The modern world was founded on freedom. From the French revolution to the American revolution, the secularisation of the west, the decolonisation of the Global South, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights era, liberty and freedom have been a clarion call of peoples and societies.
However, it’s possible to idolise freedom to the extent that every unchosen constraint, duty, and law is seen as anti-liberty and we begin to redefine freedom as mere license.
In today’s world, parents’ authority over their children is now seen as a hindrance to liberty; even the limits of nature have been cast aside as people fight for the right to be homosexual and/or transsexual. In today’s liberal world, we approach laws, regulations, virtues, and duties from a defensive posture; we want less of them, not more.
We don’t like laws; we want as few of them as possible. In fact, we want only the ones that ensure we don’t harm each other. Once that is given, we want maximum license, the ability to do as we like. In essence, we might tolerate some laws, but we don’t love or delight in them. We want rights not duties, license not rules and regulations, and self-expression not self-control.
And it doesn’t matter if these laws and duties are familial, political, communal, or religious. We just want our maximum license, unmoored from any limits that we have not chosen.
This attitude towards laws, regulations, and precepts is contrary to the one we find in Psalms 119. The Psalmist did not just endure the laws of God or try to get comfortable with the ones that ensured no one would harm another. Rather, he loved, delighted in, and desired the law of God.
In what follows, I will highlight the Psalmist’s attitude to the law of God and encourage us to have the same attitude towards all forms of God’s laws: natural/moral law, divine law, and civil law.
How valuable were God’s laws to the Psalmist?
In verse 14, we see that the Psalmist rejoices in following God’s statutes as one rejoices in great riches. But in verse 72, he goes one step further saying that God’s laws were more precious to him than “thousands of pieces of silver and gold.” In verse 172, he said he loved God’s commands more than gold, even pure gold. And in verse 103, he considered them sweeter than honey.
Since we live in a materialistic world, it’s not hard to contemplate how much one rejoices in great riches or how valuable silver and gold are. Neither are we oblivious of how sweet honey is. For the Psalmist, the laws/commands/statutes of God are more precious and sweeter than all these.
Why did the Psalmist speak so highly of the laws of God?
In them, he saw a guide to living a life that pleases, honours, and glorifies God. If glorifying God is the reason why we exist (Isaiah 43:7) and the law is a revelation of God’s character and his guide to life, then the law must be embraced as precious.
In verses 9-11 (and verse 133), we see that the laws of God constitute the path towards purity and they help avoid the path of sin, that which breaks down the relationship between God and man (Isaiah 59:1-2). The commands of God were precious to the Psalmist because they helped him stay in fellowship with the holy God who detests sin and impurity. By pointing out the way to holiness and purity, the law became crucial to helping the Psalmist nurture and sustain a fellowship with the holy God.
We see a similar point in verse 19. The Psalmist admitted that he was a stranger on earth and so needed the commands of God to guide him. A common metaphor that Christian teachers have used to make this point is that the word of God is the owner’s manual and we can only live a truly human life in this world by adhering to the standards highlighted in the manual.
As a stranger on the earth, the Psalmist needed God’s laws to avoid taking the wrong steps. To flourish in God’s world, he had to know how God has designed his world and how he wants us to live in it. Instead of seeing them as hindrances, the Psalmist considered God’s commands as a guide to human flourishing, a path towards the good life.
Related to this is verse 24 where the Psalmist called the statutes of God his counsellors. We have all been in difficult situations where we didn’t know the right choices to make. In those instances, we call other people we think have helpful insights and we take their advice. God’s statutes played that role for the Psalmist. When he didn’t know the right steps to take toward the good life, the law opened his eyes and showed him the right path to follow.
The law did not just tell the Psalmist the path to the good life, it also showed him the paths toward the sub-human or languishing life and how to avoid them. In verses 36-37, to turn to God’s statutes was to turn away from selfish gain and from worthless things; and in verse 128, to turn to God’s precepts is to turn away from the wrong path.
We come full circle in verses 98-100 (and verse 130) where the commands of God are the source of wisdom, insight, and understanding. How can we live flourishing lives without wisdom, insight, and understanding? The Psalmist did not depend on pop culture or some sage or motivational speaker to navigate the world. He sought wisdom, insight, and understanding in the commands of God. What was the result? He was wiser than his enemies and had more insight than his teachers and more understanding than his elders.
Because the law is a guide to the good life, the Psalmist confessed that the law is good (verse 39) and righteous (verses 75, 67, 71). Paul agreed in Romans 7:12: “the commandment is holy, just and good.”
The Apostle John also agrees that God’s commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Rather, obeying them is the way we show that we love God, the lawgiver.
One of the most outstanding statements in Psalms 119 is the one in verse 45: “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” In today’s world, precepts and freedom are antitheses. To be free is to be bound by fewer and fewer precepts. The authentic self is the self devoid of any limits, natural, religious, or societal.
The Psalmist does not agree with this modern view of things. For him, it is by seeking God’s commands that he is able to walk in freedom. How so? Freedom for the Psalmist is self-restraint. To be free is to be able to do what is right even if that’s not what the fallen self wants and to avoid doing the wrong even if that’s not what the fallen self wants.
In our desire for untrammeled freedom, we have become captives of our desires, slaves of our passions, and pawns in our consumerist society. The kind of freedom that the Psalmist celebrated is the one that affirms and upholds human dignity – we are God’s creatures and we cannot be slaves of things God has created us to rule over (Genesis 1:27-30).
Paul expressed true freedom thus: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Even when Paul is free, by the standards of the law, he would still refuse to do some things because they are not beneficial and they have the capacity to master him, instead of the other way around. By thus upholding human dignity, Paul was a true humanist. He was truly free.
