Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 16, 2018

Psalm 19 Commentary

Digging Into the Text:

Like Psalm 23, 103, and 145, Psalm 19 holds a special place in the hearts of believers as one of the most beloved of the Psalms.  It’s a poetic and theological tour de force.  While its very depth and scope make it a formidable text for preaching, the preacher should not turn away from a challenge that will be meaningful for both preacher and congregation.

Psalm 19 slips away from easy classification.  Essentially it’s a profound poetic meditation on the meaning of human life in God’s creation.  It is divided into three distinct sections: a meditation on creation, on the Torah, and on the sinful reality of human life.

It begins with creation, which is an important theological statement in itself.  Judeo/Christian theology always begins, like the Bible does, with creation.  Whenever theology, whether it’s soteriology, or Christology, or eschatology, loses its grounding in creation, it goes astray.  Apart from a grounding in creation, Salvation becomes other-worldly, Christ’s real human nature as the second Adam gets swallowed up in his divine Sonship, and the telos of a new heavens and new earth is truncated.  Theology begins and ends with a doctrine of creation.

The Psalmist’s first thoughts on creation declare that it is, in itself, a revelation of the glory of God.  Seemingly mute creation sings the praise of its creator.  This is a foundational matter of Israel’s faith which Paul also picks up in the new covenant.  “For 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 people are without excuse.” (Romans 1: 20)

One of the issues the preacher might address here is that the Psalm’s assertion of creation’s hymn of praise to God has suffered in the modern scientific era in which we live.  Not a few people today might read these opening verses as naive religious hokum.  Looking at the vastness of the universe, and its billions of years-long process of its development, they do not hear a hymn to God’s glory, but the drone of completely natural processes.

Our congregations need to know that the scientific discoveries related to the creation of the universe do not silence creation’s hymn of praise, but amplifies it.  And we need not deny the mind-bendingly long and intricate process of creation in order to hear the music of the spheres.

The difference between the Biblical view that the creation sings of its Creator and the secular denial of God as creator is not that one side looks at it through the naive lens of the Bible, and the other through scientific truth.  Francis Collins, eminent scientist and former director of the Genome Project, and many other Christian scientists and theologians are quite comfortable with the evidence from science and yet are no less confident that God is the Creator.  The assertion that the universe came into being merely through accidental natural processes is no less questionable than than the assertion that it all came from the loving hand of the Creator.

It should also be noted that the Psalm is a poem, a hymn.  The picture of the sun as a bridegroom or a strong runner bounding from one end of the heavens to another is not meant to reflect scientific truth.  It’s poetic truth, working through metaphor, to express the glory of God in creation.  We all know that the sun doesn’t rise in the east and set in the west, revolving around the earth, but we still talk about in every day in those naive terms in our everyday speech.

In the Psalm’s second section, the poet turns to God’s revelation in the Torah.  The Belgic Confession (Article 2) teaches that God reveals himself in two books, the book of creation and the books of Scripture.  We need both.

As Christians, we do not understand the Torah merely as God’s law, or even as the Pentateuch.  Torah is the revelation of God in Scripture, which finds its ultimate center in Jesus Christ.  Still, an important and indispensable aspect of this special revelation is the law, and that’s the focus of this Psalm and others, such as Psalm 119.

It’s a healthy thing for congregations to hear these words praising God’s law.  We sometimes misunderstand passages in the New Testament which associate the law with death and the Spirit with life (I Cor. 3: 6) to mean that the law no longer applies or is useful.  The Law of God is no less a gift today than to the ancient Israelites.  Christians can join the psalmist in extolling the sweetness, beauty, and desirability of God’s law.

The Psalmist emphasizes here that the law of the Lord offers the gift of living our human lives wisely.  Wisdom is knowing how to live in God’s creation.  Like the expert woodworker learns to respect the grain of the wood in his or her hands, the law gives us the ability to respect and live by the grain of the God’s creation.  So, we too can say with the Psalmist in Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law; it is my meditation night and day.”

At verse 11 the focus of the Psalm turns abruptly to the realities of human life in a sinful and fallen world.  Not only are the words of the law sweet as honey, but “by them is your servant warned.”  The law of the Lord doesn’t merely enlighten us, it also confronts human sin and warn us of its dangers.

In looking at human life in its fallen state, the Psalmist identifies two kinds of fault.  He calls one of them “hidden faults.”  These are the kinds of sin that we often don’t even recognize, but are endemic to our lives– sins of omission, born of our distracted busyness, and the alienating words we say or the thoughtless actions we do that occur almost unconsciously.  In other words, sin is so much woven into our lives, we often don’t even know we are in its control.

The Psalmist calls the other kind of sin “insolent,” or willful.  These are the sins we know well, sins that can dominate us, and are thus so hard to eradicate.  Against both of these, we are helpless in our fallenness. The only hope we have is that God will deliver is from them.  “Keep back your servant,” the Psalmist pleads, “do not let” me fall into the clutches of these sins.  For Christians, the fact that Jesus Christ has assumed our fallen human state with its bend toward sin echoes and explains the Psalmist’s plea.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4: 15-16)

Jesus our Savior offers us a merciful understanding of the battle we face, and the grace to overcome sin.

The closing verse of this Psalm, beloved and memorized by so many, encapsulates the Psalm’s orientation toward God.  He asks that the “words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable” to God the creator and redeemer.  It’s no wonder that thousands of preachers have adopted it as their prayer for preaching God’s Word.

The Hebrew words translated “be acceptable” are a technical term for a qualified offering in the temple.  In essence the Psalmist sees his whole life as an offering to our creator and redeemer on the altar of burning faith and love to God.  Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 12, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)

Preaching the Text

1). As mentioned above, one important aspect of the Psalm the preacher might address is the apparent tension between the modern scientific understanding of the formation of the universe next to the Bible’s insistence on God as creator.

The fact that the creation “declares” the glory of God while the Torah reveals God’s holy will and wisdom tells us that God reveals himself in both creation and Scripture.  That also means that God’s revelation in creation and Scripture cannot ultimately disagree since they both come from God.

(See Article 2 of the Belgic Confession on the two books of God’s revelation.)

This two books analogy is a solid starting point for helping congregations to understand the issues involved here.  To the extent that the scientific study of the creation reveals its underlying structure and the history of its development, it cannot fundamentally disagree with the Scriptures.  If it does, we need to test the science as well as our theological and exegetical approaches Scripture.  We hold two books in our hands, and it is our task to read them both carefully and openly.

The Biologos Foundation, founded by Francis Collins, eminent Christian scientist and former director of the Genome Project, offers a treasure trove of print and media resources for preachers who want to address these issues.  Biologos has also produced an imaginative presentation of creation and redemption called “The Big Story,” using the latest scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe alongside the truths of the biblical story.  This may be helpful as an example of a way to integrate science and faith.

2). It may also be helpful to address the place of God’s law for Christians.  How can we love God’s law and discover its sweetness when it is so often misunderstood as the enemy of the gospel.  John Calvin helpfully outlined three uses of the law for Christians.

Curb – Through fear of punishment, the Law keeps the sinful nature of both Christians and non-Christians under check. (vs. 11)

Mirror – The Law serves as a perfect reflection of what God created the human heart and life to be. (vs. 7)

Guide – For Christians, under the power of the Holy Spirit, the Law serves to guide in living a life that is pleasing to God. (vs. 8)


Preaching Connections: ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup