Imagine a great sculptor who has been working for a year on a sculpture; it was commissioned by city hall, and it will be located in front of the building for the public to enjoy. The day finally arrives; the people gather around the sculpture – which is covered by a veil – the mayor and council members make their speeches, and then the sculptor steps forward and pulls a string. The veil falls to the ground, and the sculpture is revealed to the public in all of its glory for the first time.
If one of the New Testament writers had tried to describe a moment 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. In our English New Testament, the word ‘apocalypse’ is usually translated as ‘revelation’. Something that was hidden from us before has now been revealed. That’s an apocalypse, a revelation of God to us.
We can’t discover God with our five senses, and therefore the ordinary scientific methods of research don’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 decided to reveal himself to us. Our psalm for today, Psalm 19, 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.
But before we dive into it, let me remind you what we’re reading here. Even though the book of Psalms is printed in our green service books for convenience, it’s actually a book of the Bible, and so you’ll also find it – in a slightly different translation – in our pew bibles. So the psalms are the oldest part of our service; they were in fact the hymns and songs that the Israelite people used in worship when Jesus was attending the synagogue. When we pray the psalms together we’re adding our voices to the prayers and songs that were used by the Old Testament people and by Jesus and his earliest disciples. Personally, I find that a very moving thought.
So let’s turn again to the psalm we read a few moments ago, Psalm 19; we’ll use the translation in the Book of Alternative Services, which is actually a pretty good one for this psalm. Let’s look first a verses 1-6, where we’re taught that God reveals himself to us through the things he has made.
Stories about experiencing the presence of God through nature are as old as humankind and almost as universal. Speaking for myself, I find that when I’m hiking in the mountains and I’m confronted with the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, I get a really important perspective on what God is like. As I’ve said before, I tend to do a lot of my praying in small rooms, and so I can very easily slip into thinking of God as ‘a being who lives in small rooms’. But then I climb a mountainside, and I’m brought face to face with the grandeur of God – God’s sheer ‘bigness’, if you like – and my own relative smallness. In the truest sense of the word, it’s an awesome experience.
Perhaps the writer of Psalm 19 had a similar experience, which he has recorded for us in verses 1-6. Maybe one night he went for a walk under a clear, starlit sky. This was ancient Israel, remember, so there were no street lamps! Perhaps during his walk he sat down on a hillside and spent half an hour just looking up at the night sky. Of course, he didn’t know astronomy as we do today, but still, the majesty of what he saw brought a sense of awe and wonder at God’s creative power.
Perhaps the next day he went out again at dawn and 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! All of this, too, taught him about God’s creative power.
What does the writer learn from contemplating God’s creation? In verse 1 he tells us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. When I lived in the Arctic I discovered that 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’. I think this is actually a pretty good translation. After all, when you experience ‘shining’, you know that a source of light is present. And in the same way, the writer is telling us, when we experience creation we know that the Creator is present. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of the mountains, or the vast distances of the ocean, or the glories of a prairie sunset – when we look at this as believers, we get a sense of the power and majesty of the Creator who could make all this. The creation is a sign of God’s glory.
Hebrew poetry often uses parallelism: that is, the second line says the same thing the first line does, but in a slightly different way. So it is in this verse: we read that ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork’. ‘Firmament’, to the ancient Hebrews, simply meant ‘the dome of the sky’, but it’s God’s handiwork – in other words, his creativity – that I want to focus on. Every artist puts something of themself into their work, and every picture tells you something about the artist who created it. What does creation tell us about God? Let me respond by quoting to you some questions from Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering:
‘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?’
God is undoubtedly the most prolific creator we know. In fact, I sometimes get the sense that God enjoys creating totally useless stuff, just for the fun of it! Does that idea do something to the way you think about God?
So the first half of 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 by itself this is not enough. It gives us that vital sense of the glory and creativity of God, but 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. For that we need the second source of revelation the psalmist is going to tell us about: God reveals himself to us through the things he has said in the scriptures.
