Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 4, 2018
Psalm 19 Commentary
As I begin this piece, I am thinking about Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Underground Railroad, which follows two escaped slaves, Caesar and Cora, as they journey on a literal underground railroad to the north and freedom. On this Third Sunday of Lent we are a little less than half way on our journey to the cross and freedom in Christ. Because we don’t experience the cruelty of our slavery to sin and Satan as acutely as Cora and Caesar experienced the cruelty of their “massa,” we may not have the same sense of urgency to move closer to Christ and freedom. Indeed, I can imagine a number of your parishioners saying, “Who needs this Lent stuff? I’m a Christian. I know my Bible. I believe the Gospel. I’m saved. Why should I bother with this special time of penitence?”
In a way you might not expect, Psalm 19 can help heighten the importance of Lent. I wrote extensively on this Psalm just a few months ago (see the Sermon Commentary for October 8, 2017, on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website), so I’ll just add a few notes here about a Lenten application of Psalm 19. I find that Lenten angle in the progression from natural revelation in verses 1-6 to special revelation in verses 7-11 to penitential prayer in verses 12-14.
I’m well aware that some scholars would argue that the term “natural revelation” should not be applied to the claims of verses 1-6. And others don’t see any progression in the Psalm at all; they see it as two separate Psalms artificially glued together. But I agree with those scholars who see Psalm 19 as a united reflection centered on the concept of “word,” the word “spoken” by nature, the word spoken by Torah, and the word spoken by the Psalmist.
Yes, there is ambiguity in verse 3. Should it be translated “there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard” or “they do not speak, their voice is not heard.” In other words, is verse 3 and this entire first section about the universality of creation’s voice or is it about the inaudibility of that voice to human ears? But that question does not deny that the whole creation speaks of God’s glory, as the theme verse of the first section so clearly proclaims. “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
Whether we use the technical term “natural revelation,” it is clear that the Psalmist sees the glory of God in the magnitude of the universe, contrary to some scientists today who see that very immensity as an argument against the existence of God. To the Psalmist, the testimony of nature is overwhelming, even as it was to Paul in Romans 1. Indeed, said Paul, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that all humans are without excuse.” Everyone can know God from his revelation of himself in the created order.
But we can’t know God personally if we have only the universe to “read.” It is surely not accidental that in verses 1-6, the Psalmist uses only the word El, the generic Hebrew word for God, and uses it only once. But in verses 7-11, he uses the word Yahweh 7 times. The difference comes from the fact that verses 7-11 are about the glory of God in the Torah, which reveals God in much more intimate and detailed ways.
As all the alternative words for Torah show, Torah here means not just the Ten Commandments, not only all the other rules given to Israel, not even the entire Pentateuch, but the entire revelation of God written in the Old Testament (and, Christians would add, the New). God’s special verbal revelation of himself completes the non-verbal revelation in nature and does what that creation-based revelation cannot do. Verse 7 says it simply. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” Or as II Timothy 3:16, 17 put it many years later, “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the people of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
However, no matter how much revelation we have, no matter how overwhelmed we are by God’s glory in creation, not matter how well we know the Scripture, we are still sinners in need of God’s saving grace. Thus, after singing the glories of revelation in verses 1-11, the Psalmist falls on his knees with words about his own sin in verses 12-14. Revelation calls for response and that response must be repentance and reliance on the grace of the Redeemer.
This is a very important point for our contemporary world. In our efforts to be welcoming and gracious, many of us Christians are close to becoming universalists. All religions are simply humanity’s sincere response to the revelation God has given them. All are equally valid and people are saved by their best efforts to live up to the revelation they have received from God, whether that is the revelation of nature or the revelation of Scripture.
All of that sounds right and fair to our compassionate ears, except that Paul seems to say something very different Romans 3. After dealing with the recipients of both natural and special revelation, he concludes that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” None can be saved by their own efforts to respond to the revelation they have been given. All need grace, the grace that Yahweh alone can give. That grace comes to those who do what the Psalmist does in the last verses of Psalm 19. He prays, with the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The actual words of his prayer are most instructive for this season of Lent. The Psalmist acknowledges with Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” So, he prays, “Who can discern his errors?” In a world that sees guilt only as a feeling that must be dealt with therapeutically, the Psalmist knows that it will take the grace of God to help us face our real guilt. This is a central prayer for Lent. We can skate through the season and never really confront the errors of our way. After all, we are Christians. We know our Bible. We believe the Gospel. We’re saved. O Lord, save us from presumption and show us our sins.
