What’s the use of trading
A law you can never keep
For one you can
But cannot get you anything?
Do you understand the riddle above, because that’s what it is: a riddle. Can you solve it? It’s about the Pharisees and anyone who bases their spirituality or sense of righteousness on a standard to keep.
God gave us the law. It is a most precious gift. David spent much of his poetry on his love for the law. First it was the Ten Commandments Moses brought down the mountain … twice. (He needed two copies because he smashed the first one due to his anger over the fact that the people were off breaking it even while he was away receiving it. That should tell us something right away.) Then it was the more detailed Levitical law found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. David loved the law because it was truth from God about what He expects from us. It’s God communicating to us about what He is like and what He likes. It is, in many ways, His character. That’s why David loved it. It was direct, verifiable communication from God.
The only problem with the law of God is that we cannot follow it. It’s always been that way. Our sinful nature simply cannot be subdued or beaten into shape. So much so that the Bible says the law brings about transgression. The result of applying the law of God is that we will break it. Every time. In many ways, that is exactly what the law is supposed to do. This is what is meant by “a law you can never keep” in the riddle.
So David was loving a law that broke him? Exactly. He understood the same thing we understand when we stick with the law we can’t keep — we realize how much we need the Lord. We need mercy. We need forgiveness. And we realize we need these things every day, because the law of God never changes. It always breaks us because that is exactly what it is supposed to do. The law makes us humble because we can’t follow it. Paul said the law is a “schoolmaster” that leads us to Christ.
The other law — the one the riddle calls the law we can keep — is what the Pharisees came up with, and in many more subtle ways, what we come up with in our own culture and Christian subculture. The Pharisees doctored the law. They came up with a version of the law that they could keep. It was spelled out in great detail, but it was manageable. It’s hard and meticulous, but it is doable, making anyone who chooses to keep it better in their own mind than anyone who does not. That’s why this other law — the one you can keep — always makes you proud and judgmental.
We do the same thing, but the law we can keep is more cultural. It’s a little different wherever you go, but basically it’s a list of codes and behaviors that one can follow in order to try to please God and become a member of the Christian group. It’s acceptable Christian behavior and it is extremely dangerous because it shields us from the real law we can’t keep that leads us to grace. The appeal of that other law is that you can control it, and you don’t have to be humbled or broken. But what does it get you? Nothing but a few moments of self-righteousness. That’s why Jesus told the Pharisees they already had their reward. Just try standing before a holy God with your little sham of righteousness.
Don’t trade a law that breaks you for one that doesn’t. That other law, as the riddle makes clear, won’t get you anything. The law that breaks you will lead you to eternal life. It will take you right into the arms of God. Keep the law you can’t keep. That one will keep you close to the Lord.