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.They have no speech, they use no words;no sound is heard from them.Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,their words to the ends of the world.In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,like a champion rejoicing to run his course.It rises at one end of the heavensand makes its circuit to the other;nothing is deprived of its warmth.The law of the LORD is perfect,refreshing the soul.The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,making wise the simple.The precepts of the LORD are right,giving joy to the heart.The commands of the LORD are radiant,giving light to the eyes.The fear of the LORD is pure,enduring forever.The decrees of the LORD are firm,and all of them are righteous.They are more precious than gold,than much pure gold;they are sweeter than honey,than honey from the honeycomb.By them your servant is warned;in keeping them there is great reward.But who can discern their own errors?Forgive my hidden faults.Keep your servant also from willful sins;may they not rule over me.Then I will be blameless,innocent of great transgression.May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heartbe pleasing in your sight,LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.(Psalm 19)
What is God like? How can we know him? This radiant psalm contemplates two ways in which God communicates something of himself.
First, in verses 1-6, it is the cosmos in its beauty that speaks of God. The majestic movement of the skies is silent and inarticulate – “they have no speech, they use no words” – but it is full of significance – “they reveal knowledge”. It is true that scientific study of natural phenomena provides a fascinating further perspective on the unimaginable wisdom and greatness of God; but here the focus is simply on the extraordinary beauty with which the natural world is presented to our senses: a beauty which is inexplicable, which points beyond itself to the mystery of the Creator. “Their words go out to the ends of the world”: this communication of God is open to everyone on earth, regardless of their background, education, or religion.
In verses 7-11, the psalmist moves from contemplating the sun of the physical world to the interior sun: the sense, present in every human being, of what is good and right. If this sense is resolutely followed, it lights up and makes warm all of human life. It is God’s plan for us, reflecting his own character. As with the beauty of nature, this is a dimension in which God communicates something of himself to anyone, anywhere, who is ready to be attentive. St Paul, in Romans 2:14-18, explains how this sense of goodness – this “law” – can be “written in the hearts” of all human beings. But it received a special focus for Jewish believers, because for them it was revealed in verbal form as the “commandments” of God, centred in love. Compared with the silent language of the skies, this communication shows a more intimate and important aspect of God’s nature, one that is more deeply connected to human existence; it is significant that the name of God, “the LORD”, appears nowhere in the first six verses, but seven times in the second part of the psalm.
Words such as “law” and “commandment” can be off-putting. And it is true that, as long as we think that what God wants is obedience to rules and obligations, we will be afraid of losing our freedom. We will tend to rebel and try to do only the minimum necessary. But if we come to know more and more deeply that what God wants of us is essentially to accept his love and to love one another, then we will tend, like all true lovers, to do the maximum rather than the minimum. Then these “commands” will turn out to be full of joy and inspiration – radiant, reliable, valuable, sweet.
The psalm ends on a still more personal note. After contemplating the beauties of God in the creation and in his plan for human existence, the psalmist’s own failings to live up to this come into view. But there is no wallowing in feelings of guilt: there is simply a prayer to be forgiven for whatever has been wrong, known and unknown, and to be kept from serious faults. The final verse is a beautiful interchange: having found joy in God’s words to him (or her), the psalmist prays that his (or her) words and meditation may give joy to God in turn. The last words are a very personal expression of trust: God, whose glory is expressed to the whole world in the heavens, whose goodness and fairness are expressed to his people in his Law, is also my security (“my rock”) and the one who obtains my freedom (“my redeemer”).
What part of the natural world do I find especially beautiful? Can I take some time in the coming days to contemplate that beauty and let it speak to me of God?
What acts of human goodness give me joy, or seem to me precious like gold or sweet like honey? How would I like to enter more fully into this movement of goodness?
In what ways did Christ come “not to abolish but to fulfil” these things (cf. Matthew 5:17)?