Patrick, Isabella, and Enrique all grew up in youth group. By the end of their sophomore year of college, though, none of them were in a season of spiritual flourishing.
Patrick decided that the Bible limited his ability to be his true self, and so he had stepped away from Christianity; he no longer “agreed with the teachings.”
Isabella understood that Jesus died for her sins, but she had not taken obedience seriously, and she was suffering in a season of shame and joylessness.
Enrique continued to go to church, but he didn’t have the cross in his thinking. He was wracked with guilt over his own sinfulness and was harsh, even censorious, towards his neighbors.
Psalm 19 speaks to each of these three variants of hard-heartedness, demonstrating a worshipful, aspirational, yet honest posture for walking in obedience. As we teach Psalm 19 to our students, it can provide them with the spiritual insight to rightly diagnose their own hard-heartedness, deepen their awareness of their sinfulness, and show them the ready availability of God’s kind grace.
What’s up with the law?
We sometimes think of “law” as a dirty Christian word, something we want to avoid. Law implies limits, which rubs against our ideas of freedom, autonomy, and self-definition. When we do take the law seriously, on the other hand, we can get pompous and puffed up. But whether our sins and those of our teenagers are icky or “respectable,” inward or outward, all hard-heartedness leaves us spiritually bankrupt. The psalmist knows what we need to remember: It is right for God’s people to obey his good instructions, but we cannot truly obey God unless we rely upon him.
Psalm 19 begins with a poetic outburst (vv. 1 – 6). God’s law is neither dry dogma nor a systematic snoozer, and the law sits with the biblical traditions of poetry, wisdom, and worship. In other words, our theology textbooks ought to lead us straight to the hymnal! Theology is doxological. Let this guide your catechesis and theological teaching.
When you exhort your students to obey God’s law, are you angry at post-modern America? Or are you subtly, smugly angry at your students because they lack the passion that you think you had when you were their age? As a teacher of the Bible, your heart must be poor in spirit, grateful, and worshipful when you start to teach students Christian orthopraxy—otherwise you are in danger of becoming an Enrique, overly critical of yourself and others. When you exhort with the law, pray that God would give you a heart posture of meekness (which, in the Beatitudes, is the spiritual movement situated between mourning and a hungering and thirstingfor righteousness).
The psalm continues in verses 7-11 to extol the merits of the law, in continuity with the previous section’s celebratory tone and poetic style. The couplets in verses 7-9 could not be clearer and more complimentary about the goodness of God’s law, calling it “perfect,” “right,” “clean,” etc.
In verses 10-11, we read that the law is sweeter than honey, more valuable than gold, and that there is “great reward” in law-keeping. Let your youth wrestle with, or bristle against this line, which may seem at first glance to be in conflict with the great tenants of the Reformation. Challenge your students with the question: If we don’t earn our salvation, then what could this reward be?
Take time to show them how God’s instruction and law demonstrate his caring heart for the world. Leviticus is full of seemingly obscure laws which reveal God’s zeal for life, justice, and human flourishing—especially for the downtrodden and those on the margins. By extension, the law sparks our holy imaginations with creative ways to steward our resources and care for our neighbors (and enemies!). We need to help our students see how God’s laws, even the ones about grain offerings, parapets on rooftops, or drilling a hole in a servant’s earlobe, reveal God’s deep care for his holy people.
Honesty before the law
As they praise the law, these verses can really expose the inner thoughts of our hearts. An Isabella may bristle: “Jesus fulfilled the law, so why do I have to do anything?” An apathetic Patrick may retort, “Who cares about God’s law?! You do you…and let me do me!” A smug Enrique may boast, “I do these things better than my neighbors. God must really like me because of that.” Again, no spiritual sickness is “best.” As your youth learn to love the law, let them grapple with it. Invite them to dialogue about God’s law, asking if there are aspects they dislike, or aspects they are trying to follow. The Psalms are emotionally honest to the point of seeming irreverent.
Shutting off emotions before the law is dangerous, and opening up in honesty before God’s commands can bear much spiritual fruit. Encourage Patrick for his honesty, and help him see the wisdom of God’s way. Encourage Isabella for her understanding of God’s mercy, and help her see that the law also exists for the welfare of her neighbor. Encourage Enrique for his efforts at obedience, and help him admit his thinly veiled spiritual pride. Thankfully, in our confession, we are not just “filleted” and left to dry. The psalmist shows us what confession and reliance upon God looks and sounds like.
Lord, help my unbelief!
In verses 12-13, the psalmist presupposes that we have “errors,” that we are prone to “hidden faults” and that we can even choose to fall into “presumptuous sins.” The psalmist presents his limited understanding—and even limited obedience—to God and asks for help. It sounds irreverent, but it’s in the text! God knows our creaturely propensity to covet another person’s spouse, muddy the truth in speech, neglect the sabbath, indulge in excess, etc. Here, we are gifted the spiritual movements of confession and repentance so that we can be restored and pray the beautiful, aspirational verse 14 with sincerity: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be pleasing and acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Rock, and my Redeemer.”
Your students need you establish this pattern of confession and repentance in your own life as you learn to celebrate God’s instruction. Emotional honesty before the law is essential for both our long-term obedience and that of our students. Teenagers can spot “fake” spiritual aspiration, and they (rightfully) hate it. We need to remind our students (and perhaps ourselves) that there is more sin beyond the sexual and alcohol realm. Arrogant hearts, social exclusion, favoritism, and gossip are also sins from which we need to be delivered.
Regardless of where your students find themselves spiritually, let this psalm both expose and guide them. A wayward heart is a wayward heart, and no style of wandering is superior another.
Neglecting the honesty of our sin will leave us proud and spiritually dead, like “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). Conversely, sitting in our sin will keep us as spiritual infants, stuck in patterns of the flesh, and joyless. Psalm 19 draws us out of these extremes and shows us the beauty of an honest, joyful obedience that will sustain us and our teenagers over the long-haul.
A note from the editors: Psalms are meant to be experienced, helping us to take the truths of God’s character deep into our souls. Here’s a song based on this psalm for your encouragement: Psalm 19 by The Corner Room.