Opening the Books

  • Series: Folksongs of Faith
  • Author: Ray C. Stedman
Read the Scripture: Psalm 19
Psalm 19

1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

3 There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.

4 Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,

5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.

7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

8 The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

9 The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous.

10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.

11 By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

12 Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.

13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then will I be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

14 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

New International Version
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Of late, controversy has swirled around the decision of the California State Board of Education to modify its guidelines for textbook selection so that the faculties of our schools will have references from which to teach the theory of creation, along with the theory of evolution, or Darwinism, as an approach to understanding the origin and development of life as we have it on earth. This decision has evoked considerable reaction, both pro and con. Some of us are following developments and are even engaged in them to some degree. The nineteenth Psalm speaks right to the point of that controversy. We have already sung it this morning in that great hymn by Isaac Watts, "The Heavens Declare Thy Glory." Now we want to look at it more closely.

Behind all the arguments being set forth the basic issue is whether or not it is right to acknowledge that God is involved in the universe whether the study of nature and of science has a spiritual aspect or not, whether or not we are confronted with God in these realms, as well as in the study of the social sciences like psychology and sociology, and in the humanities. That is really the fundamental issue and this psalm deals directly with it.

It tells us that the knowledge of God has been written for us in two volumes, and that it takes both volumes to know God. There is the revelation in nature, and there is the revelation given in a Book, in the written Word. Both are essential to the knowledge and understanding of God. In the first part of this psalm the Psalmist, David, sets forth the book of nature:

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. (Psalms 19:1-4a RSV)

That is a declaration of the greatness of God as seen in the world of nature. No wonder these verses were referred to by the astronauts on their recent trip to the moon. Every night since time began the stars have come out. and they spell out to man the message of the power and the wisdom of God. This is becoming especially vivid today. We are starting to read some of the fine print in this book of nature. We have now been able to step outside the envelope of atmosphere which surrounds the earth and to see the stars in new glory, to see still more of the orderliness of the universe, of the procession of the heavenly bodies and of the marvelous mystery of gravitation which holds them in suspended balance, keeps the stars and planets in place with relationship to one another. All this is designed to speak of God and of his intelligence, wisdom, and power.

In the first verse the clarity, the plainness, of this revelation is underscored. Literally, "The heavens are 'narrating' the glory of God." They are telling forth a story which, when read, will reveal the glory of God. That is what they are for. And the firmament, i.e., the "stretched-out-ness" of space, the infinity of space, proclaims or "shouts about" his handiwork.

In Verse 2 the abundance of this revelation is emphasized:

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge. (Psalms 19:2 RSV)

The day pours out information about God and the night spreads the knowledge of God before us. In other words. truth about God is pouring in to us from all dimensions. if we only have our eyes open to see it. I never read this psalm without thinking of these words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God;
But only those who see take off their shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

It takes a seeing eye to perceive what God has said in nature, but that which can be seen is pouring out upon us. We have all felt this. This is why a hush falls upon a group of people who step out under the stars in a night sky, when the moon is riding high and the stars glow with glory. We feel the mystery of the infinite, reaching, calling out to our spirits, and a silence descends upon us. This is why men fall silent before the ebb and flow of the sea, as they sense the resistless, surging power of the sweeping tides. They understand something of the power of God in nature through that. This is why we feel a sense of loneliness and an intimation of infinity when we hear the wind howl, or we watch a storm rage, the thunder and lightning crashing around us. There is something of the voice of God which gets through to us on these occasions.

The Islamic prophet Mohammed wrote about the God whom he saw in nature, out in the sands of Arabia, back in the sixth century. This is perhaps the first time the Koran has been quoted from this platform:

The marvels of the starry heavens, the day that follows the night, the rain that gives life to the dead earth, the ship that sunders the sea, the bird that flies, the horse that gallops, the motionless rose and the still stone, the winds, the clouds, the fire, water, the glance of a woman, the smile of a child, the palm tree that bends, the date that ripens; here O believers are the proofs of the power of God. The trees sing of his power, flowers waft their perfume towards him. He is the Lord of the pink morning, the white noon, and the blue evening.

This is the way it ought to be. God has designed that nature should teach man of His being, of His power and wisdom.

