Theme: The Need for Love and Justice
From this week’s lessons, we learn what virtues to practice and vices to reject in order to be the kind of godly leaders and servants God has called us to be.
Scripture: Psalm 101:1-8
I do not often take issue with the translation provided by the New International Version, but I think I should do so here by pointing out that the word “your” in the first line of this psalm (“I will sing of your love and justice”) is not in the Hebrew manuscripts. The psalm actually begins: “I will sing of love and justice.” In other words, the psalm is about love (or mercy) and justice, and the way David introduces these two ideas is much like the style of older writers who would compose essays with such titles as “On Friendship,” “On Civil Government,” and so on.
The New International Version translators obviously thought that it is God’s love and justice that David has in mind. It is why they added the word “your,” meaning God’s. But I think this is a mistake. It is true that love and justice are frequently noted as characteristics of God’s rule, rather than man’s, since human beings are usually neither just nor loving. But the words are used of good human rule in Isaiah 16:5, and this is what David is going to be talking about in the psalm. I think this is very important. For when we relate characteristics such as these to God, however appropriate that might be, we tend to avoid applying these same standards to ourselves, and this is harmful because it is precisely these characteristics that are needed for any upright administration.
Besides, we need both if we are to manage other people well, whether in government, business, the church, the home or whatever. We need both because mercy and justice operate as checks on one another. Justice checks love that might otherwise be wrongly indulgent and therefore harmful. Love checks judgment that might otherwise be unduly harsh and therefore also harmful. David wanted his rule to be marked by both of these. Hence, they are the theme of the song. What follows is essentially exposition.
When I was looking through what had been written on Psalm 101 by other writers in preparation for this study, I was startled to find that Martin Luther had done an exposition of the psalm that ran to eighty pages. The reason, I discovered, is that he was deeply concerned about civil government and wanted to expound the psalm as a listing of qualities toward which every Christian prince or magistrate should strive.
Luther saw love and justice as referring to desirable human qualities also, as I have, not primarily to divine qualities, at least in this psalm. He wrote,
What the psalm calls “mercy and justice” is said not of the mercy and justice of God but of the mercy and justice which a prince practices toward his servants and his subjects….A prince and lord must use both of these. If there is only mercy and the prince lets everyone milk him and kick him in the teeth and does not punish or become angry, then not only the court but the land, too, will be filled with wicked rascals; all discipline and honor will come to an end. On the other hand, if there is only anger and punishment or too much of it, then tyranny will result, and the pious will be breathless in their daily fear and anxiety.1
We are talking about government here, proper standards for an upright administration. But it should also be said that these words apply to our personal lives as well, that is, to how we relate to others. We must insist on upright conduct, modeling it ourselves. But we also need to be merciful, knowing that people are weak as well as sinful. We must remember that even God, who has a perfect standard of justice, does not deal with us strictly as we deserve, but is merciful. We should note that just two psalms after this we find David writing of the Lord, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him” (Psalm 103:10, 11).
1Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 13, Selected Psalms II, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1959), pp. 152, 153.
How do the NIV translation and the Hebrew manuscript differ? How does this affect the meaning?
Describe how love and justice check each other.
In what other ways beyond leadership are we to understand and live by the standards suggested in this psalm?
Application: List some ways you can specifically apply this psalm in your interactions with and treatment of others.
Prayer: Thank God that he shows mercy through Jesus rather than always holding us to his perfect standard of justice.
Key Point: We must insist on upright conduct, modeling it ourselves. But we also need to be merciful, knowing that people are weak as well as sinful.