Walking by Lamplight

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light upon my path.” Psalm 119:105

English: Traditional Indian Diya

English: Traditional Indian Diya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a well-known and much-loved verse, but it deserves study and not just to be glibly tossed about.

To start with, what is meant by “thy word”? Most modern Christians, for whom “the word of God” is a synonym for the Bible, take the psalmist to mean just that. Thus the verse becomes, for them, “the Bible shows me what to do”. But while this may be true, a little thought shows that this cannot be what the psalmist means; For the simple fact is that the Bible did not exist when he wrote the line. Nor can it mean the Old Testament, for that, too, had yet to come into existence. Whatever one’s view of the provenance and dating of the Old Testament, it is unlikely that the psalmist had a cohesive body of writings in mind, at most, maybe, the Pentateuch.

It is also clear that the psalmist is writing far too early for “the word of God” to have anything like the meaning that John gives it in identifying Jesus as the Word (logos) of God. But if he doesn’t mean either the Bible or Jesus, what does he mean?

He means the total communication of God to man, as a community and as an individual. As such his meaning will come to encompass both the Bible and Jesus, but we do him a disservice, and deny ourselves much benefit, if we restrict him to either. Despite man’s expectations God has never restricted Himself when it comes to letting us know what He would say to us. In the Old Testament, for instance, the priests were supposed to be the guardians and teachers of God’s word, but when they failed God felt totally free to raise up prophets through whom He could speak.

There seems to be a lot of reticence in the Church today when it comes to God speaking other than through the written words of Scripture. Certainly there are examples of people who have claimed to have heard from God but whose message has gone against the revelation of God in Scripture, but is that any reason to reject the whole idea of God speaking to us today? If it is, then we will have to reject Scripture too, for there are equally many examples of people leading others astray through dubious exegesis (reading the meaning out of a passage), or worse, eisogesis (reading a meaning into a passage where it doesn’t belong). Rejecting the idea that God still speaks to us directly will also mean throwing out a lot of the greatest writings by the saints of the last two millennia, many – if not most – of whom claimed to have heard Him speak to them.

We need to be open to God and allow Him to speak to us however He will. Few of us, if any, will hear audible voices, but the Spirit rarely needs words and can “speak” quite clearly through nature, events, liturgy, and so on. Indeed, since God is more interested in life than in propositional truth, words themselves would probably only get in the way of much that He would say to us.

So we listen for His words, and they are a lamp to our feet. What does the word “lamp” bring to mind? When we say lamp today we are usually thinking of bright electric lamps of the sort we might put on an end table in our living room. Clearly the psalmist does not mean that. Some may think of propane lanterns such as those used by campers, but these too are far too modern and bright as well.

Trying for an older, more historically correct, image we may think of a hurricane lamp or even one of those glass-walled boxes that are often depicted in pictures from the American revolutionary war period (like those in the Old North Church in Boston to signal Paul Revere and starting him on his famous ride). These too, however, are still far too bright.

In the Old Testament times, and even through the New Testament age, a lamp would have been basically a bowl of oil with a wick in it, closer in many ways to a candle and only as bright, or maybe even dimmer. Which brings up an important point that the psalmist only implies and most of us miss: The only time such a lamp is at all useful is at night. The fact that we can use,indeed that we need, a lamp means that we are walking in the dark. Not just a fog, but full night. Without God speaking to us we will see nothing, our best efforts will be a hopeless groping towards we know not what by ways we cannot perceive and that could just as easily be leading us away from, rather than towards, our goal.

The psalmist offers us no hope outside of God’s words to us. It is not a case of “do your best and I’ll tell you when you are going astray” but rather “you can do nothing without me”. This does not mean, of course, that we should just sit around doing nothing until we hear some sort of audible voice, for, as was said above, God has many ways of talking to us. He has given us the Bible and He has also spoken to us as a community through the words of those who have listened closely, He has also spoken to us through the community itself in it’s forms, liturgies, and life.

He has also spoken to us in putting each of us in our own particular place and giving us our own unique skills and gifts. Which brings me to my third point. “Thy word is…a light upon my path”. His word shows us the way we should go, but, like those old oil lamps, it won’t show much, just the next few steps. God’s word is not a searchlight, or even like the headlights on a car. God, it seems, is not interested in satisfying our inquisitive natures. He has put us here and now, and it is here and now that He will illuminate for us. While we would much prefer to see where we are heading in the next months and years, God wants us to walk by faith, trusting in Him, looking to Him to supply not only our daily bread but also our daily guidance.

Do we trust Him enough for this? Will we step forward boldly even though the step after next is still hidden from us? Are we sure enough of His love not to worry that there might be a cliff ahead, or a river that could wash us away, or… This is real faith. To go forward when the way is clear is to walk in knowledge and understanding, not faith. Faith is to walk boldly in the darkness with just a small oil lamp, knowing that He loves us and that the next step goes right there. It is enough.


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8 Responses to “Walking by Lamplight”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    I’ve found that God was just fine about ‘satisfying my inquisitive nature’, only sometimes it had to be with ‘a baby explanation’ and other times the response just happened to take a while, for me to become a different person than when I’d first asked.

    And meanwhile, this is a very Quakerish viewpoint (though too many Quaker Meetings have come to abandon it over the centuries, alas!)

    & there’s a quakeroid group blog (forsaken by most of its members, subsequently moved to wordpress) which I am hoping to restock with more good and interesting people.

