Admittedly Psalm 19 all-but begs to get split into two parts. That does not mean, however, that the Lectionary was correct to cave into doing just that. Whoever wrote this poem saw unity in it even if the rest of us ever since have had to work a bit to connect the first 6 verses and its ode to creation’s witness to the Creator and the final 8 verses and its rhapsodic celebration of God’s Law.
But the psalm really is a unity. The orderliness we see in the cosmos and its universal witness to the God who created and now superintends the whole thing is directly tied to the orderliness and beauty of the Law God provided that gives us the blueprint for how to live happily and well within that created order. The beauty of the sun as it makes its daily circuit through the heavens is first cousin to the beauty of God’s laws, statutes, rules, principles, precepts (really, every synonym for “law” gets used in this psalm!).
So although the RCL would have us begin at verse 7, I am all in favor of reading and pretty much preaching on the whole psalm.
That said, let’s admit that verses 7-14 may strike us as somewhat odd. Who gets this excited about laws and rules? It would be like listening to a flight attendant read the standard rundown of the rules regulating the flight and having someone stand up and tearfully declare, “Thank you for telling us all that! Those rules are just so wonderful and moving to me!” Huh? We may understand life’s rules and regulations, we may even appreciate them in various contexts and we may well respect and follow those laws but they are not generally a source of enthusiasm.
What accounts, then, for the gushing sentiments and lyric imagery of Psalm 19 where God’s rules are concerned? Well, perhaps we can break this down into two categories.
First, the psalmist discerns in God’s law a life-giving source of delight. Following these statutes leads to flourishing and heads off all kinds of headaches and sorrows. This is why, at its best anyway, Israel regarded the imparting of the divine law as a gift, as a mercy, as in its own way a grace. We tend to oppose law and grace but Israel perceived God’s laws as grace because they could prevent suffering.
In this sense God’s laws are like someone’s stopping you in the kitchen just before you were going to pour some chicken stock into a pan full of sizzling hot oil. “Stop! Remember the rule: never pour liquid into hot grease because it will explode and catch the whole kitchen on fire!” One’s response to this could only be, “Whew! Thank you! Thank you for reminding me of that rule!” We may not always recognize it, but that is how God’s laws function. They keep us safe. They make marriages work better, they make social interactions more pleasant, they help us respect one another’s property and safety.
But there is a second reason the psalmist is so excited about God’s rules and laws and this emerges very near the end of Psalm 19. Because a prerequisite for loving God’s law is also having a love for being righteous as God is righteous. Perhaps it goes without saying that if a given person did not care one bit about living a holy life in imitation of God, such a person would likely also find himself chaffing under—and not giving thanks for—the very rules that prevent him from doing whatever he wants whether it yields completely ungodly behavior or not. It definitely boosts one’s enthusiasm for God’s law if upon figuring out that these rules make you more godly, you regard such godliness as a good thing.
The psalmist does. As such, God’s law becomes his guide for life. The Owner’s Manual for creation. It is the straight line against which he can discern any crookedness in his own behavior as step one in correcting such things. Indeed, the end of this psalm has the poet asking God to forgive even any hidden faults in him that even he cannot recognize as being a crooked line in his heart vis-à-vis the straight edge of God’s law. So if a person is so invested in holiness as to want even the sins he cannot identify to be forgiven and also rectified, it goes without saying he wants to work on the stuff that is far more glaring and obvious.
A passion for godliness translates into an enthusiasm for God’s ways as reflected in God’s law. That may beg an uncomfortable question: if contemporary Christians find it odd to consider having a Psalm 19-esque enthusiasm for God’s law, is it because there has also been a waning in how important we deem sanctification and pursuing a Christ-like, godly life?
I have used this illustration before in connection to Psalm 19 but it fits well so I will repeat it here:
Perhaps it is a bit of a silly joke—and it may or may not relate as well as it might to the subject at hand—but here goes: A man newly arrived in New York City hails a taxi. He gets into the backseat and gives the driver his destination address. The driver takes off on the streets of Manhattan and as they approach a red light, the taxi driver sails on through. “What are you doing!?” the passenger cries out. “Don’t worry” the driver says, “My brother Felix does it all the time!”
Soon they come up on another red light and again the taxi drives through the intersection. “You’re going to get me killed” the man sighs. “Don’t worry—my brother Felix does it all the time!” Finally they come up on another intersection and as they get to it, the light turns green. The passenger breathes a sigh of relief even as the taxi driver screeches to a halt. “Now what are you doing?” the passengers asks. “Hey,” the driver replies, “My brother Felix might be coming from the other way!”
There is a certain inescapable logic to the existence of most laws. We can flout some laws, break some laws, ignore some laws but not only do we do so to our peril, the orderliness that laws make possible has a funny way of reasserting itself too. It seems to have something to do with how the world got made in the first place.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 26, 2021
Psalm 19:7-14 Commentary