He makes a similar point in Romans 13. Those who keep civil laws have no need to be afraid of the government. They are free. It is those who disobey civil laws in the name of freedom that end up living in fear of the civil authorities. Again, to be free is to be obedient, and vice versa.
Given all the above, it is not strange that the Psalmist delighted in the law of God (verses 35, 92, 47, 70, 77, 24). Since the law glorifies God, leads to human flourishing, and enables human-dignifying freedom, it is natural that the Psalmist delighted in it.
The Psalmist also loved the law of God (verses 47-48, 97, 113, 14, 72, 127). Since he loved God, he also loved that which revealed the character of God and his desire for his creatures.
For the Psalmist, the law was not a negative phenomenon to be undermined or to be free from. While many of us run away from God’s commands, the Psalmist ran towards them. “My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times,” he said. Some verses later, he said “How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life.”
His longing for the law was actualised in his meditations on them and the desire to discern and understand them (verse 125). He was not just in awe of them (verse 120), he also actively meditated on them, exploring new applications and reflecting on the glory of God mirrored therein (verses 23, 48, 78, 97).
While many of us enjoy pleasure and comfort in license and freedom from all restraints, the Psalmist found comfort in God’s law: “I remember, LORD, your ancient laws, and I find comfort in them” (verse 52).
It’s normal to thank God for provision, protection, and preservation, but how many of us thank God for his law?
Because the Psalmist understood the preciousness of the law, he thanked God for them. As he said, “At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws” (verse 62, cf. 164).
The Psalmist was not just delighting in, loving, meditating on, and thanking God for the law; he also kept them, and he did so with all of his heart. “My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end,” he said (verse 112).
In addition to keeping God’s laws himself, the Psalmist was sad when others disobeyed it (verses 126, 136, 139). It was no surprise that he was willing to tell others, including kings, about God’s righteous statutes (verse 46).
Learning from the Psalmist
The Psalmist was head of a theocracy where God oversaw all the lives of the Israelites under the old covenant. We now live in a different situation: believers are now under a new covenant, which means our obligations to God are similar and different to the Psalmist’s (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Galatians 6:2, Hebrews 7:11-12, etc.)
Nevertheless, the new covenant also has its own laws/commands/statutes (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), with continuity and discontinuity with the old covenant law, and we must imitate the attitude of the Psalmist towards them.
Also, the New Testament establishes the propriety of civil governments and civil laws (Romans 13). Therefore, as much as civil laws imitate natural law, we must receive them as God’s laws and treat them with the right attitude.
What are these attitudes towards the law that we can take from the Psalmist?
Instead of seeing God’s laws negatively, we should see them as a revelation of God’s will for his creatures, obedience to which will glorify him as our creator and Lord.
Similarly, we should see God’s laws positively as a sure guide to human flourishing (the good life). He created us so he knows the best way to live a good and dignified life. We should therefore see his laws as sources of wisdom, insight, and understanding.
God’s laws also include natural law, since he is the creator of the world (Romans 2:12-15). However, natural law must be judged against the moral law revealed in Scripture to ensure we are rightly identifying and interpreting them.
Since the purpose of civil laws is to apply natural law in concrete situations, we must also see civil laws that are true to natural law as God’s laws, a revelation of his will, and a guide to life.
“Unfettered freedom could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the modern world, dissipating into license, triviality, corruption and a grand undermining of all authority,” said OS Guinness, a renowned social critic.
Writing about the premodern view of freedom and how it differs from ours, Patrick Deneen, a political scientist, said: “Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government.”
True liberty/freedom is not the absence of all laws, restraints, limits, or unchosen obligations. While we need to be free from oppressive laws, we also need to be under good, just, and righteous ones if freedom will not devolve to slavery.
Like the Psalmist, we must embrace God’s laws, in all their forms, as designed for our true freedom – freedom from being enslaved by habits, passions, and desires.
We must not tolerate the law or see it as a burden that we have to bear. Rather, given the two reasons above, we must positively embrace the law – delighting in it, longing for it, seeking comfort in it, thanking God for it, and loving it.
In addition to embracing God’s statutes, we must live by them. As James said “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:23-25).
Also, we must be sad when people disobey God’s laws. And that sadness should lead us to admonish others and lead them to delight in God’s laws. Paul condemns those who break God’s natural law as well as those who “approve of those who practise them” (Romans 1:32). We must disapprove of every dishonouring of God’s law and seek to bring people to align themselves with God’s will for their lives.
Our negative attitude to the law, in general, is responsible for some of the downward spiral in our societies. We have all heard about the concept of the authentic self where the more your actions or desires are unnatural, the more authentic you are. This is the untrammeled freedom that has led to the legalisation of homosexuality and transsexuality in many parts of the world. It’s also the cause of the rampant consumerism that has made us slaves of appetites and desires.
The attitude of the Psalmist shows us that this negative view of the law is not unnegotiable. We must not only obey God’s laws, in their different forms, as something we are compelled to do and would rather not do if given the chance. Instead, we must recover a positive vision of law so we can say like the Psalmist “I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalms 40:8).
Open my eyes that I may see
glimpses of truth thou hast for me.
Place in my hands the wonderful key
that shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for thee,
ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me,
Open my ears that I may hear
voices of truth thou sendest clear,
and while the wave notes fall on my ear,
ev’rything false will disappear.
Silently now I wait for thee,
ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my ears, illumine me,
Open my mouth and let me bear
gladly the warm truth ev’rywhere.
Open my heart and let me prepare
love with thy children thus to share.
Silently now I wait for thee,
ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my mouth, illumine me,
 For more on this, read Brian Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the commandments of God (Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2013).
 For more on natural law and its relationship to divine law and civil laws, read the Psalmist Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (South Carolina: The Davenant Press, 2017).
 Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and The American Future (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 17.
 Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 23.