My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent . . . 16 for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood (Proverbs 1:10-16).
Barry Black grew up on the streets of Baltimore, the son of a devoutly religious mother. She paid her children a nickel a verse for every passage of scripture they committed to memory and Barry quickly learned to game the system. He began looking for the shortest verses in the Bible (“low hanging fruit” he calls them). There was “Jesus Wept” (John 11:35). Then “Rejoice evermore” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Then “Remember Lot’s Wife” (Luke 17:32) and “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Barry found two for one specials. “Do not kill” was Exodus 20:13, but so was Deuteronomy 5:17. Learn it once, get paid twice. Barry’s mother knew what he was doing, but she also knew what she was doing. In order to find those verses, Barry had to make his way through the Bible. Eventually, his mother capped what she would pay to a quarter a week (five verses), and eventually, Barry found greater value than a nickel a verse.
One afternoon in his 13th year, young Barry was invited by some friends to join them in taking revenge on a common nemesis. Barry remembered Proverbs 1:10-16 and refused, choosing to stay far away from those “friends.” The revenge went horribly wrong, and a boy died. The others were charged and convicted of murder. “That would have been me” Barry says, “had I not remembered the proverb” and taken it to heart.
Today Barry is the Chaplain of the United States Senate and as I listened to him a few days ago (his speech peppered with scripture) I thought: That’s what David meant when he wrote: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).
They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts (Psalm 119:87).
In his longest Psalm, David says to God: “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” The Psalm, all 176 verses of it, extols the role of the Word of God in our relationship with the Lord.
It’s difficult to explain the power and nature of the Word of God. Peter said it is living and enduring, powerful enough to grant humans re-birth (1 Peter 1:23-25). Implanted in our lives, the brother of Jesus said God’s word can save our souls (James 1:21). It carries with it such intangible qualities as goodness (Hebrews 6:5) and seems to have a mind of its own as it judges the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). It is the power of God, resident in His word that holds the universe together (Hebrews 1:3). It has the power to make things holy (1 Timothy 4:5), to cleanse us from sin (Ephesians 5:26) and is one of the weapons God provides in our battle against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:17). God never undertakes to explain how all this works. He just assures us that it does.
The word of God never originates with humans, but was written by humans as they were carried along by God Himself (2 Peter 1:21).
David tells us the Word of God should not be neglected, but learned, followed, meditated on, hidden in our hearts, and kept. When it is, we will be empowered to make good decisions, find direction for our lives, and have hope even when almost “wiped from the earth”.
Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in the book, and the longest chapter in the Bible. Even in its structure it is a piece of art. It is divided into twenty-two sections, corresponding to the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. That’s what those strange letters and words are in the headings of each section (aleph, beth, gimmel etc.) Each section has eight verses and each verse begins with a word that starts with the letter of that section.
The Psalm is devoted to praise for the Word of God, His written word. I know it is written because of the abundance of terms used to describe it – laws, statutes, decrees. It’s those same terms that indicate the importance of the Word: it provides boundaries and direction for our lives.
God’s word is supremely that guide. So much so that when, ages later, Isaiah confronted various and often conflicting views of God and His will, Isaiah replied: “To the law and to the testimony. If they do not agree with me (or you), then my (and your) words have no light of dawn.
The Psalmist will list the blessings that come form God’s word. But why are those blessings so often absent from our lives? Has the word failed?
It is not that the way of the Lord has been tried and found wanting. It is simply the way of God has not been tried. If you doubt that, just think about what a challenge it has been to stick with the daily Bible readings.