Psalm 119 Journal - Stanzas 5 and 6
33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. 35 Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. 36 Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! 37 Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. 38 Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared. 39 Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good. 40 Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life!
The Hebrew scriptures reveal the eternally existing creator God of the cosmos in contradistinction to the nature gods of surrounding nations. God’s instruction for keeping the Israelites free from the spiritual corruption associated with these false gods is clear and extensive. God tells them that His blessings and judgements in the promised land will be tied to their fidelity in keeping his law (Deut. 11:13-26). He charges them saying:
18 You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
The Jewish tradition of wearing a phylactery (a small leather box containing a portion of the law) on the forehead appears to derive from these verses. It serves as a visible reminder that when an Israelite looks at the world it must always be through the lens of God’s eternal law. The law describes and prescribes the only true way of life.
But then, there is the Psalmist’s surprise! He engages the God of unlimited power and authority – the God who blesses and curses – in an intimate personal conversation. Each verse offers up a desire of his heart. Each request is a confession of total dependence. Teach me, give me, lead me! He acknowledges his propensity to look away from God and cries out, “Oh God, enable me to do what is good and keep me from evil – give me life.” He offers up his heart and soul in complete confidence assured that God Almighty will respond to him graciously and personally.
41 Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; 42 then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word. 43 And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules. 44 I will keep your law continually, forever and ever, 45 and I shall walk in a wide place, (or at liberty) for I have sought your precepts. 46 I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, 47 for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. 48 I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.
A person of faith will encounter opposition from others who will taunt or ridicule. This may include individuals in positions of civil authority, or political enemies, who can do even greater harm. Thus, the Psalmist bings the question of freedom to the forefront.
You don’t have to be a bible-thumper to recognize that a society’s conception of freedom is import. As a landscape architect, one of my favorite quotes in this regard comes from James Howard Kunstler an outspoken critic of the placeless ugliness that pervades the American built environment. He observes that:
Freedom, in this culture, means that whatever makes you happy is okay. This is the freedom of a fourteen year old child… Under this version of freedom, there is no legitimate claim to any authority to regulate human desires – not even the personal conscience – nor any appropriate scale of management, and all supposed authorities are viewed as corrupt, mendacious, and irrelevant. (Home From Nowhere, 1998, Touchstone, p. 61).
Kunstler is describing our loss of understanding of both positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from harmful things – like coercion or discrimination. This freedom can only be preserved within some framework of authority. The truer and more trustworthy the authority structure the freer the individual will be. Positive freedom is not freedom to do whatever one desires - that is anarchy. Rather, it is the ability to pursue what is right and good. Since its foundational criteria are normative, positive freedom depends on a society’s ability to agree – at least roughly – on the definition of righteousness and goodness.
In the previous stanza, the Psalmist professes that God alone can provide trustworthy definitions of righteousness and goodness. All other definitions will be tainted by the fallen nature of humanity. The gateway to positive freedom is narrowly defined by the character and word of God himself. In this stanza, the Psalmist declares that the law of God is the only reliable defender of true human liberty. Because God is characterized by perfect love and complete goodness, one who walks under His governance is free from all restraints on the pursuit of virtue and blessing. The "wide place" of true freedom is found in surrender to God’s perfect and loving authority.