    Thats ‘Reading the Light Through The Pages’ at
    should you wish to look & comment. If you’d like to be more thoroughly involved, I’d be happy to send an invitation!

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      Interesting, thanks.

      I certainly don’t mean to imply that God doesn’t satisfy our inquisitive natures, which, as you say, He certainly does sometimes. Rather that it is not what He is really about, He has other things in mind.

      Whilst not a Quaker myself, I find there is certainly a lot to be admired in historic Quakerism. I will certainly stop by and look at the blog you reference.

  2. jcgator1 Says:

    Very insightful blog. Thank you for posting. I actually never thought about that verse in that context. However, It really makes perfect sense and it goes perfectly with God’s character (not to put him in a box mind you). But He does say “not to worry about tomorrow…” so God is concerned about the present more than He is the future. (because of course He has that under control too). The fact that the lamp shines only enough to show your few next steps…i just hadn’t thought of that.
    Thanks again for posting 🙂

  3. Clare Flourish Says:

    I love your view of the lamp, a light like a candle.

    When do you think Psalm 119 was written? Some were written after the Exile, and there would be holy writings about.

    I am a contrarian, and while I am a Quaker and quite happy with the idea of hearing God’s word in spoken ministry in Meeting, I want to challenge your biblical interpretation. Can we read into the verse a meaning for us today? So, even if God’s word was not at the time written down, today it is; and so the Bible would be the source of God’s word for us, even if it was not the sole source for Isaiah.

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      I am very open to the idea that a lot of the OT was written post-exile, including psalm 119. I don’t think it particularly changes anything I said, as there wasn’t an OT per se until after the time of Christ (when it was codified in part to prevent Christians using certain books as scripture).

      As for the question of whether we can read into a passage a meaning that was not there for the writer, yes, I think that can and does happen and can be OK. However, I would say that it must be done consciously, which means knowing first what the writer meant and then admitting we are going beyond what was written.

      You see this, for instance, when people use Paul’s assertion that “all scripture is God-breathed” to “prove” that the bible, as we have it, is God’s word. The conclusion is true, but I suspect Paul would have been really amazed to hear us apply his words to his own words!

      • treegestalt Says:

        Paul would have been really amazed to hear me apply his words to, say, some of the Arnold Lobel stories I used to read to my kid — though I was sure there was something profound at work there (and eventually learned Lobel used to borrow parables from the Talmud.)

        Certainly one aspect of the Bible is that, within it, you find many examples of people responding to something that God has put into their environment as a means of communicating, or of initiating a communication.

        The Bible, then, would be a particularly rich example. Not “the source”, but a mine.

        Again, in the Bible too we find the suspicion you mention of “God speaking other than through the written words of scripture.” ~ ‘No more prophets’ at the end of the OT, ‘all the plagues in this book on whoever adds or deletes a word’ at the end of Revelation, retroactively applied to the whole Bible by later readers. Jesus being a prime example of someone who continually runs afoul of this mentality.

        Something about humans makes us prone to shutting the lid on God’s further input. “You go talk to Him, Moshe! You’re good at that sort of thing!” Even when the mountain isn’t throwing out flaming boulders! From reading a little about child development in Gabor Mate’s _Scattered_ recently, I’ve decided that we’re going through either our Terrible Two’s or our adolescence. That there are times when a child ‘not listening’ is necessary to developing the independence that God evidently desires (but not the separation and alienation that seem to be temporary features of the process.)

      • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

        “Something about humans makes us prone to shutting the lid on God’s further input.” How true, and how sad. Isn’t that also part of the reason we have so many denominations?

        As for the bible being “a particularly rich example. Not “the source”, but a mine”, I would agree, but perhaps with some reservations. I would see it also as a touchstone, as I believe there is something special about it. Being open to hearing God speaking elsewhere is good, but we do need some sort of a test to see if what we are hearing is actually God. The Bible is part of that for me. Not all of it–I agree somewhat with the Eastern Orthodox position that tradition and the community also serve us in that respect. And, of course, there is no substitute for either the use of our own minds or the leading of the Spirit. God has given liberally of His riches, why do we hold so fast to such a little bit of it?

        I will agree whole-heartedly with what you say about growing up. That process needs, not only times when we might not listen, but also times when God seems not to speak. The “desert” of the mystics. Time for my favourite quote from old Screwtape: “(The Devil’s) cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do (God’s) will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

  4. treegestalt Says:

    I’d take that ‘touchstone’ element in more the sense of: These people were in the same conversation, and what we ‘hear’ is subject to the same distortions at the human end as theirs. While what they heard had the same kind of validity, and sets forth our initial agenda.

    You can learn calculus without studying Euclidean geometry — but Archimedes had worked out a significant part of it. You can’t expect to keep up with a class if you’ve missed the early lessons and refuse to read the notes (?)

    Yes, I am sure God appreciates atheists more than I do anymore. Because they’ve run away from home, & they’re still good kids.

    There’s the Buddhist notion of Buddha, dharma, & the sangha. The Spirit, the way we’ve inherited of embodying that, & the people we need to bounce-off with along our (shared) way.

    Rumi’s story of the man who has been fervently chanting, “Allah, Allah”, until an unbeliever complains: “You’ve been doing this for years, and does He answer?” The man stops his practice until someone explains, “That yearning you felt was God’s answer.”

    There was a guy I met at a Quaker school, an engineer now that I think of it — who wanted to work out a precise methodology for discerning when a message was truly a Message, or not.

    We are continually receiving messages, and God in us is continually helping us sort & interpret. (But not always being attended to.)

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