On Psalm 19, for one of the weeks after Epiphany.
I fear my exposition makes but watery gruel, but I thought I might as well put it up for critique. The piece follows the patristic habit of interpolating comments into the verses of the passage discussed, which helps, I think, to keep things tied to the meaning and trajectory of the Scripture itself, even though my topoi have a far more obviously rhetorical cast than is found in many churches.
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I set out to speak, dear friends, of something so visible to the eyes that it bears little explanation, but so invisible to the heart, perhaps, that no mere words can fully explain it. Anything my speech has of value, it owes to its subject, and to your attention it owes its effect, for my lips do but recall some images to the eyes of your minds. Lift up your eyes, and you will see the wonder of the expanse above; lower your gaze, and nothing will so impress you as the depths of knowledge below. There is nothing to invent anew, but to be moved by the glory of the Lord; there is nothing I can more cleverly express than that which compels my heart to the praise of his holy Name. There can no scholar swim the depths of knowledge and not see what little he knows; there can no atheist look up to the heavens and not wonder at its expanse. What I declare to you now is just what I cannot but hear declared to me: Christ the Saviour of the world.
The heavens, says the Psalmist, declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. The Sun is thousands of times greater than the Earth, and the star Aldebaran thousands of times greater than that, and the star Betelgeuse thousands of times greater still, so great that when its time came to die its supernova would be visible even by day. Yet even the greatest star, without a path and a destiny, is all but lost in the depths of the cosmos. The great spaces speak to me with voiceless voice: though silent, they press upon me more than the grandest and deepest words. These are great expanses; they go on and on in every direction. In the words of the mathematician Pascal, ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.’
I know that some maintain a studied scepticism, wishing to cloak their unbelief. Exceeding true duty to facts, they demand more to satisfy their need for geometrically rigorous proof. Perhaps this is you today. ‘If God appeared to me right here and spoke’, you say, ‘then I might believe.’ No, you who are rich, you who insist on your riches, you would not believe even if the dead came back to life. You have already taken a posture of judgement over God, just as if, like a compass and a straight edge, he sits before you on the table to be taken up as a tool, or else as a toy for your amusement. Even if you believed in God as you now may believe in Brownian motion or the efficacy of radiocarbon dating, this belief would be no good: to the majesty of God it would be but a mockery. But if you will listen, God himself is speaking every hour of the day, and every minute of the hour, and every second of the minute, and every infinitesimal fraction of a second, and no one can hide this from you. You who will not hear, you are encompassed with the word of God, and you live within the pages of his book, and every one of your days is recorded blacker than ink; and yet you say you see nothing, hear nothing, and know nothing. To your blindness the scroll of the sky has nothing but garbled words, and to your stopped ears the music of creation is nothing but a muffled mess. But now the dumb creatures are made ‘witnesses and preachers of the glory of God’: and if you hold your peace, even the stones will cry out in your place. Do you protest ignorance of the God of whom all nature bears witness? Do you insist?
Listen to the cosmos, how it declares the wisdom of God. Hear the law of nature, how even in the smallest things it encodes the word of God. You can go nowhere to leave it: There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. What are you, O man? You are without excuse, for the Lord has spoken in the music of the spheres, and in the very count of the heavens is the reason of his mind, and in the very harmony of voices is the concord of his voice. His speech is their speech, and his words are their words, and his voice is their voice.
What his mind conceives, he accomplishes, and all nature marvels. When the water flows, when the fire burns, when the sky opens, when the earth quakes, it is God’s word that sanctions it. When the nations rise, when the kingdoms fall; when the gods of Egypt are shamed with plagues but Israel is delivered from Egypt; when Sodom is destroyed but repentant Nineveh is spared; when whoring Israel is carried off but Judah is saved from Sennacherib; when Babylon destroys Jerusalem but Nehemiah rebuilds it; when the Jews crucify the Son of God but Titus destroys their city; when Diocletian attacks the Church but Constantine takes up the Cross; when Alaric plunders Rome but Attila turns back; when Constantinople falls but Lepanto stops the Turk; when Spain gains power but its Armada is wrecked at sea, it is God’s hand that moves. The history of the earth is a sign of his presence. When you read the book, does your heart hear what the author is telling you?
The thundering skies are his; the thundering water is his. With the heat of the Sun he dissolves the mist; with the circuit of the Moon he eclipses the Sun; with the shadow of the Earth he hides the Moon; with a pouring of rain he floods the Earth. Every thing that we ascribe to impersonal forces, every rotation of the Earth, every revolution of the Moon, every explosion of the Sun, every conception of new human life, is caused by God, the first mover of all things.
