Happy are those who respect the Lord and obey him. You will enjoy what you work for, and you will be blessed with good things. Your wife will give you many children, like a vine that produces much fruit. Your children will bring you much good, like olive branches that produce many olives. This is how the one who respects the Lord will be blessed. May the Lord bless you from Mount Zion; may you enjoy the good things of Jerusalem all your life. May you see your grandchildren.
Let there be peace in Israel. (New Century Version)
Obedience and blessing go together like a hand in a glove. Holy Scripture consistently connects the call to obey the Lord with blessing from G-d. Indeed, in carefully observing wise and biblical instruction, one will typically enjoy divine favor and approval.
Keep in mind, however, this is not a math equation. Like 2+2=4 there are folks who expect a neat linear connection between their obedience and their blessing. In math theology, when a woman is unable to have children, or a child goes astray from their heritage, the parent concludes that they themselves must have been unfaithful to G-d’s law or are being punished. Conversely, with children who grow to be good citizens and respectful persons, the parents might conclude it was because of their superior observance to the spiritual life.
In both cases, parents take too much credit, either for a child’s wandering or success. As for kids going astray, even G-d had prodigal children, so cut ourselves some slack. As for children who maintain faithfulness, a lot of factors went into who they are. I suppose it is only natural to quickly assume we have far more control of than we really do.
This all cuts to the heart of biblical interpretation. If all Scripture is read literally, then we will likely see the Bible as a math equation where doing and saying the right things gets a predictable result of blessing. Yet, this mistakenly views promise and proverb as the same thing, and divine work with one person or group will be precisely the same for another. The wisdom literature of Scripture, which includes the psalms, were never designed as prescriptive decree but rather as the sage approach for work, worship, and family.
Today’s psalm communicates the path of happiness coming through love and respect for G-d. It neither promises lots of kids, ensures money, nor guarantees smooth sailing. Rather, when one lives each day being cognizant and observant to center everything around the divine, then blessing and happiness will tend to follow.
Blessings and benedictions are given to sustain us in hope and confidence. The best things in life usually come through faith and family. So, when we choose to walk with G-d and travel down the ethical road, then life becomes full of peace and prosperity – perhaps not always in the manner we expect, yet blessing, nonetheless.
Humanity is hard-wired for blessing, for a steady diet of encouragement, acceptance, and approval from G-d and others. When this is withheld from us, unhappiness, even despair begins to settle. Giving and receiving blessing is at the heart of being fully human and alive. Our work and family life will likely be miserable if blessing is absent. Yet, with blessing, we have a sustainable form of happiness and enjoyment.
Most every good thing in life is obtained through a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. Obedience is no easy task. It typically requires courage and is complicated in its application to life situations. Here are a few ways to maintain an obedient life to G-d:
Devote yourself to the daily reading of Scripture. One cannot obey that which is neither known nor remembered. A steady regimen of good old fashioned Bible reading is the best way to refresh the mind and incline the heart toward biblical commands. (Psalm 119:57-64)
Pray to listen and pay attention. There is more to prayer than petitions and praise. We must also practice silence and solitude so that we can give focused attention to hearing G-d, thus, obeying the Spirit. (Jeremiah 7:21-26)
Practice repentance. Being aware of our guilt and shame, acknowledging it, and naming it before G-d is the path of change – keeping us on the narrow road of obedience. (1 John 1:5-10)
Take the long view. Not all obedience is rewarded in this life but in the life to come. Perseverance and patience is needed to sustain obedience over the long haul of life. And, in the end, there are heavenly blessings awaiting us. (Hebrews 11:36-12:3)
Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed, guide, strengthen, and bless us through your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I hate anyone whose loyalty is divided, but I love your Law. You are my place of safety and my shield. Your word is my only hope.
All of you worthless people, get away from me! I am determined to obey the commands of my God.
Be true to your word, Lord. Keep me alive and strong; don’t let me be ashamed because of my hope. Keep me safe and secure, so that I will always respect your laws. You reject all deceitful liars because they refuse your teachings. As far as you are concerned, all evil people are garbage, and so I follow your rules. I tremble all over when I think of you and the way you judge.
I did what was fair and right! Don’t hand me over to those who want to mistreat me. Take good care of me, your servant, and don’t let me be harmed by those conceited people. My eyes are weary from waiting to see you keep your promise to come and save me. Show your love for me, your servant, and teach me your laws. I serve you, so let me understand your teachings. Do something, Lord! They have broken your Law. Your laws mean more to me than the finest gold. I follow all of your commands, but I hate anyone who leads me astray. (Contemporary English Version)
Some people try to avoid doing wrong and always try to do right. Others either bulldoze or sleepwalk through life, doing what they will, with impunity. Yet others try to steer clear of egregious sin, while indulging in so-called minor sins.
Sin is messy business. No matter the form or the attempt at dealing with or without sin, the bottom line is that we all sin because we like it. We might not like the consequences of sin, but it tastes good while doing it.
That’s why we need a complete re-orienting of our hearts to hate every way contrary to God’s good commands. The psalmist proclaims and affirms that all God’s precepts are right, hating every false path which deviates from the true and good.
