After reading chapter 3, many readers might wonder, “But, isn’t Christianity an ideology, like Marxism or radical Islam?” This is a significant question, and one that every Christian needs to be ready to answer, because this is how any unbeliever will think about committed believers in Jesus.
So, what is an ideology? The following are two dictionary definitions:1
a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture . . . the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program
Clearly, inasmuch as the Christian faith expresses a body of concepts that give an account of human life in this world and of the way we are to live, then we may agree that Christianity is an ideology. However, we believe that the Christian faith is not a sociopolitical program or agenda of human ideas; rather, our convictions arise from God’s revelation about our world, about our human condition, and about God’s resolution to our problems.
So, in talking with a non-Christian, we will need to show that the Christian faith is the true ideology—the ideology that gives the only accurate and faithful account of our world and of our life here in this world; in addition, the Christian faith gives the only satisfactory resolution to the tragedy of the human condition. This resolution is revealed in the Bible’s record of God’s intervention to deliver us from our sorrows. Also, in communicating our faith to an unbeliever, we will try to show why any other ideology is inaccurate in its account of reality, unable to give an answer to the problem of suffering, and inadequate in its prescriptions for human life.
One simple example here may demonstrate the inadequacy of Marxism and radical Islam and show them to be human inventions rather than God’s truth, human-made ideologies rather than the one answer revealed from above. As we saw in the last chapter, both radical Islam and Marxism promise to create the ideal society. One reason for this is that neither of them acknowledges the problem of original sin. Neither of these worldviews recognizes that human beings are fundamentally flawed. The fall is not a doctrine of orthodox Islam. Islam urges people to submit to Allah and believes that perfect submission to him is possible, and that entire obedience to Allah will bring about an ideal society. Marxism does not admit that humans are corrupted in their very being. Instead, Marxism insists that at the basis of all human problems are particular economic structures.
This denial of original sin leaves both Marxists and radical Islamists with no sense of their own sin or fallibility, and therefore of the inadequacy of their plans for resolving human problems. It is because of this utopian vision of a perfect society—a new world order coming about as a result of their plans of social, economic, and political action—that many abominably wicked things are done. We could say that the more idealistic and utopian the ideology, the more disastrous will be its recipe for change when it is put into action. It is so sure it is right that it sees no need to put any restraint on its leaders as they implement their vision. Think again of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, or of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Christianity is very different. There is no conviction that we have a blueprint for an ideal society; we know that we are sinful and that all our human plans and actions will be flawed. We recognize, therefore, that there need to be restraints on the power and the vision of those who lead us. We know there will be no perfect society till Jesus comes. It is Christianity that has insisted on restraints on those in power; and Christianity has demanded that there be checks and balances in our political systems so that we can deal rigorously with sin.
This conviction that humans are sinful has been one of the most liberating doctrines in political history. It is only when Christians have made the mistake of departing from Scripture that they have become idealistic and felt they have a template for creating an ideal world. Examples of this in the history of the church are few and minor, but there are many major examples of the disastrous consequences of both Marxism and radical Islam.
To return to the foundational point made in chapter 3, all biblical study of the law begins with the conviction that God’s own character stands behind the moral order of this world and behind the commandments that he gives to us his creatures. This is the fundamental reason why the Scriptures speak so positively about the law.
Praising a set of commandments is an alien notion in our cultural context, but that is where the biblical view begins: with praise and thanksgiving for the law. Psalm 19 is an example of this high view of the law of God. It is also one of the best-known and best-loved of all the psalms, “the greatest poem in the Psalter,” according to C. S. Lewis.2 Another commentator puts it this way: “The psalm combines the most beautiful poetry with some of the most profound of biblical theology.”3
The psalm divides into three obvious sections, both in its poetical structure and in its content. The first part provides a backdrop for the second, on the law, which will be our main focus.
PART 1: PSALM 19:1–6
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat. (NIV)
David opens the psalm with an affirmation of the heavens declaring God’s glory, followed by the parallel affirmation that the skies “proclaim” the work of his hands. If we follow David’s urging and look up at the sky, we see there the clearest possible declaration that we live in a created universe. And we see that the Creator is worthy of praise, for it is so evident that what he has made is glorious. As the apostle Paul says, “His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”4 Whenever my wife, Vicki, and I spend time on the Gulf Coast in Naples, Florida, we see many thousands of people heading for the beach every evening to watch the sun setting. But it is not only on the Gulf Coast that people feel constrained to lift their eyes to look up at the sky; all over the earth we find this sense of the extraordinary beauty of creation.
In verse 2 David declares that this revelation is not occasional, obscure, or sporadic but, rather, continuous. Day after day, night after night, there is an ever-present display and proclamation of God’s creative power and glory. Whether we see the sun shining, or the clouds refracting its light in an array of shades and colors, or a moonlit or starry night, there is a constant revelation of God. David is clearly thinking of the progression of the sun, moon, and stars across the sky. He does not have our twenty-first-century astronomical knowledge, but he does not need such knowledge to observe that there is regularity in the movement of the heavenly bodies, a regularity that governs our days and seasons and years, and that these patterns point to their great designer.
In verses 3–4 David tells us that this revelation is universal. People may not understand each other across the barriers of different tongues, but there is one language that is understood by every nation and language group, and that is the language spoken by the heavens. Of course, there are no literal words spoken by the sun, moon, and stars, but they are universally “heard” and universally understood.
This is why Paul argues in Romans 1 that all human beings are inexcusable for failing to worship God. There is no one who may say that he or she is ignorant of his existence, his power, and his glory. Vicki and I live in Missouri, where every spring and every fall are simply lovely and our hearts are filled with gladness. God has set us in a place here on this earth where it would be inexcusable if we did not give him honor and glory and praise, for we see him revealed so clearly, especially in those seasons, but indeed in every season of the year.
From the end of verse 4 through verse 6 David reflects on the particular glory of the sun. He uses the beautiful image of the heavens as a “tent” or “pavilion” in which the sun dwells. These verses personify the sun, but unlike all other poetry from the ancient world extolling the sun, they do not deify the sun or offer it worship (think of the wonderful Greek stories of the chariot of the sun). Here in this poem the intent of the personification is to point to the majesty and goodness of God, who is the provider of the gift of the sun and the Creator of its glory. The image shifts to speak of the sun as a “bridegroom” coming forth from the wedding chamber as he rises in the morning in the vigor of life and joy—like one newly married!
Then the image shifts again to a “champion,” that is, a warrior or hero who delights in displaying his strength and speed. As I reflected on this I thought of the words of Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, “God . . . made me fast. When I run I feel his pleasure.” All of us understand this image of the champion, for there is something full of joy and power in seeing someone like Michael Phelps, the swimmer, or one of the Olympic gymnasts, or any other great athlete at the Olympic Games, exercising their extraordinary abilities. Just so it is with the sun, says David: there is an expression of God’s delight and glory as we daily see its rise in the east and then follow its course across the sky. The sun is visible everywhere and nothing is hidden from its heat. So too, God’s glory is evident everywhere, and the clarity and power of this revelation call us all to acknowledge him. No one can say that God is hidden from them, or that the knowledge of the Creator is obscure.
PART 2: PSALM 19:7–11
Suddenly the subject changes! From the first section of the psalm, glorying in the light of God’s revelation of himself in creation, David turns to the light of God’s revelation of himself in his law:
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them is great reward. (NIV)
Readers of the psalm sometimes wonder whether these two sections of the poem fit together. “Aren’t these two sections really two separate psalms?” “Were these separate ideas and poems just thrown into the same psalm?” “What has the sun got to do with the written commands of God in the Bible?” I often get asked such questions. As I begin to address these questions here, we should notice first that the statement about the sun’s shining everywhere ties the two sections of the psalm together. The sun gives its light and heat, bringing life to the world and revealing its Creator. The law has the same nature as the sun, giving light and life everywhere and even burning itself into the conscience, thus revealing its Creator. As with the sun, so with the law—nothing is hidden from its light or heat.
But there is more that ties these two sections together than this double image of light. As we begin to reflect on this second section of Psalm 19, it might be helpful for to us to look very briefly at how the psalm was structured by David.
Notice the length of the lines in the first section: they are longer and more measured and stately as they tell of God’s glory revealed in the heavens. The second section, verses 7–11, delights in the law of God as it reveals his purposes for our lives. The law of God is the second great light of God’s revelation of himself. Again, notice the length of the lines: the lines of these verses are shorter and have a quicker tempo, like the rising and falling of waves, as David expresses his love for the law. He is consciously changing the music and rhythm of the poetry as he moves from one source of God’s light to the other.
We should note too that the name of God changes from the first to the second section of the psalm. He is Elohim, that is, God, the Almighty, in the first section, where he is revealed as Creator by the heavens. He is Yahweh, the “LORD,” the faithful, covenant-keeping, redeeming, and gloriously personal God in the second section, for this is how the law reveals him. Creation tells us something about who God is as the powerful and majestic one. The law tells us far more about his holy, loving, and gracious character. These brief reflections on the poetic structure may help us to understand why we love this psalm so much.
David turns to the law and gives us six affirmations about its beauty and glory, each affirmation being followed by a statement of its benefits to us.
Before we look at these six affirmations, we need to ask what David means by “the law.” It is important to ask this question because we live in a time when people want to be a law unto themselves, to do what is right in their own eyes. The idea that there is a set of rules or commandments that dictate to everyone how he or she should live is not popular in our culture today, even in the church! The law is one of the most neglected aspects of God’s Word in many of our churches, largely because of this cultural setting.
So what does David mean? By “the law,” or Torah, David means the law of Moses: God’s moral commandments. The law also contains wonderful promises and the revelation of God’s grace and mercy, as well as demands. The Ten Commandments, that marvelous summary of the law, begin with the statement, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”5
The law also contains the ceremonies and sacrifices to provide atonement for the inevitable failures to keep the commandments, atonement that portrays so wonderfully the mercy of God and the hope of ultimate sacrifice to be made by God’s Son. But David certainly has in view the commandments that God has given us to direct our lives. The law should be seen as God’s gracious provision for his people, even in its moral demands, for these moral demands set out for us the way of life that God himself observes—and his way of life is altogether lovely!
Six Affirmations about the Law
1. In verse 7 David tells us that “the law of the LORD is perfect”; it is without blemish, and therefore it gives new life to the soul, “reviving” it over and over again. This word “reviving” (or “restoring”) is the same word used in Psalm 23. Just as the Lord, my shepherd, leads me beside still waters and restores my soul, so his law is a spiritual restorative because of its spiritual beauty. I am to keep returning to it, that I might be refreshed, just as each day needs the life-giving light of the sun. Do you keep turning to the law for new life, to be refreshed in your understanding of how you may live in righteousness, of how your life might become lovely like the Lord’s?
2. “The statutes of the LORD [or “the testimony of the LORD”—ESV] are trustworthy” or sure; that is, they are faithful and beyond any doubt. God himself has testified to us what true virtue is, both in his acts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness revealed in history and in his words of wisdom about genuine righteousness. Therefore, his words enable us to become wise, for in our sinful and rebellious hearts we are “simple,” that is, prone to instability and easily led astray morally. What about you? Do you turn to God’s statutes each day to be made wise in knowing what is faithful and true in all your work and relationships?
3. “The precepts of the LORD [God’s declarations of our moral obligations] are right,” that is, they are clearly morally beautiful and upright, for they reflect God’s own goodness; and so they bring joy to the heart of the one who gives his or her life to observing them. Are they beautiful to you? Do you seek to understand what goodness God desires for you to live in, so that your life might be attractive to him, attractive to your family and to others around you, and a joy to your own heart?
4. “The commands of the LORD are radiant,” that is, they are like a lamp to show light along our way, so that we can see which way to walk (again, here we see the parallel to the sun). If we follow God’s laws, we will always have light to direct our lives each day. Are you walking in that light? Are you eager to know from God’s commands what is holy, what is kind, what is compassionate and merciful as you live in this world, so that you will walk constantly in the light of his way?
5. “The fear of the LORD is pure.” Here David refers to the way of life that expresses reverence for the Lord. God’s way is pure and wholesome, and it will endure forever. True righteousness is always in style; it does not change from culture to culture, or from one moment of history to another, or from one situation to another. Is your life pure and wholesome? Is that how others see you, and can you honestly say that this is your desire, with regard to your appearance, for example, or your attitude toward your home and your possessions? Do you set a guard before your eyes and over your heart so that you may live in purity, chastity, fidelity, and contentment in the fear of the Lord?
6. “The ordinances of the LORD are sure”; that is, the declarations of the Lord as to what it means to live justly and faithfully are right and good. When you see them being observed in business or in the political sphere, you should rejoice for they are “altogether righteous.” What about your sphere of work? Do people observe your life and find a sure and certain integrity and trustworthiness?
In verses 10–11 David teaches us to treasure the laws of God more highly than any wealth or physical comfort or pleasure. We are to live not for money or possessions or security, or in anxiety about our pension fund or savings (even if they have been reduced to half their size by a worldwide financial crisis); rather, we are to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”6 Our food and drink should be to delight in doing the will of our heavenly Father, just as Jesus did. Our wealth should be to commit ourselves to walk in the ways of the Lord. Who or what do you serve? What is your delight? What is your treasure? These are David’s questions for us.
