The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.Psalms 19
[Note.—This is universally regarded as one of the most profound and affecting of David's compositions. Bacon says, "The heavens declare the glory of God, but not his will." God's will can only be known by his law. A marked difference between the style of the two portions of the psalm has been pointed out. The former portion is more varied in cadence, whilst the latter is more precise and condensed, nevertheless a pervading harmony has been recognised by the severest critics. It has been well said that the placing of these two ideas side by side is full of beauty and interest. To study nature and law is to cover the whole scope of pious education.]
A Grand Picture of Nature
Read the first verse, "The heavens are telling," rather than "The heavens declare." This form of expression keeps up the music of the remainder of the paragraph in the psalm referring to heavenly glory. "The heavens are telling"—are now speaking; are not merely showing, as upon an infinite diagram, the glory of God, but are talking about it, repeating it in words which the soul can hear, and are eternally engaged in preaching the great gospel of beneficent nature. "The heavens are telling." Which heavens? Not only is the word "heavens" grammatically plural, but suggestively a great host. There are many heavens. To which of the multitude innumerable does the rapturous poet refer? The heavens of Day? They are all whiteness, beautiful in glory; sometimes without a cloud, or vapour, or stain of anything earthly—an infinite purity of light; a great, holy, celestial summer. When the poet, touching us, as if to call us to an attitude of attention, says, "The heavens are telling the glory of God," it is perfectly easy for us to enter into his high mood, and to return a responsive assurance that we hear the music and catch the tones of the ineffable eloquence. He has strained nothing; he has reached the word appropriate to the occasion; in associating the name of the Lord with glory so vast, so pure, he has not broken in upon any true sense of proportion, or violated any noble instinct of veneration. "The heavens are telling." Which heavens? The heavens of Night? Night has a glory all her own. She seems as if sometimes trying to keep the glory from us, so that we see but little shining glints of it—sparkles, and twinkles, and flashes of a hidden splendour. Yet she has a pride of her own—a skilful way of throwing back the robe and letting us see that there is much beyond. She will also condescend to be looked at in a way which would appear to have been divinely appointed—"through a glass darkly," a glass that reveals somewhat of distance, size, radiance, capacity, but there is no stopping-place in all the upward vista: where we pause it is simply for want of vision; the glory does not end where the eyesight fails. If, when conscious that there is universe beyond universe, in endless aspect, in infinite multiplication, the poet shall say, "The heavens are telling the glory of God," we should interrupt his song and say, "Let it be louder;" or, "Let us unite with thee in praising the majesty of light." Which heavens? The Oriental? They are quite different from the Occidental heavens. Dwellers in the western and northern lands do not see so many "patines of bright gold" as are seen by the Oriental gazer: the whole arch is ablaze with a white flame, or alive with innumerable eyes, as if all the galleries of heaven were thronged with angel spectators, looking down to see this earth, on which such tragedies divine have been begun, continued, and completed. We may, therefore, well ask, Which heavens? Every man has a heaven of his own. Blessed be God, it is possible to look upon the heavens and admire them without understanding their merely astronomical mechanism. The mere astronomer does not see the heavens. He is but a tabulist, keeping pace with himself in whole numbers and decimals, long lines of logarithms and other figures; he has always ink enough to put down what he has seen. The poet begins where the mere astronomer ends. He sees the genius of the whole. He speaks about it in language worthy of the altar at which his praise is kindled. The humblest observer may read "the glory of God" in the heavens. This is a volume God has published for all the race; this revelation was not done in a corner. We have to inquire for a book, to ascertain upon what terms it can be had, and to ask for assistance in interpreting its hardest words; but the great nature-book, the heaven-page, the star-syllables—behold, all is free to the eye that can look and read. Do not let us imagine the heavens are not to be understood until the names of the stars are known. The stars have no names! We have degraded them by attaching appellations to them. The stars would not know themselves by the names we give them. Look beyond the name, the arithmetic, the size, into the spiritual meaning of all the balance and harmony and music, and thus acknowledge that "the heavens are telling the glory of God."
