Last time we noted that the details in Leviticus remind us that the Law is impossible to keep; we’re going to need help. This time we’ll note another principle the Law teaches us, and where to go from here.
The Law Doesn’t Work
The Bible sometimes seems to be ambivalent about the Law. Paul criticizes the Law in Galatians and Romans—“the very commandment that promised life proved to be death for me” (Rom 7.10)—but in the midst of that he says that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7.12). David sings that “the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19.7), but God himself says through the prophet Ezekiel, “I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life” (Ezek 20.25).
Well then. Which is it?
One thing you notice about all those sacrifices in Leviticus is that they don’t seem to work—not really. Every fall there’s a big Day of Atonement (Lev 16), when the high priest goes through special preparation and then, alone, disappears behind the veil of the Tabernacle / Temple. There he sprinkles blood before the very presence of God himself, who declares that he resides in the space between the cherubim on the “mercy seat,” the solid-gold cover of the ark (Isa 37.16). And in doing that, he cleanses the Temple from the sins of the whole nation (Lev 16.16, 19).
But next fall, the high priest is going to have to do it all over again. The old sacrifice will have worn off. It didn’t work. Oh, it achieved cleansing for a time, but in the final analysis it didn’t take care of the problem it’s addressing. The problem is still there.
Every morning the priest goes to the altar and offers the morning sacrifice, for the sins of the people (Ex 29.38ff). By late afternoon it’s worn off, and we need an evening sacrifice to take care of the continuing failures of the day. It didn’t work.
Every time you sin, you go to Jerusalem and offer another sin offering. But when you sin the next time, you have to do it again. It didn’t solve your problem. It didn’t work.
The Law would be great, if only it worked.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a priest who could offer one sacrifice for sins forever?
The Law Is Good. Really.
Have you ever tried to use a slot-head screwdriver with a Phillips-head screw? You try to get the job done one-eighth of a turn at a time, and the screwdriver keeps slipping out of the slot that it wasn’t designed to fit, and you tear up the screw head so much that you’re never going to be able to get it in or out, and you throw the screwdriver across the room in disgust. “Stupid screwdriver!”
No, not stupid screwdriver. Unwise tool user. A slot-head screwdriver isn’t designed to drive a Phillips-head screw. That’s not what it’s for. Don’t blame the screwdriver.
God designed the Law for a purpose. If God is God, then the Law accomplishes that purpose perfectly. If you’re frustrated with it, then maybe you’re trying to use it to do something it was never designed to do.
Why would God make a Law that’s impossible to keep? Why would he make one that keeps driving us back to the same altar, day after day, year after year?
Because the Law isn’t designed for us to keep. It’s designed to show us that we can’t keep it (Rom 3.20). It’s designed to drive us to God for mercy. And it’s designed to showcase the remarkable way he’s chosen to show that mercy.
The only way to avoid the frustration of living on the road to Jerusalem is to live in such a way that you never need to go there to offer a sacrifice for your own sin. Because we can’t do that, God himself, in mercy, steps into a human body and keeps the Law perfectly in precisely the ways we have not. He dies to become the perfect sacrifice, effective for all time, for all sin, for all who believe (Heb 10.12). And then he comes to us, broken by the Law—that’s what it was for—and invites us to receive the benefit of his atoning sacrifice and the righteousness that he has lived out for us (2Co 5.21).
The Law has done exactly what he designed it to do. It has broken us, frustrated us, and in our frustration it has driven us to the Christ (Gal 3.24).
Ken Burkett says
I agree with the overall point being made here, but I was surprised by your interpretation of Ezk. 20:25, in which you apply the statement to the laws of the Sinai Covenant. Isn’t Ezekiel here making a contrast between the Sinai Covenant which indeed offered life premised upon works/obedience (Ezk. 20:11,13), and the pagan man-made laws that they chose instead of the Sinai laws and to which God gave them over (cp. Rom. 1). That is, Ezk. 20:25 is referencing a judgment of God occurring subsequent to Sinai in which God judges the nation by giving them over to the pagan ways that they prefer over the Sinai covenant that God had previously given them. Thus, contextually Ezekiel is here speaking of the pagan laws that could not give life – even if they could be followed perfectly in contrast to the Sinai covenant that could indeed grant life if it could be kept perfectly, precisely because its laws were holy, just, and good.
I’m wondering if there is something in the text to which you could point that led you to see the Sinai covenant in 20:25.
Dan Olinger says
You may be right; the passage is not entirely clear. But I’m inclined to think that your reading is not the most obvious reading of the text.
Ezekiel 20 is a classic example of spiral organization, with Ezekiel returning to the same few themes repeatedly. That means that it’s not really a linear recounting of the history of their relationship. He says earlier that they could live by the commandments (v 11) but here notes that those commandments did not bring that result; they did not eventuate in their potential.
Throughout the passage he contrasts the divine Law with the practices of the pagans that Israel consistently chose. This verse doesn’t seem to fit the pattern of how he refers to the pagan practices throughout the rest of the passage.
I also note that he says says “I gave you” these commandments, which is not something he says of the pagan practices–though of course I would agree that everything is under God’s providential care and could be described as something he “gave.”
So maybe the verse supports my point, and maybe it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, Paul’s repeated statements in Romans 7 would.
Thanks for the comment. Best wishes.