In its attitude towards Torah, Psalm 119 easily throws us off balance.
One of my pleasures in life is eating an ice cream sundae. Take some chocolate ice cream, pour on some melted marshmallow, pile on the whipped cream, and top with a maraschino cherry. I don’t often indulge in such pleasure. My weight control discipline won’t allow it. But when I do, it is sheer delight.
This image comes to mind when I read Psalm 119. This is the longest psalm in Book of Psalms–176 verses. It is an extended celebration of Torah.
Most Bible translators translate the Hebrew term Torah as Law. That has precedent in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. Certainly Torah has many laws, precepts, and commandments. The ancient rabbis are said to have identified 613 in that most narrow of meanings of Torah: the five books of Moses that open the Hebrew Bible.
But Torah means literally “instruction,” and includes the narrative portions of the Pentateuch as well as the legal portions. As Judaism developed, Torah grew to include the oral Torah as well as the written Torah. This development found its definitive expression in the Talmud. So in many ways, I think it is legitimate to understand Torah as the whole extended theological tradition of Judaism, something that extends beyond just the laws and commandments themselves.
Psalm 119 is like one exuberant aria celebrating Torah. But the psalmist particularly has the legal portion of Torah in mind, as we see the many synonyms he uses for Torah. They include: commandments, ordinances, precepts, statutes, as well as promises, words, and testimonies. He seems especially focused on the Torah’s guidance for behavior.
An Unexpected Way of Looking at Torah
Now here’s the unexpected thing about Psalm 119 that can easily throw many Christians off balance. We have a long tradition of looking at the Jewish Torah as an oppressive, deadening legalism. We think it is a burden, whose function is primarily to instill a sense of guilt. That view of Torah has a long history in Christianity. It finds particular expression in the characteristic way the Protestant Reformers played off law against grace.
But when you read Psalm 119, you find none of that depressing spirit. For the psalmist, Torah is the joy of his life. When I read the psalm, I am struck by the repeated use of the word “delight” in the psalmist’s description of the Torah. In the Revised Standard Version translation, we find the word in 119:14, 119:16, 119:24, 119:35, 119:47, 119:70, 119:77, 119:92, 119:143, and 119:174.
Along with these verses are a number of verses where the psalmist declares how he loves Torah (119:47-48, 119:97, 119:113, 119:119, 119:127, 119:140, 119:159, 119:163, 119:165, 119:167). In 119:111, the psalmist asserts that Torah is the joy of his heart. In 119:127, he says he values Torah higher than fine gold.
And in 119:103, he says:
How sweet are thy words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
It’s as if Torah is this particular person’s ice cream sundae.
Many Christians find the psalm unnerving. How can anyone say such startling things about something as oppressive as the Mosaic Law? Does the psalmist have some warped sense of value?
Judaism as a Religion of Grace
To appreciate the psalmist’s sentiments, a lot of Christians are going to have to radically revise the way they look at Jewish Torah. For what the psalmist does is show us how Judaism is as much a religion of grace as is Christianity.
How can I say that? It is important to reflect carefully on how the Bible pictures God’s giving the Torah to Israel. The gift of Torah comes at Mount Sinai after Moses has led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and in the years following. It is important to notice the dynamic of the Biblical narrative as we have it in the five books of Moses.
God does not give Torah to Israel before its liberation from Egypt. God does not give Torah to Moses at the burning bush and then say to Moses, “Take this law to my people Israel in Egypt. If they obey it, then I will come and release them from their bondage.” If that had been the case, liberation would have been conditional on Israel’s obedience. Torah would indeed be legalism, and Israel’s religion a religion of works righteousness, to use a favored Protestant theological term.
No, God liberates Israel from Pharaoh’s tyranny, brings them out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, and there creates his covenant with Israel, with Torah as part of the gift of this covenant. Obedience to Torah had nothing to do with Israel’s liberation. Its liberation is an act of God’s sheer grace, of his faithfulness to his own promises.
But now that Israel is free, how will it sustain its freedom? How will it avoid falling back into the behaviors that would re-establish the kind of bondage they experienced in Egypt? Torah is the answer. In its laws and commandments, Torah establishes a way of life, a way of behaving, that offers assurance that Israel can preserve the freedom and liberation God has given it.
Yes, there may seem to be some strange laws in Torah that Christians don’t understand how they sustain freedom. I cite the commandment not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19). But the heart of Torah is its many regulations for ordering Israel’s relationship to God and the relationship of Israelites with one another. Jesus will later summarize the focus of Torah in the two summary commandments: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Torah gets specific about what that means in practice.
When Israel fails to live by this structure of law, it gets itself in trouble. That becomes clear as you read the Old Testament prophets. Their denunciations of Israel revolve around two major sins: the apostasy of idolatry and social injustice.
Torah as God’s Good Gift
So in this Biblical perspective Torah becomes a great gift. It points the way to fruitful living. It is wisdom. We hear that theme ringing through Psalm 119.
I will never forget thy precepts;
For by them thou hast given me life. (119:93)
I will keep thy law continually,
for ever and ever;
and I shall walk at liberty,
for I have sought thy precepts. (119:44-45)
We live in a world today where many people regard religion as a form of oppression. I think that is the view of religion that most people have in mind when they say: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For them, religion consists of a mass of obligations, dry rituals, guilt-producing preaching, and hypocrisy. They cannot imagine the traditions and rituals and morality practiced by historic religions, like Christianity and Judaism, as anything being near to liberating. Give us instead something freer, a spacious but largely undefined spirituality.
That is not the attitude, however, of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 119. In the commandments, the statutes, the precepts of Torah, he finds something that allows his spirit to soar. As a result, he breaks literally into song.
How can we recapture the spirit behind his song? I think it means we must get in touch once again, at a very deep existential level, with an experience of God’s saving grace. Only when we know that at his very heart God is a God of love who yearns for the best for his people can we begin to appreciate how the doctrines, rituals, and moralities that express our understandings of his grace can become life-giving and freedom-sustaining.