“My Heavenly Father”

“That’s not what my Father in Heaven would do,” said the older gentleman in the second row. He was a first-time visitor, the step-father of a young lady who teaches her own Sunday School class, and we were about thirty minutes into the lesson when he spoke up.

It was a lesson built around Psalm 119. I picked that particular psalm for three reasons: because it’s the psalm most often quoted in the hymnbook, because of the features of Hebrew poetry it demonstrates, and because of its message.


I had hoped that Psalm 119’s presence in the hymnal meant that it was slightly more familiar. This familiarity is important because it seems that I’m not the only one who learned from a seminary teacher that “we don’t make doctrine out of poetry.” And he was perfectly correct: we don’t. However, the authors of the OT and the NT as well as the rest of Christendom do. Regularly.


The poetic qualities of Psalm 119 are well-known even among those who are limited to appreciating it in English. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two strophes. These strophes are easily delineated because each strophe has precisely eight lines and each line in any given strophe begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In other words, it’s an acrostic, and the most developed example of its form in the OT.

Psalm 119 also features the repetition of eight near-synonyms. Depending on your translation, these are: teachings, ways, words, sayings, laws, precepts, rulings, and commands. All eight near-synonyms are found uniquely in four strophes: heth, yod, kaph, and pe. Elsewhere, six or seven are found in each strophe, with one or two of the terms repeated.


But it’s the message of Psalm 119 that really attracts the close reader. Simply put, it glories in the idea of God himself pointing out the way for his people (v.33):

Teach me, Lord, the way shown in your laws
……that I may observe it as my reward.

It sings of God’s communication of moral truth and the demonstration of his grace in our appropriation of that truth (vv. 9-12):

How can a young man keep his path pure?
……Indeed by complying with your word.
I have sought you with my whole heart
……let me not stray from your commands
I have hidden your sayings in my heart
……so as not to sin against you
You are blessed, Lord
……teach me your laws.

The lamed strophe invites the reader to meditate on what makes the difference between things that endure and things that perish (v. 89-91):

Forever, Lord
……your word stands firm in the heavens
For generation after generation your faithfulness endures:
……you have fixed the earth and there it stays
Today they still stand ready for your rulings,
……since all things are servants of yours.

The universe, then, is the premier example of something that endures, while human aspirations, including even the desire to live by God’s commands, inevitably fall short of the mark (v. 96). By grace alone we come to life and permanence through our response to God (vv. 92-94):

Had not your teachings been my delight
……I would have died of my suffering
Never will I forget your charges,
……since through them your give me life.
I am yours—save me
……since I apply myself to all your charges.

The greatest of them all, however, is the mem strophe. This strophe contains no supplications but is instead a pointed meditation on just what compliance with God rewards us with (v. 97-104):

How I love your teachings!
……all day long it is my meditation
Your command makes me wiser than my enemies
……since it is always mine.
I have greater understanding than all my teachers
……because your terms are my meditation
I have more insight than the aged
……because I observe your charges.
Away from every evil path have I kept my feet
……in order to comply with your word
From your rulings I have not turned aside
……since you yourself have been my instructor.
How palatable I find your sayings
……more so than honey to my mouth!
I gain insight from your charges
……and so I hate every faithless path.

What does an appropriate response to God’s commands bring? Wisdom to deal with enemies, unsurpassed understanding, insight beyond your years, freedom from evil outcomes based on bad decisions, and a sweet experience of God himself. Can you think of anything else you might need?

It was at this point that the older gentleman spoke up. “My Heavenly Father doesn’t issue commands and expect us all to “hop to it.” And in the dead silence that followed he went on, “That’s not what my Father in Heaven would do. He’s not like that at all.”

I stood there then as I sit here now, absolutely clueless. How do you listen to the 119th Psalm and then gripe about unhesitating obedience? And since I bobbled the answer then, let me ask now: What should I have said? Is there any other appropriate response to God’s grace than obedience? Anything at all?

Teach me, Lord, the way shown in your laws
that I may observe it as my reward.

