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Newscasters called it a “bomb cyclone,” the winter storm that slammed the East Coast last week. By the time I cleared my car, did my errands and returned, I’d dealt with wispy snow that returned as quickly as I brushed it off; slick snow that sent my tires skidding sideways; blowing snow that obscured my vision, and a windshield full of crusty ice. As I tried to tell my husband what he’d be up against, I found myself wishing I knew Inuit, with all its terms for snow. “Watch out for the matsaaruti,” I could tell him about the wet, icy patch up the block, or “Don’t worry, on the main roads it’s all pegnartoq” (snow good for driving a sled in). Instead, all I could manage was a strong “Be careful!”
It’s not just Inuit that’s rich with multiple words for something we describe in one. The Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia have hundreds of words for reindeer that call out the shape of their antlers or level of fitness. People develop words for things that are important to their lives.
So what are we to make of the many Hebrew terms for the law of the Lord (what we would call his word)? Are they redundant? Far from it. Rather, the people who wrote the Old Testament Scriptures were so immersed in God’s word, and it was so important to their daily lives and even life itself, that many words were required to get across what it meant to them.
Dig into the word in Psalm 119
If you want to get a taste of this fullness of God’s word, read Psalm 119. It’s the longest of all the psalms (176 verses!) so get comfortable before you start. Whoever composed this meant it to be memorized. It’s an acrostic poem in which the first letter of every 8-verse stanza starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Nearly every verse contains one of eight Hebrew words for the word of God; there are from six to eight in each stanza, always appearing in a new order. The result is 22 different pictures of the Word. Together they convey a profound and comforting richness.
Read different English translations of those eight terms and you’ll find words such as commands, decrees, law, precepts, promise, statutes, teaching, testimonies, utterance, and word. Even together, these don’t quite get across what “the law of the Lord” is to the Hebrew. It’s God’s revelation of himself, embodied in the covenant words and laws, teaching, and promises that formed Israel as his own special people. It is more than a set of laws or commands, it is a way of life. In fact, read Psalm 119 and you’ll learn that it brings life, restores life, and nurtures life. It is wisdom. It is a connection with God, and meditating on it brings true happiness and blessing and strength. Pondering and following the law is “the way” of the righteous, the happy, and the free.
Jesus is the One Word that encapsulates them all
That could never be packed into a single word until God spoke the One Word that is his Son. Jesus is the Word, the Logos, that to which the Torah points. He is the way, the truth, the life – all terms the Old Testament employs to describe the law of the Lord, gathered into One.
Valuing the law (word) of the Lord
Spend some time in Psalm 119. Unpack a stanza at a time and see what you can find (I’d love to hear!).
If you want just a quick taste, another option comes from Psalm 19 (no, not 119). This short hymn to the perfection of the law of the Lord manages to pack in five of those eight nouns I mentioned. Here’s some quick fruit of my own meditation on it that brings out how important the Word is to our daily lives (the text is in italics). I’m sure you can harvest even more!
Are you tired, weary, or over-burdened?
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
Are you confused or at a loss for what to do?
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
Are you sad and feeling down?
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
Are you lost and in the dark? Do you need clarity, direction?
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
Do you need constancy and stability in your life?
9 the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring for ever;
Are you tired of lies and injustice?
the ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
Are you feeling poor?
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
Does your heart long for sweetness, to be satisfied and filled?
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
All together, then, God’s word is perfect … sure (to be trusted) … right … pure … clean … and true. It’s more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey. For all these reasons, the psalm continues in vs. 11, “there is great reward” in attending to and keeping God’s word.
Psalm 19 ends with a prayer you’ve no doubt heard many times:
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
To rephrase that in my own words and add a prayer of my own:
May the words I speak and the thoughts I think reflect your Word on which I have meditated and which I strive to follow. Fill me with your word, O Word of God. Conform my life to yours. Grant me your favor, you who revive and guide and bless me!
May the living Word bless you as you ponder the words of his Word!
©2017 Sarah Christmyer