It is beautiful to note how soon the Psalmist institutes a comparison between man and nature—man and God. At first we think he is going to be wholly abstract, but an irresistible impulse, divinely started, soon draws him towards the making of comparisons as between the outward and the inward, the material and the spiritual, and thus to find in nature and in man a cooperative parable, nature having one part, man having the other part, and both the parts brought together to complete the significance. Thus the Psalmist says, "The sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race" (Psalm 19:4-5). This is a figure we cannot understand: hence my reference to the Oriental lands. The sun never plays the bridegroom part in our dull skies. He comes slowly. Sometimes he comes hardly at all, or looks upon the earth as if in a spirit of offence, standing back with more or less of haughty reserve and neglect. Sometimes he comes lingeringly: so we have here a dawn, a time when the sun is apparently beginning to come, or sending forth intimations that perhaps he will come in a given space of time. It is otherwise with the Orient: there the coming of the sun is like the bursting forth of a man from behind the curtains, which he has suddenly dashed aside, and the man is in full vigour and fire before we were aware of his intention to appear. Hence the difference of poetry as between Oriental and Western nations. The Oriental reader could not understand English poetry about the coming of the sun—the earth waiting for him; nor could he understand our references to the uncertainty of the coming of the sun: the only sun he knows anything about leaps, starts suddenly with a dash, and illumes and transfigures the earth, so lately night-burdened, darkened with gloom. It is the same sun, but it is not the same atmosphere. Imagine the Orient and the Occident establishing competing sects, each upholding its own view of the sun, and each calling the other heterodox! The folly would be patent; the antagonism would be absurd. Yet this is the very thing that is done amongst Christian thinkers: the one thing forgotten is that the sun is the same sun, but the intermediate conditions are not the same. We are battling about the atmosphere, and forgetting the eternal steadfastness of the sun. Every man has a sun of his own—a faith of his own—a God more patent to himself than to any other man. There are as many religions, in the sense of aspects of religions, as there are men. It is an error to suppose that we all see the same aspect of God: but what we have to rejoice in is that all the aspects make up the one God. Were an Eastern poet to contend that Shakespeare had never seen the sun, we should not be able to estimate his criticism; perhaps we might even call him a fanatic; but when this very same principle comes into religious thinking, then we have society split up into sects, denominations, parties, decorated with especial banners, and degraded by especial mottoes. God is the same, Christ the same, truth the same, but the revelation is different, because of atmospheric peculiarity, because of individual temperament, training, opportunity for seeing things, and enlargement of mind. Better to magnify the unity of the sun, the eternal majesty of the light, than to be finding one another wrong upon grounds atmospheric, and because of conditions which do not hold good in equal degree in any two instances.
"Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard" (Psalm 19:2-3).
The meaning is that the heavens use no words. Where words have been used man has been exercising his little invention in the questionable science of nomenclature. The text should read: There is no speech, there is no language, their voice is not heard. This is a great silent testimony. This is a spectacle to be looked at, not a message to be criticised. Where the message is delivered, criticism begins. Hence we have remarks upon "manner." To such awful depths of religious disgrace have we sunk! Sometimes we stumble at the message because we are unappreciative of the manner; then we are not earnest; we are not only foolish, we are dead men; not only dead men, but incurable fools. God, therefore, has used silent ministers to assist the great vocal ministry of exposition and persuasion. The heavens are inaudible in all their speech, yet intelligible. We can actually put into words all the appeals made by Night, if we look reverently and consider devoutly what is revealed on the blue page of the sky. A graphic writer of our own time has well said: "The greatest objects in nature are the stillest: the ocean has a voice, the sun is dumb in his courts of praise; the forests murmur, the constellations speak not Aaron spoke; Moses' face but shone. Sweetly might the high priest discourse, but the Urim and the Thummim, the blazing stones upon his breast, flashed forth a meaning deeper and diviner far."
"Day unto day uttereth"—literally, pours forth like a fountain. "Night unto night sheweth"—literally, breathes out, tells what it has to tell to the night that is coming on. So there is an astronomic tradition, a long-continued serial story, written in starry nights and sunny days. What talks the heavens have to one another! How the dying day tells to the day unborn its tale of experience—what it has seen, what varieties of landscape, what mysteries of life, what tragedies of woe! So the moon tells nightly to the listening earth what she has to say. These starry talkers have passwords of their own: they speak in the cypher of light; there is no word, no sound, no speech, no language. Poor crippled language would be of no use in that high converse. Language is always a difficulty, a snare, a temptation, an inconvenient convenience. It brings us into all our troubles: it is when we speak that we create heterodoxies: could we but be silent, dumbly good—could we look our prayers and cause our face to shine with our benevolence, and our hand do a quiet work of beneficence, how happy would the world be! Words do not mean the same thing to any two men; they may be accepted for momentary uses and for commercial purposes, but when it becomes a matter of life and death, time and eternity, truth and error, words are base counterfeits that should be nailed to the counter of creation as things by which a false commerce has been kept up amongst earnest and ardent men. Blessed be God for the silent testimony, for the radiant character, for the eloquent service. All history is silent; it is only the immediate day that chatters and talks and fusses about its little affairs. Yet the dead centuries are eloquent; the characters are all gone: the warriors are dead and buried, the orators have culminated their eloquence in the silence of death, the great solemn past is like a banquet-hall deserted; but it is eloquent, instructive, silently monitorial. Why do we speak of our little affairs? They have not yet come into shape; not for one hundred years may they be talked about in sober wisdom and with clear, calm judgment. Let us talk of things that happened long ago: our fathers told us what wondrous things the Lord did in their times. Silent history—great, sad, melancholy, impartial history—the spirit of the past should govern the unrest and the tumult of the present.
