Somewhere in the early ’70’s, I recall being in a group of Church youth. They were singing a song based on Psalm 19:
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
At the time, I found it hard to sing the song with conviction. It seemed to me that we were saying, “God, I really love your rules! Your rules are so wonderful! Nothing is better than your rules! I’d rather have rules than money! Your rules are sweeter than honey!”
I wanted to mean it (“After all,” I thought, “this is Scripture!”). But with any measure of honesty added in, I could not bring myself to say, “I love rules!” I still don’t like rules.
There are people who do like rules. There were always at least one or two kids in any grammar school class who wanted to know first thing what the rules were and then excelled in keeping them and in gathering up all of the trinkets and privileges doled out by teachers for those who did. I got all of the punishments given to those who talk too much and who interrupt others.
Even on a serious, adult level, I still wonder at those who love rules. The godly commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” is a good law. It is a holy law. And though I don’t want anyone to break such a commandment, it is hard to say, “I just love this commandment!” For the man who has broken the commandment, it is crushing and life-ending. It would be perverse for others to stand around as his death sentence was carried out and say, “I love this commandment!” Of course, this is one of the perversities in which our fractured culture occasionally engages.
So why does the Psalmist sing as he does? How are the commandments of God “sweeter than honey?”
The question, it seems to me, is related to Christ’s statement, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Again, this makes sense, but sounds heartless. “If you love me, do what I say,” is distant and cold and correct. Distant, cold and correct are not things I associate with love. So how are commandments sweeter than honey and the manifestation of love? Over the years, my experience has shown “rule-keepers” to often be judgmental and neurotic. Their observance of the rules is not always an example of love, but only one more form taken by human deviance.
The mystery and meaning of Christ’s statement is revealed when we understand that the commandments of Christ are a “verbal icon” of Christ Himself. The “keeping” of His commandments is an act of union with Christ in the heart of His life rather than a neurotic effort to “do the right thing.”
Of course, the commandments of Christ are nowhere as boring as the cultural morality of the mainstream. Forgiveness of enemies and doing good to those who do evil is a world away from the general civility that most people find to be a sufficient modern morality. The radical love of Christ embodied in His commandments are eschatological in their demands (having to do with the “last things”). His commandments are a description of what is like when the Kingdom of God has come – for, in truth, in Christ, the Kingdom of God has come. The community which is the Body of Christ is specifically called to the keeping of His commandments because the Body of Christ is specifically the community of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God does not represent an adaptation to life in this world. We are nowhere commanded to “do the best you can.” But neither are we commanded to keep the commandments for the sake of Christ or for the sake of His Kingdom. Christ recognizes that His commandments are “impossible.” The commandments of Christ have about them the nature of the resurrection – and they can only be kept in and through the power of the resurrection. Union with Christ Himself makes possible what is impossible (“with God all things are possible”).
The keeping of Christ’s commandments is not an exercise in human morality – it is life from the dead. Christ has not commanded us to walk on water – but we can only love our enemies through the same power by which we would. This is the nature of the Kingdom, and the nature of the gospel itself. As such, the commandments of the Lord are indeed pure and sweeter than honey.