Three Books/Psalm 19

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During the French Revolution, one revolutionary said to a peasant: “I will have all your steeples pulled down, that you may no longer have any object by which you may be reminded of your old superstitions.” “But,” replied the peasant, “you cannot help leaving us the stars.” It is not possible, by any device, to silence the voice of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork . . .” (Ps. 19:1-14).

This could be called the psalm of the three books. The first is the book of the heavens (vv. 1-6). The second is the book of the law (vv. 7-11). The third is the book of the conscience (vv. 8-14)—which, like the other two, remains necessarily sealed unless God opens it. And so we must consider, in sequence, the sky, the Scriptures, and the secrets of the heart. Again, without the work of God’s Spirit, we can only stare stupidly at all three.

The heavens are not silent. God reveals His glory through the created order. The heavens show off His artistry. It has been well said that an impious astromomer is a madman. Paul tells us in Romans that the created order reveals who God is, leaving all men without an excuse.

The heavens speak their wisdom—the heavens above are not silent (v. 1). They declare and show. Such wisdom accumulates—each day speaks, and each night demonstrates (v. 2). The lessons have been piling up, without intermission, for thousands of years. The wisdom is universal—a German and a Chinese cannot speak to each other, but the stars can speak to both of them. There is no place in the world where this language is unspoken (vv. 3-4). The sky contains wisdom’s ornament—the central object in the heavens is the sun. He comes out of his tabernacle like a bridegroom out of his chamber (v. 5). The sun stretches out and jogs in place like a great athlete preparing to run a glorious race (v. 5). He runs the whole race, and nothing remains unblessed by his heat (v. 6).

We must understand both music and metaphor. What God declares in creation cannot be inconsistent with what He declares in His Word. We have no sympathy with those who say that “all truth is God’s truth” and who then use this phrase to justify setting aside the clear teaching of Scripture for the sake of indulging humanistic speculations about creation. The problem is not that the book of creation speaks falsely, but rather that proud men interpreting it are illiterate and are holding their primers upside down.

Rather than separating the two books, we can see that the wisdom of the created order is a metaphor for the much more glorious revelation of God found in Scripture. We can say this for two reasons. The first is the way the imagery of the poem works. The shift between v. 6 and v. 7 is not a lurch. The heavens declare glory . . . and the law declares the same glorious God. The second reason is that Paul quotes v. 4 of this psalm (Rom. 10:16-18), and applies it to the gospel. Thus we should not divorce what God has joined together.

Another striking thing is the light that Paul’s citation throws on the meaning of “their line has gone out through all the earth.” He quotes the LXX, which rendered line as sound. The most plausible interpretation of this is that the line is the string of a musical instrument. The heavens communicate glory in much the same way that music does. The fact that it is non-verbal does not mean that it is unable to communicate.

The Word of God is always sweet to the humble man. To the converted man, the law is perfect—the soul is rejuvenated, converted, made right, by the law of God (v. 7). The testimony of the law is sure—the ark of the covenant, containing the ten commandments, was called the ark of testimony. These ten words are sure, and make simple men wise (v. 7). The statutes are right—and a joy to the heart (v. 8). Pride brings condemnation; humility brings joy. The commandment is pure—the eyes are enlightened by this means (v. 8). God gives understanding this way. The fear of the Lord is clean—given the parallelism, this is no doubt referring to those portions of the law which require fear of God. This kind of God-fearing worship is clean, and it cleanses. Not only so, but it endures forever (v. 9). The judgments are true—nothing is wrong with God’s applications of His own law (v. 9).

All of it is priceless and sweet—the laws of God, in all their forms, are like refined gold. They are like honey which drips, unpressed, from the honeycomb (v. 10). And the idea of covenant blessing and cursing is not repulsive to the one who understands them. The psalm speaks of warning and reward—the servant of God is warned away from sin by this means. And God rewards him (v. 11).

The third place where the ways of God can be read (if God gives insight) is in the conscience. Note the introduction to David’s teaching here on the progression of sin. Who can understand his own errors? It is a rhetorical question, with the expected answer of “no one” (v. 12). And here is the progression: David asks that God would cleanse him from secret faults—things deep within himself that he does not know about. A man can be upright and need cleansing in this respect. In fact, all upright men know that they need this. David assumes this. He then asks to be prevented from presumptuous sins; if such high-handed sins do not have dominion over him, then he can be upright (v. 13). If God grants this request, then David will be spared from the great transgression (v. 13). If such a prayer is not offered to God, note the growth: secret sin, presumptuous sin, great sin. David concludes by asking God to make his words and meditations acceptable to Himself (v. 14). Note the assumption about God’s sovereignty in sanctification. God alone is our strength and redeemer.

What are we to conclude in this? We need to ask ourselves how it is with our conscience. Have we tolerated the progress of any sinful cancer in our hearts? When we look in the mirror of creation, or the mirror of God’s holy law, do we screw our eyes shut—denying that there could be secret sin, sinning presumptuously, and then heading for the great transgression? The end of this kind of thing will be nothing but confusion of face.

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