Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 23, 2022
Psalm 19 Commentary
Almost 120 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. Einstein used a technical term to describe this: Spooky.
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—Newton is still right about big things. 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.
Although I will never be counted among the world’s biggest fans of Hillsong, their song “So Will I (100 Billion X)” is a fine encapsulation of Psalm 19 and of a celebration of God’s creation just generally. The accompanying video on one version of the song is also lyrically beautiful. In preparing a sermon on Psalm 19, this is an inspiring video to watch. And if your congregation is a place where showing a video is possible, this would also be a good one to set up or to follow a sermon on Psalm 19.
You can see hear the song and see the video on YouTube here.
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