174 I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight. 175 Let my soul live and praise you, and let your rules help me. 176 I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.
The longest psalm in the Bible (119) extols God’s laws, precepts, rules, and statutes. It’s a veritable A-to-Z of praise for “the law of the Lord.” [v.1] With 176 verses (eight for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet), it seems the psalmist could go on forever, stopping only when he ran out of letters in the alphabet.
From the first line, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!” [v. 1] to the last, “I do not forget your commandments” [v. 176b], God’s laws are admired for their beauty, righteousness and salvation. Such an inspiring, beatific vision of peace and wholeness can be found only in the faithful obedience of walking in the law of the Lord.
The psalmist even seems to boast in how perfectly he follows God’s commandments:
Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.
Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.
I hope for your salvation, O Lord, and I do your commandments.
My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly.
I keep your precepts and testimonies, for all my ways are before you. [vv. 164-168]
There’s just one problem—he’s failed. No matter how well he knows the laws, he can’t save himself. Nobody can. No matter that the first 175 verses of the psalm are filled with praises for the law of the Lord; the final verse is a confession: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” He’s lost and knows he can be saved only if God seeks and saves him.
This conclusion points to a Gospel of Grace greater than all other laws combined. Grace is the Law behind the laws, and the only way to fulfill them. God’s decision to rescue means that the lost can be found. It’s sola gratia—only grace, all grace, all the time.
This goes against the grain of most ethical thinking. So often the first question is, “Is it legal?” Wrong question. Knowledge of the law does not equal ethical behavior, and there is no end to loopholes, carve-outs, and special cases. The right question is not, “Is it legal?” or, “Can I get away with it?” The right question is, “Is it right?”
Yes, rules matter and we need to obey laws. But a contrite heart aligned with God’s will is our only hope for walking the path of real righteousness. It's a matter of being infused with the greatest Love, not reciting statutes and codes. We must have creeds and codes of conduct in our businesses, and train people in moral reasoning, but these are flimsy reeds in the wind unless we are anchored by disciplines of the heart.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014