Jul

03

2013

John Starke|12:01 AM CT

Why Is the Law Sweet Like Honey?

Modern Christians can be edified when the psalmist expounds on God's law in Psalm 119 and says that the law is wise, able to keep a man pure, and a fortress. If you want wisdom, purity, and stability, go to God's law. It's all there.

But we get confused when the psalmist calls the law "sweet like honey" (Psalm 119:103). Elsewhere the psalmist says that if he did not delight in the law, he would have perished in his misery (Psalm 119:92). In Psalm 19, the psalmist again calls the law "sweeter than honey" and "more to be desired than fine gold" (Psalm 19:10). Even C. S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms, "I can understand that a man can, and must, respect these 'statutes,' and try to obey them, and assent to them in his heart. But it is very difficult to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate."

So how does Lewis answer? He says, "Their delight in the law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian's delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields." Lewis contemplates what happened when a Jew compared his worship to neighboring paganism:

When he thought of sacred prostitution, sacred sodomy, and the babies being thrown into the fire for Moloch, his own "law" as he turned to it must have shone with extraordinary radiance. Sweeter than honey; or . . . like mountain water, like fresh air after a dungeon, like sanity after a nightmare.

As usual, Lewis gives us some insight. But I'm not sure he gets to the heart of the psalmist's delight. It sounds more like Lewis is describing the wisdom of the law over paganism. And the experience he's describing above looks to be more like relief than the exhilaration the psalmist describes. What if we didn't have these pagan rituals as a contrast—would we still delight? I think so.

Communion with God

So what is he delighting in?

In one sense, Lewis is right to point out the experiential side of the psalmist' delight. As Jonathan Edwards famously observed, you can believe that honey is sweet intellectually, but you cannot sense its sweetness until you taste it. For the psalmist, doing the law has proven satisfying, because over and over in the Bible we see that obedience is not a cold exercise but a form of communion with God.

David, in Psalm 32, described the misery of unrepentant sin as his bones wasting away (Psalm 32:3). His energy was dried up as he felt God's displeasure. But conversely in Proverbs 3:7-8, we read, "Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones." More examples could be given, but Jesus gives us clarity in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Holiness brings happiness because it creates a clearer vision of the fullness of God. Obedience clears our palette, so to speak, of the deceitfulness of sin. We cannot taste and see the goodness of the Lord if we are satisfying our sinful cravings. Sin is deceitful (Heb. 3:13), veiling our vision of Christ. It magnifies idols and self rather than Christ, who through the Holy Spirit, transforms us into his image from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 John 3:2-3).

Acid Test

The acid test of this delight comes when obedience meets suffering. And the clearest example is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane as he staggered at the terror of the coming cup, even sweating blood (Luke 22:44). William Lane vividly describes Christ's agony: His "dreadful sorrow and anxiety is the horror of the One who lives wholly for the Father and when he came to be with the Father for the interlude before his betrayal he found hell rather than heaven opened before him, and he staggered and tore at his breast."

Yet when Jesus prayed to the Father for the cup to pass, his question was clothed not so much with the desire for things to be different, but in his desire for God's will: "If you are willing. . . . Nevertheless, not my will, but yours." He could accept God's will in the face of agony and despair because it was his Father's will. Jesus had said that obeying his Father's will was his food (John 4:34), his meat and drink. Obedience satisfied his deepest hunger pangs. In the garden, nothing horrified Jesus more than the coming cup, but nothing satisfied him more than doing the Father's will.

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son in Genesis 23, Abraham said to Isaac going up the mountain, "God will provide a sacrifice," possibly saying to himself, There must be another way! And there was. God provided a way. But when Jesus prayed, "Could there be another way?" there was not. 

For Christians throughout history who have been led intro trouble and suffering for their obedience, this truth opens to us like a medicine chest, because Jesus' obedience is not merely an example. If Jesus was just an example of obedience for us, then he'd be just another law to crush us. But for the broken-hearted, troubled, and suffering, Jesus' obedience reminds us that when we are suffering, our prayers aren't answered, or we're tempted to feel abandoned by God, we know that if he didn't abandon us in the garden, under those circumstances, he will not abandon us now. 

Jesus followed the will of his Father and experienced bitterness so that when you follow the will of God, you can experience sweetness.

When you see that kind of love, you realize it's what you've been waiting for all your life. Family, friends, spouses, and professional recognition never satisfy like this. All other loves will let you down—this will not. Obedience is never just choosing right over wrong; it's choosing to be satisfied with God over something else. If obedience is merely an ethical choice, you're doing it wrong.

When you see this love, you can trust the Father, obey him, and follow him, even when he leads you through suffering. Because to obey him means to be near him, to see him—which is sweeter than honey. 

John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.

Categories: Bible and Theology

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