Today’s readings provide a second opportunity to reflect on Psalm 119:9–16 and its concern for following the law of God. Psalm 119 reflects on the law that James 1:25 describes as “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (NRSV) and which James 2:8 calls the “royal law”—a law at the heart of a living relationship with God. This great law allows one to seek God wholeheartedly and to take delight in following him.
While Psalm 119:9–16 specifically expresses delight in and commitment to the law of God, the psalm as a whole pointedly describes God’s law as life-giving. The verb חיה (ḥāyâ, “to live”) occurs sixteen times in Psalm 119; fourteen of these appearances request that God give life to the psalmist through divine speech, action, or law. In the psalm, law is an agent of divine grace. Law preserves the relationship between God and the psalmist and allows the psalmist to flourish.
This description of what the law does is noticeably different than Paul’s description of a good but powerless law, one that unfortunately brings death rather than life. It is much more reflective of the ancient Near Eastern legal tradition concerned with promoting a society in which everyone has a proper place.
In the ancient Near East, law reflected a divinely given order, and the administration of justice meant maintaining that divinely given order. When society was balanced, people of every class and occupation had the means they needed to live. When society ceased to be balanced, the ruler was expected to reset the playing field for those who had become impoverished. In the ancient Near East, the right to rule was even contingent upon upholding this divinely-ordained social order.
In this context, Psalm 72 turns this reasoning into a prayer for Davidic kings; the life-giving role of the king is seen in comparing the king to showers of rain (72:6) and in describing the king’s life-saving intervention on behalf of the poor and needy (72:13–14).
Deuteronomy 24:10–15 applies the same logic to everyday citizens in Israel or Judah: they must preserve and promote the lives of their neighbors; they must be life-giving. Two specific laws are found in these verses. The first restricts taking a cloak as collateral for a loan, and the second requires prompt payment of a day-laborer’s wages. Both of these laws envision situations in which one’s neighbor has run into financial difficulty. The rules governing taking the cloak as collateral entail preserving the dignity (24:10–11) and wellbeing (24:12–13) of one’s neighbor—the cloak often doubled as a blanket for someone too poor to own both. The timely payment of wages in Deuteronomy 24:14–15 is necessary because the poor person’s physical survival is dependent on them.
For example, an early Judean letter found at Yavneh Yam demonstrates that these laws were vitally important:
May my lord, the governor hear the appeal of his servant.
Your servant is a reaper working in Hazar-asam. Your servant finished his harvest and stored it a few days before stopping. After your servant had finished storing the harvest a few days ago, Hoshayahu son of Shobay came and took your servant’s garment. After I finished my harvesting a few days ago, he took your servant’s garment.
All my companions who were harvesting with me in the heat of the [sun] will testify for me. They will testify that what I have said is true. I am innocent of any [offense.]
[So please return] my garment. If the governor does not consider it his obligation to have [your servant’s garment] sent back, [do] it out of pity! You must not remain silent [when your servant is without his garment.]1
The plaintiff believes that he has satisfied his obligations and that his fellow workers will vouch for him; nevertheless, Hoshayahu has taken his cloak for alleged nonpayment. As the letter makes clear, the situation is like that of Deuteronomy 24:10–15; that is, the dignity and life of the worker depend on having justice done.
We believe that these words of scripture should also shape our faithful response to God’s grace, but we are likely to disagree on exactly how. When C.S. Lewis ventured into the realm of social morality in Mere Christianity, he was quick to note that he was not a trained economist and could not speak in detail to the complexities of modern economies.2 I must offer the same disclaimer here. Yet the big picture is clear: In Psalm 119, God’s law gives life. In Deuteronomy 24, God’s law requires that we do the same. Our life-giving activities involve protecting the dignity and wellbeing of our neighbors. Faithfulness to this law is played out in the everyday details of our lives.
For an accessible introduction to biblical legal material, see Bruce Wells and Raymond Westbrook, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009). I have also found Bernard Jackson’s reflections on law and justice to be helpful (see, for instance, “‘Law’ and ‘Justice’ in the Bible,” Journal of Jewish Studies 49 , 218–229). A more detailed discussion of the nature of royal intervention in the economy of ancient Babylon can be found in Domonique Charpin, “The ‘Restoration’ Edicts of the Babylonian Kings,” pages 83–96 in Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (trans. Jane Marie Todd; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).