Verses 3-4 declare the universality of this revelation:

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. (Psalms 19:3-4a RSV)

No men live anywhere who have not been exposed to this witness of God in nature. In the fourteenth chapter of Acts there is the account of how the apostle Paul and his traveling companion, Barnabas, came into a pagan city and were received as gods because they performed a miracle. The people thought they were Jupiter and Mercury and began to worship them. Paul and Barnabas stopped them and said, "Don't do that; we're nothing but men, just like you! But we have come to declare the true God unto you, the One who made heaven and earth. He does not need to dwell in temples of stone, and he rejects these idols. But he has not left himself without a witness among you. He has given you rain and food, has done good to you," (Acts 14:15-17). They were referring, of course, to the witness of nature, to its remarkable testimony that behind the universe which we see is a Designer, a Planner, a great and wise Being of infinite power and might.

Why is it that men do not get this message? Why is it obscured or distorted? In the next two verses the Psalmist uses the sun to give us a specific illustration of this testimony of nature:

  In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
  and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
  and its circuit to the end of them;
  and there is nothing hid from its heat. (Psalms 19:4b-6 RSV)

To the observer on earth the sun appears to go across the sky. And as men see it they are exposed to its testimony. But we know that somehow that testimony is clouded. Men do not see it clearly. Instead of seeing that the sun is the greatest symbol of God in nature, that just as the sun is needed to give light and strength to all living things on earth, so God is needed to give moral light and spiritual strength to men. Men have missed the message and instead of worshipping the God who made the sun, they worship the sun.

I have here a print of a famous painting by the great cowboy artist, Charles M. Russell. It shows the Sioux Indians facing the sun in the early morning and worshipping it. Why do men, especially children of nature like these Indians, worship the sun? Because the message which comes to us in nature is beclouded. Men do not understand it clearly. And, as a result, that which has been designed to teach the deity and the power of God is being missed, overlooked.

This is the great issue at stake in this whole controversy over creation and evolution, and is the reason why I am disturbed about it. I have no quarrel with scientists who want to come up with hypotheses as to the processes by which the universe was formed and life was developed. This is perfectly proper and is their sphere. The theory of evolution is an attempt at this, based upon certain types of evidence which have been construed to support it.

But what is so desperately wrong is that Darwinism, as it is largely taught in our schools and our popular communications media today, is a means of removing God from his creation. It is a means of teaching that this whole process just happened, apart from any exercise of creative intelligence. Thus the testimony of nature is rendered silent, and the message which God has designed it to speak to man is not heard, and man does not know that there is a God in the universe. That is why man thinks God is dead, if indeed he ever existed at all. Darwinism is one of the major reasons why that idea has seized upon the popular mind in our day.

Something is happening to us as a people because of that. In the first chapter of Romans the Apostle Paul says that men are exposed to the truth about God which is evident in creation, and they deliberately reject it. And, because they do, God lets certain things take place. Paul lists them for us. One is that because men do not like to retain God in their knowledge he gives them over to a reprobate mind, i.e., their thinking becomes distorted. This is what is producing the twisted applications of some of the discoveries of science, resulting in some of the tremendously complex, insoluble problems we are facing today.

Because men do not want to retain God in their knowledge, because there is this conspiracy of silence to eliminate God from his creation, because there is an unwillingness to acknowledge that God is in the laboratory, as well as in the church building or in the home, God gives men over to a demented science which produces not only helpful technological achievements but also those which blast and ruin us. Science and technology, once regarded as our benefactors, are now appearing to us more and more as our destroyers, having polluted the atmosphere, ravaged the forests, and destroyed many forms of life in various ways. Now they are confronting us with the possibility of the total pollution and destruction of our environment. This is the judgment of God upon a world which twists and distorts the revelation of nature.

Nature is designed to tell us not only how things happened but who is behind them. It is perfectly proper for a scientist to investigate the realm of nature. Man has made some wonderful discoveries about how God put things together. They are fascinating, exciting, opening up whole new vistas of life, and properly so. What is wrong is the attempt to exclude God from that realm and not to allow nature to carry us on to that end for which it was designed -- to bring us to an understanding that behind this universe, behind ourselves and the mystery of our own being, is the great intelligence and wisdom and power of a living God. That is why we feel so lost and lonely, alienated and forsaken in a mechanistic universe.

