Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sweeter Than Honey?

"...More precious than gold, than much pure gold... sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.” Psalm 19:10

This precious and sweet commodity being described above by the Psalmist, David, is the law of the Lord, used interchangeably with his statutes (v. 7), precepts (v. 8), commands (v.8), and ordinances .  Sweeter than honey.  That comparison surprises me. 

I can understand why I should respect God’s laws and try to obey them.  But to describe them as delicious is hard to swallow, so to speak. As necessary as food?  Yes.  But, as tasty as honey?  That seems a bit of a stretch.   You could make a better case that we should obey because it is healthy, not necessarily because it scrumptious. 

That’s only reinforced when you remember that David is referring, not to the Bible as we know it, but to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. And, my, what books they are.  Genesis is pretty good, Exodus not half bad, but after that you get Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Open up to random selections within these books and you may find yourself stranded in seven chapters describing different types of offerings (Leviticus 1-7) or four chapters of census figures (Numbers 1-4).  This is like the gristle of Scripture, the tough part of the meat.  You could live on it, but it sure doesn’t taste real good – certainly not like honey

If I were writing this poem about the law of God to be included in the enduring canon of Scripture, I’d edit out the line about honey.  Maybe replace it with “more nutritious than potatoes.”  I owe my knowledge of potatoes to Michael Pollan and his wonderful book The Botany of Desire.  Potatoes are cheap, versatile, and nutritionally balanced.  They require minimal labor or tools to produce, grow in a wide variety of soil types, and are immensely nourishing.   Almost all the nutrients you need to survive are wrapped up in that tuber.  Many societies have developed on the sustenance of the potato. 

As far as taste, potatoes are pretty bland.  Occasionally we have baked potato night for dinner.  Truthfully, the potatoes are just a sponge for the various toppings we pile on – butter, cheddar cheese, sour cream, sautéed onions, crumbled bacon, and salt and pepper. Take away the toppings and you have a pretty dull meal.  But isn’t that how we think of the law of God.  Dull, but nutritious. Necessary, but not particularly pleasant.  It doesn’t taste like much, but you know it’s good for you.   And yet, David says the law is sweeter than honey.

In his search for an explanation, C.S. Lewis looked to Psalm 119, the longest in the collection and one devoted entirely to the Law.  Again, comparisons are made to the value of gold and silver (v.72), the tastiness of honey (v.103).  At times the Psalmist seems to go over the top with his passion for God’s Word.  Verse 131 he writes, “I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands.”

But Lewis notes that for all its passion, this is the most highly structured of all the Psalms. It's an elaborate poem composed of twenty-two eight-verse stanzas, each stanza corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each verse within each stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter. It’s an acrostic on energy drinks; an alphabetical poem taken to an extreme. And yet for all its complexity, it really conveys a simple message.  The Psalmist loves the Word of God.

Lewis realized that this was no sudden outpouring of the heart, composed off-the-cuff.  It's too complicated for that.  You don’t write this kind of poem in a hurry.  It’s a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long quiet hours.  It’s labored over, as if the Psalmist finds delight in the leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship. He finds the pleasure of getting a thing just so. 

Maybe the poet felt about God’s Word much like he felt about his poetry.  Involved and exact; lovingly conformed to an intricate pattern.  Delightfully complex in it’s details, but wonderfully simple in it’s united whole.  Simple enough to teach children and complex enough that no one has ever plumbed its depths and reached the bottom.

The deeper we investigate the more we discover that God’s Word is a reliable guide to life.  It reveals truth.  Delight in the law is the delight of having touched firmness, of having grasped reality.  God’s Word faithfully directs us through the complexities of life.  In it you find stable, well-grounded directions for living. Psalm 19 points to these benefits, suggesting that the law of God revives our souls, makes us wise, gives us joy, helps us see, and results in great reward. And the more you meditate, the deeper you understand, the tighter you get your hands around it, the more delightful it becomes.

Scripture invites us to unwrap it like layers of an onion.  To find delight in seeing even familiar passages afresh as we take it one level deeper.  And to find that God's Word truly is sweeter than honey.

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1 comment:

  1. Phil, I have to confess that although I've been a believer since I was a child, and that although I have prayed often and always been involved in a body of believers, I have starved myself of a regular devotional life for virtually all of my adult life. Over the past year, this has changed, though. It's now a rare exception when I don't spend time with the Lord before I do anything else. Some mornings, my feet start heading straight for my home office. But more and more often, I catch myself, and turn myself around. I make myself sit and spend time in prayer and scripture reading until I sense that I've allowed my own agenda (which starts making noise like a tin cup on prison bars as soon as I open my eyes) to quiet down long enough to make a genuine connection with my Dad. (Given my history, it's nothing short of a miracle that I'm finding the discipline to do this, so I'm not bragging or preaching.) This makes my life different. Maybe my experience is heightened by the fact that my system is coming off decades of spiritual starvation. But I want to tell you it's SWEET! Of course, I continue to have ups and downs like we all do to varying degrees. But on average, my sense of joy and well-being is higher than it has ever been. For me, what matters is not so much WHAT I'm reading, but THAT I'm reading. I don't mean to diminish the significance of the words themselves in any way. But I do mean to express how wonderful and life changing being disciplined to do real business with God every day can be. The challenge will be for me to continue to be disciplined through times that aren't as exciting as they are now. But it's been a year so far, and with increasing regularity, I can relate to David's choice of the word "sweet". Maybe it was similar for him--maybe the benefits, which he saw creep into his life over time as he continued to do the right thing, were what made him so happy. All that to say, "Yeah, I agree with you."