October 26, 2004

Psa. 19:7-10: The transforming power of Scripture

This entry was originally the second part of a two-part Sunday school lesson on sola Scriptura that I delivered on August 15, 1999 to the college and career class at my church. For part 1, see The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture.

When I was first preparing this lesson, I ran through the headings in my Bible just to do a quick survey of what all the Psalms were about. I was surprised to learn how few of them actually seem to be about the Word of God. Understandably, most of the Psalms focus on God himself. Psalm 1 touches on it in passing, and of course Psalm 119, the longest chapter of the entire Bible, is a series of meditations on the Scriptures.

Psalm 19 is about the complete revelation of God. It starts with what we call general revelation: that is, the evidence of God from creation. Historically, Christians have held a view of "two books" of revelation - one was the book of Creation, and the other was the book of Scripture. This is the concept of Revelation held by such men as Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon, who once wrote:

[L]et no man . . . think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress, or proficience in both."

More recently, in the 19th century, the theologian Charles Hodge could say: "Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible; and we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science."

But for now I want to focus on verses 7-10. This passage is about special revelation - that is, the Scriptures. It says:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul:
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart:
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever:
the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
yea, than much fine gold:
sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (Psa. 19:7-10)

Note the parallelism in this passage: six declarations containing six descriptive titles and six characteristics of the Word of God, and six transforming effects that it has on the soul.

First, the law, or doctrine, of the Lord is perfect. Perfection is an attribute of the Word of God, as much as it is an attribute of God himself. This is self-evident, since the Word is theopneustos: God-breathed. A few years ago I took a course in the philosophy of God; one of the subjects we touched on was the divine attribute of perfection. In Greek thought, perfection carries the idea of completeness; figuratively speaking, it was like a cake that was cooked all the way through. In Hebrew, the word for "perfect" also carries the idea of completeness. The psalmist, David, is saying that the law of the Lord is complete, that nothing need be added to it to make it better. And David was only speaking about the Law, the first few books of the Scriptures. If David could call only a fragment of the Scriptures, "perfect," how much more can we say the same about the whole counsel of God?

Because the law of God is perfect, it converts the soul. The Scriptures are designed to produce faith, to turn sinning souls back to God, as Paul says in Romans 10:17: "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." In his commentary on the letters to Timothy, William Barclay tells a story of a colporteur in Sicily who was held up by a robber at gunpoint. (I had to look it up too: a colporteur is not a songwriter, but a peddler of religious books.) The robber demanded that he light a fire and burn his books. The salesman agreed, on the condition that he was allowed to read a bit from each one before consigning them to the flames. From the first one, he read the 23rd Psalm; from another, the Sermon on the Mount; from yet another, the Love Chapter from 1 Corinthians. Each time he read a passage, the robber would say "That's a good book; we won't burn that one." In the end, none of the books were destroyed. Years later, the two men met again, only this time the former robber was a minister of the Gospel. His first encounter with the colporteur had transformed his character. The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.

The testimony of the Lord, the Psalm then says, is sure. Compare what Jesus said: "whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock" (Matt. 7:25). Last time I mentioned Luther at the Diet of Worms: how, when ordered to repudiate the books he'd written, he replied, "Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God." Luther recognized that only Scripture was a sure foundation for doctrine; the shifting and unstable pronouncements of Popes and Church councils were like a foundation of sand.

Scripture makes the simple wise. It isn't enough merely to be converted. Did Jesus tell his disciples to "go and convert all the nations"? No, to "[g]o ye therefore, and teach [i.e. make disciples of] all nations" (Matt. 28:19). How many times do the Scriptures admonish us to grow up in our faith? Yet without continual study of the Bible and its application in our lives, we will never grow as Christians; our faith is grounded in the doctrines of this Book. In his farewell speech, Moses told the Hebrews that knowing and obeying God's law would make the other nations envious:

Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. (Deut. 4:5-6)

The statutes of the Lord are right: that is, they are grounded in righteousness. Again, righteousness is an attribute of Scripture that is inherited from God. A righteous doctor provides right treatment; a righteous lawyer provides a proper defense; a righteous God decrees righteous laws.

These statutes rejoice the heart. Have you noticed the way the thought of the Psalm progresses? The Word of God first converts the soul, then it makes it wise; now, it makes it joyful. Charles Spurgeon once wrote that "that truth which makes the heart right then gives joy to the right heart."

Next, David writes that the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. Similarly, another one of my favourite Psalms says that "The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" (Psa. 12:6). They are absolutely pure, with no dross whatsoever. To borrow the metaphor used in this passage, the word of God is like pure, uncontaminated medicine for the eyes. Having converted the soul, produced wisdom and then joy, this divine medicine, applied to the eyes, clears the vision. Knowing God better makes our picture of the world clearer, as George Croly's hymn "Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" says, in its second stanza:

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.

