Note: This article first ran in the Fall, 2009 issue of Ministry & Leadership, and is reprinted with permission.
“Actions speak louder than words.”
This common saying is a comment on the human capacity and tendency for deception. Why do actions speak louder than words? Because people lie.
|Andre Beauneveu, David
from the Psalter of Jean de Berry, 14 cent.
People can and often do say things that they know are not true just to get what they want. Think about it: How often have you said something just so you can get a person off your back? How often have you carefully crafted your response to a person so as to avoid further conflict or further conversation? How often have you found yourself in a situation in which you will say just about anything to escape?
Words can be used as weapons for personal convenience.
But actions are different. Actions require commitment, effort, foresight, preparation and sacrifice. You have to think about the other person, anticipate their needs and take action. Our loves, our friendships — all our meaningful human relationships — need to be nurtured by actions as well as words. That is why in human communication, actions so often speak louder than words. That’s how human words work.
But that’s not how God’s words work. We can’t treat them like human words. We can’t discount God’s words as simply weapons of convenience, nor can we write them off as empty rhetoric. We certainly can’t take them with “a grain of salt,” because they are fundamentally different from ours.
Psalm 119: A Song of the Word
That is why I love Psalm 119 — it is an extended reflection on God’s words. The Psalmist portrays just how we are to experience, think about, yearn for and ultimately meditate on God’s Word. Verses 33-40 seem to encapsulate the message of the Psalter’s longest psalm.
Seven words are repeated in this passage, all seemingly referring to the same thing — God’s Word. They are “law” (or torah, v. 34), “rules” (v. 39), “testimonies” (v. 36), “commandments” (v. 35), “statutes” (v. 33), “precepts” (v. 40), and “promise” (v. 38). All these words are used interchangeably through Psalm 119, cumulatively referring to God’s inspired Scriptures. In short, the Psalmist is talking about his Bible, and his attitude toward it can be described as nothing short of infatuation. God’s Word exhilarates him; it inspires him to song and outright worship.
Why does God’s Word evoke such excitement?
First, God’s Word is true. God is true and therefore His words are true. The author of Hebrews 6:18 is unequivocal when he writes, “It is impossible for God to lie.” God does not say what we want to hear in order to get us off His back. That’s because in God and His Word, there is only truth.
This truth gives God’s Word an authority that no other author can claim. Notice that the Psalmist assumes the truth and authority of God’s Word in v. 33. He doesn’t say, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will mull them over looking for useful tidbits.” No, he says, “teach me your statutes and I will keep them until the end.” In Psalm 119, there is no discussion on the merits of God’s commands. It is assumed. The question is not “Should I keep your statutes?” It is “How can I get the ability to keep them?” This obedient stance is the foundation of the whole psalm. God’s Word is not lacking; it is the Psalmist who is lacking. He needs God to make a proper response to God’s Word possible.
Second, God’s Word is active. It doesn’t speak louder than His actions, because it is action. It makes, moves, forms and molds. It is powerful enough to change every situation into which it is spoken. When God creates the heavens and the earth, He does it through words. He says, “Let there be light,” and look . . . light!
The power of God’s Word is not a tame power, either. It is not sympathetic magic that can be manipulated by its user, but it is God’s power, bestowed as He wills according to His sovereign purpose. For this reason, when God’s Word is on display, its result is healthy fear (v. 38).
Third, God’s Word is near to us. It is present and accessible. In Psalm 119 there is a startling intimacy and immediacy that the author assumes with God. Listen to how he talks to God: “Teach me . . . Give me understanding . . . Incline my heart . . . Turn my eyes.” This is all close, personal language.
In the ancient context, this sort of assumed intimacy with a god is rare. To the pagan mind, a god’s will was accessible through omens mediated and interpreted by oracles in a process that was external to the worshiper and a bit haphazard.
The Psalmist, however, talks to God directly, confidently expecting that He will respond. The whole psalm records this personal encounter as one that anticipates, cries out for an even more personal encounter with God’s Word than what he already has. In other words, God’s Word evokes in him a desire for a more intimate relationship with it.
God’s Word is not about an empty set of rules. It never was. It’s not about paralyzing passivity, either.
God’s Word in Our Midst
The Psalmist desires to delve into the Word of God and find abundant life in it, because the Psalmist intuits what is made explicit in the New Testament. The Gospel writer John is succinct and poetic: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). But John is talking about Jesus Christ — the part of the equation that the Psalmist knows he needs.
Jesus is the personified Word of God in our midst. He is the teacher, the mediator who makes God’s Word accessible to us. Without Jesus, we are critically and chronically alienated from the Word of the Lord, and only through him can God’s Word bring us life. Because of Jesus, we can sing Psalm 119 for ourselves in confidence, knowing full well that the Spirit of our teacher is with us. He has walked in the way of God’s commands, has taken our punishment upon Himself, and in so doing has accomplished for us what we and the Psalmist could not accomplish for ourselves.
Therefore we should sing Psalm 119 for ourselves in freedom, knowing that God’s Word no longer condemns us. Like the Psalmist, we know we fall short of God’s demands, but for those in Jesus Christ, the resultant condemnation is completely spent. It was suffered by Christ, who wore our guilt so we could engage God’s Word without the bonds of rebellion.
God’s Word merits our own active and yearning affections, and for our part, we have everything to gain from it.