Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 27, 2019
Psalm 19 Commentary
Almost 115 years ago an unknown patent clerk named Albert Einstein published a series of papers detailing what he called “special relativity.” At one fell swoop, Einstein shattered centuries’ worth of scientific theories about the fundamental nature of reality. The theories of Isaac Newton and his mechanical understanding of the universe’s functioning were swept away, getting replaced by a whole new way to view the cosmos: quantum physics. In the years that followed, Einstein’s disciples like Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger would further quantum theory in remarkable ways. By 1950 the scientific community saw the world in a whole new way.
And Albert Einstein was very unhappy about it all! The man who got the quantum ball rolling did not like the results. Because as it turns out, at the very tiniest level of atoms and electrons, the universe does not behave the way you might think. Particles of energy can move from here to there without going in between. Light acts like both a wave and a particle and it displays these opposite characteristics simultaneously. Two atoms that had been kept in close proximity to one another get entangled in one another, developing a kind of bond that defies the imagination. Even if you take one atom to a laboratory in Los Angeles and move the other one to a lab in New York, whatever you do to the atom in L.A. will instantly happen to the other atom in New York.
Say you had a pair of identical twins named Jill and Jane Smith. If Jill and Jane were like atoms, you could take Jill to Chicago and bring Jane to Denver. But if in Chicago you poke Jill in the arm with a needle, instantly in Denver Jane’s arm would start to bleed, too! This really happens with atoms. Einstein’s technical term for it was “spooky,” but he didn’t like this spookiness one bit.
Quantum mechanics revealed a universe that seems to have a lot of chance and randomness built into it. But the world we can see with our eyes isn’t jumpy like that. What we can see around us in the movement of the moon and the stars is more straightforward. Einstein believed that what we see with our eyes and what physicists see through their microscopes had to jive, had to go together. He couldn’t accept a universe that had any randomness in it. “Gott würfelt nicht,” he said: “God does not play dice.”
The author of Psalm 19 would agree. Psalm 19 is one of the Bible’s most elegant of poems. The psalmist moves from the majesty of the universe to the splendor of God’s law. At first glance, it looks like the writer really shifted gears between verses 6 and 7. After six verses devoted to the sun, moon, and stars, all of a sudden the law of God bursts onto the scene. It looks like a big shift but there is actually a tight linkage.
The connection has to do with both the beauty and the orderliness of the heavens. Everything we see throughout the physical creation is the glorious work of an ingenious Creator God. The stars that twinkle, the sun that shines, the clouds that scud through brilliantly blue noonday skies all bear witness to the grandeur of the God who fashioned each and every one of those remarkable things. To those with ears to hear, whole oratorios of praise to God are being sung constantly. The universe is like one giant opera house that features a never-ending production of lyric melodies, achingly beautiful arias, and soaring crescendos of joy to the Creator.
To the psalmist, the splendor of stars and sunshine point to a God who is very clever, exceedingly wise, and finally good. God has been so very generous in sharing this universe of wonders with the rest of us. God wants us to enjoy the variety of splendors he made. We should count ourselves as profoundly blessed just to have the ability to see it all. John Calvin once said that the reason God created us to walk on two feet instead of going around on all fours like an animal is precisely so that we can stand tall, lift up our heads, and see the stars above.
God didn’t want us to miss the glories of creation. So he gave us eyes to see creation’s glories and ears to hear its chorus of praise. He gave us taste buds and a sense of smell to enable us to enjoy wine and food. He gave us minds capable of taking note of all that we experience in the world. Humans made in God’s image are, so far as we know, the only beings who are able to reach beyond themselves to enjoy otherness. We take delight in paying attention to creatures unlike ourselves.
White-tail deer in a Michigan forest don’t keep a running list of the different birds they encounter. But we human beings keep such lists all the time. We fill whole libraries with books that catalogue every conceivable kind of prairie grass, bird, tropical fish, flower, tree, and star. We love taking note of beings that are not like us. We’re born curious, as the parent of any two- or three-year-old can tell you. “What’s that? Why is the sky blue and grass green? What do worms do down there in the dirt? Hey, Daddy, let’s stop to watch this ant hill for an hour or so!”
