In past posts we have talked extensively about David in the way that God Himself described him, namely as the man after His own heart. And we have looked recently at the psalmist’s love not only for his Lord, but also for his devotion to and respect for the law, as he expresses it in Psalms 19 and 119 as well as in his final words to Solomon. But we have not given the relationship of heart and law the attention it deserves. Now is the time that we do.
Before we go forward, however, let’s briefly review a couple of points. First, David articulates his faith by repeating a group of key words. We noted the nine that scholars and theologians identified and have written on extensively for millennia. All of these refer in one manner or another to law, that is, to the instructions that God has handed down to His people. These are the mandates that He requires of those whom He has set apart as His own. There are conditions, He declares. He insists that His people must strive to keep His laws and ways. That is, they, and we, must be obedient.
“To obey,” we are reminded emphatically by the prophet Samuel, “is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). His words were addressed to Saul after he had defeated the Amalekites as God had commanded, but had spared the finest of the animals to sacrifice to the Lord — despite His explicit instruction that all be destroyed. Saul claimed that “I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (1 Sam 15:13). He had, to a degree. But Saul had also determined that he had a better way to serve God, that he could improve on His requirement and through a sacrifice of burnt offering give Him more than he had asked. The more, of course, was other than God required. Thus it was disobedience.
The conversation between Saul and Samuel seems to have been private. We know, however, that “the people” who had fought with him in battle were still with him and near by. We can imagine the question that those who may have overheard, or heard about, Samuel’s words might have asked – either aloud to one another or privately to themselves. “But how was Saul to follow all these rules? How can we? We are, after all, only human.” Indeed they were–as we are and as David was.
Now we are at a juncture in this blog, approaching one of those turns of thought that are akin to what we find in the psalms. I have referred more than once to David’s twelve words, although I have shared only nine. Here are the other three: heart, servant, and righteousness. None of the numerous commentaries I have studied have given this group of words the same emphasis in discussions about the 119th psalm as they have to the nine. In fact, they are rarely mentioned. I do not presume that I have unearthed some wisdom that others have missed. However, I am perplexed by the virtual silence around the presence and significance of this secondary word pattern and I regret the oversight. Once I discovered the frequency of the repetition of heart, servant and righteousness in Psalm 119 and noticed how densely they were used there in comparison to other parts of scripture, my understanding of the interplay of law, obedience and grace was radically enriched and changed.
Obedience, David understood, was neither a mechanical action of compliance to assuage momentarily a distant deity nor was it a laborious climb we make up the ladder of religious regulation. Rather, it was an act of heart, performed as a servant (yes, the king understood his relationship to the King) as the only fitting response to the righteous, personal God of the Hebrews. The righteousness of which David speaks in the psalms is not his but the Lord’s. It is that for which he longs, for he recognizes that it alone can open the way to a right and vital relationship with Him; and he realizes it is not something that he can achieve by his own actions, however sincerely motivated, but is instead something he must receive — by God’s grace alone.
Grace, contrary to the teaching of some moderns, is not a purely “Christian” concept. It is first a Judaic and Hebrew one. David’s supplications are widely understood to be pleas for grace, and they are translated that way from the Masoretic text in Psalm 86, another of the poems in which David refers to himself three times as a servant in need of the Lord’s salvation: “Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my pleas for grace” (Ps 86:6, ESV). He goes on “Teach me Your way, O Lord, that I might walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name” (Ps 86:11).
The man who lifted these petitions to the One true God is the same poet whose nearly inconsolable grief was expressed in these familiar words: “ The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable deeds; there is none who does good.” (Ps 14: 1 and Ps 53:1). It is one of the mysteries of the psalter, which we will not attempt to tackle here, that the essentially identical psalm (with literally only a mere handful of minor word changes) appears twice in the Sefer Tehillim. The central theme – that “there is none righteous, no not one”—however, is a constant refrain throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. I will leave it to you, as an edifying exercise, to search these out.
The point of it all is the central tenet of the Judeo-Christian faith. We are not righteous. We are not good, none of us. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” David declares Ps 3:8, and a similar sentiment is expressed in Ps 62:1. He freely bestows it on “those whose heart is completely His” (2 Chron 16:9).
I concluded last week’s post with these words: Here is the covenantal order—absolute, faultless, finished – which is as old as creation and new every morning. Here are the terms that by grace and obedience we must keep. Here is the promise He kept, is keeping, will keep and by and in which we are held and assured.
Covenants, of course, have terms. For us who believe and who seek after God and His righteousness, as David did, the terms of covenant are Terms of Heart. And the Heart of the Law is His abiding covenant promise to us, to lead us and redeem us – to be our God, as we turn to be His people (Ex 6:7; Lev 26:12, Jer 30:22). “He remembers His covenant forever, the word that He commanded, for a thousand generations” (Ps 105:8). Hallelujah, Amen.
With this as background, in the next post I will open my own heart to you about coming to terms with obedience in response to a father’s voice.