13 Replies to ““My Heavenly Father””

  1. And so that we do not get so focused on the past that we forget the present, here’s another piece of Hebrew poetry, appropriate to the day. I render it here for young Eliyahu Asheri as he makes his final journey to the Mount of Olives:

    Mourner’s Kadish

    Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.

    May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

    May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

    Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

    May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

    He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

  2. As he had already substantially disrupted the class, the point, in my opinion, needed to be discussed. If his Father in Heaven didn’t expect us to obey without hesitation, then what does his father expect? I would have him answer that question and resolve the concern he brings up there.

    Maybe he was simply hung up on us taking time to confirm that the instruction is from Heavenly Father. If that is the case, then it falls into determining the truthfulness of the commandment. The need for swift obedience wouldn’t come into play until the origin of the commandment was verified (study and prayer).

    On the other hand, he may have been off in a different direction. If he goes off to the point of showing that he is the only one with the disagreement, ask if he would be willing to talk with you outside of class. Otherwise, address the point. Of course, this is only my opinion.

  3. Gee, I thought you were going to talk about this scripture:

    “Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”
    (John 20:17)

  4. I think I would have blundered this too if I were in the moment, perhaps badly. With a couple of minutes to consider it though I would probably have asked if his concern was over the lack of verifying the source and truthfulness of the commandment. And then I would have said something along the lines of “it seems clear to me that the author is speaking of things he knows to be from God already.”

    And then probably I would have shoved my foot into my mouth unintentionally by saying more forcefully than I intended that God does expect us to be obedient once we know his commandments and sometimes that means now .

  5. I think I would have:

    1) Acknowledged that God deals with his children in a variety of ways, and that he is ever merciful. (I probably would have made a light comment along the lines of “My Heavenly Father has never told me to ‘hop to it!’–in fact, he is often more patient with me than I am with myself.”)

    2) Refocused the discussion back on what the scripture is really about: our response to God (rather than what or how God commands us) and the blessings that come from that obedience. Here I would probably get the class to try and discuss the difficulties of obedience (which would indirectly address the man’s comment) as well as blessings that had come into their lives when they had taken that difficult path (even if they hadn’t received a pressing command of “hop to it!” from God).

    P.S. Thanks for sharing your insights on that beautiful psalm.

  6. What should I have said? Is there any other appropriate response to God’s grace than obedience? Anything at all?

    No, I don’t think there is any other appropriated response. In fact, it seems to me that the only real way to show faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (the first principle of the gospel) is to have enough actual faith to obey his instructions to us.

    In terms of responses you perhaps could have given a little rope by agreeing that it is true that God does not “expect” us to “hop to it” when he gives us directions but because he loves us he desparately hopes we will. (We have real free will so God won’t/can’t force our obedience after all.) Then perhaps one could compare God to a loving earthly parent who calls out a command to a small child (us) to not run onto a busy road. At a distance that parent can only hope for obedience but the child can choose to ignore the command.

    Here are a couple of relevant modern scriptures that might work in such situations:

    8 And again, I say unto you, I give unto you a new commandment, that you may understand my will concerning you;
    9 Or, in other words, I give unto you directions how you may act before me, that it may bturn to you for your salvation.
    (D&C 82: 8-9. Italics mine)

    20 There is a alaw, irrevocably decreed in bheaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all cblessings are predicated—
    21 And when we obtain any ablessing from God, it is by bobedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
    (D&C 130: 20-21)

    So it seems to me that this guy in your class was right that God will allow disobedience; but he is wrong if he thinks our loving Father in heaven doesn’t hope we will always immediately “hop to it” when he gives us commands/directions.

  7. Is there any other appropriate response to God’s grace than obedience? Anything at all?

    Yes, gratitude and praise. Although this Psalm is long and often mentions obedience, the thrust, IMO, is on delighting and rejoicing in God’s statutes. Note verses 16, 24, 27, 40, 47, 50, 62, 72, 72, 93, 97-99, 103-105, etc. Perhaps the perspective of the older gentleman was to offer thanks and communion with God, rather than merely “hopping to it.”

