The heav’ns above declare The glory of our God; And what his hands have made The skies proclaim abroad. Day after day they pour forth speech, And night by night their knowledge teach.
There is no language used Or any spoken word; No sound is made by them And yet their voice is heard. Throughout the world their voice resounds, Their words to earth’s remotest bounds.
In heav’n God pitched a tent, A dwelling for the sun, Which like a bridegroom comes Or strong man keen to run. Its course from east to west complete— There’s nothing hidden from its heat.
The perfect law of God Revives the soul of man; His statutes which are sure Make wise the simple one. The precepts of the LORD are right And fill the heart with great delight.
God’s radiant commands Shed light on what we see; The fear of God is pure And lasts eternally. The standards of the LORD express His perfect truth and righteousness.
Of far more worth than gold— Than much pure gold—they are; Than honey from the comb, Than honey sweeter far. They warn the servant of the LORD; In keeping them is great reward.
Who can discern his faults? Forgive my hidden sin. Keep me from wilful deeds; May they not rule within. And then I shall be free from blame And guiltless of transgression’s shame.
LORD, let the words I speak Be pleasing in your sight, And may my inmost thoughts Be in your judgment right. O LORD, you are a Rock to me; You have redeemed and set me free
Here you can hear a Free Church congregation sing this, from v4, to the hauntingly beautiful tune Love Unknown. It can also be sung to Little Conard (which we associate with Hills of the North Rejoice)
Students of Apologetics (that is, the presentation of reasoning or evidence that supports the claims of Christian faith) sometimes speak of two broad ways in which we learn of God’s presence and activity. Special revelation is the term used for God’s dealings with humanity through the Law and the Prophets, through Scripture’s record of anointed leaders and miraculous interventions, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and through the testimony of the Holy Spirit within us. Meanwhile, at a more basic level, general revelation refers to the idea that even our observation of the natural world can point us to God’s presence, and to at least something of God’s character.
There’s a sense in which today’s Psalm celebrates both these kinds of revelation. The first three stanzas (corresponding to verses 1-6 in the Biblical text) declare that the sun and stars above, noiseless as they are, speak eloquently and unmistakably to all the world as they testify to God’s handiwork. Then from the fourth stanza (verse 7 in the Biblical text) the Psalmist goes on to affirm what God has particularly given to the community of faith, to guide them in their conduct and to show them who God is: the law, statutes, precepts, commands, fear, and standards of the LORD. In Hebrew thought, this isn’t really a list of distinct categories; rather it’s a choice of complementary terms which together seek to express the fullness of Torah – God’s instruction, God’s pattern for human lives.
Why does the Psalm change tack in this way? Some commentators have suggested that the text as we have it now is a combination of two originally distinct works; others note that the sun was commonly seen in the Ancient Near East as analogous to the Law of God – enlivening, and shining a light on dark places.
In any case, it would be easy to see Psalm 19 as reflecting a movement from general revelation (the universally-available evidence of God) to special revelation (our reliance upon God to take the initiative if we’re to learn God’s character or will), reinforcing a distinction between the two. But I wonder if that’s quite what the Psalmist has in mind?
There’s a Jewish rabbinical tradition that God’s Torah was set out even before the creation of the world, to serve as its blueprint. And so there’s a way of reading this Psalm that sees the firmament itself – the created order which we see and experience each day and night – as part-and-parcel of Torah, the revelation of God’s teaching to shape our lives.
Far from being merely the evidential foundation upon which we might build our philosophical arguments for a Creator, our experience of nature in its awe and fragility summons us together to live reverently and responsibly as recipients of God’s gift and God’s call. Far from selfishly taking our fill of the earth’s resources, we are summoned to know our place – and to rejoice in giving our all for the sake of the world which God so loves.
O God of stars and sun, O LORD of gracious law: let me be bound to you both now and evermore. In skies above I trace your art; inscribe it also on my heart. Amen.
The Rev’d Dominic Grant is minister at Trinity URC Wimbledon.
(C) Sing Psalms The Psalmody and Praise Committee, Free Church of Scotland, 15 North Bank Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2LS