Now here is a mystery: that God, for his love, uses even the gravitation that pulls me down to pull my gaze up to him. By bringing my knees to the earth, he lifts my heart to the heavens. I now think upon this God above, who exists eternally as love itself, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in perfect unity. The Son is the radiance of God’s love, who rejoices to give forth the glory of his Father. In eternity the Father loves him and delights in him and gives the Holy Spirit to him, and through him and for him the Father made the world, and so the world itself exists as a labour of love. Yes, God is love, and the world is the overflow of his heart. Is it possible to conceive of anything greater than the majesty of his love? Does my heart not unite with the heavens to declare his glory?
In these heavens, says David, hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof. In the heavens, we are told, is a tabernacle for the Sun, who goes forth from horizon to horizon. Can you imagine now the sight of God, who is from everlasting to everlasting? Do you now tremble at his presence, which tabernacles among the hearts of men? O Christian, do you tremble to know that his glory burns within your very heart? Nothing can hide from the heat of the Sun, and nothing can hide from the blazing heat of God’s heart. If the grass withers before the Sun at high noon, if the morning flowers fade in the heat of his eye, what will our hearts do before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father?
Consider what it means for God to live inside you. If Apollo is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, rejoicing to race across the sky, the Son of God is even more so. Rejoicing to run the race of human life, he came as a Bridegroom from heaven, with all the eternal power and authority of God. So he who was the very Word of God, the very law of the universe, the very foundation of all things, the beginning and the end, took upon himself to deliver man.
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. The law of the Lord is good and perfect; the law of the Lord is the Son of God himself. The Son of God, begotten by the Father before all ages, is reason himself, unchanging, perfect, eternal, the principle of all principles. In him is contained all wisdom, all knowledge, all riches, all wealth and power and glory. Without him, the heart cannot rejoice, and the eyes have no light. Without him, the world is a wretched dunghill. Without his life, the world is swallowed up in death. Without his justice, the world destroys itself with its sinful judgements; but the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. Weigh the speech of everyone who speaks, and see if there be any speech superior to the word of God. The Word of the Lord created heaven and earth out of nothing; the word of man takes air and sound but creates nothing. The Word of the Lord is sufficient in itself; the word of man is contingent on a thousand other things. The Word of the Lord is eternally sure; the word of man is corrupt and unreliable. Between the words of men and the word of the Lord there is no comparison.
This is the light that pierces every darkness, the Sun to whom all hearts are open and all desires known, from whom no secrets are hid. To his mind is all knowledge fathomed, and to his eye are all mysteries disclosed. The Muslims say that God is closer to man than his jugular vein, and I tell you, God is even closer than that. If you yourself can see so much inside your own heart, what is there that he cannot see? What mysteries are there that you have yet to discover, and what hopes, and what dreams, and what fancies, and what delusion, and what presumption, and what pride, and what lust, and what cruelty, and what defilement? Lay open your mind to yourself, and consider how much more is plain before the sight of God.
Do you envy your neighbour? Do you hope to gain his property? Do you delight in slanders against him? Do you love to hear the latest gossip about his sins? Do you say about him what you suspect is not completely true? Do you air your grievances against him without attempting to solve anything? Do you say nothing to keep him from losing what he has? Do you sell to him what you know is bad for him? Do you keep silent because you want his marriage to fail? Do you tempt him and hope to humiliate him? Do you objectify him in your thoughts? God sees it all, and he knows how many ways you twist logic to convince yourself that all you do is pure and blameless. He is true and righteous: even when you deceive yourself, you cannot deceive him. The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
But what misery it is to forsake this law! See what our hearts devise in the privacy of closed doors. Look what the word of man creates when it pretends to the place of the word of God. We fill the world with famine, sickness and death, and warring against God we war against ourselves, inventing new, improved, more efficient ways to kill ourselves. Ah, what clean lines our progress traces when we are masters of ourselves and know to put God in his place! But can we not see? He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, and their condition is poor and miserable.
And yet, what good is there in knowing, when this knowledge cannot save us from misery? It is a misery upon misery to know our own faults and find ourselves at heart unwilling to change even when we have resolved to do so. The law exposes what a lie it is to say, ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ And so we know from the law what death and destruction man brings upon himself, but we love it too much to stop, even as we know it brings no lasting pleasure.
Think of Macbeth and his crimes, which Shakespeare has cast for us into high drama. Macbeth is not even under the illusion that the moral law sanctions the murder of his king, kinsman and guest. He only says to himself as he comes up to the deed, ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ When Macbeth cannot wash himself clean of his crime, he can only go deeper and deeper. Having killed the king, he keeps going. He cannot stop. ‘To be thus is nothing’, he says, ‘but to be safely thus.’ The killing of the king has set other things in motion that cannot be otherwise. Tracks must be erased with more tracks; bloodshed must be covered with bloodshed. So the king is killed, then Macbeth’s friend Banquo, then another noble’s wife and children, faster and faster, with no time for reflection.
