The book of nature and the book of Scripture - Psalm 19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The palaeontologist arrives on location in the midst of what seems to be a large, hectic dig: hugely excited scientists are buzzing all around in anxious but never-the-less euphoric activity... he wonders what all the fuss is about... just like us, the viewers... that is until the camera lifts up to give an aerial perspective and we can see the whole picture - he is actually standing in the middle of an enormous, fresh dinosaur footprint. So begins the film Godzilla.
But that sort of thing happens often doesn't it (I don't mean fresh dinosaur prints) but missing what we're supposed to see because we haven't got the right perspective... we're too close to it, too involved in it perhaps. And when it's dawned on us we say things like: 'I couldn't see the wood for the trees!' Or 'I couldn't see it for looking!'
How about this?
People experience it every single day. The evidence for it is almost infinitely vast in its dimensions and astoundingly beautiful. Its very effect on you is to inspire awe. But even though it couldn't be more 'in our face', most people miss it!
What is it?
The answer is right there in v1 of Psalm 19... it's the glory of God. The glory of God that is evidenced by the work of his own hands in the whole of the created order of the cosmos. It is one of three voices recorded by David speaking in this psalm... You've heard of the Three Tenors - Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras... their singing might well stir our emotions, but they don't come close to the three part harmony that David pens in this psalm... for in this arrangement we are in turn 'wowed', 'warmed' and 'wisened up', as David briefly but very profoundly introduces us to God: In what He has done; what He is like; what He requires and in the light of all that... how we must respond .
So the first voice is
1] The voice of God's creation - paradox v1-6
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language [where] their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.
Advertisers are always on the look out for advertising spaces. And spaces don't come much bigger than the sky, do they? You may have been blighted by those annoying little planes that fly over the beach when you're relaxing on holiday, trailing banners with their annoying messages, and their annoying engine noise and then the even more annoying way they fly back the same way again with the message backwards! As if the salty old sea dog on his fishing trawler might be interested in a 'school days fancy dress foam party starting in 10 minutes, 50 miles away'! (Am I becoming a grumpy old man?)
Making slightly more impact, and gaining a world record for their trouble are AvPro Outdoor advertising specialists, who, in July 1999 in America flew a whopping 10,880 sq ft banner from a helicopter.
But it's Psalm 19 that goes to the maximum. David points us to the backdrop of all of that... the sky itself, 'the heavens' as being God's advertising space. Each day and each night v2 they pour forth - literally 'belch out' - speech! Involuntary, spontaneous speech... to go with the knowledge they display - speech about and knowledge of what?glory of God.
So why do people miss it? Simply because what can be seen and experienced in our world can only tell us so much. It reveals something but not everything.
The American writer and preacher John Piper reflects on the liberating effect of being made to feel small when in the presence of obvious, breathtaking grandeur: Whether it's the 7mile high summit of Mt Everest... or perhaps seeing the sun rise over the Grand Canyon... Whether it's just standing on a cliff top above a foaming sea during a storm surge, or just watching the sky set on fire in another unique breathtaking sunset. We are humbled. We feel small. And the reason we don't mind this feeling, but actually, actively seek it out, is because at root, for us to be taken out of ourselves, dwarfed by grandeur, feeling small and insignificant in the presence of a majestic vista, is an entirely appropriate thing for a human being to feel... it is how we are wired. And it usually provokes questions like 'how?' and 'why?', the answers to which can only be satisfied by the existence of an almighty, loving creator God!
We call this God's general revelation. Through the fact of the existence of the cosmos, and the orderly and providential way in which it operates - the example of the sun in v4-6 being particularly comprehensive in this respect - we should be pointed beyond its design to the one who designed it.
But viewing creation can only take you so far. The sum of its eloquence is to point to the existence of such a creator... and perhaps allow you to deduce certain things about that creator - i.e. has to be powerful etc... but we cannot know him as such.
Let me illustrate what I mean... If you wanted to get to know me... you could look at where I live and work, and the things I've done... and you might be able to pick up certain characteristics about me... so you may come to know something about me but you will not know me. For that to happen I have to speak to you, reveal myself to you. Personally relate to you.
And so with God and the voice of creation - in fact that is why the voice of creation is a paradox. 'The heavens pour forth speech day after day' v2 but v3 'there is no speech or language, their voice is not heard'. (That 'where' in v3 shouldn't be there. The footnote in the NIV is right). So there is speech but it isn't heard. That is why most people miss the glory of God in creation. But that is no excuse.
