Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. – Psalm 119:97
How can someone delight in laws about how to make altars, regulations for slavery, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and all that? On the surface it seems improbable, but the point of meditation is to ponder, to put together, to see things, and to go deep.
And if you start understanding why, you start seeing why David loved God’s law.
God’s law shows you what God values. You have these regulations about what to do with an ox that goes wild and kills somebody. You have regulations for multiple outcomes: if this happens, then this is the punishment, but if only this happens as a result of an injury, the punishment is different. One of the things you will get from all that is that God values human life above material prosperity, and he teaches that in his law. So that if an ox goes on an unexpected rampage, the owner loses his property and has to pay compensation: he has to pay for lost time and for the medical expenses. David would have valued this not only for the insight regarding what is valuable in and of itself, but also for the insight into dealing with people. One of the main jobs of a ruler in his time would be to judge in disputes about damage caused by animals, damage caused by neglect, damage caused by malice, damage caused by greed or laziness. The Book of the Covenant in Exodus 20-23 helped him sort through these things.
It also regulates slavery, which is a sticky issue. Why would they have slavery at all? Well, first of all, it was limited. Nobody could be a slave for more than six years. A person who was in such a state could, at the end of that time, leave or stay, but it was his choice. Yes, it was actually possible to chose to remain in service to another. Why would anybody do that? Because they would have a better life than they could provide by themselves on their own. It is a practical consideration in an economy where the options are much more limited than ours. A person could become a slave through stealing. If one were too poor to pay back what was wrongfully taken, what was the punishment? That person would be sold into slavery, would be forced to pay what was stolen and the appropriate compensation for violating another’s rights by working it off. It was not a permanent thing, but it was a possible thing. Without advocating a return to such practices, it seems to have some advantages over spending life incarcerated or living on the streets. It was not chattel slavery, it was not racially driven, it was actually a way of enforcing justice in an economy with very small margins.
David loved all these commands because it made him a better king, and we should love God’s law for a similar reason: it shows us the king. It shows us one who is just, one who values human life above other goods, one who understands the value of property in a properly ordered scale. That is Jesus Christ, who for our sake became a slave, who was rich and yet became poor and humbled himself. Jesus Christ did not redeem us from slavery for the purpose of making us our own masters, but in order to give us a good master—and this is what makes the difference. He empowers us not to do what we want, but to want what we ought and then do that: an that is called his law. If we ponder it and understand it, we will love it as its principles transform us.