Now there is a sudden turn in the psalm; yet there is no lowering of its dignity.
"The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" (Psalm 19:7-9).
Some have thought that another author wrote the concluding portions of the psalm. Why? Surely not. This man who spoke so rapturously about nature never could have left the subject there. He was not a mere nature-worshipper. He so looked at nature as to convince himself that somewhere there was something yet richer, more of the quality of God. We do make such inferences in general life—why not in matters religious? A great French astronomer said—a long time before he made the discovery: Such and such are the palpitations from this quarter of the heavens, that there must be another planet not far. That other planet had never been discovered, but there were such signs in the heavens as could be wrought only by the revolutions and the light of some tremendous body. The astronomer kept his glass well to his eye, and watched with the patience of love and with the sobriety of wisdom, and in due time the great planet came within the field of the glass. At that same time a great English discoverer had been directing his eye in the same quarter; the discovery was made almost simultaneously—as nearly all great discoveries are. It is wonderful how God confirms things by the mouth of two or three witnesses, so that men in various lands, and speaking various languages, come always at the same point to the same conclusion. David, looking upon all the stellar host, and all the solar day, said, "There is more: there is a law; there is a nearer approximation to mind than mere stars can ever make; watch, and listen, and pray." He found a "law," a "statute," a "testimony," a "commandment." There is one peculiarity about these verses which ought to be clearly noted—namely, every word can be proved to be either true or false. They expose themselves to an immediate practical test. "The law of the Lord is perfect." Had that been a phrase complete in itself, it might have admitted of discussion, but it is only part of a sentence, the remainder being "converting the soul." There we come upon ground which can be tested. Does the law of the Lord convert the soul? Put it thus: When the law of the Lord enters into a man's nature, is he the same man in his temper, spirit, hopes, anticipations? Does he talk the same earthly language? Is he turned right round from east to west? Questions so simple admit of being answered with practical replies. It is not difficult to see a parallel between the action of the heavens upon the earth and the action of the law upon human nature. Does the sun restore the earth? Does the earth give signs of gladness because the sun has come? Does she answer his light with things green and beautiful, with songs a thousand-voiced, toned in every pitch of music and eloquence? Does she seem to make haste to show him all she has? When she makes her garden she seems to be making it for the sun rather than for the owner or the gardener. The earth, in her strong summer mood, is a reply to the sun. As surely as such is the case is it that man, affected by the law, the testimony, the statute, the commandment of the Lord, is restored, beautified, enriched, and brought to his true and very self as God meant him to be. These are not matters that admit of discussion: we ourselves are the living witnesses. Where, then, is there any place for wordy argument—long and detailed discussion? The whole matter is settled on practical grounds. There never was a man who received the law of the Lord into his heart and obeyed it who did not instantly say that he was a new man—that he was "born again." Failing this proof of regeneration, we are at liberty to deny that he has ever known the law or ever received it into his spirit.
So the psalm is a grand picture of nature, and a grand recognition of revelation; still, it is incomplete: it wants another touch. What can we have more than nature and revelation? We can have experience. That is what the Psalmist finally supplies. He begins to mourn and complain, and to feel his own infirmity, and to desire divine sympathy and direction. "Cleanse thou me from secret faults"—thou who didst make the all-redeeming sun. "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins"—O thou that dost hold the great steeds of fire in leashes that cannot be broken. "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer"—then I shall join the choral harmonies of creation; mine shall not be the one discordant note in creation's infinite anthem; then all thy works shall praise Thee. "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins,"—literally, from arrogant men—men who seeing me above them, below them, around them, will not be law-burdened themselves; keep me in the society of the humble, the modest, the lowly-minded. To the babe thou wilt reveal thyself, to the little child thou wilt shew thy face; Lord, keep me back from boasting, blustering, arrogant men—licentious fools who would burst thy limits and try to be gods themselves.
