Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher wrote: ‘Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is just to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show them that it is’.
It is worth our while considering Psalm 19 which CS Lewis regarded as ‘the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world’ (Reflections on the Psalms, p.56).
The Psalm begins: The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (19:1-6).
The Psalm speaks of God’s witness to himself in the ever-repeating pageantry of the sky, day after day and night after night. And, as day follows night, they pour forth speech. Although there are no spoken words, these elements of the universe of themselves speak of a God of order who has taken the initiative to put the universe into existence. The very nature of these elements reveal not just the existence of God, but his eternal power and glory.
The opening lines of Psalm 19 tell us that no one can say, ‘I never knew about God.’ ‘Look around you,’ the writer says. In St Paul’s Cathedral in London, an inscription to its architect, Sir Christopher Wren reads: ‘If you are looking for a monument (or testimony), look around you.’
God’s Law. Suddenly, without warning, Psalm 19 speaks about God’s Word (Law): The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; … (19:7).
C.S. Lewis points out a thematic connection. Just as the heat of the sun reaches everywhere and pierces everyone with its power, so God’s Law is like the all-piercing, all-detecting sunshine. The words of verse 7 are key to understanding the Psalm.
The Psalm-writer uses images showing his delight in God’s Law; it reveals God’s good and pure will, is sure and morally right. ‘True’ in Hebrew has the idea of holding water. God’s Word (Law) is dependable and trustworthy. It revives and leads to wisdom.
Sweetness. So the writer can say – or perhaps, sing: More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb (19:8). We might say this of God’s grace and love, but Psalm 19 speaks thus of God’s Word (Law).
The Psalm is telling us that in God’s revelation we find truly stable, well-rounded directions for living. God’s Law, God’s truth, answers big questions for us about life and lifestyle.
The nations surrounding ancient Israel were pagan. Yet too often God’s people succumbed to the temptations of their neighbors’ religion with its sacred prostitution and child sacrifice. It was only when God provided a wake-up call that their hard hearts were softened and they saw again how appalling these practices were.
Reflection. The Psalm-writer considers his own life before God: Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults (19:11).
‘Nothing is hidden from God’, the writer says. He notes that our sins can be hidden to us because they are often part of us (19:12-13). However, in the same way that nothing is hid from the sun, so God’s truth searches all the hiding places of our blinded hearts.
C.S. Lewis’s comment on Psalm 19 speaks into our lives and our world: ‘In so far that this idea of the Law’s beauty, sweetness or preciousness, arose from the contrast of the surrounding Paganisms, we may soon find occasion to recover it. Christians are increasingly living on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions… None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept; some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and “sweet reasonableness” of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted’ (Reflections, p.57).
In recapturing the ‘exultant sweetness’ of God’s truth, we can show an unbelieving world around us more effectively what Blaise Pascal suggested – namely, we can make our faith ‘attractive’ and so make others ‘wish it were true, and then show them that it is’.
The starting point is with you and me. So, to conclude with the Psalm: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com