by Joy Douglas Strome
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. (Psalm 19: 1-4)
Psalm 19 is one of my favorites. It contains three sections. The first section is about God in nature and our uncanny ability to sense and feel and experience God in the mystery and miracle of the created order. We have five fingers and five toes—not two, not twenty, not thirteen, but five. And that should lead us to some sense of awe. There could have been a mistake. The design could have been faulty. But five fingers and five toes on each hand and foot seems to work, and it comes with the miracle of life. If you haven’t thought about that, today’s the day. When you pick something up, or balance on one foot to reach into your kitchen cabinet, remember the near perfect design of your body and you’ll know what the psalmist is talking about when they write, “All creation is shouting for joy.”
The second section of the psalm is about God found in the Torah or law. In the same way that the sun energizes the earth and makes life possible, so the Torah offers life, reviving the soul, making wise the simple, offering up the commandments of God in a clear way. This written word is the guide for life, though as it continues we will see that even the word is not enough.
The third section is the reality check. Yes, we have this wonderful world, yes, we have these inspirational words in our tradition, but even with it all, as humans we sometimes mess it up. There are still errors and faults and missteps. The psalmist begs to be blameless before God, which is to say that the psalmist wants to be dependent on the God who has the ability to make ones’ words and thoughts acceptable, the same God who is rock (or strength) and redeemer (or savior). Let’s remind ourselves about this word redeemer. Its common use for our writers in the Hebrew scriptures was to refer to the responsibility that family members had to “buy back” relatives who had fallen into slavery. Redeemer then suggests family ties, family responsibility, an intimacy that makes God “next of kin” when the estate gets settled!
So Psalm 19 effectively gives us some clues about how it is we find our place in the world. We marvel at the miracle of creation and know ourselves to be in the presence of something way beyond ourselves. (Five fingers.) We use our written word to help us come to a clearer understanding of what that presence might be. In the end, we rely on our connection to this God—made known to us in creation, in the Word, and through Christ—or our strength and our affirmation and our place, however fractured that world might be.
That’s the quick summary, but far from complete. Because we could get lost in all that “glory of God” stuff and still be, well, lost. We could temporarily divert our attention to the contemplation of the miracle of our hand and become so engrossed that we never do anything useful with it. We could engage in lengthy study of the scriptures, analyzing them up one side and down the other and never have to really listen or be affected or changed by what’s being said.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and redeemer. (Psalm 19: 14)
Preachers all over the world use this last line from Psalm 19 as prelude and prayer to the words they are about to say. We hope that every heart who hears will be beating, and meditating, and wondering at all there is to know and understand about this God. We ponder it for fifteen minutes or so on a Sunday morning, and we are off to the next thing and we want it all to be enough, to be acceptable to the one who is our rock (our strength) and our redeemer (our savior).
Psalm 19 helps us place ourselves in the bigger story and yet not feel swallowed up by it. On the contrary, every week we re-coup losses and feel stronger, more connected to the “heart of love.” That won’t end. There are many more years to study God’s words and find our place and find ourselves oh-so-radically loved, and loved back into the work of making a difference in a broken and fearful world.
Rev. Joy Douglas Strome is pastor of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago.