One scholar of the Psalter calls Psalm 19 “the problem child Psalm.” He calls it that because it doesn’t fit any of the established genres of the Psalter. Only Psalms 1 and 119 are like Psalm 19. Further, some scholars are pretty sure that Psalm 19 was originally two Psalms, a nature hymn (verses 1-6) and a Torah poem (verses 7-10), now cobbled together. The concluding verses (11-14) also seem like a totally new poem, an obviously tacked on prayer that attempts to make Psalm 19 a unified whole, an offering of praise to the God named Yahweh. According to some experts Psalm 19 is not really a unified composition.
But Rolf Jacobsen finds a unifying theme in the concept of “word” or “speech.” Thus, verses 1-6 tell us about the inaudible words of the cosmos that praise God day and night. Verses 7-10 focus on the tangible words of Torah that promise great blessings to those who live by those words. And verses 11-14 are the Psalmist’s faithful words of prayer. Psalm 19, then, is a poem of praise focused on the Word of God in both nature and Scripture. The Psalmist offers it to God, knowing full well that he is a mere mortal and, even more, a sinner who needs grace from the God glorified in the Psalm.
In my Dutch Reformed tradition, nature is called “the second Book” of divine revelation, Scripture being the first Book. Here’s how the Belgic Confession puts in Article 2: “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity…. Second, [God] makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word….” Psalm 19 could have been written by the man who composed that 16th Century confession, but the superscription attributes this Psalm to David, who spent his early years out under the stars and his later years obeying God’s law (with some notable exceptions). In this Psalm David praises the God whose glory is proclaimed by nature and whose law shows the way a believer ought to live.
John Calvin called the universe “the theater of God’s glory,” and he probably got that idea from Scripture passages like this Psalm. Verse 1 gives us the theme of the first 6 verses: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hand.” Note the profuse language used to describe what theologians call “general revelation.” The revelation of God in nature is not a single word, or a small paragraph, or a sermonette. Nature “declares, proclaims, pours forth, displays.” A person would have to be deaf and blind to miss the revelation of God in the cosmos. Indeed, a thousand years later, Paul would say that such general revelation is so clear and overwhelming that all human beings are without excuse when they choose to worship and serve other gods that the God of Scripture (Romans 1:21).
The problem with general revelation is that it is wordless. At least that’s how older versions of Psalm 19 translated verse 3. “They have no speech, there are no words, no sound is heard from them.” God’s revelation in nature is inaudible. The NIV translates verse 3 in another way, emphasizing not the inaudibility of general revelation, but the universality of it. “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the earth.” Thus, everyone on earth knows about God from his revelation in nature, but that revelation is without specific verbal content.
As a result, the most anyone can learn from this general revelation is that there is a God who is eternal and powerful. Note that Psalm 19 does not use the personal name for God in this first section. God is simply God, a generic God, not a personal God to whom humans can relate properly. In the next section, God is called Yahweh, that personal covenantal name for the God whose glory is proclaimed by the universe. Studying only nature, humans will not be able to arrive at a personal relationship with God, because, as one scholar says, “What we learn from nature is mysterious, elusive, oblique.” Thus, human beings are inveterately religious because of the universality of general revelation. But without special revelation they will be inaccurately, idolatrously religious (again see Romans 1:18-25). We can know God’s glory from nature, but not God’s grace.
So, we should praise and thank God for giving us that special revelation, which the Old Testament called Torah. As magnificent as the sun, moon, and stars may be, that general revelation is now flawed by sin. Thus, the whole creation groans under the curse of sin (Romans 8). There is now decay, and suffering, and death. Because nature is “red in tooth and claw,” it isn’t a perfect revelation of God for us sinful humans. That’s why the Psalmist continues on in the paean of praise. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”
This next section on the perfection of God’s written revelation is an important corrective for our nature loving culture. “I can worship God better on a mountain than I can in church.” “I feel closer to God when I walk through woods than when I’m studying the Bible.” “Who needs the Bible when we have the Grand Canyon?” Not true, says David. Nature can fill you with a general feeling of awe and wonder, a sense of the numinous. But it can’t tell you what God is like in his person; it can’t lead you to a personal relationship with God; it can’t show you how to live; and, most of all, it can’t save you. For such blessings we need the written Word.
Even as the sun is life giving in a physical way, the Scripture is life giving in various spiritual ways. In some of the most magnificent poetry ever written, the Psalmist praises the Law with a careful schema: a synonym for the law (Torah, statutes, precepts, commands, ordinances), an adjective or quality describing the law (perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, sure), and an action that the law performs (reviving the soul, making wise the simple, giving joy to the heart, giving light to the eyes). Scripture can bless us in ways Nature never can. Indeed, the Psalmist trumpets the superiority of God’s written words by naming two of the most delightful elements in nature, namely, gold and honey. God’s words in Scripture are “more precious than gold… [and] sweeter than honey….”