And, forgive them, even, maybe especially the hidden ones. Does that mean the ones I hide from others, the ones that live in the darkness of secrecy, like trolls in the basement? Those sins are especially difficult to root out, because we don’t want to being them into the light of repentance. Even more difficult are the sins that we hide from ourselves, either because we are so intensely ashamed of them or because we simply aren’t aware of them. I’m thinking here of those unintended errors, those unconscious mistakes, those unnoticed sins of omission. Can something be a sin if we didn’t really choose to do it, at least not consciously? That is a good philosophical question. But let’s not allow fine points of philosophy to keep us from asking God to forgive very harmful things we have done or not done, of which we are not aware.
In verse 13 the Psalmist even dares to ask God to forgive “willful sins.” When I read those words, I think of a friend who announced his intention to divorce his wife simply because he was tired of her “bitching.” He said, “I know it is wrong, but I’ll just ask forgiveness later and it will all be fine.” Or I think of all the folks hooked on pornography who hate their addiction and pray for forgiveness and then go back to that website every night. The Old Testament has stern warnings (e.g., Numbers 15:30-31) against “high handed sins,” where people boldly plow ahead with their sins even when they know they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
The Psalmist includes such sins in his prayer. Or does he? Some scholars think the Psalmist is asking God to keep him from “insolent” people who mock his piety. May they not rule over me and sway me from my discipleship. And even if the word means “willful sins,” notice that the Psalmist doesn’t so much ask for forgiveness as he asks God to “keep your servant” from such sins. Don’t even let me go there. That doesn’t mean that God won’t forgive such sins, but it focuses more on prevention than pardon. In sum, verse 13 is a frank acknowledgment that we can deal with our sin only by the grace of God. As one scholar said, “It is not the Law that makes the Psalmist blameless; it’s the Lawgiver.”
Finally, notice what the Psalmist calls the Lawgiver in the last word of the Psalm—“Redeemer.” In asking God to accept his offering of words and thoughts about revelation, the Psalmist ends with a powerful word about redemption. The word “Redeemer” is goel in the Hebrew, which all Bible students know from the story of Ruth where Boaz is her goel.
A goel was the next of kin who had to accept certain responsibilities to take care of a relative. If a piece of land was about to be lost by a member of the family, the goel was responsible to purchase it to keep it in the family. If a relative fell on hard times and sold himself into slavery to pay off his debts, the goel had to purchase his freedom back. If a brother died, the goel was supposed to marry his brother’s wife (Ruth’s story is a version of this one). In Israel’s history, Yahweh was Israel’s goel, who accepted responsibility for Israel and brought them out of slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon. Paul applies the same idea to Jesus in Galatians 4:1-7.
Here at the end of this Psalm about revelation, the Psalmist says in effect, it doesn’t matter how much revelation you have, it doesn’t matter how much you know about God and his will, it doesn’t matter how hard you try to do God’s will in your own way. You are still a sinner who needs to repent. And you need a goel, a Redeemer who is close to you and who has the power to pay what you owe and set you free.
To a church living in a multi-cultural world, the epistolary reading for this Third Sunday of Advent gives a summary commentary on Psalm 19. Often, folks who rely on natural revelation or special revelation don’t see the need for a goel, particularly the suffering Redeemer on whom we focus in this Lenten season. In the face of such a rejection of a Redeemer, says Paul in I Cor. 1:22-24, “We preach Christ crucified.” Here’s the summary of his argument. “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.]
I opened with the Underground Railroad, and I’ll close with it, too. As Cora and Caesar ride the railroad ever northward toward freedom, they surface from underground at several stops. At each successive stop, it seems as though the conditions for slaves are better than the ones farther south. But in each case, they are soon bitterly disappointed. People are still racist and cruel, the system is still pitted against their freedom, and the implacable slave catcher, Ridgeway, is still in hot pursuit. The book ends with a turn to the west; maybe there is real freedom on the western frontier. Or maybe not. People are still sinners. The world is still a cruel place. And there are Ridgeways everywhere. Our own best efforts, even when informed by the most inspired revelation, will not set us free. What all of us slaves need is a Redeemer, “for if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!