Almighty God, thy sanctuary is on high; it is filled with angels; it is the home of the blessed; from it thou dost behold the children of men, and thou dost send help, thou loving Father, to those who put their trust in thee. The tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth; thy house is near our dwelling-places. Thou wilt send us a portion from thy table that our hunger may be satisfied; thou wilt number us amongst thy guests, and cause us to eat and drink abundantly at thy table. Thou dost connect all the worlds, mysteriously and lovingly, so that we speak of the whole family in heaven and on earth. Thou art so teaching us the mystery of life, and revealing to us its infinite glory, that now there is no more distance, there is no night, there is no sea, there is no need of the candle or of the sun to show things as they are; we are now citizens of heaven, companions of the angels, associates with the pure and the blessed;—this is the miracle of the Holy Ghost wrought within us, little by little, like a dawning, expanding, growing day. Once we were blind, now we see; once we thought heaven was above the sky—a beauteous image indeed to our child-mind—but now it is within us, if so be we love God in Christ Jesus and try to serve him with all simplicity and earnestness; once we thought of the dead as gone away from us, now they are no longer dead: they have risen in our love and thought, they are the chief impulses of our life, they encourage us, bless us, enrich us: verily they live more today than when we could put our hands in theirs and look them in the face. Thou art changing all things: the water is becoming wine, the light is becoming heaven, the summer is paradise restored. Thou art giving us enlargement of mind, far-extendedness of vision; so we are no longer humbled by the things that die and that press upon us with rude urgency; we trample them under foot, and stand upon them as upon a hill which only helps us to see the further. We bless thee for all these upliftings, enlargements, and liberations of mind; thou hast made us thy freemen, invested us with a glorious liberty, and entrusted us with a sacred promise. We come to the house of the Lord to receive help. The way of the week is often crooked: its days are so many difficulties, its hours are multiplied temptations, all its engagements so flatter us, or lure us, or tempt us, that we may forget the sanctuary of God; but we come to the house of the Living One that we may ourselves live more abundantly—yea, be filled with life, so much so that there-shall be no death in us; then we will step down into the week and rule it, command it, sanctify it by the energy of the indwelling Spirit. For all thine help we bless thee: it has turned night into day, it has made for us pools—yea, and springing fountains—in the wilderness; it has kept back the enemy; it has given us a place of security, and therefore an opportunity of growth. Bless the Lord, magnify him; yea, praise him with many instruments and with unanimous voice and unbroken love for his infinite kindness, his pity, and his care. Help us to live worthy of thy call. We cannot do so: every day we fall; we eat the forbidden tree, we listen to tempting voices, we know that we have done the wrong. Yet sometimes thou dost bid us fear not, for we are in a place of darkness that leads to a place of light; if so be we cling to thee, and hope on, and live on, all this dense darkness shall be dissolved, and we shall stand in the white morning, beautiful with all heaven's colour and rich with a thousand promises. We commend one another to thy care. This is the great blessing, this is the true friendship, that soul should pray for soul, and life should give life into the Eternal Hands. For all thy wealth of love we bless thee: we have seen it at home, we have seen it in the marketplace, we have seen it in the cemetery—everywhere thy love is present, had we but eyes to see. Lord, open our eyes! Jesus, Son of David, that we may receive our sight is our heart's cry to thy pity. Whilst we are here in this place of shadow and gloom and trial, help us to work steadily, bravely hopefully; may we not mourn as the pagans do, falling down with heathenish fear in the day of adversity: in that day make us strong, that in its darkness we may illustrate the infinitude of thy grace and the fulness of thy satisfactions. Direct all men who are in perplexity, comfort all who are in sorrow, give rest to those who are weary, too weary to pray; and give comfort of a special kind to those whose griefs are of the heart, of the spirit, which cannot well be spoken, and yet which tear the soul and wound it, and fill it with despair. The Lord be with our loved ones everywhere—with the boy that left us yesterday, the child who faced the world for the first time recently, the friend who said good-bye that he might try the sea, and the traveller who has gone far away to make honest bread. Be with those from whom we are necessarily parted, and from whom we would never be parted a moment if we could help it. Be with those whom we shall never see upon the earth again; give them joy in sorrow, triumph in the hour and article of death, and may they have the promise and the hope of reunion, of fellowship eternal. The Lord bless the whole earth—all its nationalities and peoples, its tongues and languages. The Lord look upon all men who are in high power—on thrones, in primacies, leading the influence of the world; the Lord grant to such humbleness of mind, together with increasing insight, more religious reverence, and deeper interest in the common weal. The Lord hear us in all these things, and all the things which we ought to speak of, or think of, in our love; and send a plentiful answer from his sanctuary, and especially assure us, through our Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, Lord of Life, Saviour of the world, Priest of the universe, of the forgiveness of our sins, and our adoption into the spiritual family of God. Amen.