“And the scribe said to him, ‘Very good, teacher, you speak truthfully that He is one and that there is not another besides him. And to love Him with the whole heart, with the whole understanding, with all strength, and to love a neighbor as ourselves is far greater than all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
It is obvious that the scribe is pleased with Jesus’ response, and this sets up an interesting dynamic, for Jesus will commend (at least on one level) the scribe as well. This makes for one of the more unusual interactions that Jesus has during this week. Prior to this question, Jesus has been bombarded by challenges to his authority and traps to try and trick him into siding with this group or that. Here, as we discussed above, is at least an underlying question again as to who Jesus will side with in his interpretation of the law. Some have made the suggestion that this comment by the scribe is rather insincere, but that seems rather odd given the context of Jesus’ statement in response. So how are we to understand this dialogue and how are we going to understand the variation between what Jesus taught immediately before and how this scribe paraphrases his statement?
To begin with, we see the scribe giving the briefest summary of the Shema. Jesus has quoted it verbatim and the scribe is giving his own interpretation of what Jesus said, tying in Deuteronomy 4:35 to support his answer. This was a common rhetorical technique amongst the Jewish Rabbis. Theology was done in the form of dialogue, so one might begin with a question, and the discussion that ensued would be in the form of more questions, answers, and interpretations in the hopes of arriving at a better understanding of the question at hand. We should not see the Scribe as being incompetent and unable to quote the Shema back to Jesus, but that he is interpreting Jesus’ statement in the context of the discussion. With this in mind, it sets the stage for the second part of the scribe’s statement. The scribe misses the language of yuch/ (psuche), or life, altogether and he replaces Jesus’ language of dia/noia (dianoia), or understanding, with the language of su/nesiß (sunesis), or intelligence. In addition, the scribe ties in passages like Hosea 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:22, to speak of our loving obedience to God is far better than the ritual sacrifices of the temple. Again, what we find is that the scribe is responding to Jesus’ statement by offering an interpretation of it, and Jesus will respond favorably.
One of the major issues that Jesus battled with during his earthly ministry was the issue of people missing the intent behind the law in their pursuit of the letter of the law. The Pharisees, especially, were guilty of this. In their zeal for obedience, they had allowed the law to be understood in a legalistic way and had become blinded to the truth behind what God was commanding. God demands love and obedience from his people in every aspect and area of their lives. As Abraham Kuyper commented, “There is not an inch of this whole life that Jesus, as Lord of creation, does not put his finger on and declare, ‘Mine!’” And in the case of this scribe, it seems that he got it. He understood the intent of the law and demonstrated that understanding by the way he tied in other passages of scripture that spoke of similar things. So, beloved, what should we be reminded of from our scribe’s answer? We should be reminded that in all that we do, in whatever capacity that we serve the church, we are to be wholly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. This commitment must never take the form of a list of “dos” and “don’ts” apart from what scripture commands to be a “do” or a “don’t,” but instead, we are to pursue God and his righteousness in service to our fellow man. This is our calling, to share the gospel with all and to make disciples by baptizing and teaching people to obey all that Jesus taught. Beloved, what a task we have before us; pray that the Holy Spirit will bless that task and empower it in such a way that God is glorified in all we do.
“Jesus answered, ‘The first is: ‘Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord, your God, the Lord is one!’’”
To answer this question, Jesus quotes what is known in Hebrew as the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Shema is easily the single-most important text in the Hebrew Bible; it defines the Hebrews as a people and perpetually reminds them of their place in relationship to God. Many scholars have argued that the book of Deuteronomy itself is essentially a constitution for the Israelite nation when they enter into the promised land, and if this is the case, the Shema is the Preamble to that constitution. It is the first prayer that a Jew prays in the morning when he awakens and the last prayer that he prays before bed; in times of distress, like during the oppression of the Jews in Nazi Germany, it was the Shema that was used as a means to identify oneself as a Jew to the Jewish community in hiding. It is also the first prayer that is prayed (normally sung or chanted) at the beginning of a typical synagogue service. And here, Jesus uses this prayer, this statement of faith, to sum up what it means to obey the law.
