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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  • http://twitter.com/jasonbhood Jason B. Hood

    Great post, John. "...in the Bible we see that obedience is not a cold exercise but a form of communion with God."

  • http://thetrumpet.com Ben

    God's law sums up his character and could be summed up with one word: Love. If we really appreciate God's law and recognize that it brings healing and joy, then how can we not find it to be the most exhilarating thing there is? If this world lived under God's law it would be a utopia impossible for man to achieve without it. We can look at this world's problems and know that there is a solution: God's law. If we really hate the convulsing world troubles we are currently living in, we will appreciate how precious God's law is and how blessed we are to even know it. Man could never produce a perfect law. After 6,000 years he still cannot solve his problems.

  • http://www.takeacopy.com/ John Dunn

    The Law is not, and was never intended to be, God's ultimate and final revelation of His righteousness and character.

    Jesus is. He is the incarnate WORD, the incarnate Covenant substance, the final embodiment of God's eschatological righteousness/salvation/love that replaces shadowy Old Covenant Law in toto.

    The Law's dim and faded glory cannot compare to the eternal weight of glory that is now found in Jesus alone.

    The Law's ministry served only to condemn and kill. But Jesus came to give Life, rigteousness, and salvation. (2 Cor 3)

    The Law was sweet like honey to the OT saints, not because of it's ability to be obeyed by them, but because it's shadow pointed them to see, by faith, the unseen excellencies found in their promised Messiah alone.

    • Kenton

      The Law, the Torah, that God gave, was given by God to be "life" for the Israelites. So, David can say that the Law is sweet. Why? Because it reflects God's ways. If you look throughout the Psalms, David never says that sacrifices and offerings (the things that are of death and reveal our sin) are delightful in and of themselves. Rather, it is only when one has a broken and contrite heart, that speaks truth and shows compassion, that the giving of offerings becomes delightful. David says, "Uphold me by your Spirit... and then I will offer sacrifices". So it is the Spirit that creates delight for God's ways. That has never changed. Without the Spirit, the Law of God is death to us. But the Spirit stirred hearts even under the old covenant.

      What is different now is that we have the perfect Man as our rule. No longer bound by sacrifices and offerings and fear of sin, we have been given the Spirit in His fullness. Instead of the glory that fades (the glory of the Law that, though delightful, cannot remain indefinitely delightful so as to keep us from sinning), we have the glory of the new covenant, the glory of the Lord that never fades, and ends not in death but in eternal life.

      The Law, like the rule of conduct that the apostles lay down, was never sweet in itself. That wasn't its purpose. God is the One who is good and sweeter than honey. And He gave the Law for a set time and purpose. Now He gives the Spirit, through the perfect Man, so that we can be His obedient children, not conditioned on perpetual sacrifices and offerings, but on the eternal sacrifice and eternal life of Jesus, the Son of God through whom we have been made sons of God. He is our Law, through the Spirit.

      The Torah, though delightful, held a fading glory, that could not remain, sustained by a Spirit that would not abide. The Spirit, however, abides with us, sustaining us with every increasing glory which will result in eternal delight in the presence of God Himself.

  • Tom

    Great article. I enjoyed the reflections/thoughts on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, among other things; however, I do have a question about a statement in the last sentence, "to obey him means to be near Him, to see him." Granted I read this post hurriedly during a small break in my day, but it seems that this idea, to paraphrase, "our obedience brings us closer to God", was just added on to the last sentence of this article. I don't recall seeing any arguements for this idea in the article. I find it somewhat troubling because I don't see this idea that our obedience has anything to do with God's relationship to us, other than the fact that we are disobedient and in need of a saviour. I would love any clarification or input on this idea. Thanks!

  • Mark


  • jeremiah

    Jesus is sweeter!

  • Giles Beynon

    Great article.

    The law is supposed to be followed as Paul states in Romans. Do we sin or follow the law he staes that through the spirit we can abide with it. Only for jesus on sermon on the mount do you have a true reverlation of the law. Impossible? No not by the spirit that Abba Father gives us. Do I follow it? I fail every day!!!! But as I grow through the santification of the father I get a little bit better some places only for my sin to transfer else where, arrrgghh!!! My thrust is this try to follow the law as a fellow commentator said it points to his chararcter and I add our sin. Also take in mind that different sin is more seroius and harmful than others. Even though adultery is put down to a thought actually sleepiing with someone would have very differcult implications. Take Wayne Grudhams (spelling) he uses a example of someone stealing a car. You steal car (bad) and then crash the car (even worse) , while you crash the car you kill someone. Sin leads to death and the law on mount Siania will constantly direct you right. You can't live by it. It doesn't offer salvation and you can only live by grace through Christ on the cross. It will remind you of him especially when you read sermon on the mount. He fulfilled the law, his life, deeds, teachings and character. The law of God is beautiful don't be afraid of it. You are not under it. But try and pray to follow it. Remember the man of lawless is coming! Jesus taught the heart of the law, love God (shortened) and love othe people. They are both coming and the law of God has a role to play in of end times.


  • matthew hadwen

    I appreciate this article, but have one extra comment which might extend what you are saying about suffering. It is not a transfer of sweetness by his bitterness. There is a communion of suffering that is sweet even as it is bitter. At the moment of his bitterest suffering he was in the sweetest fellowship of the most eternal and tender love for a son who was suffering for his Him. The covenant was served through suffering and the sweetness of that will even through the eternity of bitterness prevail. The psalms testify to this, only if you see them as the fulfillment of the mind of Christ.

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