  8. Hm, well, I don’t think gratitude and praise present a source of tension with obedience.

    hop to it vrs. our response to God

    That’s the really odd part. Psalm 119 is not talking about any specific commandment. It’s talking about a life style that understands commandments as the revelation of God and obedience as worship. There’s nothing legalistic about Psalm 119, and nothing about trying to decide if God really gave this or that commandment. That sort of reflection is, I think, still far in the future. Moreover, nobody said anything about “hop to it” until he brought it up.

    As I continue to think it over, I am convinced that he was working on something else, some specific item in his own experience and somehow something pushed his “talk button.” When the subject is ancient scripture, I prefer to try to understand it on its own terms, so I don’t usually use modern scripture. But I think that in this case, if he had been a member of my ward I’d have had a talk with him afterwards and used the modern stuff, just to try to nail down a doctinally sound understanding of what obedience to God really is, I guess.

    why his god had rejected the Psalms and what he had replaced them with and why

    Yeah, the exclcusivist “my Father,” with its implication of an insight superior to that of the Psalmist got my attention. And although it’s not what came out of my mouth, I think the irritation it engendered interfered with giving a really good answer. Folks who blow off the Psalmist’s ideas about God are usually either a tad unfamiliar with the OT or maybe a bit arrogant.

  9. Mogget, I think virtually all of us who have taught GD class have had these kinds of experiences, where someone in the class approaches the material completely from left field, in ways we never could have anticipated, leaving us virtually speechless. I sure know I have. Sometimes we are quick enough on our feet to come up with good responses, or to be able to redirect the conversation into appropriate channels, and sometimes not. In the latter event, we’ll often wake up three days later saying to ourselves, “Oh, *that’s* what I should have said in that situation!”

    I usually try to focus on finding that kernel of truth that exists within the student’s statement, and honing in on and sculpting that, leaving the dross aside. He may have been thinking of thoughtless obedience; he may have been thinking of the old ward teacher’s lesson that when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done. The church has repudiated that statement, and it is indeed problematic, so if that were the line of his concern, one could compare that to what the Psalm is really saying. This is a specific example of J.’s point about how a human can really know the Father’s will.

    I also like to use the Jewish technique, put to good effect on many occasions by the Savior himself, of answering a question with a question. So along the lines of Stephen’s thought, one could have asked the student to explain how then he understands the Psalm. He would then be put in the position of either explaining his thought process in the light of the Psalm, in which event you could engage it, or rejecting the Psalm, in which event you could pretty safely reject his thought process, since we accept the Psalms as canonical scripture in this Church.

  10. KB, I tend to follow a similar pedagogy, but I often get pulled aside by my file leaders for teaching something sketchy or incorrect, when all I was doing was just playing devil’s advocate in order to get people’s juices flowing; this style of pedagogy is especially effective in missionary prep classes I’ve taught, wherein I get to play the annoyed/aggrovated/impatient/disbelieving investigator with my devil’s advocate comeback questions. Seems to work pretty well.

  11. This thread contains many good teaching ideas and I want to thank those who contributed.

    I guess I’m not much of a fan of a devil’s advocate in SS, although I can definitely see a place for it in role-playing scenarios. And David J., I’d hate to try to answer you if you were playing the DA. I’m sure you’re quite formidable in the role!

    I like a quiet, thoughtful, class where most of the time is spent in a close reading followed by a discussion that revolves around the question “What’s the point of this story?” I guess I’ve just found that nobody says it quite like the authors of the OT/NT.

    Again, thanks.

  12. I don’t know, he was an old guy, he might have had something wise to say. He might have extrapolated. There are all kinds of conflicting information in the Bible.

    The psalm is indeed beautiful, but mindless obedience isn’t the answer, I don’t think my Heavenly Father expects it of me, either. In fact, I think He would pass out from shock and it would have lasting world-wide consequences should I ever do so.

    I would take the psalm on face value, it’s lovely, David loved the Lord, it’s a nice sentiment. But it’s not the final word on the subject. Nor were your elderly gentlemen’s.

    I probably would have laughed and let him get it off his chest and gone on.

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