Exodus 20:15 is pretty practical: “Thou shalt not steal.” There are complexities, there are always complexities whenever fallible and finite people like us try to apply God’s norms to our situations. But for the most part, we Bible readers feel we know what to do with this command.
But what about the Bible passages that contain no clear commands? What are we supposed to do with them, or in response to them?
Blessing and Bible study
When I first read Psalm 112:1 as a newly serious student of the Bible, I sat up in my chair.
Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!
I wanted that. I wanted the blessing, and I wanted the delighting that led to it. I hungered and thirsted for righteousness. So I started a Bible study project. As a good undergraduate who passed freshman English on the first try, I knew how to mark verbs in the imperative mood. I decided to read through the Bible looking for every “commandment,” and to mark all those commandments by drawing a little box around the verse number nearest it. The evidence of this project survives:
But the evidence says I didn’t make it very far. My project petered out, and not because I ran out of will-power but because I ended up getting what I came for—just not in the way I expected. You see, something finally dawned on me: not all of the Bible’s “commands” are grammatical imperatives. And in some sense I could draw a box around every verse number in the Bible. Everything God says constitutes some kind of norm for readers of his word.
The “norms” the Bible offers for our thinking, our feeling, and our doing are presented in all kinds of creative and interesting ways beyond (and including) imperative sentences. And many of the actual imperatives of the Old Testament, particularly in the levitical codes, actually don’t apply to us New Testament Christians directly; Jesus said so (Mark 7:19; see Frank Thielman’s Paul and the Law for greater detail).
But if there are “commands” in Scripture which don’t appear in the imperative mood, how can we spot them? What are the “norms”—the implicit commands—contained in just the first few verses of the psalm I was reading, Psalm 112?
Couplet 1: Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!
Implicit commands: 1) fear the Lord; 2) delight in his commandments; 3) seek blessing.
Couplet 2: His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Implicit commands: 1) look forward with pleasure to and be motivated by the day when your children will be mighty in the land; 2) be upright; 3) seek blessing.
Couplet 3: Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever.
Implicit commands: 1) believe that wealth and riches generally characterize the upright; 2) trust that the righteousness of truly upright people is lasting.
It’s admittedly a little ridiculous to boil down an effusive poem from the Psalms into a list of commands. God inspired a poem and not a commandment list for a reason—for many reasons. But there are norms contained in Psalm 112. The question is not, perhaps, whether there are norms but how best to be shaped by them. I suggest that the best way to be shaped by the psalm’s implicit norms is probably not to make them explicit at all (at least not at first) but to just read the psalm thoughtfully, or even set it to music; just like the best way to be shaped by the stories of Abraham or Joseph is to start by soaking in the narratives. Skipping right to the “lessons” before taking in the art form is a mistake. Those norms are still there in the psalms and in Genesis, shaping you as you read and meditate.
Divine norms suffuse every story in Numbers, structure every prophetic diatribe against the nations in Isaiah, and fill all of Paul’s epistles. Six times in the New Testament, in fact, the Spirit inspired Paul to tell his readers to imitate him (2 Thess 3:7; 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2 Tim 1:13), and two times to praise his readers for doing so (1 Thess 1:6; 2 Tim 3:10; cf. 1 Thess 2:14). This means that Paul himself—or what we know of him from the New Testament—is one of the means by which God reveals norms for us. Paul wasn’t sinless, but we are supposed to look to his example, whether he’s issuing an imperative or not.
Take a random, fairly commonplace verse from the Pauline epistles:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity (Phil 4:10).
There are no grammatical imperatives in these two sentences. They are, in the most basic sense, historical descriptions of the feelings of an ancient ex-Pharisee and some ancient ex-pagan Greeks. But do any norms for my own behavior or feeling appear here? Yes. This verse sets up Paul as an example: look at the kind of thing he rejoiced over. (When you get a meal from another Christian, do you rejoice more because of the chili or because you got to see God’s grace at work in him or her?) The verse also sets up the Philippians as examples; Certain Philippians showed emotional concern for Paul that sought to express itself in material, physical help, even though they were hindered from actually doing so. “We should be like that, too,” is a legitimate application of this passage (when taken in balance with the necessity of grace, of course).
The connection between a given biblical statement and your personal moral responsibility is not always crystal clear at the outset. And it is difficult to give a rigorous philosophical-theological accounting for the way in which a story or poem can be “authoritative” in the first place. And “example” isn’t the only tool God uses to reveal his norms.
Mobile Ed professor Dan Doriani, drawing deeply from the work of John Frame, suggests that “biblical texts instruct us seven ways: through rules, ideals, doctrines, redemptive acts in narratives, exemplary acts in narratives, biblical images, and songs and prayers” (Putting the Truth to Work, 82). I came to the Bible, launched by Psalm 112:1’s promise of blessing, looking for rules. But God has other ways of instructing, shaping, and commanding me. I won’t say it’s wrong to search for and mark biblical commands. I will say that if you want to be blessed, delighting in God’s commandments means finding all the norms in Scripture, however God chose to reveal them.