The Shema begins with an imperative statement: “Hear!” The word in Hebrew that this is derived from is the term [m;v. (shema), which is where it gets its name. More importantly, though, the term [m;v. (shema) does not simply mean “to listen,” but it also carries the connotations of obedience and submission to what follows. It is a command to the people to hear the words that are being said, to internalize them, to submit to their authority, and then to live in obedience to what is being commanded of the listener. There is no room for ambiguity in this command—you must hear is the idea that this command is conveying.
The second word that is found in the prayer tells us to whom the prayer is addressed: Israel. We, as Christian believers, must be reminded here that the name Israel applies to us today. Paul reminds us in Romans 9:6-8 that one is not a member of Israel simply because of genealogical descent, but through the promise of God—through faith. In Galatians 3:29, Paul also reminds us that we are counted as Abraham’s offspring—heirs according to the promise and members of true Israel—through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, this command of “hear, O Israel,” is a command that is set before our very ears today and must be laid upon our own hearts as well.
Yet, what is significant about this language of “Israel” is not simply that we are part of the promise (though that is a great and a wonderful thing), but it is a reminder that we are bound together as one people in Jesus Christ and we have been given a name. Israel was not a name that Jacob chose for himself, but it is a name that was given to him after he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 32:28). The name means, “One who has striven with God.” Now, we usually think of striving as a totally negative thing, yet let us never forget that while striving against God is not an act of submission, it does mean that God’s hand is upon your life. The reprobate and pagan who has rejected the things of God does not need to worry about striving with God in his or her life—Paul reminds us that God has given them up to their sinful ways—allowed them to pursue the sinful things that will destroy them (Romans 1:24-25). God’s hand is only upon his people, rebuking us when we sin, drawing us toward himself in righteousness. In our sin we strive against God; we wrestle with his calling upon us, yet his calling is upon us; his hand is in our lives. Israel is a name given to us as God’s people to set us apart from the rest of the world, to remind us of our corporate unity as God’s people, to remind us that it is a name given to us by our God (only the Master has the authority to give a name to those in his service), and it is a reminder that God’s hand is upon our lives. It is a reminder that we should rejoice in as gentiles, for once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people—once we had received no mercy, and in Christ Jesus we have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10—a fulfillment of Hosea 1:23).
The next words that are pronounced are, “the Lord,” or kurio/ß (kurios) in Greek. In Hebrew, this would be pronounced, “Adonai,” which means “Lord of Lords.” Yet, Adonai is not the Hebrew word that is used in Deuteronomy 6:4, hwhy (Yahweh) is. Yet, out of reverence for God’s covenantal name, the Hebrew people developed a practice of never pronouncing it and saying “Adonai” instead. That practice carried over into the Greek writing, and thus, kurio/ß (kurios), or “Lord,” was used instead. What is important about this language is that this is the covenantal name of God that he gave to Moses in Exodus 3:14, which is a statement of his eternality and uniqueness. “I am who I am,” is how we often translate this name into English; that God is, he always has been, and he always will be. God is eternal and there never was a time when God was not—nor will there ever be a time when God will cease to be. All things that are had a beginning and this beginning is found in the creative work of our God. Yet, this God, as great and mighty as he is, chose to condescend to fallen man and have a relationship with them, and in doing so, has given us his name that we might know him by that name for all generations (Exodus 3:15). He is a God that is knowable, and is ultimately knowable in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who is answering the scribe in this case.
Jesus continues his quote of the Shema with the words “our God.” In the Hebrew, this is one word, Wnyheloa/ (Elohinu), which is the Hebrew word, “Elohim” with the first person plural pronoun as an ending, thus, it does not read, “the Lord God,” but it reads, “the Lord, our God.” This is important on a number of levels. First of all, we must remember that these words were recited by the Hebrew people at least twice daily. Thus, every day men and women were professing that this Yahweh was their God, personally and individually. To call Yahweh, “our God” is also a reminder that we are bound as part of a covenantal community and not isolated, “Lone Ranger,” believers. We are in a covenantal relationship as the church with one another and with God himself, and these words form a concise reminder of that fact.
