Last week when we were looking at Psalm 8 we talked about the historical way that science and faith were viewed. Not as being in conflict with each other but rather as two books, the book of nature and the book of scripture, through which God reveals himself to us. Psalm 19 picks this up and gives thanks for the two ways God has been revealed, in nature and in the Torah, or law. In response the psalm finishes with a humble prayer for forgiveness, a desire to live in right relationship with the creator.
In psalm 19 the emphasis for thanks from the book of nature is again the glory of God declared in the heavens. Like a display case full of jewels they speak of majesty and the great craftsmanship of their creator. In our modern vernacular the psalmist might say ‘these things speak for themselves’. Without words they speak of the one who made them.
Of course with technology like the Hubble telescope, we are able to look further and deeper and deeper into the night sky than the psalmist, and it has simply increased the wow factor
In our call to worship this morning I used this image, it’s the sombrero galaxy, with its Billions of stars and that bright star creating mass in the middle.
Even the dust left over from some cosmic event becomes beautiful and awe inspiring. This is the horse head nebula. It was chosen by the public as what they most wanted to see, for the Hubble telescopes tenth anniversary. You can see why it’s called the horse head nebula.
This is the cat’s eye nebula. I could go on, but the Psalmist draws our attention to something closer to home and possibly two things that we take for granted.
The first is the sun, our star, the psalmist points to the majesty of the sun. He uses the metaphor of a bridegroom coming out of his pavilion dressed in his festive best, to talk of the sunrise, of course in our twenty first century, western world we’d focus on the awe of a brides appearance at the end of the isle. He acknowledges it as Gods provision of light and warmth for all the earth. The sun is the agent by which God is able to enable and sustain life. We are often referred to as the privileged planet, we are close enough to the sun to benefit from it warmth, to have the changes in season from the axis of our rotation round the sun, too much further away and we’d freeze, too much closer and we would be simply a crispy baron waterless, lifeless dust bowl.
Lamentations 3:23-24 is a favourite scripture of mine. It uses the sun to remind us of the constant nature of God’s love. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning great is thy faithfulness. Lamentations is a series of poems about the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, you get the picture that amidst distress, sorrow and tragedy that it’s almost as if night and darkness and death have won. But the psalmist is reminded that God’s goodness is unchanging and dependable, as the beauty of the sunrise, banishes the darkness.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks of God’s love for everyone in terms of the sun and the rain. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Jesus challenge is that we too should reflect our heavenly father by equally loving all, those who we find it easy to love and our enemies.
We lose something of the psalmists understanding of creation in the translation into English. The NIV uses the words heavens in this psalm whereas the word in Hebrew is firmament. Ancient Hebrew cosmology believed that when God created he separated the chaotic waters above from those below by putting a shield around us, to quote a current TV show that we live ‘under the dome’. The sun and the stars and the moon were on this firmament. The rain was that chaotic water above coming through.
I understand why the modern translations don’t use the word firmament because this understanding of the world and cosmos does not stand up to our scientific discoveries. But as I thought about this word firmament I couldn’t help but think of our atmosphere and its various layers that protect us from solar radiation, that hold the warmth of the sun here. That is part of this wonderful privileged planet we live on. While it may not be what the psalmist has in mind, it is good for us to acknowledge this wonderful part of God’s creation and care for us. Recently we’ve become more aware of this as we’ve had to deal with ozone holes and green house gases.
One of the things this psalm does is it demythologises the sun. The sun was worshipped in mnay places in the ancient near east as a god. But here, while it is still given some personality, it is seen as another created thing that gives glory to its creator. That serves God. In many ancient religions the sun was often seen to be a god of justice, but the psalmist strips that from it and attributes justice to, Israel’s God Yhwh who created everything. The psalm moves from the book of nature to the book of scripture and gives praise to God for the law, for providing those who know and trust the Lord a right way to live.
We need both the books of nature and scripture, to get a right understanding of God. Creation can show us something of the greatness of God, but it does not show us that God is necessarily good. Earthquakes, tropical storms, even the brutality of animals preying on others would make us question the goodness of God. We need God’s self-revelation to his people in history to fully understand and comprehend God. In fact it is only in Christ and Christ at the cross that we see the true goodness and grace and mercy of God.
The psalmist praises God for the law, without going into any depth or detail. He uses five different words; law, statutes, precepts, commands, decrees. The psalmist says that each of these reflects something of the nature of the LORD, and impacts on us as human beings. They are perfect and can refresh our souls, our tired life drained scared souls being made new, a wonderful picture of salvation. New life in Christ. It is trustworthy and bringing wisdom, even thank God to the simple. They are right and give Joy to the heart, as Christians we often have this picture of the law as being a burden, we look at it through the eyes of Jesus teaching which deals more with its misuse and abuse, we can forget that the purpose of God’s self-revelation in the law is that we can find wholeness and life in right relationships. Picking up the metaphor of the sun he says they are radiant, just like the sun they give light to our path. They are firm and solid and show us the right way, right living, right relationships. I went for a walk around Mt Mangere on Monday and discovered something of the danger of straying from the path, of not having solid ground under ones feet. We went down the side of the mountain on what was not really a track, I had James and Isaac with me who have the advantage of being young and agile, not me I ended up going down the side of the mountain slipping and sliding down about ten metres of scoria and tree roots. I grazed my arms quite badly and I’ve got some bruises in places you just don’t show people, and I was really shaken up. I appreciate the Psalmist metaphors about God’s law.
For Christians one of the big theological challenges is how do we relate to the law? This psalm offers some help in that. Firstly the desire of the psalmist to keep the law is based on relationship. They are part of God’s self-revelation, the psalm about the glory of God shown in creation and in the law finishes with an acknowledgment that God is the psalmist’s rock and redeemer. The Sinai covenant between Israel and YHWH is based on God’s grace shown in his faithfulness to their ancestors and calling them out of Egypt to be his people. The desire for holy living comes not as a way of earning God’s favour, but as a response to God’s grace. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said he came not to do away with the Law and the prophets but to fulfil it, in Christ we are invited into a loving relationship with God and our response to that is that we desire to live a holy life. The word holy has to do with wholeness , it is that we desire as Leonard Sweet puts it to have a matrix of right relationships: Aright relationship with God, with each other, with the created order, with our possessions and with the spiritual realm. The Torah sets the boundaries of that faithful life and rings alarm bells when we head in the wrong direction. Gerald Wilson says it’s like the protective firmament mentioned at the beginning of this psalm which shields us from destructive chaos. It provides us a place to live and enjoy God and what God has given to us. Yes we have to work through how we relate to the specifics, but we do that with the presence and the help of the Holy Spirit.
The psalmists response to the self-revelation of God in nature and torah, is to ask for forgiveness, is to realise that he and we actually need to know God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness, for that relationship with God to be restored, so other relationships can be put right.
The psalmist is aware that he has two kinds of sins in his life. Those he knows about and those he doesn’t. He asks God to deal with both. The Johari window, behind me, is a good way of looking at the psalmists prayer. It says that there are different parts of our life, parts and faults that are known to us and others, parts and faults that are private known to us and not others, there are blind spots in our life known to others and not ourselves, you only have to talk to my family to learn that there are lots of faults in my life that they aware of that I’m not. And finally areas in our life that are where we do things subconsciously, the hidden self. The psalmist prays for God to forgive the faults he cannot see and for God’s help not to let the faults he is aware of trip him up. The journey to maturity and wholeness in Christ is often one where we allow God to open that secret self up to the light of his word and grace.
In finishing, one of the reasons we are looking at the nature psalms is to see what they can say to us about renewal of our care for creation. This passage invites us to see that not only do we need to have a love and respect for creation because of what it reveals of God’s greatness and goodness, but that we also need to live out of that matrix of right relationships, that God has given in the law.
The Torah has a lot to say about land use, how we should use resources, animal care these are seen as part of what it means to be God’s people. One of the things this psalm does is draw our attention to the atmosphere as part of God’s provision for us. Part of the wonderful life giving environment on earth and challenges us to think about that as part of our creation care.
One of the things that sticks out for me as I read this passage and reflect on creation care is the fact that the psalmist talks of the right relationships the Torah points to being more precious than gold, being sweeter than honey straight out of the honey comb, which in the ancient near east was a rear delicacy, think chocolate. And it challenges the very basis of our western consumer lifestyle. That wants the gold, and the best of everything. Christian discipleship calls us to have an alternative vision of life, a vision which I believe fits quite well with being green and ecologically friendly.