“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1-2)
I am very taken by the phrase “The skies… pour forth speech.” What do they say? “They reveal knowledge.” What kind of knowledge? Paul offered an answer: “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 people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:24)
What invisible qualities? His “eternal power…” His “divine nature.” Here’s the conclusion:
God can be “understood from what has been made.”
Can that conclusion be substantiated? Ptolemy (writing perhaps a century after Paul) would have said yes. “Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.”
Ptolemy heard the speech that the heavens “poured forth” and was stirred not only to understand our human littleness in contrast to the bigness of space, but also to realize that this cosmic reality is not all there is. “My feet no longer touch the earth.” Ptolemy went on to evoke a sense of spiritual reality. That is to say, simply, a study of the heavens evokes not only knowledge but worship.
Peterson suggests this in a rather whimsical paraphrase of Psalm 19: “God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening.” Do you see the rush of metaphors? It’s a rock concert (on tour)….it’s a gallery (on exhibit)…. it’s a class, a lecture, and your head, your heart, your senses are all being gloriously assailed by the daily, nightly declaration of the glory of God.
Jandy Nelson’s book The Sky is Everywhere testifies to the revelation shared by Paul, Ptolemy and Peterson: “The sky is everywhere, it begins at your feet.”
For so long I lived on the edge of an invisible world. Open my eyes, Lord, to the glory of both physical and spiritual reality.
You are the sky, everything else is just weather.
Open my eyes! If one of the New Testament writers had tried to describe a phrase like that, the word he would have used for it is the Greek word ‘apocalypse’. We’re used to hearing that word in the titles of films like Apocalypse Now, and we forget what it means in the original. The word ‘apocalypse’ is usually translated as ‘revelation,’ meaning something that was hidden from us before has now been revealed.
God, you see, is not a being we can discover with our five senses. Therefore, the normal scientific techniques won’t work when we’re trying to get to know God. In fact, we could never discover anything about God at all, unless God had made a prior decision to reveal himself to us. The Psalm shows us two ways in which God is revealed to us, and then ends by giving us a hint about how we ought to respond to God’s revelation.
So in this Psalm, (verses 1-6), we are first taught about revelation through the things God has made.
Stories about experiencing the presence of God through nature are as old as humankind and almost as universal. Just this morning, I heard someone singing: ”I see your face in every sunrise.” Perhaps the singer, like the Psalmist was captivated by the experience of sunrise. The sun seemed to leap into the sky so enthusiastically – it reminded him of a wrestler jumping into the ring, or a bridegroom emerging from his wedding chamber with a new spring in his footsteps! His imagination leaps into action, doesn’t it?
And ‘the heavens are telling the glory of God.’ Apparently, the word ‘glory’ is a tough one to translate into central Arctic Inuktitut. The word that’s often used in the prayer book is kaumanek, which means something very close to our English word ‘shining.’ That works, because, after all, when you experience ‘shining’ you know that a source of light is present.
And when we experience creation we know that the Creator is present and real.
If you look out over the mountains, or the huge canopy of sky, or the wide blue blanket of ocean as believers, you draw a sense of the power and majesty of the Creator who could make all this. Creation tells us that the Creator is present; it is a sign of God’s glory.
But what does creation tell us about God?
In Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering, something of an answer is offered by way of a bunch of new questions:
‘Why are there so many kinds of animals? Couldn’t the world get along with, say, 300,000 species of beetles instead of 500,000? What good are they?
‘Why is it that the most beautiful animals on earth are hidden away from all humans except those wearing elaborate scuba equipment? Who are they beautiful for?
‘Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God’s creation – zebra, swallowtail butterfly, crystalline structure – excels at abstract art?’
So Psalm 19 shows us God revealing himself to us through creation. This is often how people first get a sense of the existence of God as well; many of us had our first experiences of God through the natural world.
But this is not quite enough. It doesn’t give us God’s wisdom for daily living. It doesn’t tell us how we ought to live our lives to reflect the glory of God in the world. So the Psalmist changes tack, from pondering what is made to revelation through what God has spoken.
If we really want to get to know someone, sooner or later we have to talk! A person’s words reveal their thoughts in one of the most intimate ways we know.
The Hebrew Bible emphasised God’s speaking voice and the development of this relationship through ‘the Law and the Prophets’. In these texts, God shows not only what he is like but also what he wants us to be like. The word ‘Torah’ itself means something like ‘instruction,’ such as a father might offer to his son. We see this in Psalm 19: God’s ‘law’ and ‘decrees’ (v.7), his ‘precepts’ and ‘commandments’ (v.8), and his ‘ordinances’ (v.9).
The law offers them ‘wisdom,’ (v 7) or rather, an idea of how to live in any given situation. It grants ‘enlightenment,’ (v8); that is, knowledge that they couldn’t gain in any other way. It brings joy. It warns them of potentials dangers. All in all, it’s like one of those signs reading: “For best results, follow Manufacturer’s instructions.”
For us Christians, of course, this revelation doesn’t stop in the Old Testament scriptures. John calls Jesus ‘the word of God’. He embodies God’s speech for us; his life is a concrete embodiment of the Torah, the Law. His teaching brings out the deeper meaning of the Old Testament commandments, and he sums them up for us in his two great commandments to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we faithfully follow Jesus, we are living out the deepest meaning of God’s Old Testament law.
So we have these two sources of revelation, the works of God and the words of God, creation and scripture. And we need them both. We need to look for God in creation to get a sense of God’s grandeur, God’s ‘bigness’ if you like, and the sheer fun that God takes in artistry for its own sake. But we also need the scriptures for clarity about God’s inner thoughts and God’s will for us as human beings.
We don’t go to Scripture to satisfy our curiosity about everything. We go to seek God’s wisdom for our daily life. Let me close by pointing you again to the prayer in verse 14:
‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer’. I suggest that whenever we go to God’s revelation, either in his works or his words, we go with that prayer.
And revelation starts the very moment that you open your eyes! The sky is everywhere. It starts at your feet….