Interestingly, I have yet to find this verse in any hymnbook I've inspected. Nowadays, we're more likely to sing:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of Earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

This hymn, written by Helen Lemmel in 1922, shows the influence of the Holiness and Fundamentalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many people consider a proper faith to be a sort of pious tunnel vision, focusing on Christ and ignoring everything else; but I dare say that given the choice between the two, it is Croly's attitude that is the Biblical one.

The fear of the Lord is clean, the Psalm continues. The Scriptures clean the love of sin out of our souls.

The Scriptures endure forever. Jesus said that "[h]eaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:35). History has testified to this truth. Before the invention of the printing press, the Scriptures were subject to over a thousand years of copying by hand; yet, when we compare the newest copies with the oldest, the differences that can be ascribed to mere human error - missing words, misspellings, and the like - are minimal and do not affect a single teaching in the slightest. I understand that the Jewish copyists were even more meticulous, and that the variations in the Hebrew Old Testament amount to all of eight words that affect the meaning of the text. Skeptics have claimed that the Bible isn't reliable because it's been copied, rewritten, edited, and corrupted over thousands of years. Don't believe it for a minute! Whatever copy of the Bible you might look at, there's no doubt that it's the same book as it's always been.

Finally, David sums up his thought:

[T]he judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
yea, than much fine gold:
sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (Psa. 19:9-10)

In two other places, the Bible symbolizes someone receiving the Word of God with a scroll that tastes like honey when it is eaten (Ezek. 3:1-3; Rev. 10:9-10). We all know what a "gold rush" or "gold fever" are; there seems to be a natural craving in man to acquire this most valuable of metals. Similarly, if you've seen your friends drooling over a dessert menu, you know that we seem to have an innate craving for sweet foods, especially chocolate. David says that the Scriptures are more valuable than either one.

That is the transforming power of Scripture: it converts us, makes us wise, causes us to rejoice, and gives us a clearer vision. So how do we experience this transformation?

First, and most obviously, by reading the Scriptures. We should be doing this diligently - ideally, on a daily basis. We can all find time in the day to watch some TV, read good book, chat on the phone, or many other trivial tasks - is there any reason why we shouldn't apply the same diligence to our devotional duties? We should also read wisely: that is, not only using our time wisely, but reading the Bible wisely - reading systematically, rather than haphazardly; not limiting ourselves to a few favourite passages, but reading as much as we can of the whole counsel of God; and to aim to be well versed in the basic tenets of Christianity first, rather than be bogged down in the details.

After reading the Scriptures comes meditation - that is, serious thought and study of what the Scripture means and how it applies to us. The first Psalm says that the righteous man meditates on the Law of God "day and night" (Psa. 1:2). Meditation is like digestion. The food we eat has no value to us unless it is digested; similarly, our spiritual nourishment is only useful after it has been meditated upon. If we're the most diligent readers of Scripture in the world, yet we forget what we read only five minutes later because we haven't meditated upon it and internalized it, then we've accomplished nothing at all.

Above all of this are prayer and faith. Prayer, because we pray and give thanks before every meal; isn't our spiritual meal that much more worthy of the same honour? And faith, of course, because without faith it's not even possible to receive the Word of God or believe it.

Finally, of course, we ought to practice what we read. James admonishes us to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (Jas. 1:22). Again, we can read all we want, but if it doesn't change us, what have we accomplished?

The same points could be made about the second way we experience the transforming power of Scripture: hearing the Word. Protestant worship centres around the preaching of the Word; any church that is slack in its preaching is not fulfilling its mandate. On the other hand, a former pastor of mine once remarked that it took him twenty hours to prepare a sermon; it was discouraging for him to see many empty pews when he delivered it on Sunday. Our pastors have been called by God to be ministers to our souls. It's good for us to show up on time for Sunday services, to pay attention to what is preached, to pray over it, and to discuss it with other believers. And again, if we don't put what we hear into practice, our pastors might as well not waste their time.

The Word of God is the final authority in our lives, because it comes from God himself. In all matters of faith and behaviour, it is sufficient; we need nothing else to tell us what we need to believe and what we need to do. Scripture transforms us: it converts our souls, cleanses them, teaches us how to be wise, causes us to rejoice, and clears our spiritual vision. And when the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes, we can say the same thing to God that the Psalmist wrote so many years ago: "I [can] behold wondrous things out of thy law" (Psa. 119:18).