We can learn a great deal about people through observing them. We can learn whether they are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, old-fashioned or up-to-date. We might even be able to learn something about what they do for a living, or about their religious beliefs. But if we really want to get to know someone, sooner or later we’re going to have to talk with them, and listen to what they have to say. A person’s words reveal their thoughts in one of the most intimate ways we know.
The Old Testament writers all believed that God has spoken to his people through what they call ‘the Law and the Prophets’. In them, God has not only revealed what he is like but also what he wants us to be like. The Hebrew word that we often translate ‘Law’ is ‘Torah’, which actually means something like ‘instruction’. In Psalm 19 it is described in several ways: God’s ‘law’ and ‘testimony (v.7), his ‘statutes’ and ‘commandments’ (v.8), and his ‘judgements’ (v.9).
The psalmist thinks that the people of Israel are the luckiest people on earth, because God has given them this Torah. In verse 7 he points out that it gives them ‘wisdom’ – in other words, it teaches them the appropriate way to live in any given situation. In verse 8 it brings them ‘light to the eyes’ – in other words, it helps them to see the path that God has set before them. It brings revival and joy to the human soul, and it warns them of ways of behaviour that are dangerous for humankind.
For me, the most telling of these sentences is the end of verse 11: ‘in keeping them’ – that is, God’s commandments – ‘there is great reward’. Listen to that sentence carefully; it’s a bit different from the popular view. The popular view is ‘Well, keeping the Ten Commandments is tough, but you’ll get a great reward’. But that’s not what the writer says. He doesn’t say ‘For keeping them there is great reward’, but ‘in keeping them there is great reward’. In other words, it’s not “Well, if I learn to be unselfish on earth I’ll get a great reward in heaven”. No; the writer’s view is “As I learn to live in unselfishness, I’ll gradually discover that here and now it is the most rewarding way of life”. The good life that God reveals to us is its own reward.
You see, these commandments aren’t an arbitrary set of rules God has revealed to us. Some religions do really seem to believe this. Muslims, for instance, believe that many of the pleasures they think of as sinful in this life will in fact be given to them as rewards in the next life. The Muslim writer Yahiya Emerick says ‘Nearly all the pleasures of Earth are regulated or even forbidden for a Muslim, so their reward for obeying God in this life is guilt-free indulgence in the next’.
On this view, you see, these things aren’t really wrong in themselves – if they were, they would be forbidden to us in the next life as well – and the only reason for avoiding them in this life is to be able to enjoy them in the next. But the Biblical view is different. These things are harmful for us. In warning us about them, God is doing us the biggest favour imaginable. And in describing the ideal godly life for us, God really is showing us the most rewarding way of living.
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. 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 Torah.
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. Perhaps temperamentally we all tend to incline toward one or other of these sources of revelation, but I would encourage you to seek a proper balance between them.
However – and this is the final thing – we also need to consider our response to what God shows us and says to us. In our Sunday services, after we have heard God’s word proclaimed to us, our response is to say ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’, and to ask for God’s forgiveness and strength to do better. In other words, God’s revelation often makes our shortcomings clear to us, and encourages us to ask for help to learn the new way of life.
That’s what we see in verses 12 and 14: ‘Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults… Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’. The writer recognizes his own faults, and he asks God’s help to avoid them in the future and to live an acceptable life.
This is the purpose of God’s revelation, in creation and in scripture. I’m told that in the intelligence community they sometimes talk about the ‘need to know’ principle – you won’t be told something just to satisfy your curiosity, but only if you ‘need to know it’ to be able to do your job properly. Well, there are a lot of things we’d like to know that aren’t in the Bible – the answer to the mystery of evil, for instance – but God doesn’t seem to think that we ‘need to know’ them in order to live our lives properly.
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 in your sight, O Lord, my strength 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. That’s the way to get the most benefit from what God reveals to us.