You are Macbeth; I am Macbeth. The carnage cannot stop now: the show must go on. We must keep killing, and it will not stop. We are out of control; it is out of control; there is no going back.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
So time goes, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and in the blink of an eye it is all done. Faithless in our deeds, we have nothing but death, death, and death.
But faithful Christ gives life. We think it impossible to believe, but there we have it. To us the law adds misery to misery, because it tells us our unhappy condition; but to him who is righteous the law is a treasure, adding riches to riches. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward. Now, look upon him who delights in this law. See how the law does not condemn him, for in him there is nothing false. See how it gives him joy, for his hands are not defiled with blood but pure and happy, and his lips are not bitter with lies but sweet with honey and the honeycomb. The stars are fair, and their music is his delight. He is at peace with them, and he admires the craft of their making: the logic of their motion is beautiful, and the poetry of their song is graceful and sweet. He enjoys the works of God because his life is blameless.
Should these not be the riches we enjoy? The world is beautifully made. To live according to the natural ways, and not to twist ourselves out of shape, should be a treasure and a delight. From goodness should come goodness; from beauty should come beauty. Sometimes it does. So much beautiful music has been made, so many beautiful tapestries have been woven, so many beautiful scenes have been painted, and so many beautiful words have been said. We think this should move us to do the good that everything is meant to do.
But we remember ourselves. Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults. Our sins are deeper than we understand, so deep that they keep us from understanding the full truth of sin and the full flower of beauty. So St Augustine says, ‘What sort of sweetness can there be in sins, where there is no understanding? For who can understand sins, which close the very eye, to which truth is pleasant, to which the judgments of God are desirable and sweet? Yea, as darkness closes the eye, so do sins the mind, and suffer it not to see either the light, or itself.’ Who, then, who can understand his own errors? Who can understand the errors of our race?
My brethren, Jesus Christ understands our errors. He is the Son of Man, who can sympathize with our weaknesses. He, the Son of God from everlasting to everlasting, through whom all things were made, has taken upon himself our entire humanity, to be a man like us in everything but sin. That every part of us might be saved from the gall of death, he has recapitulated our every part in his own person. He has suffered our temptations and not been mastered by them. He has been tempted with hunger, he has been tempted with pride, he has been tempted with worldly wealth and power, and he has stood fast against it all. Instead, he was thirsty as he hung on the Cross, he was stripped naked and humiliated as he hung on the Cross, and he held back from calling on the power of twelve legions of angels as he hung on the Cross. He who hung the earth upon the waters was hung upon that Cross, where the curse of the law came to die, that all who would look upon him might have life. As he was thirsty, so he promises to refresh us; as he was uncovered, so he promises to wash our secret sins away; as he hid the power that made all life, so he promises the power of life by the Holy Spirit. This promise is given in Holy Baptism; this promise is given in Holy Communion; this promise is given for you to take with faith, that the love which made the stars might be yours as well.
Christ’s promise is real and powerful: what the Psalmist asked has now been realized. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression. Jesus Christ is upright and innocent of all transgression. The sins that have had dominion over us have no dominion over him, for though they killed him and enclosed his body to rot in a tomb, he has broken the seal of death and come out with a body that will die no more.
And Christ offers us a share in his victory: when we believe, we are united with him and all his blessings, and God the Father sees us as he sees his own Son. [As our fathers in Christ confessed in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, ‘Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us.’] When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God delivers to our souls the gift of the life that that is found in Christ. In this visible sign and pledge, as surely as we receive with our mouths the holy tokens in remembrance of him, he assures us ‘that we come to share in his true body and blood through the working of the Holy Spirit’, and ‘that all his sufferings and his death are our own as certainly as if we had ourselves suffered and rendered satisfaction in our own persons.’ In him we have righteousness, if we do not scorn him, if we believe in his holy Name. In his clean flesh is our unclean flesh made clean, and from our corrupted flesh is made an incorruptible flesh. Our hearts, our brains, our mouths, our hands, our feet, all are made new in his image. In his obedience to God is the hope and prayer of the Psalmist fulfilled: Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. So God proclaims through his prophet Malachi the light of Christ breaking through our sorrows: But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.
You who are baptized and bear the name of Christ, the promise of Christ is fully yours. ‘Take this’, he says: ‘this is my life-giving body.’ Receive him thankfully, believing that God loves you for his sake, and you will have the life that he has. He is yours today if he receive him with faith. And you who are among us today, unbaptized but studying the word of God, hear the holy gospel of God’s love. See if there be anyone like our Lord Jesus Christ, and believe and be baptized. Trust in him and take his promise, and he will never leave you.