between God and mean and women.

The message of the OT is that God in His grace has called Israel into a relationship with Himself. He accommodated Himself to mankind by revealing this relationship in terms of berith. We need to bear in mind this accommodation and therefore not equate God's berith with mankind with the berith we find in the world contemporaneous with the OT.

Let me try to illustrate. God chose to reveal His relationship to the Second Person of the Trinity in terms of a father-son relationship. It is not a literal father-son relationship. That is why theologians speak of 'begotten not made' and 'the eternal generation of the son'. The use of the father-son terminology communicates because God has so wired us (Ephesians 3:14,15).

I think not too many of us are confused by the terms God the Father and God the Son. so let's not be confused by the biblical use of berith/diatheke (eg to what extent does it mean 'covenant' and to what extent does it mean 'testament'?). What is clear is that post the fall, God in His wisdom chose to describe His relationship with mankind in terms of berith. Mankind clearly had a relationship with God prior to the fall but the Bible does not specifically refer to this in terms of berith (Calvin was quite dismissive of seeing a reference to Adam and a berith in Hosea 6:7). So although the concepts of 'covenant of works' and 'covenant of grace' have been helpful it is, in the end, unhelpful to base our theological understanding of the Bible's message on these concepts.

I think Steven is trying through his posts to point out that faithful Israel, the true Israel within Israel or the faithful remnant of Israel (illustrated by the psalmist in Psalm 119) had a real and genuine relationship with God which looked forward to its fulfillment with the coming of the son of Adam and the son of Eve in terms of Genesis 3:15. He came as the promised Messiah who, inter alia, places His new torah or word in our hearts through the Spirit in terms of Jeremiah 31 etc.

How was a man or woman to live in berith relationship with God in OT times? The Swiss reformer Bullinger points out that Genesis 17:1 explains: "I am God almighty; walk before me and be blameless". Here we see 'halak' for walking or living. Significantly in the next verse God says to Abraham, "I will confirm my berith between me and you ...." Although scholars differ here I believe that the use of the Hiphil theme of the verb ('cause to stand' and therefore, establish') is a reference to a berith already called into existence through the grace of God. Hence it is referred to as 'my berith'.

The psalmist of Psalm 119 is testifying that he is 'walking' before the LORD and is blameless (ie he has followed God's torah or instruction) with the help of God (as Steven has sought to point out).

It is no coincidence that after the great chapters of Galatians 3 and 4 that Paul refers to 'walking by the Spirit' in Galatians 5:16ff. Galatians 5:16 says, "so I say, live (ie walk)by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful flesh" (NIV). We note that the desires of the flesh are still present but that the Spirit enables us to walk righteously before God in terms of Genesis 17:1.

cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello John.

I can say, and am happy to say, that faith in the NT is directed towards Christ as the full content of God’s revelation to us. I also think that we can talk of obedience flowing from such faith. But I’m wary of imposing that construction on all of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament. Some places in the Bible are not concerned to make a clear distinction between faith and obedience. There are even differences in the New Testament between Paul and the writer of Hebrews regarding how faith is defined. There needs to be a sensitivity for how each author is using the language that he uses, rather than running everything through an inflexible theological grid, as so often seems to happen.

Regarding the old covenant being a covenant of works, I think that we can easily get mixed up in terminology here. I’m mindful of the Westminster Confession’s definition of a covenant of works as requiring absolute obedience. I am very much of the view that the Mosaic covenant required covenant faith from Israel rather than absolute obedience per se. So the Mosaic covenant in and of itself is not a covenant of works in the Westminsterial sense. On the other hand, the Mosaic covenant is a covenant of works in the sense that the concept of covenant righteousness that operated under that covenant was spoken of in a holistic way using the language of obedience and works, i.e., doing torah, hence Paul’s language of the works of the law. So I would say that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works in a Pauline sense (at least in the way that I understand Paul), i.e., as per Rom 10:5 (read in a positive way as a statement of the way things were under the Mosaic covenant). In addition, as per Rom 5:20, the law of Moses was given to Israel in order to intensify the problem of human sin in Adam. So, in terms of its major function in redemptive history, the Mosaic covenant functioned as a repeat episode of the garden of Eden. So in this sense, I’m happy to talk about the Mosaic covenant as being a replication of the so-called Adamic covenant of works (or however one might want to call that).

All in all, I think that the most helpful way of thinking about the Mosaic covenant was that it was a gracious covenant that turned out historically to be a covenant of condemnation for Israel, because of the fact that the majority did not respond in covenant obedience, which rendered inefficacious the grace offered therein (as per the principle enunciated in Heb 10:26). Because of their rebellion, "there no longer remain[ed] a sacrifice for sins." The destruction of the temple is the classic symbol of this truth. This "failure" of the Mosaic covenant led the Old Testament prophets to look forward to a covenant of greater grace in the future, when God would move Israel (and the nations) to respond to him in covenant obedience in a way that they had never done previously (Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26-27).

Hope that makes sense.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Sujumo, for that comment. Yes, lying back and beyond the concept of covenant is the idea of relationship. And you are right to say that the primary information for determining the nature of the biblical covenants must come from the Scriptures themselves, no matter how illuminating a study of the Ancient Near Eastern cultures may be. Obviously God created the world with a view to developing a special relationship with us human beings. In fact, he wanted that relationship so much that he even created us in his own image!

I think that it is important to understand in this relationship that God has graciously invited his people into a special relationship with himself, but there is also the promise that as God works in us to respond to him, then we will enjoy more and more of being in close relationship with him. Some people talk about "grace and response," but the biblical pattern seems to be "grace and response and then grace even more!" We need to look at the whole relationship, not just focus on the beginning.

John Thomson said...


Do you think 'fleshly' or carnal is always used to mean 'unconverted'. Is it not used, in the Roms 7, to describe people who are not, 'in the Spirit'. In other words is it not a redemptive-historical category here and in Galatians rather than soteriological?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

Apart from Paul's warning in Gal 3:3, the only example that comes immediately to mind when Christians are called carnal is in 1 Cor 3:1, 3. I think Paul is describing here people who have the Spirit, but who are weak in the faith. In Galatians the Judaizing problem led to a reassertion of the normativity of the Mosaic covenant, which Paul associated with a return to the flesh (which is a salvation-historical concept here with soteriological consequences).

His argument in Galatians fits in well with his teaching in Rom 7. Romans 7 is best understood as an exposition of Rom 5:20. Romans 7 is about the failure of old covenant Israel, who were unregenerate and carnal, despite their zeal for the law (which was, historically speaking, a post-exilic phenomenon). I'll have to do a post on Rom 7 one day, but it's definitely talking about the failure of old covenant Israel, and Rom 8 is about the freedom to serve God that comes with the new covenant in Christ. So, the flesh in Rom 7 is primarily a soteriological idea in that chapter, but it also characterizes a whole epoch of redemptive history.

So, it looks like both aspects are present in Gal 3 and Rom 7, but the redemptive-historical aspect is quite prominent.