donderdag 21 februari 2008

Psalm 19

Tuesday at the Bible group we read Psalm 19, the one that starts with the famous

The heavens declare the glory of God,
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.


It's one of the Biblical passages which I jotted down a small post-it note about when first reading it, as the psalm immediately appealed to me. It's a lyrical but wonderfully tight, coherent call for humility and reverence in our dealings with creation.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.


There was a bit of discussion in the group about the exact translation of that last verse (Psalm 19:3), as my Dutch bible went for what the NIV mentions as an alternative reading in a footnote:

They have no speech, there are no words;
no sound is heard from them.


I do not know the text-critical background of the passage. From a theological point of view, I can see a point behind either. On the one hand, the order of nature, its beauty, and the mystery of its very existence does speak to us humans of God by virtue of us being human, created in God's image, and endowed with an inexplicable and puzzling capability to comprehend nature. On the other hand, nature's comprehensibility is restricted: we'll never understand the mystery of existence itself, the ways God created (or continuously creates) something out of nothing. And where physical science deals marvellously well with the relational and quantitative aspects of matter, the "inner life" of atoms (if there is such a thing) remains beyond its purview. We can intimate the presence of God in creation, but we can never wholly comprehend it. We hear the words, and understand them, but we cannot conceptualize, manipulate them as if they were of our own language.

What is the language, what are the words in which the heavens express the glory? "There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard." And yet, "Their radiation goes out to all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19: 4-5). The song of the heavens is ineffable. (Abraham Joshua Heschel: God in Search of Man, p. 80-81).

Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.


Wonderful and apt metaphor for the sunrise: a bridegroom, who, invigorated and facing his future with eagerness and confidence, comes forth from his pavilion. There is a sense of joyous vigour in this passage.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple


The psalm turns from God's revelation in nature to God's law (or does it? Can "law" and "statutes" also refer, at the same time perhaps, to the miraculously trustwortht regularities that govern nature?). But there is a continuity with the previous passage in that the law is reviving, invigorating, bringing life, as the sun is in the heavens; and that the law grants knowledge just as God's revelation in nature is mentioned to do.

The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.


Appreciation for the wonder of nature is not enough: the impossible comprehensibility of nature can eventually turn to a manipulative and exploitative relationship with our environment. So we turn finally to God's special revelation, which is depicted here as a wonderfully light and joyous burden.

The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous.


They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.


The desirability of doing God's will is striking. So much of the Bible is a story of estrangement - of man abandoning and disobeying God, or desperately trusting in God in the face of an overwhelmingly indifferent universe. Culminating in God's own momentous descent and sacrifice in the New Testament. The simplicity and joy of the above verses is somehow very refreshing.

The mention of the fear of God reminds me of a passage I just read from Joshua Heschel's God in search of Man, where fear (as distancing, estranging, shirking) is contrasted with awe:

According to the Bible the principal religious virtue is "yirah". What is the nature of "yirah"? The word has two meanings: fear and awe. There is the man who fears the Lord lest he be punished in his body, family, or in his possessions. Another man fears the Lord because he is afraid of the punishment in the life to come. Both types are considered inferior in the Jewish tradition. Job, who said: "Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him," was not motivated in his piety by fear but rather by awe, by the realization of the grandeur of His eternal love. (p. 76-77).

By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servants also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight;
O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.


Another translation problem: my Dutch bible has pride for willful sins. But in the face of the beauty and richness of nature, pride is precisely the sin to avoid - the ignorance of our hidden faults, belief in our own perfectability and mastery over our environment. In that sense, the last passage calls us to humility and reverence in front of the heavens that declare the glory of God.

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