Paul writes in Romans 1v 20 'Since the creation of the world - God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.'
According to him, enough can be known to point us to the existence of a creating God. Enough in fact, that on the day you stand before God, the one thing you cannot say is this 'Well God, the evidence suggested that you didn't exist!'. You and I are without excuse just because of the limited voice of creation.
So in Paul's time too, people were missing the glory of God, and the reason he gives for why people miss the glory of God in creation is simply this: foolishness. A foolishness that focuses on what has been created, rather than the one who created it!
So it's not so much that people miss the glory of God... they see the glory alright, but they fail to attribute that glory to God.
But if that is only as far as the voice of creation goes, the question remains: Can we know God?
Well the answer to that is an emphatic 'Yes!' as we'll soon see. But perhaps the more probing question might be 'Do you want to?'.
Many people today would claim to be 'agnostic' - they wouldn't go as far as to say categorically, that 'there is no God' - atheism, but they would say 'I don't know if there is a God'. Agnosticism.
Now that sounds all very 'sorted', doesn't it? I'm an agnostic! But to say that and then to happily remain in that position exercising a policy of non-action in the quest to discover the God who might possibly be there, is to shipwreck your whole argument. Consider.
God is a possibility in the thinking of the agnostic. Invariably 'god' is a greater being than anyone already known, who will have potentially, greater powers to affect and perhaps solve many of life's problems, and certainly greater knowledge... and so on, and so even arguing from this primarily selfish 'what could I get out of him, what could he do for me?' point of view, it would absolutely be worth your while finding out if such a being does in fact exist.
In that scenario 'I don't know if there's a God' becomes 'I don't want to know', and that - in light of the harsh reality of life in our world and all of those helpful possibilities of a god who might just be concerned for it - just doesn't wash. When you think about it in those terms such an approach is directly opposed to the rational human mind!
The merest notion of the existence of a 'god', whether hinted at through the glory of creation, or conceded as a rational possibility... should spur any human being to a serious search for God himself.
Which brings us nicely to the second voice that David hears
Whilst the voice of God's creation presents us with a paradox
2] The voice of God's word - is perfection v7-12
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring for ever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
11 By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can discern his errors?
If creation brings before our eyes God's general revelation, we now have what is known as God's special revelation - his specific revealing of who he is, what he is like, what he has done, why he has done it and how we are to respond. Straightaway we are able to say 'You can know God!' in fact 'God wants you to know him!'. And you get to know him the same way that you get to know me or anyone else... Listen to what he says about himself. Listen to his word.
God has not been silent, and David knows that a few hundred years before he was around, God had come in person, at the time of the Exodus, to make good the promises he had previously made, by liberating his people from slavery, and liberating them to a life lived God's way... the perfect way. So Moses was given a part of the Bible which is collectively known as the Law, God's law. But also at that crucial time God revealed something very personal... his personal name - Yahweh - 'I am that I am', 'I will be what I will be'. It is a name that expresses His very nature... He exists. He does not change. He makes promises. He keeps promises. He loves to rescue people but he also deals in perfect justice. And he executes both rescue and judgement with irresistible power.
So just look at how David refers to God in v1, God. But from v7 onwards it is different isn't it? The LORD. L-O-R-D in capitals. Whenever you see that in your Bibles it means Yahweh. God who relates to us personally. The God who you can know... The God who reveals what He is like. The God who speaks to people. And how has God spoken to people?
David's understanding is that God speaks through his Law:
In this section of Psalm 19 David employs a number of terms that express certain specific facets contained within God's law. v7 'Law' itself is the idea of instruction, 'statutes' are that which God holds as valid, v8 'precepts' are applicable to the small details of life, 'commands' are intended for obedience, v9 'fear' pertains to reverent submission and 'ordinances' are authoritative decisions. We should note that these categories cover all of life. We should also note that David is very excited about them. But I wonder if you are? In fact I doubt very much whether you and I have ever been so excited about them... after all, what we are dealing with are the drier parts of Exodus, the whole of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Read them and you'll see what I mean.
OK, so what about when we add the descriptions that David assigns to each aspect then: perfect law, trustworthy statutes, right precepts, radiant commands, the purity of godly fear, ordinances that are sure and altogether righteous? Well, again, I'm sure we'll give a good Christian 'Mmm' and a nod of assent... but do they really get our juices going?