If we sin because we like it, the way to avoid sin is learning to hate it – to loathe it so badly that it’s like a nasty stench in our nostrils. Hating sin comes from the acquired taste of loving God’s commandments. When we come around to cherish and desire God’s Word, then sin gradually becomes so odious that we want nothing to do with it.
The reason the psalmist could proclaim such an extended love song to the commands of God, is that he tasted how good they were. And it caused him to forsake every dubious way to human enjoyment.
The reason I constantly encourage myself and others to read Scripture every single day, with a solid plan of spiritual rhythms, is that it really does have the power to change our taste buds. Sustained, consistent, daily eating of the psalms will teach us to want God and God’s ways – while forsaking the dark path of insolence and oppression.
The psalmist committed himself to avoiding worthless situations, as well as steering clear of harmful people with the propensity to doing wrong. These are fickle, double-minded people, divided in their loyalties. On one side of their mouth, they talk a good line about faith; and then talk out the other side of their mouth, spewing a bunch of worthless gobbledygook which, at the least, adds no value to anything, and, at worst, wrecks good plans and harms others.
If there are people in authority over us who don’t give a wit about our most cherished values, we will likely find ourselves tasked with doing things which rub against our understanding of God’s Word. In this state of moral distress, we are pushed, pulled, and tested in our single-minded devotion by the double-minded person to do what we are uncomfortable with.
In the stress and crucible of trouble, we need the courage to speak up, despite the fear of repercussions. And that strength will only be possible if we have a resilient spirit with the capacity to sustain our personal integrity in the face of our distress. That is, we need God and God’s Holy Word.
Scripture and fellow believers provide support because we need to care for one another as a community of redeemed persons who seek to live into the words of ways of almighty God.
It can be tricky business, wisely trying to discern between what we must accept and what we need to pushback against. Yet, with God, God’s Word, and God’s people, we possess all the resources required in living the spiritual life and navigating the sinful world we inhabit.
God Almighty, I pray that you will deal with me according to your steadfast love and teach me your statutes. I am your servant; give me understanding so that I might know and live by your commands and forsake the evil of the world, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.
So, on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (NIV)
God’s Holy Word is central to worship. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, it makes sense to gather in worship which is saturated with Scripture. The proclamation of God’s Word is important because it is a means of knowing God and teaches us how to live.
The ancient Israelites were taken into captivity from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer (a servant who fills wine cups for royalty). Years later, Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and determined to do something about it. The walls were broken down and the people were without leadership. Because of his relationship to the king and God’s sovereign working on the king’s heart, Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall.
Ezra was a scribe (a copier of the Scriptures), a priest, and a teacher of the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). Together, Ezra and Nehemiah were like God’s dynamic duo, renewing the worship of God. It was a time of revival, in which the Israelites found new life around God’s Word.
Renewal, revival, and reformation happen when God’s revelation is carefully and faithfully read, listened to, and acted upon. Life change occurs through Holy Scripture, as we come to understand and apply it to all our circumstances and relationships.
Ezra arrived in Jerusalem first, fourteen years before Nehemiah. At that time, morality was low, and the spiritual condition of the people was unhealthy. Yet, as Ezra prayerfully taught them God’s Word, over time they began to respond.
The rebuilding of the wall under Nehemiah’s leadership was a direct result of the spiritual foundation Ezra had built through the Word of God. After the wall was finished, it was time to hear the entire Book of the Law read aloud.
Imagine and picture your entire community gathering early in the morning in a park or large space, staying till noon doing nothing but listening to Scripture being read, with various local pastors taking their turn reading and making the meaning clear. All the while the people are responding in worship, tears, and celebration…. If this seems far-fetched for today, it also seemed that way to most people in Nehemiah’s day.
Holy Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not explain every Bible verse the same way; and the riffraff might attempt to magnify differences and minimize a common confession of faith around Scripture. However, a universal desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word draws us closer together rather than separates us.
A first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow steady impact of each droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.
We oftentimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. Yet, God tends to reveal truth over days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture. Through the slow drip of study, prayer, and reflection, day after day, year after year, God shapes and spiritually forms us.
The people in today’s story were responsive, both vocally and physically. They shouted “Amen!” (literally, “yes, may it be so!”) and raised their hands. Word and worship always go together.
The people were submissive, bowing in worship (literally, “to prostrate oneself”). True worship listens attentively to God’s Word and surrenders to the Lord. It is an act of humility, pledging to act upon what is heard.
The people were teachable, attentively listening to the Levite priests explain Scripture. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We need others to help us, and the patience to stick with it, even when we are not sure about what it is saying. Interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics) typically happens in community, not isolation, which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is significant.
The people mourned and wept. Hearing the Word illumined their failures and disobedience. When we look intently into Scripture, we see divine faithfulness and human disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; the Lord’s holiness and people’s fickle nature.
Awareness of truth causes grief and distress over personal sin and the sin of the world. Yet, there is mercy and forgiveness. Grace washes away guilt and shame and brings restoration. God’s Word both slays us and gives us new life.
