Rules that give joy
[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 9/27/10]
The passages from the Old Testament that we are considering this quarter may be read, so far at least, as helping us understand God’s creative love for humankind. They help us move beyond unfortunate Christian stereotypes that see the God of the Old Testament mainly in terms of judgmental wrath and legalism.
In fact, as we have been seeing, God seeks to bring healing to all the families of the Earth. God uses God’s chosen people to spread whole-making shalom to all peoples.
God’s creative work
Psalm 19 continues on this theme — and once more challenges our traditional understandings about the Old Testament portrayal of God.
First, we read of all creation showing God’s glory. The vivid imagery in the first part of the psalm includes portraying the rising of the sun as a joyous event, like “a bridegroom leaving his chamber” (19:5). The creator God infuses each day with possibilities for happiness, even ecstasy.
Then, the psalmist turns to God’s creative work with human beings who trust in God’s commands. These commands (also called “law,” “testimony,” “ordinances” and “precepts” here) are the occasion for human enjoyment of life, growth into wholeness, even enlightenment. They also protect those who listen from being dominated by “presumptuous sins” (19:13).
The commands — the way to the good life
It is important to notice the first part of Psalm 19 before focusing on the fascinating portrayal of God’s commands. We are reminded both of God’s creative and sovereign power and God’s inclination to provide humanity (and all of creation) with possibilities for joy and creativity. The God of this psalm is a God who gives and gives, seeking a world that is a place of wonder, passion and health.
So, when we move on to the words about the Law, we are prepared to recognize in the lawgiver the possibilities of joy more than judgment, healing more than condemning, creativity more than legalism.
Psalm 19:7-10 simply repeats itself, over and over celebrating the life-giving message of God’s words given to humanity. God is not setting humanity up for failure. God does not give us the commands just so that we might realize what worms we are.
No, this is what the commands do: revive the soul, bring wisdom to the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes and endure forever.
Think of the things that bring you the most joy. If you were in the psalmist’s immediate audience, these may be fine gold and the drippings of the honeycomb. The commands of God are even better. They bring even more possibilities for joy.
So, the first purpose of the commands is to bring God’s people joy. We could say, in light of other emphases we have seen in the Old Testament, that it is as joyous people that God’s people best serve as a channel for God’s blessing meant for all the families of the Earth.
The psalm then does conclude with the other side. The commands are for the sake of our joy, but they also are to protect us from transgressions. We are given a picture of the good life to pull us toward God. Then we are reminded of the dangers of turning from the commands. When we don’t trust in God’s commands, we will trust in idols. Then sin will dominate our lives, not joy.
This warning is crucial. But we must remember that the warning serves the joy. God wants our happiness, not our punishment.