Sometimes these hymns to “the Law” sound strange to us.
The main way many Christians encounter the law is through the way some of the Pharisees misuse it. Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, the legalists gripe. Jesus’ disciples gather food on the Sabbath, the legalists gripe, and so on. So what kind of meditation would be done on something like this anyway.
For the ancient Hebrews, though, “the Law” was more than a list of rules. The Hebrew word translated law is torah, and can also mean teaching or guidance. The Torah was the word used to cover the first five books of our Bibles, and as we know that includes the stories of the people of Israel up until they reach the promised land – far more than just a list of rules.
And we’ve not been super-careful in how we understand the relationship between the people and God and the Law, either. Because of the way the legalists used it, we’ve got the idea in our heads that folks believed that if they obeyed the Law, then God would like them. Obedience of the Law led to salvation, but as Christians we understand that our own righteousness is never enough to save ourselves.
God, however, made his covenant with the people of Israel hundreds of years before he gave them the Law at Mt. Sinai. He made it with them before they were even a people, telling Abraham that his descendants would be God’s people and a great people indeed. God also made his covenant unilaterally, pledging to be Israel’s God without any preconditions on what Israel had to do to earn his favor. The quid pro quo we read into the relationship is exactly that: read into the relationship. It’s not actually there.
This psalm may not help us understand that at first. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish, we read. But that sounds just like God’s playing favorites again, liking the people who follow the law but not liking the people who don’t follow it.
Unless you flip it on its head a little. God gave the Israelites the Law not so they could be righteous enough for him to choose them, but so they could demonstrate to other people what kind of a God he was by showing how his people would act. Other nations might have temple prostitutes and practice human sacrifice, but not God’s people. Other nations might have rich folks who preyed on the poor, or throw foreigners out on their ears, but not God’s people.
In other words, the “way” in this psalm was righteous long before the people chose it, and they chose it because it was the righteous way. They don’t see God blessing them because they picked a certain way to live. They’ve picked a certain way to live because God blessed it.
That way roots in much deeper things than shallow trivia of whatever happens to seem good right now, like a tree beside a river grows better than one in a dry place. Immediate gain and here-and-now benefits might seem all right to some people, but those who have decided to follow God’s way have chosen a longer-term view.
Focus only on the here and now, and what do you have left when the here and now becomes the over there and back then?
As Christians, we say that we too have joined our viewpoint to God’s more long-term view of things, even if we can’t see all of it right now. What seems like sacrifice now may prove to be beneficial later on, and a situation that seems like a total loss may become the occasion for walking more closely with God than ever before.
The Law was, for the ancient Hebrews, a constant reminder that God had chosen to be in a relationship with them, despite their unworthiness and often demonstrated lack of ability to stay on task.
For Christians, we find that reminder in Christ. The Holy Spirit works within us and shows us that while we were yet sinners, to use Paul’s words, Christ offered everything to make sure our relationship with him could be all it was meant to be. To be rooted in that, as the ancient Israelite might be rooted in the law, is surely to find ourselves constantly nourished and able to grow and bear fruit.