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Introduction – John Mason
In February this year the Anglican Connection held an online conference addressing the theme, ‘The Unchanging God in a World of Change’. As the Bible provides timeless answers to questions about life various speakers brought us reflections on the Scriptures to help us learn of God and the world in which we live.
Dr. John Yates, Senior Minister of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Raleigh, NC, gave us two meditations on Psalm 19. Now, in preparation for the Conference follow-up October seminars here, with John’s permission, is his first reflection.
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Psalm 19 (1) Reflection – John Yates III
Psalm 19 is well-known to all of us, and for good reason. As CS Lewis unabashedly wrote, “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” (Reflections on the Psalms, London 1958, p.63).
This psalm of David begins with an emphatic declaration of the glory of God in the heavens in vv.1-6, pivots to a profound proclamation of the gifts of God in scripture in vv.7-11, and then concludes with a heartfelt confession and plea in vv.12-14.
As we focus on the first 6 verses this morning I want to ask two rather simple questions. The first is this: What exactly are the heavens doing? Verse 1,
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
To put it simply, the heavens are praising God. But this is no normal song of praise.
The first thing to notice about it is that it is continuous. “Day to day” and “night to night” signify that the song is unending. The heavens never pause for breath. They never take a rest, which means that a melody of praise has played in the heavens since God first separated the firmaments and named them. Every age, epoch and season has been serenaded by it.
The second thing to notice about the heavens’ praise is that it is inaudible. It is nonetheless intelligible. It reveals the vast storehouses of God’s knowledge, which unlike human knowledge cannot be taught but is simply possessed by God. His knowledge and understanding is so vast it can only be displayed in the infinitude of space.
The third thing to notice is that this song is totally unconstrained. It knows no national borders or physical barriers. It covers every nook and cranny of the earth, and is therefore inescapable. It is everywhere all at once.
These are the first things we notice about the song of the heavens as the poem begins. In the second half of v.4, then, a shift takes place. David narrows the focus of his reflection, moving from the broad expanse of the cosmos to the more familiar track of the sun. David writes,
In them [the heavens] he has set a tent for the sun, 5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
In that last phrase, the unconstrained and inescapable nature of heaven’s witness is illustrated by the searching heat of the sun – something every Jew living in the land of Israel would have experienced first-hand on the long, hot days of a Mediterranean summer.
But David is doing more than repeating his opening theme here. By likening the sun to a happy bridegroom he is painting a more complete picture of the character of heaven’s praise.
The sun is like a man in the fullness of life who strides across the heavens in a demonstration of strength, full of the joy of his exertion. The sun is doing what it was made to do and loving every minute of it. We get a hint here of the profound truth that the praise of the heavens is not an accident; it is essential to the vocation of creation.
Not to be lost in this wonderful imagery is the fact that the sun is simply part of God’s creation. In David’s world the pagans worshiped the sun as a god. The Babylonians even referred to the sun-god as a bridegroom. For David, however, the sun gives worship rather than receiving it. It is a powerful witness – but only a witness – to the far greater glory of its creator.
The subtle polemic of this portrayal is reinforced in the second half of the psalm when Yahweh is named as the one who gives the law and establishes righteousness. Among the pagans that was the work of the sun-god. We know this from the stele that contains Hammurabi’s law code, where the sun-god, Shamash, is portrayed as giving the law to the king. As David will soon explain, however, the sun only heralds the one true God who alone reveals his law directly to Moses.
What are the heavens doing? They are bearing incessant and unconstrained witness to the glory of God over every inch of creation. In doing so they are joyfully manifesting part of their very purpose in creation.
But what is the content of their revelation? What knowledge, exactly, do the heavens reveal? This, our second question, needs to be addressed briefly before we conclude.
There is a noticeable lack of content in the proclamation of the heavens. We are told of the vastness of God’s knowledge and his incomparable glory, but little is actually said about God. Quite a bit, however, is implied in David’s description.
First we see order and intent. The heavens are well organized; the sun skillfully sent on its daily circuit. The “handiwork” of God is evident across the expanse of the firmament. The God whose glory the heavens’ proclaim is orderly and intentional in all that he creates.
Second, we see engagement and accessibility. God is involved in his creation. He has not simply wound the spring and walked away. He sets a tent for the sun, and daily guides its course. He is also accessible – meaning that he has chosen to make himself known and to reveal his glory. The extent to which he can be known, and by whom he can be known, is left a mystery at this point, but will soon be revealed in the latter half of the psalm.
Finally, we see distance. Even though he is active and engaged, the God of David still stands apart from his creation. He is un-created, and he alone. The song of the heavens is a declaration of his unique glory – his weightiness, dignity and authority.
The content of heaven’s declaration may be limited, but it is still substantial. This is a god unlike any other known to the ancient world.
As we conclude I want to leave you with a brief thought about David himself.
A psalm like this requires a lot of staring up into space: head high, shoulders back, mouth agape, mind spinning. It is the fruit of observing the glories of the heavenly spheres, attending to their silent speech and contemplating divine intent. Only a man looking up and outside of himself could pen a poem like this. Only a man keen to see God’s glory and to name it could explore creation in this way.
In asking us to consider the glory of the heavens David invites us to do the same. He invites us to stop looking at our feet or gazing at our navels, to straighten our backs, and to throw back our heads in wonder. He invites us to see the heavens from a fresh perspective, to seek out and name God’s glory wherever we see it.
In David’s delightful description the heavens fulfill their vocation by proclaiming the glory of God – by giving him praise. This vocation is not unique to the sun, moon and stars. It is ours as well. And while we may never write a poem like this, we are right to seek out God’s glory and to proclaim it boldly to the world around us.
© Dr. John Yates III