Thursday, June 22, 2017

Singing with the Stars

Psalm 19 is David’s wonderful ode to God’s comprehensive self-revelation.  It begins with a kind of “natural theology,” in which the warrior poet sees the unmistakable handiwork of the Maker in the heavens, and portrays the celestial spheres as continuously singing the sublime praises of God.  The whole universe is, to use John Calvin’s phrase, theatrum gloriae. Under the vast canopy of heaven, we earthbound creatures cannot but hear the resounding hymn (v.4) and feel the warmth of solar breath (v.6). 

Daily the cosmic chorale “pours out speech,” and “their words run to the end of the world.”  Their repertoire apparently isn’t merely instrumental, though “there is no [audible] speech, nor are there [literal] words.”  Their wordless revelation is effervescent with content.  

I wonder whether in our Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, vigilantly listening for possible linguistic modulations in the radio transmission of stars, we’re missing their most obvious message.

Paul uses similarly paradoxical language in expounding his natural theology in the letter to the Romans.  He writes, “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (2:20). 

Speechless songs set to dancing all with ears to hear.  Visible creation plainly portrays invisible divinity to all with eyes in their head.  As Calvin wrote, “The faithful, to whom he has given eyes, see sparks of his glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing.”  For, as the reformer writes elsewhere, “there is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world, that is not intended to make men rejoice.”

But David moves from the heavens, from so-called “general revelation,” to the “special revelation” of holy writ in Psalm 19:7-11.  As glorious as galaxies in the endless night are, the law of God enjoys even higher praise:

Righteous altogether
Enduring forever (...unlike the heavens, Mt.5:18)
Giving wisdom to the simple
Reviving the soul
Rejoicing the heart

The instruction of the Lord is prized more than any earthly delight - material or culinary.  For by it, “your servant is warned,” and with it “there is great reward.”  This turns David inward, to self-examination, to wrestle with his own “hidden faults.”  “Who can discern his errors,” he asks God, praying for mercy. “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!”    

The stars often set us to meditating on ourselves, especially within “the grand scheme of things.”  As David says elsewhere, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”  

But the ancient king’s read on nature is confirmed and clarified through his reading of the law.  Creation’s strange tongue is made abundantly intelligible with the God-given words of scripture, particularly for us dull-witted, suppressers of truth (Rom.2:18).  The music of the spheres isn’t ambiguous, but apart from the moral and spiritual renewal that comes through “hearing the word of God,” we tend to misread and cleverly obfuscate its clear import.  When we do hear the celestial voices, and see that ancient light by which all the world is enlightened, we come to a more honest knowledge of ourselves.  It is simultaneously acutely humbling (Ps.8:3-4) and incredibly exalting (8:5-8).  We glimpse the glory of the elysian image in which we were made, and how far from it we have fallen (Rom.3:23).  

This is why, I think, star gazing can be both sobering and exhilarating. In the cold, shimmering light of blue and bright giants, we are made to feel our diminutive gravitas, which, in the warm light of day had appeared to us so much more substantial.  Yet at the same time, we feel ourselves to share somehow in heaven’s grandeur.  And not merely as the mortal dust of stars – as Carl Sagan was fond of reminding us - but as children of the immortal light that lit them.  

The apostle Paul quotes from the “general revelation” portion of David’s psalm but, oddly enough, in reference to the redemptive task of publishing the “special revelation” of the gospel:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.  But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for 
                      “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, 
and their words to the ends of the world.”

Paul is talking about the charge to herald the gospel to the ends of the earth, but cites David’s words about the songs of the stars. Is he confused?

More literally rendered, the apostle writes, “But I ask: Did they not hear? On the contrary, ‘their voice has gone out to all the earth…’”  It doesn’t appear that Paul is citing Ps.19:4 as a proof-text here.[1]  But then why quote it?  Is it simply a convenient expression to convey the near-universality of the apostolic witness (see Rom.15:18-19)?  A kind of poetic borrowing from the familiar phrases of the Psalter - the same way we exclaim, “from the mouth of babes!” - without regard for the original context?  Perhaps. 

But I wonder if Paul had good reason to select this particular verse … contextual reasons.      

On the one hand, the poets and prophets saw the glory of God presently filling the entirety of creation, as the dread cherubim themselves declare before the heavenly throne (Isaiah 6:3).  Yet this glory was understood as exalted “above the heavens,” (e.g., Ps.8:1; 113:4-6; 148:13), even hidden from the eyes of men (e.g., Ex.33:18ff.). As we sing, “though the darkness hide thee; through the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see.”  

On the other hand, the poets and prophets foresaw a day when the divine glory would be unveiled, brightly manifest in all the world.  Moses heard God swear, “as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord,” (Num.14:21).  David cried out for this promise: “Let your glory be over all the earth!” (Ps.57:5; 108:4-5; cf. 72:19; 67:1-2).  Isaiah spoke mystically of the latter days, when “the mountain of the house of the Lord will be lifted above the hills, and all the nations will flow to it,” (2:1).  

        They shall not hurt or destroy 
in all my holy mountain; 
        for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea, (11:9).

This paradise on earth dawns with the law of the Lord shining out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (2:2) - as universal as sunshine.  

The prophet Habakkuk saw these days, too.  In his terrifying vision of the Day of the Lord (2:2-3), he declared: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” (2:14).  In that day, “His splendor covered the heavens and the earth was full of his praise,” (3:3).  For then, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you,” (Ps.22:27).    

Only in these latter days would the knowledge of God cover the earth as the sea.  Only then would the universality of natural revelation be paralleled by the universality of His special revelation.  The choir of the heavens would (finally) be matched by the redeemed choirs on this mortal coil – on earth as it is in heaven!  

And the apostle saw himself – and the apostolic band - as the precipitating agent in this unfolding revelation among the nations:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, (2Cor.4:6).

Their voice has gone out into all the earth, with words to be heard by Jew, Greek and Barbarian.  And through these cracked vessels, the cosmic light that ignites human hearts shines into “this present darkness” with blinding brilliance.  They are fulfilling, in their evangelistic and church-planting ministry, the hope of the prophets and poets of Israel.  That fulfillment continues to unfold today.

The terrestrial choir has begun its singing.  In the one, holy, universal and apostolic church, it not only sings along with heaven’s eternal song, but leads the magnificent ensemble – as deep calls to deep in the thundering waters of divine glory, flooding all the world.  As Calvin wrote:

The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra, as it were—the most conspicuous part of it.

Do you hear the music ringing, the endless song that echoes in our souls?  Belt it out, O church! Let all the world hear, until all the world sings!

[1] Paul uses a contrastive clause here, unlike his typical introductions of scriptural support.  Elsewhere, he uses “for,” (γάρ, e.g., 10:11, 16), or “just as” (καθὼς, e.g., 10:15) or “thus” (οὕτως, e.g., 10:6) to cite a proof text.

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