In addition, the name, “Elohim” carries with it a variety of connotations. We must remember that there are many names for God used in the Old Testament, and these names all are designed to reflect different aspects of his character. The name Elohim reflects two ideas: God as creator and God as lawgiver. To speak of God in this way, then, reflects the idea that the people are confessing God to be their creator and their lawgiver. A creator has ownership over that which he has created and a lawgiver has the right to establish the rules and guidelines that his creations must live by. These are words that remind God’s people of our submission to his authority and to his laws. It is God who defines who we are and sets up the parameters as to how we go about doing what we do.
Finally, the Shema ends with the language, “The Lord is one.” This reflects not only that God is one, monotheistic, God, but that he is alone in his Godhead. God has no rivals, he is unique and infinitely wonderful. Nothing in creation even comes close to his perfection. This reflects the immutability of God’s perfections, and as the great and wonderful God, he is the source of all true wisdom and knowledge. This language also reflects the language of the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” God is God alone in our lives; he will not share his authority or place with any other. There is no room for idols of any kind (even modern ones like our careers, wealth, status, etc…) in the lives of God’s people. God is God alone.
And this is how the Shema closes, although the language of the larger passage explicates how the believer is to go about living this out. Jesus will touch on this as he continues, but let us not overlook the importance of this first statement. It is the credo, if you will, of God’s people; it establishes our identity and reminds us of our proper relationship with God. In fact, in most traditional editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, the last letter of the first and last words are written in bold case and a larger font. These two letters spell the Hebrew word d[e (ed), which means testimony or witness. How often we are guilty of seeking to distort that relationship. How often we are guilty of trying to set ourselves up as lawgiver in our own lives. Oh, beloved, we are men and women in submission, but we are in submission to a good and wonderful God; let us live happily in submission to God’s laws and God’s providence in our lives, and let these words always remind us that we are God’s people and he is our covenantal God.
The word in Hebrew that is translated as testimony is tWd[e (eduth), and is derived from d[e (ed—note that both of these words are pronounced with an “ae” sound in English). Both words carry similar meanings, though the connotations vary somewhat in terms of how they are used.
The first word, tWd[e (eduth), refers to a witness or testimony, but is normally used in terms of legally binding stipulations or laws. The Tabernacle is for example, called the Tabernacle of Testimony (Numbers 17:4) because the tablets of the Ten Commandments were contained within. This becomes very pronounced when you get to verse 10 of the same chapter for Moses is told to put the staff of Aaron before the testimony—ultimately something that was kept with the 10 commandments. Thus, when Psalm 119 speaks of testimony in this sense, it is speaking most specifically of the Moral Law (10 Commandments) but also carries the implication of the rest of the law of God—in essence, all of God’s word. This word is found 9 times in the 119th psalm (which should say something right there), and is located in verses 14, 31, 36, 88, 99, 111, 129, 144, and 157.
The second word, d[e (ed), is a massively important word in Hebrew and is found 118 times in the Old Testament even though it is not explicitly found in Psalm 119. It refers to the idea of witness in much the same way as the New Testament Greek term marturi/a (marturia—from which we get the term “martyr”) is used. This word refers to that witness which confirms the truth to be so. This is one’s testimony of faith before men, for example, as well as being a testimony in a court of law.
The connection between these two words is found in the concept of the covenant of God. God’s covenant with his people is his d[e (ed), but this d[e (ed) contains stipulations for those that would be in covenant with our Lord and King. Those stipulations are the tWd[e (eduth) of God.
What is also worth noting is that another word that is derived from d[e (ed) is the term hd”[e (edah), which means “congregation,” referring to a gathering of God’s people. God’s people are those that he has put into relationship with himself through his covenant, his d[e (ed), and regulates through his tWd[e (eduth). All very closely connected. This word is found 14 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 2, 22, 24, 46, 59, 79, 95, 119, 125, 138, 146, 152, 167, 168). So closely are these words and ideas related that in most if not all cases, when Psalm 119 is translated into English, they have translated it as “testimony” rather than congregation. This is probably a little misleading in the crossover to English, but at the same time, in the context of the Psalm, it appears that the Psalmist is doing much the same thing—wedding together these ideas. Or, to put it another way, the presence of the covenant people of God are God’s testimony to his own covenant faithfulness—his ds,x, (chesed—pronounced with a hard “ch” like in “Loch Ness”). The word ds,x, (chesed) is variously translated in our English Bibles, but refers to the covenantal faithfulness of God in spite of our covenantal unfaithfulness, and is found 7 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 41, 64, 76, 88, 124, 149, 159) and is often translated as “steadfast love.”
