Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

Some scholars rather rashly declare Psalm 19 to be not one but two distinct Psalms, one on the glory of creation, the second on the goodness of the Torah.

January 27, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 19

Some scholars rather rashly declare Psalm 19 to be not one but two distinct Psalms, one on the glory of creation, the second on the goodness of the Torah.

If they were ever two, their joining would be like the happiest marriage you have ever known, or the bonding of hydrogen and oxygen to form the water that quenches your thirst.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God.” We might hear the thundering chords of Haydn’s masterpiece in the backs of our heads. But we do not literally “hear” the heavens. This irony, this paradox, is evident in the Psalm itself. “The heavens are telling… the firmament proclaims… Day to day pours forth speech…” but then verse 3: “There is no speech, nor are their words; their voice is not heard.”

The deaf can hear this glory; the grandeur of the earth shouts in the silence. As Paul put it, “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).

How theologically abstruse is it to think a Psalm about the wonder of creation would be distinguishable from a Psalm about the gift of the Torah! It is the Creator who has the right to command. It is the Creator who knows how we and the world in which we live are wired, what will work and what won’t. Creation establishes the trustworthy basis for the words God rendered to Israel about how to live.

Christians naively latch on to Paul’s arguments about being saved by grace, not the works of the law. But Jesus quite clearly cherished and heeded the commandments, and thought we should as well. The Law truly is good — and a litany of adjectives and metaphors are strung together to persuade any who are hesitant. God’s law is not oppressive or shackling, but “perfect, reviving the soul, making wise, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes, clean, enduring, true.”

And then the astonishing, culture-overturning image: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” Gold is what investors rush to in times of crisis; gold is what we believe will purchase the good life and heady security. But the Law is even better — and as Tolkien’s wise old Gandalf would remind us, “All that glitters is not gold.”

Shifting from the visual, tangible image of gold, the Psalmist appeals to our more pleasurable senses of taste and smell: “Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (or as Robert Alter translated this, “the quintessence of bees”). Honey is awfully sweet! Perhaps we recall Ezekiel’s notion of eating a scroll of God’s words.

The most memorable moment in Psalm 19 might be that often-quoted verse 14: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight.” This is not a quickie prayer for the preacher. All of us need to consider our words and thoughts. Do Christians have a peculiar manner of talking? When we chat at the water cooler, interact at work, converse at a party: are the “words of my mouth acceptable to you, O Lord”? God doesn’t demand that we exhibit some pious, sugary, lilting niceness — but how do we talk in a way that pleases God and makes sense given our faith?

Talk is cheap. From TV we learn decadent talk. From politics we learn vicious talk. As Christians, we do not babble away like everybody else. Words tear down, they belittle but we want to use our words to build up, to encourage; to say things that are excellent, that are helpful to others. Our distinctive Christian speech involves knowing when to shut up, when to refuse to pass along a rumor. Bonhoeffer suggested that “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.” The brother of Jesus warned that “the tongue is a fire” (James 3:6).

We always tell the truth; although there are truths we keep to ourselves, for some brands of honesty are vicious. We express our values through words, so to talk fawningly over the bogus anti-values of our culture hardly pleases God. If someone listened to you talk over a year or two, what would they conclude really matters to you? Would they get a sense that God is in your life? Or that you are kind? Compassionate? Virtuous (without being smug)? What is the tone of my talk? And is my talk (over many years) becoming more or less acceptable to God? And encouraging to others?

Do Christians have a peculiar way of thinking? What’s going on inside my head? And why? How do I react to what I see? What am I feeling inside? Is there a way of thinking, responding, feeling that is pleasing to God? And a better fit for the person God (who gave me the brain I’m using) made me to be? Thomas Merton says, “What good does it do to say a few formal prayers to Him and then turn away and give all my mind and will to things, desiring what falls far short of Him? The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas, and the will that is the captive of its own desire, cannot accept truth and supernatural desire.”

Here’s how Paul frames our distinctive way of thinking: “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). How do we get this mind of Christ? How do we think God’s thoughts? How do we value what God values? Shudder over what mortifies God? Delight in what God enjoys? Press passionately for what makes God smile?

To gravitate toward the mind of Christ, imagine a great street-sweeper invading your head, a bit ruthless, pummeling all the clutter of accumulated thought, little pet notions that are not of God, little conventional messages that may be appealing, frightening or ugly, but do not square well with the way of Christ. Just as the road is clear and the dust settles, a bookmobile ambles in, with the most enthusiastic salesman ever leaning out the window, giving away God’s ideas in the Bible, the verbiage we use in worship, the gathered wisdom of the saints who have thought God’s thoughts before us.

The heavens are telling God’s glory, and so can we, as our words and thoughts are pleasing to God.