Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. During the Wednesdays in Lent, we hear sermons based on the Psalms, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls The Prayerbook of the Bible. While all the Psalms are prayers, they may be categorized into different types. We do not have time enough in six weeks to run through them all, but in our series, Psalms: The Prayers of Jesus, we will look at several of the types Dietrich Bonhoeffer has identified, including Law, Guilt, Creation, the Church, Enemies, and the Time of the End. Tonight we meditate on Psalm 19, one of the Psalms extolling the virtues of God’s Law.
Psalm 19 starts off sounding an awful lot like many of the creation Psalms. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1, ESV). Like a child, David stares up at the night sky and marvels at the beauty of God’s creation. This is a wonder lost to many of us who can barely name the constellations or even see the light of the stars, dimmed as they are by the light pollution from Denver and other major cities. Yet with the wonder of a child, David recognizes that the heavens reveal something remarkable about the God who made them and named them (cf. 147:4).
According to David, the heavenly bodies have no audible voice of their own (vv. 2-3), and yet their words go out to the ends of the world (v. 4). Physics tells us that all stars pulse with energy, sending out waves that can be detected by radio telescopes, if not the human ear. Perhaps that is something of what the ancients meant by “the music of the spheres.”
As David continues star-gazing, night turns into day, and he watches the sun rise and set like a warrior running its course (vv. 4-5). Nothing on earth is hidden from its heat (v. 6), just as Jesus says that every work, whether good or evil, will be brought to light by Christ on Judgment Day (John 3:19-21).
The creation is God’s handiwork and bears his fingerprint. You cannot look at the intricacy of creation, be it the most remote galaxy or the smallest subatomic particle, without seeing the signature of our Maker. Every quark speaks of his glory, which is why the Apostle Paul asserts in Romans 1 “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20), who claim that there is no God. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).
And yet this natural revelation is not enough. The creation can tell you that there is a God, but it cannot tell you who that God is. As Timothy Keller writes, “Nature tells us about God’s reality and power but not about his saving grace.” No wonder, then, that so many people act upon that pagan impulse to worship the creation instead of the Creator (cp. Rom. 1:21-23). That is why it is not enough merely for the creation to speak about God. God himself must speak to us.
So God speaks to us in his Word, which the second stanza of Psalm 19 celebrates. “The law of the LORD is perfect,” David writes, “revising the soul” (Ps. 19:7a). As in Psalm 119, here David employs several synonyms for God’s Law, or Torah, as he praises God for the blessing of his Word. He speaks of God’s Law, testimonies, precepts, commandments, fear, and rules as something that grants wisdom and joy. They are greater treasure than gold and sweeter than fresh honey from the comb (v. 10).
But, to our hearing, that is a strange way to speak of Law. When we hear the word “law,” we think of the Ten Commandments, rules like “Don’t murder,” “Don’t commit adultery,” and “Don’t steal.” As fallen sinners, we are rebellious creatures, and we tend to live by the motto that “Rules are made to be broken.” Rather than a source of joy, rules are a restraint upon us—they cramp our style. As Lutherans, we think of God’s Law in terms of Law and Gospel, or even Law versus Gospel. The Law shows us our sin, and the Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law threatens and kills; the Gospel makes alive. The Law shows us God’s will, and the Gospel delivers God’s promises. Yet David insists that the Law revives our soul. In Psalm 119, the psalmist even goes so far as to pray, “Give me life according to your rules!” (Ps. 119:156b). How can this be?!
At this point, many theologians make the move that the Hebrew word for Law, Torah, does not only refer to God’s rules, but encompasses all of God’s Word. They point out that the word Torah is also used to refer to the entire content of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And yet this collection, the so-called “Law” of Moses, also contains wonderful promises by God and stories of his redemption. For example, Exodus 34:6 states, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This is a powerful Gospel promise. So clearly, Torah encompasses both Law and Gospel, which is why some Bible scholars suggest that we translate the Hebrew word Torah as “instruction” or “teaching,” instead of the more restrictive “Law.”
That is all very well and good, except that such Bible scholars miss the obvious: by using such terms as “commandment” (v. 8) and “rules” (v. 9) as equivalent terms for Torah, the word clearly is in the category of Law. So we are back to where we began. As Lutherans who confess that the Law always accuses (lex semper acusat), how can we pray this Psalm in praise of God’s Law? How can the Law that shows us our sin and condemns us to hell because of them be a source of delight for us?
C.S. Lewis, who also wrestled with this question, offers a very helpful suggestion in his book, Reflections on the Psalms. There he writes that David’s delight in God’s Law is very much like the joy a traveler has in finding the road after getting lost on some terrible shortcut that proved altogether too dangerous. “Their delight in the Law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian’s delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields.” In other words, God’s Law gives us joy because life just goes better when we do things God’s way. A man who is faithful to his wife may not have a perfect marriage, but at least he will not be having children out of wedlock or contracting a venereal disease. A woman who respects the reputation of her neighbor and does not bear false witness may not be regarded well by all people, but at least she will be reckoned honest and fair by most. These are examples of what the Lutheran theologians refer to as the third use of the Law. It serves as a guide for how to live so that we do not get lost along the way. The Law shows us how to live, how to love God and love our neighbor. According to St. Paul, love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 13:10).
And yet God’s Law is not enough to make us right with God. Indeed, the Law shows us our sin. “By [your rules] is your servant warned…” (Ps. 19:11a). We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Some of our sin we know, but some is known only to God, which is why David prays in earnest, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). David freely admits that, human speaking, it is impossible to make a full tally of all your sins. If our salvation depended on keeping all the rules and apologizing and making amends for where we’ve done wrong, then we would all be doomed and damned to hell for eternity. Before his discovery of the Gospel, Martin Luther famously used to spend hours each day in the confessional booth for fear that he would go to hell for some minor peccadillo that he left unspoken and unatoned for. But none of us knows everything we do wrong.
So David prays for God to declare him innocent from hidden faults. That is, he asks God to justify him, not just to forgive him or declare him “not guilty,” but to declare him innocent. For that is what justification is all about: being made right with God by the gracious verdict of Jesus Christ. Being justified means that “it’s just as if I’d never sinned!” So also we pray that God would not look at our sins or deny our prayer because of them (SC, 5th Petition of Lord’s Prayer). Our standing before God is not based on who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done. Our standing before God is based on Jesus, who stood in the gap between God and man when he died on the cross for our sins. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
The Psalm continues with a prayer that God would guard him from “great transgression” and “presumptuous sins” (Ps. 19:13). This is very like what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God always hears—and answers—the prayer offered in faith.
So we come to the last verse of the Psalm, a beautiful prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). Many preachers pray this verse right before stepping into the pulpit. I pray it before I ever put words to paper during my sermon preparations. In this prayer, David asks God to give him clean lips and a clean heart—something only Christ can create in us. As David prays in the traditional Psalm for Ash Wednesday, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). God accepts our words and thoughts because we offer them in Jesus’ name. He is the Rock on which we build our lives, the cornerstone of our faith (Matt. 7:24-25; Eph. 2:20). And he is our Redeemer, our Brother in the flesh who paid the price of our freedom and forgiveness with his blood shed on the cross. Our prayer is acceptable to God because our heavenly Father accepted Jesus’ offering of his own body—in our place—on the altar of the cross. For, as Bonhoeffer asserts, “only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.” So we sing: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to T the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.