The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hidden from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
A couple of years ago I found myself in New York at the time when the Museum of Modern Art was hosting an exhibition of Claude Monet’s ‘Waterlily’ paintings. I hadn’t realized how enormous they were, or just how abstract the shapes and the colours would seem. And I had forgotten – it was a long time since I’d been to an Impressionist exhibition – the extent to which the extraordinarily fine detail of Monet’s painting, the individual brushstrokes and tiny little gobbets of paint here and there, were almost incomprehensible when seen close up (you could walk right up to within a few inches of the paintings), but then, when seen from eight or ten feet back, would make the whole thing spring to life, a life you couldn’t see when you were too near. The fascinating thing to me, as a writer, was the way in which the painter could not possibly have seen the whole effect while painting the tiny, almost microscopic, sections. Yet he must have had the whole thing in mind all the time. He must have been fully aware of the larger shape, the balance of the whole thing. He must have known (instinctively? Or from painstaking study and practice? Or both?) what effect the tiny details would have when he stepped back again. Perhaps great art is always like that: the power and sweep of the larger imaginative vision, well served by the fastidious attention to detail.
I have that same sense as I stand back and admire this Psalm, which no less a critic than C. S. Lewis described as the finest poem in the world. You can see why. Read it quickly through, and, instead of just thinking about the meaning of the individual words, look at the shape of the whole thing.
The Psalm falls naturally and elegantly into four sections. We begin with the glorious vista of the skies: the great dome whose ever-changing face and colour announces to the whole world that the living God is the great and majestic creator. ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’: yes indeed, and it is a peculiar sort of deafness that stops its ears to this resonating voice. That takes us as far as the middle of verse 4.
But then the poem focuses on the central feature of the heavens: the sun. Here it comes, striding up into the eastern sky, marching through to high noon with great power and energy before resolutely dropping down in the west. And the point is in the final line: nothing is hidden from its heat. If the noiseless voice of the heavens reaches to the ends of the earth, the powerful heat of the sun penetrates to its inmost depths. These first two sections make up the first half of the poem.
The meaning of the poem is found in the hinge between its two halves. Standing as they do in deliberate parallel to one another, they proclaim the most basic of Jewish beliefs, the thing that marks out the Judaeo-Christian tradition (with Islam as a sideways variation) from other world-views. The point is that the creator God is also the God of Israel, and vice versa. This might seem obvious, but there are many world-views that, if they believe in a creator, assume that this creator must relate equally to all peoples, and many other world-views that assume that creation is a dark, evil place from which the true God would have to rescue them. The shorthand phrase that sums up this central point is: creation and covenant. The two are in perfect balance, and the balance of the poem reflects this exactly.
The second half thus celebrates the special relationship between the creator God and Israel, the ‘covenant’ whose charter is the law, the Torah. This, too, falls into two subsections. The first (verses 7–10) explores the wonderful and subtle teaching of the Torah, while the second (verses 11–14) applies this to the individual worshipper, the ‘I’ of the Psalm.
Standing back, we have travelled an enormous distance: from the full sweep of the majestic heavens, with the sun running its course across them, to the finely crafted law of God and its application to the most intimate and secret aspects of human life. In a sense this, too, is balanced, because the more we know about human beings the more we discover that each one is an utterly fascinating world of meaning, a fathomless well of consciousness, imagination, insight and love. And if that is the overall frame of the poem – from the massive outer world to the massive inner world – the inside portions of the poem balance wonderfully as well, from the all-pervasive heat of the sun to the all-pervasive teaching of the Torah.
Now try coming up close and looking at the particular detail. There is much for everyone to explore; I want simply to concentrate on the second half. In verses 7–10 (the celebration of Torah), the poet reflects on every aspect of the law: law itself, then ‘decrees’, ‘precepts’, ‘commandment’, ‘fear’ (i.e. reverence), and ‘ordinances’ or ‘judgments’. Torah as a whole is designed, he says, to penetrate, like the sun’s heat, down into every aspect of the personality: the breathing life itself (‘soul’), the understanding mind that needs wisdom, the heart that needs to be cheered up, the eye that needs to see clearly how things stand in the world and which way to go.
Verse 9 introduces a slightly different angle. The ‘fear of the Lord’ is the overall reverence that the obedient person displays, a reverence that produces an inner purity or cleanness that, because it has been rinsed free from all pollutants, is incorruptible, ‘enduring for ever’. And the ‘judgments’ or ‘ordinances’ of the Lord are the more public standards and rules by which a society will be well ordered, with justice firmly in place. There is a sense of completeness. Torah, like the sun with its heat, will bring God’s life, wisdom, joy, light, purity and justice into the individual and the community.
But it is the individual upon whom the emphasis then falls in the final verses, giving us a fitting place to rest the mind as we journey through Lent. Precisely because the human heart is so deep and many-sided, a wise worshipper reflects in humility that, left to ourselves, we cannot guarantee that God’s loving provision has in fact penetrated, like the sun’s heat, to every corner of our personality. If there are hidden faults, flaws deep down in our character, they need to be dealt with. If there is residual pride, it must be held firmly in check (verse 13).
The Psalm closes with the verse that I and many other preachers use at the start of sermons, but that should also be applied to the whole of one’s life, as a summary of where we should be and who we should be. The words we speak, and the thoughts deep in our hearts, are the most reliable indicators of who we really are. And our prayer should be, with the Psalmist, that those words and thoughts will be acceptable to God, to the creator and covenant God, the ‘rock’ (God the creator, the firm ground upon which we stand) and ‘redeemer’ (God the rescuer, the covenant God, the giver of the law). We who know the creator God in the face of Jesus Christ and the power of his Spirit should have no difficulty in recognizing that both creation and covenant are fulfilled in that great gift, and no hesitation in praying this Psalm, in its full sweep and its tiny details, in gratitude and love to Father, Son and Spirit.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, creator and redeemer, giver of life and love and wisdom and light.