Psalm 119:105 reads,
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
According to the Blue Letter Bible app (I have no idea if this app is anymore reliable about biblical history than others but it contains a list of probable dates of when each Psalm was written), this Psalm was written in 444 BC. A quick glance at the rest of this list reveals that this particular Psalm was written near the end of the time when any of the Psalms were written. In other words, it is a “late” Psalm in comparison to many which were written between 1100 & 1000 B.C.
This is a Psalm that Christians will quote in attempting to prove the importance, the inspiration, the authority, and-indeed-the practicality of Scripture, but think about when it was written. It was written near the end of the period in which the Old Testament was written. So it was written reflecting on all Scripture which came before it (which is a lot but none of it was the New Testament). This post isn’t to call into question the New Testament’s place in the Canon of Scripture, but rather to make a point:
We Christian readers of the Bible like to use certain fragments of Scripture in order to prove a point without thinking through the point of the fragment in its context.
For example, if we are to apply this Psalm literally to our entire Bible (which lots of Christians would think we literally do), then perhaps we’d have to take seriously and as directives so much of the Old Testament Law. We’d have to agree with stoning women who commit adultery, abstaining from eating livestock which does not chew its food completely, and strict worship practices which could result in the priest’s death if a mistake was made. I know these are now “unnecessary” because of Jesus (how do we know this to be true universally? I feel like this is such a Sunday School answer: “BECAUSE JESUS!”), but let’s think about the implications of calling Scripture “God’s Word”, “a lamp unto my feet/light unto my path.” Whether we like these types of scriptures or not, Psalm 119 appears to affirm them as the Word of God. Which begs the questions: What do we do with these Scriptures? Why don’t we hear them preached on in church? Is there a use for them that doesn’t force me to have to emulate what they are describing? After all, we don’t emulate much of what Scripture says, and yet, we say if it’s in the Bible, it’s God’s Word.
We’ve been studying Romans in our Sunday School class as I’ve mentioned before. There are scholarly debates surrounding Paul like crazy right now. Lots of good stuff is being written and discussed. One debate of note pits the Apocalyptic readers of Paul against a New Perspective reader of Paul like N.T. Wright. The rub, as far as I can understand it, is: Was Paul dismantling all that had come before Jesus in terms of the newness of what Paul was preaching and the newness of what Christ had accomplished (thus, radical discontinuity between OT & New Testament), or was he connecting dots between what had come before and what Paul had now come to discover in Christ’s death & resurrection (continuity between OT & NT)?
It’s here that I am thinking about this Psalm 119 passage and its clear perspective that the Word of God includes the entire Old Testament and now that we are on the other side of the first Easter, we Christians affirm the New Testament as God’s inspired word as well. But when we read the New Testament, how do we NOT return to the Old Testament so as to be informed about what is happening?
I realize there are many who do see an interplay between the OT & the NT, but much of the time the interplay has to do with proof texts surrounding the OT’s allusions to Jesus or about prophecies that we say have been fulfilled. But what about terms? We tend to agree we need to read the Bible in context, but how good are we at taking terms which seem to have a very specific meaning and verifying that we are indeed first going to the Bible or the period in which these terms were being used so that the meaning we assume is the correct one is actually so?
This came home to me as we’ve been studying Romans, and the term, “Wrath of God” came up in Romans 1:18. Wrath has gotten a bad wrap so to speak of late within the church. Many want to get rid of the term, and at least as many want to celebrate the term in silly ways connected to a silly and arbitrary god who is out to get all those sinners except me! I’d say some of the blame for the former point of view lies at the feet of those occupying the latter. Anyway, the point is, the Bible does very much speak of the Wrath of God. The trick is what pictures do we hold in our minds concerning this God who possesses Wrath, and where do these pictures originate from? Further, do these pictures originate from the Bible or some other lens that we’ve allowed to control so many of our views about biblical themes? Are we even aware that our view is quite like Paul’s seeing through a glass darkly? We could go on…
One of N.T. Wright’s great achievements (of which there are many) which has served my own personal study, enjoyment, and excitement for the biblical text is his insistence that we must do our best to ask the sorts of questions that were being asked at the time of a text’s writing rather than our own modern/postmodern questions. It’s not so much that our contemporary questions are off limits, it’s that they should be off limits until we wrestle with the questions of the periods in which the texts were being written/interpreted. In other words, let’s do our best to see what was meant originally in its original context before we impose our questions on a text. No doubt this is easier said than done. For one, we are impatient and we want the Bible to be our guidebook in the 21st century though it was written 2,000+ years ago at various times and places. We aren’t being fair to God’s Word when we treat it this way.
So back to the Wrath of God and God’s Word being known in 444 B.C. as the lamp unto my feet and the light unto my path: As God’s blessing would have it, the daily lectionary reading on February 6 was from 2 Kings 22:3-20. This text speaks of the Wrath of God in terms closer to how I’d imagine Paul would have interpreted such an idea than perhaps how medieval or apocalyptic language might function. That is to say God’s Wrath was unveiled in the present and was a result of Israel’s ancestors failing to worship YHWH. That is, it’s closer to home than we like to imagine it and it seems to come about in concrete ways in every day life. And it’s horrible. Just because it really isn’t contained in fiery dragon-like imagery doesn’t mean it’s any softer. In fact I would submit that perhaps one reason we’ve failed to grasp the full meaning of this term is that it demands obedience in the present. God’s Elect are not immune from God’s Wrath in the present, and we reap what we sow.
Finally, I’m not dismissing God’s Wrath in the ultimate future. I’m not even dismissing it taking apocalyptic shape, but I do think we need to see the full biblical meaning of the term rather than the images we’ve inherited from other sources. God’s wrath will be terrible for those who incur it. Those who persist in worshiping other gods will be caught up in this terror, but we need to understand how our present worship and obedience contribute to God’s Wrath here in the present age. We need to repent and turn so that we might take hold of the life in this age that anticipates the renewal of all thing by Christ in the age to come.