Students of Apologetics (that is, the presentation of reasoning or evidence that supports the claims of Christian faith) sometimes speak of two broad ways in which we learn of God’s presence and activity. Special revelation is the term used for God’s dealings with humanity through the Law and the Prophets, through Scripture’s record of anointed leaders and miraculous interventions, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and through the testimony of the Holy Spirit within us. Meanwhile, at a more basic level, general revelation refers to the idea that even our observation of the natural world can point us to God’s presence, and to at least something of God’s character.
There’s a sense in which today’s Psalm celebrates both these kinds of revelation. The first three stanzas (corresponding to verses 1-6 in the Biblical text) declare that the sun and stars above, noiseless as they are, speak eloquently and unmistakably to all the world as they testify to God’s handiwork. Then from the fourth stanza (verse 7 in the Biblical text) the Psalmist goes on to affirm what God has particularly given to the community of faith, to guide them in their conduct and to show them who God is: the law, statutes, precepts, commands, fear, and standards of the LORD. In Hebrew thought, this isn’t really a list of distinct categories; rather it’s a choice of complementary terms which together seek to express the fullness of Torah – God’s instruction, God’s pattern for human lives.
Why does the Psalm change tack in this way? Some commentators have suggested that the text as we have it now is a combination of two originally distinct works; others note that the sun was commonly seen in the Ancient Near East as analogous to the Law of God – enlivening, and shining a light on dark places.
In any case, it would be easy to see Psalm 19 as reflecting a movement from general revelation (the universally-available evidence of God) to special revelation (our reliance upon God to take the initiative if we’re to learn God’s character or will), reinforcing a distinction between the two. But I wonder if that’s quite what the Psalmist has in mind?
There’s a Jewish rabbinical tradition that God’s Torah was set out even before the creation of the world, to serve as its blueprint. And so there’s a way of reading this Psalm that sees the firmament itself – the created order which we see and experience each day and night – as part-and-parcel of Torah, the revelation of God’s teaching to shape our lives.
Far from being merely the evidential foundation upon which we might build our philosophical arguments for a Creator, our experience of nature in its awe and fragility summons us together to live reverently and responsibly as recipients of God’s gift and God’s call. Far from selfishly taking our fill of the earth’s resources, we are summoned to know our place – and to rejoice in giving our all for the sake of the world which God so loves.