In ancient Israel, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age twelve. The goal was to have Torah internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.
Ezra and Nehemiah were only reinstituting what their ancestors had done:
Moses said, “Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before God, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation. And do this so that their children, who do not yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before God.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, MSG)
Joshua said, “Never stop reading The Book of the Law. Day and night, you must think about what it says.” (Joshua 1:8, CEV)
David said, “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11, NLT)
The practice of personal and public worship through God’s Holy Word continued with the New Testament writers:
Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)
“God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.” (Hebrews 4:12-13, MSG)
Jesus, quoting the Law, said, “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.” (Matthew 4:4, ERV, Deuteronomy 8:3)
We need God’s Word because we need God. It is a delight and a duty to learn the Scriptures so that we can know God and know God’s will.
God Almighty, your statutes are wonderful; therefore, I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. Amen. (Psalm 119:129-135)
Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. I’ve promised it once, and I’ll promise it again: I will obey your righteous regulations. I have suffered much, O Lord; restore my life again as you promised. Lord, accept my offering of praise, and teach me your regulations. My life constantly hangs in the balance, but I will not stop obeying your instructions. The wicked have set their traps for me, but I will not turn from your commandments. Your laws are my treasure; they are my heart’s delight. I am determined to keep your decrees to the very end. (NLT)
Two qualities which stand out to me in these verses are the psalmist’s attitude and affection. This is a person who is determined to hold onto God’s Word because it is his heart’s delight. Yes, our attitudes and our affections are meant to be like a hand in a glove. It is our attitudes which help us to push through the pain to realize better days. And it is our affections which drive us forward, allowing us to experience joy in the present moment as we await our hope of ultimate deliverance.
Commitments are fluid, always moving – which means they need to be continually rehearsed and refreshed. We are constantly either fulfilling our promises or reneging on them. There is really no such thing as a one-time vow. Commitments must have reinforcement from our attitudes and our affections. Otherwise, they languish on the trash heap of good intentions. This is one reason why the psalms are designed for constant use.
It is important to have spiritually healthy habits ensconced in our lives well before any suffering and hard times roll in. If we have been nourished and supported by a daily sustenance of God’s Word, then we have both a breadth and a depth of robust theology to draw upon when the going gets rough. In addition, the sheer force of habit brings us back again and again to the treasure chest of divine instruction which informs our decisions and illuminates the treacherous road ahead.
All the psalms are designed to reframe our own difficult situations. Even and especially when a person’s life hangs in the balance, we have the opportunity of viewing such hard and awkward circumstances through the window of the psalmist. Although circumstances change and we never quite know what to expect, God’s Word remains as our ballast and our rock. Divine love and morality are unchanging. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Spirit is always with us, through each wave of hardship.
Life is a continual journey, an exploration into the unknown of the future. The path is shadowy and unclear. We are unsure of what is just around the bend. Yet, God’s Word is like a never-ending flashlight helping us navigate forward. Maybe Jesus had this psalm in mind when he said:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, NRSV)
In the Christian tradition, the Word is embodied in Jesus Christ so that he is both example and fulfillment of all God’s promises. Within today’s psalm, a sequence of four metaphors runs through these verses: my feet (light for my feet to walk in the way of God); my mouth (deliberate verbal commitment to God’s words); my hands (doing God’s will despite the circumstances); and my heart (desiring God’s decrees and commands).
With Jesus as Word and Light we have a constant companion walking alongside us for the journey; we have an intercessor who takes our wordy or malformed prayers and presents them before our heavenly Father; we use our hands by observing the Master who washed the feet of others; and, our hearts find their rest in the One who loved us and gave himself for us.
In sum, our attitudes and affections are transformed into sustainable faith for the long journey; our hope is made sure through the promises of God; and, our love finds a resting place in the person of Jesus. Faith, hope, and love are the shoes which enable us to walk the long hard road uphill, as well as absorbing the shock as we run with abandon downhill – into the loving arms of God.
Let us come to Holy Scripture and liberally digest its life-giving message. I encourage you to find what works best for you in developing helpful spiritual habits. In reading the Bible, I often take the following approach using the acronym S.O.A.P….
Open your Bible and slowly, meditatively, read the portion of Scripture in your reading plan for today.
Write the reference of what you read in a journal along with the date.
As you read, ask God’s Spirit to highlight the verse(s) that speak to your life and write it in your journal.
Make observations about what you just read and write them in your journal.
Think about: What is going on? What is the context? Who are the people being spoken to? What is the background or setting for this verse?
Paraphrase and write this scripture down in your journal, in your own words.
What do you think God is saying to you in this scripture?
Personalize what you have read by asking yourself how it relates to your life right now.
Ask yourself how you can apply what you just read to your own life and write it in your journal.
Ask yourself how your life will be different or changed as a result of God speaking to you in this Scripture.
Write out a prayer to God in your journal.
Your prayer should relate to the verse that you highlighted. It could be asking for help, thanking God, etc. Write down what your heart desires to say to God in response to his Word.
May the words of your mouth, the meditations of your heart, the work of your hands, and the movement of your feet be to the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen.