Law and law

Psalm 40 was appointed for this morning. Some folks will know it from the U2 song – it’s the psalm that begins:

I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.

Just a few verses later is this one:

Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; my ears You have opened; burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.” Ps 40:6

We talk about how anyone who thinks they have received a word from God should test that word against Scripture, because God will never reveal anything that is contrary to any word he has given in the Bible. Isn’t this why Peter hesitated when, in his dream, the angel told him to eat of the unclean animals that the law forbade? Isn’t it why Hezekiah refused to ask for a sign when the angel commanded him to? (It was Hezekiah, right?)

How then can the psalmist argue that God has neither required nor desired the temple sacrifices, which were (so it says) indeed commanded by God?

But it seems Scripture itself affirms that Hezekiah and Peter should have obeyed the angel instead of Scripture, and the biblical letters do testify that the apostles were right to declare that the Gentile Christians must not be compelled to obey the laws that marked Israel as set apart from the nations… How much simpler it would have been if, when God gave the law in the first place, he’d not said that it was to be a permanent statute, unchanging forever.

How do you trust Scripture when either God changes his mind and goes back on his earlier words, or else the Scripture writers ascribed the wrong things to God? And how are we to judge the testimony of those who claim to have heard from God, if what they have heard is contrary to any part of Scripture?

This morning’s lesson from Galatians contributes to this discussion.

It begins with Paul arguing that even in covenants between people, it’s not okay to change or dismiss it once it’s been ratified. Paul is talking about the promise to Abraham, which was given before the law was given; therefore, he says, the law does not negate the promise. That’s not what the law was given for – it was given “because of transgressions” – to reduce the expression of evil? To name sin as sin, thereby declaring everyone a sinner, until the time of Christ should come, bringing the promise to fruition?

Again… why not make it explicit, when the law is first given, that it will serve a temporary purpose, and give the sign that will indicate that its time is over? And again, what did Jesus mean when he said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it?

If at some times “the law” refers only to those markers of distinction, such as food laws and circumcision and temple sacrifices, and other times “the law” refers to God’s standard of moral and spiritual righteousness, such as the Ten Commandments, it would be nice if the biblical authors had made it clear each time which meaning of “the law” they intended.

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