Today is the second of four sermons I am preaching from the Psalms. C.S. Lewis called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 56, quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, p. 56)
The Bible consistently presents God as the one who brings order out of chaos. The story of creation is all about God shaping and creating an orderly world – night and day, earth and sky, waters with defined boundaries, plants, animals, birds, fish, an ecosystem and a universe.
Psalm 19 is an amazing and surprising testimony to this aspect of God’s nature. It has two distinct parts, which has led some to think it was two separate poems which were brought together in one Psalm. Actually, as a unity it is a profound theological truth.
Verses 1-6 talk of how creation demonstrates God’s glory. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” It is an interesting turn from when God created by speaking words: “Let there be light, and there was light.” Now we are told that God’s creation speaks as well, testifying to the God who created all of this.
I’d like to read these verses out of the Jerusalem Bible: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork; day discourses of it to day, night to night hands on the knowledge. No utterance at all, no speech, no sound that anyone can hear; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their message to the ends of the world.” Creation does not require words or sounds. One simply has to observe to get the message. You know exactly what I am talking about when you go on vacation to the ocean or the mountains or spend the day at the lake or hiking in the woods. The Psalmist goes on to speak of one particular aspect of God’s creation and how it demonstrates its orderliness.
“High above, he pitched a tent for the sun, who comes out of his pavilion like a bridegroom, exulting like a hero to run his race. He has his rising on the edge of heaven, the end of his course is its furthest edge, and nothing can escape his heat.”
The sun never fails, never tarries, shines on all. It never quits halfway across the sky, never fails to show up. The old saying is, “The sun will come up tomorrow,” meaning that the bad thing that happened isn’t the end of the world. There is a trustworthy, reliable orderliness to creation that testifies to a God who made it so.
It should be noted that the testimony of creation is available to everyone, everywhere. Not everyone will agree that the natural world is evidence of a Creator God, but the evidence is available to them whether they come to that conclusion or not. And people of different religions all can and do point to creation and say that it is evidence to them of a God who is behind it all. Finding God in creation is sometimes called “General Revelation,” because it is available to everyone. Even a person who does not identify with a religion might look at the glories of nature and affirm that God had to have been involved in it.
Interestingly enough, the name for God used in this part of the Psalm is “El,” which is, if you will, a rather generic name for God in the Old Testament. When the Hebrew name “El” or “Elohim” is found in Old Testament manuscripts, it is translated into English as “God.” In this passage, then, it says, “The heavens are telling the glory of “El,” of “God.”
In the second half of the Psalm, the name of God that is used over and over, in every instance, is “Yahweh.” In some versions, such as the Jerusalem Bible, it is not translated. In the New Revised Version we use in the sanctuary it is always translated “the Lord.” This is the name God gave Moses at the burning bush when Moses asked him what to say when the slaves in Egypt asked who sent him. Yahweh is a form ot the Hebrew verb “to be,” so “I am” is sometimes an interpretation of it. This is the special, personal name revealed to Israel by God. The name is too sacred to be spoken in Judaism.
This is our clue to understanding that we are moving away from general revelation to special revelation. Where God can generally be known through creation, Yahweh’s nature and will for his people can specifically be known through God’s special gift of Torah to Israel.
The Psalmist is moving from the general way in which God can be known by all people everywhere to the intimate way in which God has made himself known to the people of Israel. That way is through Torah. Torah is a complex word for us. It is generally translated with the word “Law,” but that is inadequate. It means “to direct, to point the way, to instruct.” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, R-Z, p. 673) The word “Torah” also refers to the first five books of the Bible as a group.
The Psalmist is saying that the way Yahweh is known is through his greatest gift of Torah. It is comparable to the sun in the natural order. It gives light and establishes an order to life. To sing the praise of God’s glory illustrated in Torah, the Psalmist uses six very positive couplets which pair Torah or a synonym of it with a very positive descriptor. Here is how it reads:
“The law (Torah) of the Lord is perfect,
Reviving the soul;
The decrees of the Lord are sure,
Making wise the simple;
The precepts of the Lord are right,
Rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is clear,
Enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is pure,
Enduring for ever;
The ordinances of the Lord are true,
And righteous altogether.
Most of us probably don’t have that kind of positive reaction when we just hear the word “Law.” Law sounds restrictive, punitive, judgmental, something we “have to do” or “can’t do.” Christians have read Paul’s harsh writings about the failures of the law so much that we have forgotten what is good about it. The reason for Paul’s argument is that, like some people in every generation and every religion, Jewish leaders had become so legalistic in their understanding of the law that book after book of interpretations of the law had come into being which were more and more restrictive.
This misunderstanding comes from overlooking the broader meaning of Torah, that it provides guidance, direction, and instruction. Most of us would see those as very positive words. Who does not want to receive guidance and direction in life? Indeed, Israel rejoiced that Yahweh loved them enough to provide direction, trail blazes along the path to keep them going in the right direction.
And so Torah does not just mean the Ten Commandments, it also means the guidelines about leaving some of your harvest for widows and orphans to collect; about treating refugees with dignity and respect; about the two great commandments having to do with love of God and neighbor which Jesus affirmed, and so forth.
The Psalmist extols Torah as perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, and true. And here are the effects it has on people. It is soul-reviving, wise-making, heart-rejoicing, eye-enlightening, forever enduring (Texts for Preaching, Year B, p. 215). The guidance of Torah is more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey.
Torah is a gift from Yahweh to provide order for one’s life and order for society, an order that is in line with the order of God’s magnificent creation. Tom McGrath writes, “The law, precepts and ordinances of God bring order to the otherwise chaotic moral universe of human existence, no less than God’s governance brings order to the heavens.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 84)
In the last three verses, the Psalmist recognizes that even with God’s self-revelation in creation and in Torah, people, including himself, are still not perfect. Susan Johnson writes, “Psalm 19 asserts the human dilemma before the law. The law is perfect, but human beings are not. The law revives and enlightens; however human beings resist and hide… The glory of the Lord is everywhere and yet we miss it. The law of the Lord is clear and yet we become lost.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, p. 60)
Here is the end of the Psalm from the Jerusalem Bible: “Thus your servant is formed by them, observance brings great reward. But who can detect his own failings? Wash out my hidden faults. And from pride preserve your servant, never let it dominate me. So shall I be above reproach, free from grave sin. May the words of my mouth always find favor, and the whispering of my heart, in your presence, Yahweh, my Rock, my Redeemer!”
Even with the giving of Torah, there is the need for more guidance, more forgiveness, more prayer. God’s gift was not a static, one time laying down of the law. God’s gift of Torah is alive, continuing to guide and instruct. The New Testament claims that Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah but to be its ultimate fulfillment. He serves as the way, the truth, and the life, who will guide us into all righteousness, and this is exactly the understanding of the role of Torah. Through the Holy Spirit Jesus continues this fulfillment of Torah in providing guidance and understanding for us.
May we pray with the Psalmist daily, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 22, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church