But the book of nature is only Volume 1. There is also another book, Volume 2, designed to answer the other pressing questions we humans ask: "Why? What is behind all this? What is the meaning of it all? Where are we headed, and why are we involved in this whole process? Nature can never answer those questions. That is why those who work exclusively in the realm of nature can never state a satisfactory purpose for life. Nature simply does not embody that knowledge. If this great, throbbing question, "Why?" is ever to be answered, the answer must come from the lips of God himself. So he has given us a Book, and now the Psalmist presses on to that. I n the next few verses he outlines for us the effect of the Word, the written revelation of God, and what it can do in human life:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
  reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
  making wise the simple;
the precepts 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 ordinances of the Lord are true,
  and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
  even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
  and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalms 19:7-11 RSV)

There is the resource of God designed for the inner life of man. Nature ministers to and feeds and strengthens and supports our outer life. But here is that which touches the inner life, makes for the conquest of that inner space which is so all-important to human life. The Psalmist takes its characteristics one by one and shows us what they can do.

First, "the law of the Lord." That is the widest term for all the written revelation God has given us. "The law of the Lord is perfect." It is complete, there is nothing left out. It is comprehensive, it does everything that we need it to do. There is no part of your life, no problem that you will ever face in your life, no question with which you will ever be troubled, that the Word of God does not speak to and illuminate and meet. So it is perfect, "reviving the soul." Remember that Jesus spoke of "rivers of living water" which would be available to buoy up the human spirit and to meet its need. This is exactly what the Word of God is designed to do for us.

Second, "the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." Sure means "dependable, reliable." You can count upon this word to be true. Therefore you do not need to know a lot about everything else. The Word of God is not against knowledge; it is only against knowledge which does not begin at the right place. But even if you do not have a lot of knowledge, even if you are "simple" in terms of education you can still be made wise by trusting Scripture because it is sure, it is reliable. That is why we are exhorted:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight. (Proverbs 3:5 RSV)

There is a way which seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25 RSV)

You can be deluded and deceived by some of these alluring, gossamer-like philosophies which float around today, suggesting, for example, that pleasure is the reason for which you exist, that to enjoy yourself is the supreme object in life, that anything you do toward that end is right. But the Word of God says, "No, that is not right!" God is the One who ultimately will give pleasure. It will be beyond anything you ever dreamed. But to follow pleasure for pleasure's sake is the way of death, and it will lead you on to that. The testimony, the Word, is sure.

Then, "the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart." Do you not rejoice in your heart to know that you are right about something? When you get into a controversy with somebody and he argues with you but you have the solid assurance that you are right -- what a feeling! Well, that is the way it is with the Word of God. The glorious thing about this Book is that when the story is all told, when everything is said and done it will all end up just as it is written here. This Book is right, it is the way things really are.

And, "the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes." The charge is sometimes made that the Bible is a dirty book because it speaks of incest and adultery and fornication and perversions like homosexuality and other ugly things. It also speaks of malice and bitterness and is filled with slaughter and bloodshed. It is often described as an immoral book, and there have been attempts to classify it with some of the immoral and obscene literature which is so widely abroad today.

But there is one great difference. It is true that the Bible contains these things, because it is a realistic book which deals with life as it is. But the one great difference is that it never shows evil as though it were good. It never makes adultery look attractive. It always looks like what it really ends up to be -- sordid and shameful. And it never makes homosexuality appear to be inconsequential. It reveals it to be a terrible distortion of human nature, and reveals that those engaged in it are pathetic beings who need to be prayed for and helped and delivered from the clutch of its awful hold over them, which is destroying their manhood or their womanhood. It is pure, enlightening the eyes, showing you the truth. That is what David has found.

Also, "the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever." The word "fear" is sometimes read as though it meant cowering in terror before some awful being who is about to strike you dead. But that is not what this means at all. It means respect, honest respect for God. That, says the Psalmist, is clean, and it will keep you clean, too. It is "enduring for ever." Once you enter into the fear of the Lord in its rightful sense you find that this produces a quality of life which keeps you from defiling yourself.

Then he sums them all up: "the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether." They are also wealth-producing, enriching, "more to be desired than gold," he goes on to say. And they are wonderfully pleasant, marvelously pleasure-producing:

...sweeter also than honey
  and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalms 19:10b-11 RSV)

You might say, "I don't see these things in the Bible. I read my Bible and it's supposed to do that for you, but when I read it I don't find these things." Do you know why'? The Psalmist will help us with this, too. We need to notice as we go through this list that when David talks about various aspects of revelation he always uses the phrase, "of the Lord." The law "of the Lord," the testimony " of the Lord," the precepts "of the Lord," the commandment "of the Lord" -- all the way through.

This, of course, means that these aspects in themselves are not what we need; they are channels by which we find the Lord. It is he who does all these wonderful things for us. It is the Lord who forgives and revives and cleanses and enlightens and makes us to rejoice. It is God, it is the Lord Jesus. And as we find him in the pages of Scripture these wonderful things happen to us.

