How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts,
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones,’ goes the old jingle, ‘but words will never hurt me.’ It’s a lie. Don’t believe it. Words are far, far more powerful than anything else. A sword can maim or kill, but only in the crudest of fashions, cutting off life as it was. A word can transform, for good or ill; it can build up a person’s confidence or pull it down. When, some years ago, I was asked to reflect in public on the moments in my early life when people had helped me find my way, what came back to my mind, very strikingly, were half a dozen occasions when someone had said something, just a sentence or two, no great long lecture or anything – something that had opened up a new world that I knew I wanted to explore, a new path-way that I knew I had to walk. Those are the words that are worth their weight in gold, words that transformed my life far more thoroughly than any mere promises, bribes, threats or punishments could ever have done.
If that is true of human words – and often the people who speak those life-transforming words have no idea at the time of the long-term effect of what they’re saying – how much more is it true of God’s word. One of the great sorrows of our age is that people even inside the church, let alone outside it, have so reacted against the over-dogmatic claims of some ‘conservative’ Christians concerning the literal truth of the whole Bible (when a great deal is manifestly poetry, and so on), that the whole idea of the Bible itself as ‘God’s word’ is discounted by many.
Here, as throughout Psalm 119, ‘God’s word’ certainly refers to scripture – though of course it was the scriptures of the Old Testament, such as they were by the time the Psalm was written. And what we find here, a fitting meditation as we move into Passiontide, is an entire spirituality of a scripture-formed heart and mind. After all, we cannot understand Jesus himself, and his journey to the cross, except in terms of his being soaked in scripture, his own discovery in the Psalms and prophets of his unique vocation. We, following him however faintly, can do no better – though of course now with the full riches of both Testaments to call on.
This eight-verse stanza, the second in the long poem, divides into three parts. The first (verses 9 –11) sees scripture as the key to protection against sin. The third (verses 14 –16) celebrates God’s word and God’s law and announces a determination to make it more and more central to life. The two verses in the middle (verses 12–13) hold these (as it were) negative and positive emphases together, praising God publicly for his commandments.
The biblical vision of life includes, you see, the central component of the development of character. Far too often Christians have allowed themselves to think of their lives in terms of rules, a code of conduct to be kept (or, as it may be, broken). Rules appear external: they impinge on us from the outside. They appear to cramp our freedom, imposing someone else’s ideas upon us. Many have reacted against a rule-based morality by thinking instead of the importance of ‘being true to yourself ’, of being ‘authentic’ or ‘spontaneous’, ‘doing what comes naturally’. Often the big debates in our churches about matters of behaviour are not in fact debates about the issues themselves but debates between people who believe in ‘rules’ and people who believe in ‘authenticity’.
But the biblical vision works quite differently. God’s word – whether the scriptures that the Psalmist knew or the scriptures that we have today – works on people the way words always work on people: by getting inside them and transforming them so that they see new possibilities, find ways of thinking about how they might be different, and gain courage to grow and change and make new, and previously impossible or unthinkable, decisions. ‘Send forth your word, Lord,’ goes the hymn, ‘and let there be light.’ The Psalmist would have agreed enthusiastically. When God’s word does its work, we are not squashed into the wrong shape. We don’t have our style cramped. We become more truly all that we were made to be, all that God wants us to be – because the word has done its work, has created new neural pathways in the brain, helped us make new connections. And enabled us to act on new convictions.
Those first three verses, then, are not simply ‘negative’ (some people are so allergic to any mention of ‘sin’ that one might almost suppose they had something to hide). We have to be sure, once more, that we are building on solid foundations. If we try to follow God while allowing impurity to fester (verse 9), while wandering off in various odd directions (verse 10) or simply while snapping our fingers in God’s face and doing what we know he hates (verse 11), we won’t get very far. God’s word will help us at each one of those points, not by making it impossible for us to go off the rails but by opening our eyes to see what our actions and choices are really all about.
Then, as in verses 14 –16, we will be able to build positively. We will start to take delight in scripture, discovering in it an inexhaustible mine of treasure. We will want to fix our eyes on it and not let our gaze wander. We will want to commit into the deepest recesses of our memory all that we are learning, so that it becomes part of us, in the way that what we eat and drink becomes part of us. This is how Christian character is formed.
Then, holding it all together, we will want to praise God (verse 12); and then, looking outwards, we will want to make public declaration of what his word is doing. Then we, too, will be contributing, in ways we cannot begin to imagine, to the same process in other people’s lives. Our words, too, shaped and energized by God’s words, will become part of God’s work in guiding, warning, encouraging and building up God’s people. A never-ending, outward-moving, spiral of grace. Jesus, on his way to the cross, stood at the heart of that spiral. The character that is formed by scripture is the character that follows him wherever he goes.
Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.