With this in mind, permit me to digress to Deuteronomy 6:4 for a moment, commonly called “the Shema” in Hebrew circles. The bulk of the book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ sermonic expositions of the Ten Commandments, forming a Constitution for the people of Israel. With this in mind, the Shema functions essentially as the preamble to the constitution for the people. In fact, in Judaism, Deuteronomy 6:4 is considered to be the single most important verse in the Bible and the very language that defines them as a people—giving them their national identity. It establishes their relationship with God as a covenant people and reminds them that they are a people who have been given a name, loved as such by their God. It is the first prayer that the faithful Hebrew prays when he wakes in the morning and the last prayer he prays before he goes to bed at night. It is also chanted at the beginning of a traditional synagogue service. What is especially interesting is the way it is written in the Hebrew Bible:
dx’a, hw”hy> Wnyheloa/ hw”hy> laer”f.yI [m;v.
Note that the last letter of the first and last words have been written larger and in bold print. These two letters, when taken out of the verse spell, d[e (ed)—or witness. In other words, the Shema itself is the witness of the Jewish people to their God, just as the covenant is God’s d[e (ed) to his people. Lastly, if you reverse the letters of d[e (ed), you end up with the word [;D: (da-a), which means “knowledge.” Just as fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom (Psalm 111:10), so too is all true knowledge rooted in the covenant of God. Any pursuit of knowledge apart from God’s revelation through his covenant is vanity, Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes.
Covenant is, as we know, the context in which God interacts with his people. On the very first day that Adam was alive and placed in the Garden God established his covenant with Adam and set before Adam the tWd[e (eduth) of the covenant—don’t eat lest you will die-die. The punishments given out after the fall are the consequences of their failure to fulfill the covenant. Genesis 3:15, though reminds us that a Messiah is coming who will redeem his people from bondage to the one who led them into sin. Genesis 15 provides us with a foretaste of what would happen to this divine Messiah, though. In the context, God is confirming his covenant with Abraham and Abraham is sent to divide up the animals and separate them creating a bloody path to walk through. In ancient times, when covenants were made between Kings and their Vassals, they would divide up a group of animals like this, and then the Vassal, as a pledge of faithfulness to the covenant, would walk through the middle of the line of animals as if to say, “if I don’t fulfill my part of the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me also.” Now, some have suggested that there may be evidence that both the king and vassal walked through this line, but the evidence is varied and this proposition makes little sense as the vassal had no power to enforce this commitment upon the king, where the king certainly had the power to enforce it upon his vassal.
Either way, what is significant is that Abraham should have walked through the bloody pathway, but God puts him into a deep sleep (not unlike the sleep that God put Adam into before he took out his rib to form Eve), and God walked through the bloody pathway in Abraham’s stead. God was saying to Abraham, I will be your covenant mediator and representative for this covenant. If you or your line fail to keep this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me as well. And that is exactly what took place on the cross of Calvary. Jesus fulfilled what God promised, bloody and bruised, because we could not be faithful to the tWd[e (eduth) of God’s covenant.
In the context of Psalm 119, the psalmist completely understands that for one to be truly blameless and righteous before the Lord, one must first submit his life to the testimonies of our God—to the tWd[e (eduth) of God’s covenant. Thus, he sets the Law before him as a guide and instructor. We must understand that while the psalmist speaks at times of being blameless before his accusers, this is not to be interpreted in terms of a form of human self-righteousness. Instead, he also understands, as Abraham understood, that his redemption would be paid for by another—by God himself through the promised Messiah, and that his personal righteousness was based, through faith, in the coming of the promised one. At the same time, he understands the thrust of what Paul would say in Romans 6:1-2. In light of that, the psalmist both begins and ends the psalm focused on remembering (implying obedience) the Law of the Lord.