The heavens declare the glory of God in a universal language that needs no translation from German into Dutch, from Farsi into Japanese. It’s a universal tongue whose grammar and vocabulary are intelligible to anyone willing to listen. When you view the universe this way, then you start to trust any God capable of making such wonders. What’s more, you take joy in any God who so obviously wants the rest of us to enjoy the universe the same way he does. He cares for us. He’s invested in our lives.
Of course, there are always those who look through telescopes at distant wonders, who learn how outrageously vast the universe is, who look at our own Milky Way galaxy and its mind-boggling 100 billion stars and they then conclude, “Obviously, we human beings are nothing. We’re a galactic footnote so tiny, so insignificant, even if there is a God out there somewhere, he’d have to strain to see our puny little planet, much less take note of any individual person on this cosmic speck we call the earth!”
The psalmist will have none of that. The wonder of God is that he is at once the Creator of splendors that dwarf us and also the tender God who loves each person and calls each by name. God does know we exist and so has given laws, rules, commands, ordinances, statutes, and wise ideas to help us make our lives as comfortable and productive and safe and happy as possible. Any God who can create the universe can be trusted to give us the straight scoop when it comes to rules that will help us get along better in the very world God himself made.
So the psalmist is not changing the subject or shifting gears between verses 6 and 7. Instead he’s following a consistent line of thought: creation teaches us that we serve a great, good, and reliable God. This same God has given us a roadmap for life, and so we follow that map with the joyous assurance that he will not lead us down the wrong paths.
God’s ways are said to be perfect and soul-refreshing. They are reliable and can make even the simplest person as wise as a genius. What God recommends is flat out the right thing to do and you sense this when you find God’s ways bringing joy to your heart. God’s commands are radiant, they fairly shine with the splendor of truth and so provide illumination for the road ahead. God’s law helps you pick your way through a dark world the same way your car’s headlights enable you to drive on a highway after sunset.
Psalm 19 concludes with the hope that not just the words of our mouths but also the meditations of our hearts will be pleasing to our Creator and Redeemer God. The last word here is “Redeemer,” which clamps the whole psalm together. We began with creation and end with redemption. We began with a vision of the orderliness of God’s cosmos and now conclude with a vision of God’s having saved all that he made. We live in not just an elegant universe but in a redeemed one. Hope is everywhere.
Above we talked about Einstein’s dislike of a universe that seemed a little jumpy and unpredictable at the level of the very small. He wanted a grand unification theory, a theory of everything, that could unite the whole universe. Einstein never found his theory of everything before he died, and science still doesn’t understand what ties the universe together. We still have no clue why atoms in distant places can communicate with one another.
But I am convinced that Einstein was right: God doesn’t play dice. Whatever holds reality together, it does hold. It does make sense. It is our joy as believers in God to know this is so. He who is the Creator of a cosmos that still sings his praises has lately become the cosmic Redeemer through Jesus Christ the Lord. He has already given us so much and shown us how to live to enjoy those gifts to the fullest. The ways of our God are right and altogether precious. When you know that, you join the psalmist in calling God not just your Redeemer but your Rock. A rock is something on which you can rest, something you can lean upon and rely on. It’s an image of stability, peace, and satisfaction–the very satisfied peace and joy our God desires for every one of us.
One of the most stunning and now famous pictures ever snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope is this one of what some have dubbed “The Pillars of Creation”:
These gaseous structures are mammoth—they are over a light year in height (that’s 5,880,000,000,000 miles high). And what is wondrous about these structures is that they are nurseries for newborn stars. Although very distant from earth—and so we are looking very far into the past when we see such a picture—this is evidence, as astronomer Deborah Haarsma notes, that God’s act of creation was not something that was long ago over and done with. God is still making new stars today. Creation is ongoing.
And day after day it pours forth speech.
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