We’re still in Creation Season and I couldn’t not talk about Psalm 19 today!
As some of you know, since lock-down I’ve been working from home. Every day, during the time that I would normally be driving into the office, I’ve been going for a walk instead. My route takes me through Clarence Park, up Walmersley Road to the post office and then back down again, sometimes around the Lido.
It’s been dark and it’s been light. It’s been shorts and T-shirt – and it’s been full wet-weather gear. Snow flurries, frost, driving rain, low-lying mist and dew-sodden grass, pink and orange sunrises, blue skies and white clouds. There are squirrels hunting for food alongside pigeons and blackbirds – and a recently arrived black & white cat that is ecumenical about which of those it chases. Ducks fighting for territory on the pond and sparrows playing chase near the pub.
Then there’s the angry-looking man and the fast-walking woman, neither of whom let-on when I say hello – and the two men from the mosque who always do; there are constant joggers and fair-weather joggers of various shapes and lycras – and a number of very tall men with very small dogs; there’s the lady who sweeps her front path – and that of her neighbour, the cyclist who stops to light his cigarette – and occasionally the Staff Bus parked-up with the driver asleep on the next to last seat.
God be in my head
While I’m walking, I’ll run through what’s happening with the day ahead. What calls are needed, what messages need sending. Or I’ll think about up-coming sermons like this one. What’s this passage saying to these people, in this time and in this place – and how do I say it.
And when I’m in the park, I’ll say the prayer of which the start to my sermons is a part: God be in my head and in my understanding, God be in my eyes and in my looking, God be in my mouth and in my speaking, God be in my heart and in my thinking, God be at my end and at my departing.
So, in my morning walk there is creation, humanity, instruction and prayer. Inadvertently, or providentially, it’s the same combination that we have in our wonderful psalm today, Psalm 19. A psalm that inspired both Bach and Beethoven.
There are 3 parts to this psalm, which should be read as a pair with Psalm 18:
- The speech of Creation in verses 1-6
- The speech of the Torah in verses 7-10
- And the speech of the Servant in verses 11-14
The first part tells us that there is a God. The second part teaches us who God is and what He wills, before we get to the prayer at the end.
The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon had this to say about Psalm 19: the psalmist, David, devoted himself to the study of God’s two great books–nature and Scripture; and he had so thoroughly entered into the spirit of these two volumes that he was able to compare and contrast them, magnifying the excellency of the Author as seen in both. How foolish and wicked are those who instead of accepting the two sacred tomes and delighting to behold the same divine hand in each, spend all their wits in endeavouring to find discrepancies and contradictions.
Holding two different views
Two great books: nature and scripture. I don’t intend us to be either foolish or wicked this morning and I hope that we can delight in both. But to do that we need to hold two different views together. Some who claim to find God through creation can be suspicious of scripture – whilst others who hold with scripture can reject the possibility of knowing God in nature.
The theologian Karl Barth was an example of the latter. He dismissed the possibility of ‘a union of humanity with God existing outside of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ’.
On the other hand, the American poet Emily Dickinson might be an example of the former. She wrote:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church
I keep it, staying at Home
With a Blackbird for a Chorister
And an Orchard, for a Dome
Dickinson would find common ground with the first half of Psalm 19 when she hears God preaching in nature. But must she also reject church and the Sabbath? And whilst Barth is right in that we cannot get to Jesus just by looking at fluffy clouds does that mean that nothing of God is revealed outside of Christ? The genius of this psalm is that both views are brought together.
Ears to hear
Jesus said: “let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Wise words indeed when the heavens are telling of the glory of God and the firmament is proclaiming his handiwork.
Yet “there is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard” – and sometimes I wish I could hear the voice of creation because I’d ask it about the people that I don’t see in the morning anymore – and I worry for them. Like the elderly man who would sit and catch his breath before crossing the road to get his paper. And the woman with the carrier bag about to start her shift, already looking tired. Have they just changed their routine, are they ill – have they died?
Abraham Heschel compared these first creation verses to someone with ‘presence’. The kind of person who walks into a room and, without them saying anything, you are drawn to them. Their outwardness somehow communicates inner power. And creation is the same. The outwardness of creation ‘communicates something of the indwelling greatness of God, which is radiant and conveys itself without words.’
Immanuel Kant said: “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing admiration and awe… the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”
And the psalmist’s exuberance doesn’t stop with this description of creation. David delights in God’s law, God’s instruction, too! Jesus said that he “came to fulfil the law.” (Matthew 5:17) Well, for us to understand what that truly means we should be studying and absorbing those laws and teachings, otherwise how do we know what Jesus has come to fulfil?
Finer than gold
The psalmist doesn’t see that as a dry exercise. These are rules to live your life by. They revive the soul and rejoice the heart. They are finer than gold and sweeter than honey. They are to protect you from harm and allow you to thrive.
To get technical for a moment, for you poets out there, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet described these 3 verses on the law in Psalm 19 as the most perfect example of ‘parallelism’ in the Hebrew Bible. I can tell that you’re overcome with excitement!
These are verses 7 to 9, which start with the “The law of the Lord is perfect” and finish with “the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”. They are six identically structured sentences, with the same rhythm and with the same name of God, ‘adonayi’, located in the exact same place in each. It’s a perfect poetic structure to reflect that the Torah of the Lord is perfect. So, in the psalm we have these neat and tidy, measured sentences about the law surrounded by irregular sentences, describing creation and our inner life.
So, here we have poetry and metaphor describing not just creation but the law too. How often do our sermons do that? They usually seek to instruct or teach or inspire – but shouldn’t we take a leaf out of David’s book and just let loose the imagination, once in a while, to give a sense of the awe and the majesty of all that God has given us?
Then the psalm reminds us that God is a forgiving and redeeming God, interested in restoring relationship with us. “The whole of the Bible is God in search of man” as Heschel put it. God is both an awesome creator of the universe and one intimately concerned for us and wanting our company.
Going back to my early morning people, I thought of them as pieces in a kaleidoscope, with the pattern changing daily as some were added and some were missing. But the more I thought the more I realised that they were pieces in my jigsaw and perhaps I was in theirs. That maybe they looked out for me each day, just as I looked for them – even if they didn’t let on.
Meditation of my heart
Then the psalm finishes with words used frequently in Jewish prayer services and where many Christian sermons start: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.’ Is the Preacher starting by saying: “I hope this will be OK Lord”? and was the psalmist finishing by saying: “I hope that was OK Lord?”
Or is David perhaps expressing a desire, shared with all those who preach, for what happens next, for what gets taken home? That what stays with you and with me for the rest of the week is acceptable? Praying a blessing on the words that we take away with us… I like to think so.
‘So, let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.’ Amen
PS: I’ve subsequently seen the woman with the bag. She’d been unwell for some time but is now better…
- Spurgeon: https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=spur&b=19&c=19
- Heschel, A. (2018 reprint). God in search of Man. London: Souvenir Press
- Magonet, J. (1994). A Rabbi reads the Psalms. London: SCM (slightly adapted)
- The Jigsaw poem: https://stjohnstmarkchurchbury.com/jigsaw-by-lawrence-kushner/