No. The ultimate test, that will determine whether or not we even get close to ascribing the term perfection to God's law in particular, or God's word, the whole Bible in general, is when we understand all of these aspects in relation to the nitty gritty of our lives. Because these are not distant rules that we might give the occasional nod to now and then. They are the personal words of the Supreme Ruler of the Cosmos to ME. They show His deepest passionate intimate concern for MY LIFE, that everything that is truly good and perfect might be MINE. They offer loving instruction that is to be embraced for all the goodness and transforming power it brings to my whole existence and destiny. That really clicked with me this week!
That is crystal clear for David isn't it? Just look at what God's word does for him! Makes him wise v7, v8 gives him joy, gives him light to see by, v9 gives him confidence for eternity... and so v10 is a simple statement of fact for David: God's word is more precious than large quantities of the purest gold... and sweeter than the freshest honey!
And we mustn't forget that in addition to God's personal word to people in the scriptures, we also have God's Word in person - the Lord Jesus Christ. His life and death and resurrection was the reason why Peter wrote what he did in our second Bible reading. Jesus certifies the prophecy of the OT... thus authenticating it and proving that all scripture is God's word, not made up by man but inspired by God the holy Spirit.
So we are way beyond just Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy anyway! We have the whole Bible. We have the climax of Jesus Christ - God the Son, coming to personally display the perfect attributes of the character of Yahweh in buying for us at the cost of his own life... forgiveness and reconciliation - personal relationship - with God.
I wonder then what you would choose if the choice was between a pile of the purest gold and a Bible - choose God's word. But that is quite quaint isn't it so... imagine there was million here, and a Bible and your choice would demonstrate what you thought was most beneficial... would you take the bible? Would you walk away holding the Bible in your hand because you think that would be the right thing to do, but secretly... [or not so secretly] tearing up inside that you just left sitting there? Or would you be bouncing around with David, utterly convinced that the benefits of knowing God personally and knowing and doing the word of God are greater than anything that money can buy?
You'd certainly come to realise just how precious God's word is to you? It should cause us to dribble and drool in anticipation of its sublime, heavenly sweetness, shouldn't it? Time reading God's word wouldn't be the first casualty of increased busy-ness. It wouldn't ever be a casualty because it would be the vital air of a living relationship with God that helps us to keep all else in the right perspective. Its gracious warnings v11 could be heeded because they would be in mind. Its benefits and rewards might actually have a chance to take effect and transform us in thought and word and deed.
And we too, along with David in v12, would be far more able to ask this... 'Who can discern his errors?' at which very point we too will be affirming that the voice of God's word is perfection!
But there is another voice in this psalm... It is...
3] The voice of God's servant - praying v12-14
12b Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
14 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
When the mind has been captivated by that which is perfection... inevitably there will be a collision with the realities of everyday life as sinful human beings. If we can't discern God's errors in His word, we are certainly able to discern our own errors... not least because God has shown us through his law what those errors are. And do we then think that any of them, open or hidden will escape God's penetrating gaze? David is in no doubt is he? For him the only course of action is to come clean. Own up
And recognising that we are naked to God's view and guilty of breaking his law, we will ask for forgiveness v12. And recognising that we are so weak with our innate tendency to act independently of God, to sin, we will ask for help too v13, for we like David will recognise that God's way is the only way, and so our passionate desire will be to be blameless v13.
There's no rationalising of sin here... you know that almost automatic process of justifying and explaining away that kicks in when our consciences are giving us grief? No room for that in the concept of being 'blameless'. Instead it assumes the urgent need for radical and violent action to be taken against sin. In fact such urgent and such radical action that the servant in question is able to confidently pray v14...
14 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
This person knows full well that God hears whatever he or she says. That God knows what their deepest heart longings are, but with all that being as it is, wants God to be pleased with what He sees and knows as He looks at them.
Just, in fact, as you'd expect to find in any intimate loving relationship. Because that is what this is all about. Not finding out about God. But knowing the LORD. And when the bad times inevitably roll in, you'll find Him to be not a rock, but your Rock v14... and that is true not because he is a Redeemer, (ie. A hostage liberator) but because He is your Redeemer.
You see, when you read and think about the Bible, and you particularly read of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus... you have to conclude that God couldn't possibly get more personal!
And when you come to know him like that, throwing yourself at the foot of the cross of Christ, depending on what he did in your place and not on what you can do to get to his place... you will be able to go out into His world and bask in His glory reflected in the heavens - you won't miss it!
You'll be able to go with His perfect word, richer than the richest tycoon and nothing will keep you from it!
And you'll be able to pray to the LORD - Yahweh, your Rock and your Redeemer as you serve him.
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