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Loving a love poem, learning about the Bible

"Loving a love poem, learning about the Bible" Continued...

I suppose this poem may capture a moment of real sacri­fice for our high school hero. But whatever the earnestness of intention, it is strikingly bad poetry. Most poems written when we are young and in love feel, in retrospect—how shall we say?—a bit awkward. This is partly because few teenagers are instinctively good poets. It’s about as common as cats being instinctively friendly. But the other reason our old love poems can be painful to read is that we find ourselves uncomfortable with the exuberant passion and extravagant praise. We think, “Yikes! I sound like a nineteen-year-old in love. I can’t believe I was so over-the-top. Talk about melodramatic!” It can be embarrassing to get reacquainted with our earlier unbounded enthusiasm and unbridled affection, especially if the relationship being praised never worked out or if the love has since grown cold.

I wonder if we read a poem like Psalm 119 and feel a bit of the same embarrassment. I mean, look at verses 129–136, for example:

Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.
The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.
I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments.
Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name.
Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me.
Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts.
Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.
My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.

This is pretty emotional stuff—panting, longing, weeping streams of tears. If we’re honest, it sounds like high school love poetry on steroids. It’s passionate and sincere, but a little unrealistic, a little too dramatic for real life. Who actually feels this way about commandments and statutes?

Finishing at the Start

Kevin DeYoung
Crossway
Kevin DeYoung
I can think of three different reactions to the long, repetitive passion for the word of God in Psalm 119.

The first reaction is, “Yeah, right.” This is the attitude of the skeptic, the scoffer, and the cynic. You think to yourself, “It’s nice that ancient people had such respect for God’s laws and God’s words, but we can’t take these things too seriously. We know that humans often put words in God’s mouth for their own purposes. We know that every ‘divine’ word is mixed with human thinking, redaction, and interpretation. The Bible, as we have it, is inspiring in parts, but it’s also antiquated, indecipherable at times, and frankly, incorrect in many places.”

The second reaction is “Ho, hum.” You don’t have any particular problems with honoring God’s word or believing the Bible. On paper, you have a high view of the Scriptures. But in practice, you find them tedious and usually irrelevant. You think to yourself, though never voicing this out loud, “Psalm 119 is too long. It’s boring. It’s the worst day in my Bible reading plan. The thing goes on forever and ever saying the same thing. I like Psalm 23 much better.”

If the first reaction is “Yeah, right” and the second reaction is “Ho, hum,” the third possible reaction is “Yes! Yes! Yes!” This is what you cry out when everything in Psalm 119 rings true in your head and resonates in your heart, when the psalmist perfectly captures your passions, your affections, and your actions (or at least what you want them to be). This is when you think to yourself, “I love this psalm because it gives voice to the song in my soul.”

The purpose of this book is to get us to fully, sincerely, and consistently embrace this third response. I want all that is in Psalm 119 to be an expression of all that is in our heads and in our hearts. In effect, I’m starting this book with the conclusion. Psalm 119 is the goal. I want to convince you (and make sure I’m convinced myself) that the Bible makes no mistakes, can be understood, cannot be overturned, and is the most important word in your life, the most relevant thing you can read each day. Only when we are convinced of all this can we give a full-throated “Yes! Yes! Yes!” every time we read the Bible’s longest chapter.

Think of this chapter as application and the remaining seven chapters of this book as the necessary building blocks so that the conclusions of Psalm 119 are warranted. Or, if I can use a more memorable metaphor, think of chapters 2 through 8 as seven different vials poured into a bubbling cauldron and this chapter as the catalytic result. Psalm 119 shows us what to believe about the word of God, what to feel about the word of God, and what to do with the word of God. That’s the application. That’s the chemical reaction produced in God’s people when we pour into our heads and hearts the sufficiency of Scripture, the authority of Scripture, the clarity of Scripture, and everything else we will encounter in the remaining seven chapters. Psalm 119 is the explosion of praise made possible by an orthodox and evangelical doctrine of Scripture. When we embrace everything the Bible says about itself, then—and only then—will we believe what we should believe about the word of God, feel what we should feel, and do with the word of God what we ought to do.

Notes

1. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible by any definition (if we care to look at chapters, which, we should remember, aren’t inspired divisions). Determining the longest book of the Bible is a little trickier. Psalms is the longest book of the Bible if you count chapters or verses. It also takes up the most pages in our English Bibles. But since chapters, verses, and page numbers are not a part of the original manuscripts, scholars have come up with other ways to determine the length of an individual book. Depending on the means of calculation, Jeremiah, Genesis, and Ezekiel may be longer than Psalms.

2. J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 76.

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