He adds in verse 11 that God’s laws warn us. Indeed they do, for they show us so clearly where we are sinful, and there is always plenty of failure and disobedience to be exposed! Yet, at the same time, David urges us to enjoy the rewards that God delights in giving us, his children, whenever we make any step forward in keeping the commandments.
PART 3: PSALM 19:12–14
In the final section of the psalm we see David turning to examine his own heart and life. He has gloried in God’s revelation of himself in creation; he has delighted in the Lord’s revelation of himself in his law. Now he asks, in effect, “What about me? Is there any revelation of God in my life?”
Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then will I be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (NIV)
Lest we think that David imagines himself righteous and morally flawless (this would be to misunderstand completely what he has been saying about the law), David acknowledges his sin to the Lord. He knows that he cannot see all his own faults and failures to keep the law. He knows that his heart is deceitful and that it contains many hidden sins, so he cries out for forgiveness.
But we may wonder, how does this final part of the psalm follow from David’s words of delight in the law? The answer is that nothing is hidden from the burning light of the law. Like the sun, the law exposes us by the beauty and clarity of its light, as well as enabling us to see and giving us direction. So in reflecting on the law, David is led to reflect on his sin. Any proper meditation on the law will have this effect, for while we delight in the beautiful way of life set out in the law, and while we rejoice in the moral integrity that any obedience brings, yet the more surely we see the light of the law, and the more clearly we see ourselves by the light of the law, the more too we will see our failures and our falling short. So David prays for the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness not only for the sins of which he is aware, but also for the far greater number of his hidden sins.
Having prayed for forgiveness in verse 12, David prays in verse 13 that the Lord will help him to become holy. He knows that he cannot make himself pure or free from sin; he knows that he is powerless to do this; so he prays that the Lord will keep him from willful sins, from being dominated by sin. This needs to be the prayer of us all. Like David, we are to pray that the Lord will make us “innocent” or acquitted of “great transgression.” Like David, I need acquittal. Like David, I need protection from great sins. How about you? Where do you need the acquittal of the Lord at this particular time in your life? Cry out to him like David!
In verse 14 the psalm ends with a prayer that David’s own words and thoughts might reflect the loveliness of the Lord, just as the heavens speak out God’s glory and the law unveils the beauty of his Redeemer’s character. And how beautiful indeed is our Redeemer as we see his life described for us in every line of the Gospels! The beauty of his righteous life is more glorious than the beauty of the heavens.
David desires that he might be a third light making God known. David longs that he too might reveal God in his thoughts and “words” (the same Hebrew term used for the “words” of the heavens in verse 4 is used here in verse 14). This final verse of the psalm, where David expresses his longing to make God known in his own life, names the Lord “my Rock and my Redeemer,” for David knows that the Lord loves him, that the Lord has forgiven him, and that the Lord will enable him to walk in the ways of his law. This is so for us today—God has redeemed us through the grace of his Son. Christ has acquitted us, declaring us innocent. And Christ will enable us to walk in his light, equipping us to reveal his beauty in our lives as we commit ourselves to obeying his commandments out of gratitude for his great love.
What place do these three lights have in our lives? Do we glory daily in the light of creation? Do we delight in walking in the light of the law? Are our lives a light to the world? That is the Lord’s desire for each of us. If we ask him, he will gladly make this our reality!
Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion
1. Do my words about the significance of the doctrine of sin make sense to you, and do they help your understanding of why such evil can be done by people with a visionary ideology like Marxism or radical Islam? Have you thought before about the politically liberating value of the biblical doctrine of original sin?
2. In what ways do you think this Christian doctrine of sin has shaped our political system? Do you think this biblical understanding is under threat in our society today?
3. Is beginning our thinking about God’s commandments with the acknowledgment of the beauty of the law a new idea to you?
4. Had you wondered about whether Psalm 19 holds together as one poem? Were you persuaded by this chapter’s exposition that it is indeed one poem?
5. What are some of the most special experiences you have had of being overwhelmed by the loveliness of creation?
6. Was it a new idea to you that the law reveals far more about who God is than does the creation, because the law teaches us about God’s character and not simply his power and his creativity?
7. What parts of the law do you personally see as most beautiful?
8. Why is it a good thing, rather than a problem, to come to the law to have your sins exposed?
9. Where in particular does your life need to become lovelier than it is now? Or to put the question another way, in what ways do you think you need to be made wiser by the law?
Chapter 4 of Delighting in the Law of the Lord by Jerram Barrs, posted with permission
1 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: 2008), senses 2a and 2c.
2 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, 1958), 63.
3 Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, Psalms 1–50 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 183.
4 Romans 1:20.
5 Exodus 20:2.
6 Matthew 4:4.