The one thing the Law cannot do is save us from our sins. The law can warn us about sin and its consequences (“by them your servant is warned”). And it can make life much better than it would be without the law (“in keeping them is great reward”). If we read and heed the Word of God in Scripture, life will be rich and full. The problem is that we don’t read enough or heed always.
Thus, the Psalmist ends his poem about God’s dual revelations with a direct plea for grace. Even with God’s Word in our possession, we are still sinners. Often, we don’t know our own sin. Thus, the Psalmist prays, “Who can discern his error? Forgive my hidden faults.” And he acknowledges that even the most holy person might fall into “willful sin,” deliberate, high handed sin. Such sin is highly dangerous; it can cut us off from the assembly of God’s people (Numbers 15:30-31). Only God can keep us from committing such sin. Our best effort is not enough. Only the grace of God can break the power of sin, so that sin does not “rule over me.” Only the grace of God can transform the filthy rags (Isaiah 64:4) of our best efforts (like this lovely poem) into something that is “pleasing in [Yahweh’s] sight.”
The Psalm ends with a prayer for grace. And it confesses the awesome truth that the magnificent God who reveals himself in nature and the merciful God who reveals himself in Scripture is “my Rock and my Redeemer.” That last word is pregnant with meaning. It is the Hebrew goel, meaning kinsman redeemer. A goel was someone to whom a helpless person was related and who had the wherewithal to rescue that needy person. Think of Boaz rescuing Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi in the book of Ruth. Because of God’s revelation in Scripture, we know that our God is not merely a generic Deity, a Force that is with us, an Idea to be contemplated, a Being to fear. God is a goel named Yahweh who has saved his people by his gracious actions in history, the most glorious of which were the Incarnation of Yahweh’s Son and the Atonement won by that Son’s death and resurrection.
Psalm 19 sings the praises of this revealing and redeeming God. In the process, this Psalm addresses two of the great heresies in history. The first has to do with wrong ideas about the God who reveals himself in nature. In the ancient Near East, everyone worshipped the gods of nature, the chief of which was the Sun. But Psalm 19 points out that these nature gods are not gods at all, but are simply the creations of the One True God. Even the mighty Sun lives in a tent pitched by the Creator God. In the modern West, the study of nature has led to a de-sacralization of nature. When we study the heavens with our advanced tools, we conclude that those heavenly bodies aren’t gods. In fact, many conclude that there is no God at all. Psalm 19 puts ancient and modern pagans in their place. Nature points to the One and Only Creator of all that is.
But we can’t truly know the Creator without his Torah, God’s revelation of his way and his person. Just be careful how you treat that revelation. I am alluding here to the second heresy that Psalm 19 corrects. Throughout the history of God’s people, there have been legalists who think the Law of God can save them. No, says Psalm 19. However valuable and life affirming Torah is, it cannot save us, because our sin makes us unable to keep it perfectly. We can only be saved by the grace of God embodied in Jesus Christ. As Rolf Jacobsen put it: “the law is God’s good gift, but it is not designed as a means to salvation; rather it is designed as a guide for the earthly pilgrimage.”
As such, the Law of God is necessary, contrary to the argument of the antinomians. That heresy is the opposite of legalism. Rather than treating the law as a way of salvation, the antinomians think it is utterly unnecessary. But Psalm 19 tells us in glorious language all the wonderful things the law can do for us, if we are saved and empowered by the grace of God in Christ. The same Paul who said, “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law,” also said, “the law is holy,” and “the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” (Romans 3:19 and 7:12) And he concluded that God sent his Son to condemn sin, “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature by according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3 and 4)
Keep those two recurring heresies in mind, and you can preach this “problem child Psalm” with great relevance and gospel fervor.
It wasn’t just the ancient Near East that believed in the divinity of the heavenly bodies and their power over our lives. While not exactly naming the Sun, Moon and Stars as gods, folks who believe in horoscopes look to the positioning and alignment of those heavenly bodies for life advice. And mega-events like the recent total solar eclipse arouse great enthusiasm about the possibility of life change. One person interviewed in national TV before the eclipse opined that the event might bring a whole new day to America, causing a renewal of hope and goodness in our broken and desperate country.
On the other hand, who can ever forget the scornful words of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. As he orbited the earth very early in the race to space, he said, “Well, here I am in the heavens and I see no signs of God.” Both the superstitious and the skeptical need to hear the message of Psalm 19. The heavens are not God, but they do proclaim his God’s glory.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 8, 2017
Psalm 19 Commentary