Threefold Use of the Law in Psalm 119
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the longest book in the Bible and it has been rightly described as meditations on the excellency of the Word of God. The chapter, inspired of course by the Holy Spirit of God is written by a man devoted body and soul to God and one way this is demonstrated is by how he views and speaks of the Law of God.
In fact, the psalmist says in the very first verse of Psalm 119, “blessed (happy) are the undefiled (blameless) in the way, Who walk in the Law of the Lord!” (vv. 1). In other parts of the chapter, the psalmist confesses that there are “wondrous” things in the Law of the Lord (vv. 18). Furthermore, the psalmist “delights” in the Law of the Lord (vv. 35).
Yet in this savoring of God’s Law—God’s very precepts, there is a clear cry from the psalmist for deliverance because of his right pondering:
37 Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things,
And revive me in Your way.
41 Let Your mercies come also to me, O Lord—
Your salvation according to Your word.
While I could survey the entire 176 verses, the few I’ve referenced and will reference below are sufficient to help us see something significant in this psalm.
The psalmist’s right meditation on the Law of God drives him to cry out to God for deliverance while still seeing and cherishing and seeking to obey the Law of God because of how it reveals God’s character, what God loves, and how life is best lived. In short, we see Law and Gospel in Psalm 119. And it is important to remember that our Triune God is the author of both Law and Gospel.
Now the Scripture demonstrates (and we can see this in Psalm 119) what the reformer, John Calvin articulated as the threefold use of the Law.
The first use of the law is like a mirror and this is where we see the intersection of the gospel. As we look at God’s glorious standards, it reflects to us our deficiency in light of His perfection. The psalmist says,
5 Oh, that my ways were directed
To keep Your statutes!
6 Then I would not be ashamed,
When we look at the Law of God and examine ourselves in light of that Law we come face to face with our sinfulness—with our own high treason against our Holy Creator and His ordering of His world. We are not neutral. We are Lawbreakers by our very nature. And this should drive us to the mercy and salvation of God (vv. 41) which is found only in Christ Jesus. Jesus is the Blameless Man that upheld God’s glorious standard. He is the true Delighter in the Law of the Lord and we must delight in Him. The Law of God should primarily drive us to Jesus as Savior and Lord. If that is not the very first response after feeling the depth of our sinfulness, then we are not rightly reflecting on the Law of the Lord. God’s Law should drive us to God’s grace.
The second use of the law is civil. The Law can be used in God’s common grace to restrain evil. We are all thoroughly depraved, but by God’s restraining grace our sinfulness—our wickedness is not fully realized. If it were we would have all killed one another by now.
One way God restrains evil is by giving the sword to the government (Romans 13). In fact, in Romans 13, the governing authorities are called servants (diákonos) of the Lord. Those in governing positions will give an account for how they govern. And the Person they will give an account to is Christ.
The psalmist says,
46 I will speak of Your testimonies also before kings,
And will not be ashamed. (emphasis added)
The very kings (think government) of the earth are to pay homage to the Lord in how they govern (Ps. 2). The state is not morally neutral. It never has been and never will be. They are asserting morality. The question is, ‘morality by what standard?’
It is not a coincidence that the just laws of the land here in the states are based on the second table of the Law of God. Governments are instituted by God. They will give an account to God. They must promote morality according to God.
The third use of the law is that of a guide for the regenerate.
9 How can a young man cleanse his way?
By taking heed according to Your word.
10 With my whole heart I have sought You;
Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!
11 Your word I have hidden in my heart,
That I might not sin against You.
The word cleanse (zākāh) is to be morally blameless. It is to cease to break God’s Law (Isaiah 1:16). The psalmist is concerned about walking in purity. Certainly this side of eternity we still have remnants of the old man, but sin really has lost dominion over us. And our pleasure in God which is evidenced by our delighting in His Law—in His Word is how we seek to walk blamelessly. We fight the counterfeit pleasures of this world with superior pleasure—superior happiness.
And as Christians, we can do this by following the example of the psalmist—by meditating on the Word—particularly on God’s commandments. The psalmist hid or treasured (tsaphan) the word of God in his heart. The heart (lēbāb) here refers to one’s inner self — to the center seat of the person which includes the emotions, desires, and will. Intaking, chewing, and digesting the word of God in such a way that you are seeking to get all the nutrients out of it will produce spiritual health. As you acquire a taste and are nourished by God’s very Word, you are being nourished by God Himself and you grow righteously picky as it relates to inferior junk food that can cause you spiritual harm.
We have much to learn as it relates to the usefulness of the Law and Gospel in our lives, but Psalm 119 is full of devotional value as it relates to this topic and I commend a slow study through the chapter.