The only things which can interfere are given in the next few verses. David asks,

But who can discern his errors? (Psalms 19:12a RSV)

That is the problem. If you cannot read the book of nature, or you cannot read the book of the Word, it is not because there is anything wrong with the book. It is the reader who is the problem. "Who can discern his errors?" What a question that is! It indicates that we are all victims of hidden failure in our lives. If we examine ourselves we usually look fine. The book of Judges says that at times in that period of Israel's history "...every man did what was right in his own eyes." That permitted just about anything, and the resulting chaos was terrible.

Everybody thinks that what he does is right. We cannot see our own errors. Yet these errors, these twists, these distortions of attitude and thought, are constantly affecting us so that we cannot see truth the way it is. We do not understand it in nature and we do not understand it in the Word. Therefore we desperately need to be delivered from hidden errors. In the New Testament the Apostle Peter says,

So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander.[Then you will be]like newborn babes[who] long for the pure spiritual milk[of the Word], that by it you may grow up to salvation. (1 Peter 2:1-2 RSV)

That is what is wrong, that is what hinders our desire for the Word -- these hidden errors. The Psalmist faces the fact that something is wrong with the reader. So he concludes this Psalm with a wonderful prayer:

Clear[or cleanse] thou me from hidden faults,
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins;
  let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
  and innocent of great transgression. (Psalms 19:12b-13 RSV)

"Cleanse thou me from hidden faults." Is that your prayer? Do you know what will happen when you pray that way? You might think that God will take a sponge and wipe around inside you so you will not even know what those hidden faults were. But God does not do that. His way of dealing with hidden faults is either to send somebody to point them out to you or to bring them out through some circumstance in which you are suddenly confronted with what you have done or said and you find that it is ugly and you do not like it. That is the way God cleanses us from hidden faults. He opens up the secret places.

Usually he does it through other people because, as God well knows, we cannot see ourselves but other people can see us. These faults are hidden to us but not to others. They see them very plainly. And we can see their hidden faults better than they can. You know that you can see the faults of somebody you are thinking about right now, better than they can. You say, "I don't see how they can be so blind." Well, someone is thinking that very same way about you. We do not see ourselves. That is why it is always proper to say, "Lord, cleanse thou me from hidden faults. Help me to see myself through the eyes of a friend who loves me enough to tell me the truth."

And then "Keep me back from presumptuous sins." Presumptuous sins are those in which you are confident that you have what it takes to do what God wants. Self-confidence is presumption. God never asks us to do anything on that basis. If we depend upon ourselves we are acting presumptuously, and any activity which stems from self-confidence is a presumptuous sin. "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." For me to act as though there is anything that I can contribute is to be guilty of this kind of sin. The cure for this is dependence upon the activity of God in you as a believer. So David is praying, "Lord, keep me back from this kind of activity. Let me realize that without you I can do nothing. Help me to depend upon you to work through me. Then I will be blameless and innocent of great transgression."

Then he closes with these often-quoted words which are so wonderfully, marvelously penetrating that we should say them together this morning as our closing prayer:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
  be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalms 19:14 RSV)

"Let the words of my mouth what I say, and the meditation of my heart -- what I think, be the kind of words and thoughts that have sat under the judgment of your word, Father, reflecting the instruction, the light, and the love of your heart, so that what I am, both inside and outside -- be acceptable before you." That is a wonderful prayer, is it not? That is what opens the books. When you pray that kind of prayer before you read either the book of the Word or the book of nature, then you will find that God will speak to you in a marvelous way.

I think of George Washington Carver, that brilliant scientist who was such a warm-hearted, humble Christian. He came to God and said, "Lord, there are so many secrets in the universe. Please show me your secrets." God said, "The universe is too big for you. I want you to take a peanut and start with that." And so George Washington Carver prayerfully began to investigate the mysteries of the peanut. He discovered over 150 new uses for it and thereby revolutionized the technology of the South. He was a tremendous benefactor to mankind, and was especially a blessing to the Negro people, because he began with this prayer:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalms 19:14 RSV)

Prayer:

Thank you, Father, for this word of instruction to our own hearts and lives. We pray that we may follow through on this truth and live in the humble understanding that you have revealed yourself to us, Lord. Let us be ready to listen and see, ready to search and find out and discover. We ask in your name, Amen.

Title: Opening the Books Author: Ray C. Stedman
Series:Folksongs of Faith Date:January 25, 1970
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