Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
12th of September 2021
I hope that one of the things you are doing to stay sane during this apparently never-ending lockdown is reading the Psalms. If not, this is your encouragement to do so. The Psalter is a gift. Most of the Bible is made up of writings that we consider to be words from God (although as good Uniting Church members we are of course aware that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible). The Book of Psalms is different. The psalms are prayers, offerings of humans to God. We sing them or pray them in worship or alone, offering them as our words to God. In times like this sixth lockdown, whether we want to praise God for the beauty of Spring, or yell at God for the frustrations and fears of isolation, the psalms offer us words to use. But today I want us to instead listen to a psalm as God’s words to us; to treat it like any other part of Scripture, as a poem through which we hear God talking to us.
Today’s psalm is one of those that I love most. C. S. Lewis said of it that: ‘[Psalm 19 is] the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.’ I’m not sure I completely agree with him, but that is simply because I cannot choose a single psalm as ‘the greatest’. It is a beautiful poem. The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary seem to agree with Lewis, because the lectionary gives us this psalm once every year in ordinary time, again every year in the Easter Vigil, and then during Lent in Year B and for Epiphany in Year C. So we listen to it a lot. We hear it today because in this part of ordinary time we are working our way through the Wisdom Literature, the Song of Songs and Proverbs and the Book of Job, and this psalm is a Wisdom hymn. It can also be, I believe, a source of comfort when the world around us is terrifying.
We do not know anything about the author of this psalm, or the date it was written. Commentators do not even agree on whether this is one psalm or two hymns of praise that have been joined together. The first part of the psalm, the creation hymn, describes nature’s service of God. Nature does two things: it sings praises to God; and it reveals God to humanity. If there were no human beings, or if human beings all turned away from God, God would still be praised – by the heavens, the sky, day and night. They worship, paradoxically, with silent noise. The heavens are speaking; day is talking to day and night to night, but all without speech and words.
We can hear this silent speech if we are open to it. Many people talk about being in touch with the divine when they experience nature. This psalm explains why; creation both reveals God and worships God. It also explains why Christians are so often environmentalists. We know that the non-human creation is as important to God as the human, and that it joins with us in praising God. Humanity and nature are part of the one congregation worshipping the Creator together.
In the first part of the psalm there’s no mention of humanity; it is just Creator and creation. Humans appear in the second part of the psalm, which talks about the wonders of the law. Christians may have trouble with this because of our understanding of the conflict between law and grace. But for the psalmist, the law is the point at which they encounter the living God. The Torah is the revelation by which God revives, enhances, and guides human life. The Torah is the mutual relationship between God and humanity. To live by the Torah is to live life as God intends it, so in praising the law the psalmist is praising the God revealed by that law. For the psalmist, the Torah is playing the role that Jesus, the Word of God, plays for Christians.
It might seem that there is incongruity between the first and the second parts of the Psalm, between the hymn to creation and the hymn to the law. But for the psalmist the two are intimately connected. As the sun dominates the sky, so the Torah dominates human life; and as the sun is both welcoming and terrifying, so is the Torah. For the psalmist, there is no life without either.
Now we come to the third part of the psalm. The psalmist moves from a general description of the wonders of the Torah to the implications of the Torah for their own life: ‘in keeping them there is great reward.’ This reward is their ability to be in relationship with God. The psalmist becomes personal, addressing God directly and asking that they be cleared from hidden faults. In faith that God will grant their request, the psalmist rejoices that they will then be blameless and innocent.
The psalmist is aware of both their human weakness and God’s grace. They are aware that they cannot live righteously by following Torah alone. If they seek to be ‘blameless’ then they must live in dependence on God. The terms for God become more intimate as the psalm goes on. At first God is referred to as El, the Creator. Then God is referred to as YHWH, translated as ‘the Lord’, the God who is in covenant relationship with Israel. Finally, God is referred to as go’el, Redeemer, the Jewish term for a next of kin. The psalm reminds us of one of the most astounding elements of our faith. We believe that the God who created the universe and to whom the heavens bear witness is also the God who loves human beings, us, as God’s children, members of God’s family. We can live in dependence of God, because we are in relationship with God.
We can offer this psalm to God as prayer. In fact, I do every Sunday. As I begin a sermon I borrow a modified ending of the psalm: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer’. (This is the preacher’s ‘Get out of jail free’ card.) But we can also listen to this psalm as words from God to us.
This one short psalm tells us that creation is a revelation of the Creator and joins with us in worshipping God. It tells us that living in right relationship with God is more to be desired than fine gold and sweeter than honey. Most wonderful of all, the psalm reminds us that God, the Creator of the cosmos, the giver of the Torah, has come close to us and revealed Godself to us as our Rock and our Redeemer. For Christians, this message was brought to us by Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of Man. Today’s psalm reminds us that centuries before the Incarnation in which the Word and Wisdom of God took on flesh and dwelt among us, God’s people already knew that they had been welcomed into the family of the Creator of the cosmos.
A few years ago I picked up a second-hand book published by Penguin in 1950, seventy years ago. It is a collection of extracts selected by the publisher Victor Gollancz, someone for whom I have always felt a great fondness even though he died six years before I was born: because he came from the same Anglo-Jewish background as my paternal grandfather; described himself as a Christian Socialist; and published the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. I started leafing through this collection, titled A Year of Grace: Passages chosen and arranged to express a mood about God and man, when looking for comfort in Lockdown Six, and I want to share two of the passages with you.
The first is from the 19th century naturalist Richard Jeffries:
If we had never before looked upon the earth but suddenly came to it man or woman grown, set down in the midst of a summer mead, would it not seem to us a radiant vision? The hues, the shapes, the song and life of birds, above all the sunlight, the breath of heaven resting on it; the mind would be filled with its glory, unable to grasp it, hardly believing that such things could be mere matter and no more.
This is what the first part of today’s psalm reminds us; the absolute wonder of creation. As I have said before, even during lockdown we can rejoice at those of the Creator’s gifts we see all around us.
The second extract comes from Hywel David Lewis, a twentieth-century Welsh theologian and philosopher about whom I knew nothing until I came across him in this book. Before the service last week, Verna and I were discussing faith as a choice that we make, not simply a matter of belief, and this week I found H. D. Lewis writing in 1947:
… we may suppose for a moment the unbeliever is right. But would it not still be true that we ought to treat our neighbour in one way rather than another? Should we not still succour the needy, alleviate pain and avoid the infliction of it, seek a fair distribution of material goods, cultivate our talents, and generally so conduct ourselves that the fleeting spell of [our] life on earth should be as full of richness and wonder and the glow of affection as it is possible for it to be?
Given this, why not make the choice to believe that the Creator of the cosmos loves us, that love is at the core of the universe, and that God has come as close to us as a next-of-kin, as this psalm tells us? If we hold on to this, then we can look up at heavens and the firmament and believe that we are just as important to God as they are. The universe is vast, but our faith tells us that we are not alone in it.
As Lockdown Six continues, I encourage you to make the choice to cling to our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
 Victor Gollancz, A Year of Grace: Passages chosen and arranged to express a mood about God and man, Penguin, 1950, p. 76.
 A Year of Grace, p. 311.