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Psalm 19 "The Elegant Universe"
Scott Hoezee


It was exactly 100 years ago in 1905 when an unknown patent clerk named Albert Einstein published a series of papers detailing what he called "special relativity." In one fell swoop, Einstein shattered centuries' worth of scientific theories about the fundamental nature of reality. The theories of Isaac Newton and his mechanical understanding of the universe's functioning were swept away, getting replaced by a whole new way to view the cosmos: quantum physics. In the years that followed, Einstein's disciples like Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger would further quantum theory in remarkable ways. By 1950 the scientific community saw the world in a whole new way.

And Albert Einstein was very unhappy about it all! The man who got the quantum ball rolling did not like the results. Because as it turns out, at the very tiniest level of atoms and electrons, the universe does not behave the way you might think. Particles of energy can move from here to there without going in between. Light acts like both a wave and a particle and it displays these opposite characteristics simultaneously. Two atoms that had been kept in close proximity to one another get entangled in one another, developing a kind of bond that defies the imagination. Even if you take one atom to a laboratory in Los Angeles and move the other one to a lab in New York, whatever you do to the atom in L.A. will instantly happen to the other atom in New York.

Say you had a pair of identical twins named Jill and Jane Smith. If Jill and Jane were like atoms, you could take Jill to Chicago and bring Jane up to Traverse City. But if in Chicago you poke Jill in the arm with a needle, instantly in Traverse City Jane's arm would start to bleed, too! This really happens with atoms. Einstein's technical term for it was "spooky," but he didn't like this spookiness one bit.

Quantum mechanics revealed a universe that seems to have a lot of chance and randomness built into it. But the world we can see with our eyes isn't jumpy like that. What we can see around us in the movement of the moon and the stars is more straightforward. Einstein believed that what we see with our eyes and what physicists see through their microscopes had to jive, had to go together. He couldn't accept a universe that had any randomness in it. "Gott würfelt nicht," he said: "God does not play dice."

The author of Psalm 19 would agree. Psalm 19 is one of the Bible's most elegant of all poems. The psalmist moves from the majesty of the universe to the splendor of God's law. At first glance, it looks like the writer really shifted gears between verses 6 and 7. After six verses devoted to the sun, moon, and stars, all of a sudden the law of God bursts onto the scene. It looks like a big shift but there is actually a tight linkage.

The connection has to do with both the beauty and the orderliness of the heavens. Everything we see throughout the physical creation is the glorious work of an ingenious Creator God. The stars that twinkle, the sun that shines, the clouds that scud through brilliantly blue noonday skies all bear witness to the grandeur of the God who fashioned each and every one of those remarkable things. To those with ears to hear, whole oratorios of praise to God are being sung constantly. The universe is like one giant opera house that features a never-ending production of lyric melodies, achingly beautiful arias, and soaring crescendos of joy to the Creator.

To the psalmist, the splendor of stars and sunshine point to a God who is very clever, exceedingly wise, and finally good. God has been so very generous in sharing this universe of wonders with the rest of us. God wants us to enjoy the variety of splendors he made. We should count ourselves as profoundly blessed just to have the ability to see it all. John Calvin once said that the reason God created us to walk on two feet instead of going around on all fours like an animal is precisely so that we can stand tall, lift up our heads, and see the stars above.

God didn't want us to miss the glories of creation. So he gave us eyes to see creation's glories and ears to hear its chorus of praise. He gave us tastebuds and a sense of smell to enable us to enjoy wine and food. He gave us minds capable of taking note of all that we experience in the world. Humans made in God's image are, so far as we know, the only beings who are able to reach beyond themselves to enjoy otherness. We take delight in paying attention to creatures unlike ourselves.

White-tail deer in a Michigan forest don't keep a running list of the different birds they encounter. But we human beings keep such lists all the time. We fill whole libraries with books that catalogue every conceivable kind of prairie grass, bird, tropical fish, flower, tree, and star. We love taking note of beings that are not like us. We're born curious, as the parent of any two- or three-year-old can tell you. "What's that? Why is the sky blue and grass green? What do worms do down there in the dirt? Hey, Daddy, let's stop to watch this ant hill for an hour or so!"

The heavens declare the glory of God in a universal language that needs no translation from German into Dutch, from Farsi into Japanese. It's a universal tongue whose grammar and vocabulary are intelligible to anyone willing to listen. When you view the universe this way, then you start to trust any God capable of making such wonders. What's more, you take joy in any God who so obviously wants the rest of us to enjoy the universe the same way he does. He cares for us. He's invested in our lives.

Of course, there are always those who look through telescopes at distant wonders, who learn how outrageously vast the universe is, who look at our own Milky Way galaxy and its mind-boggling 100 billion stars and they then conclude, "Obviously, we human beings are nothing. We're a galactic footnote so tiny, so insignificant, even if there is a God out there somewhere, he'd have to strain to see our puny little planet, much less take note of any individual person on this cosmic speck we call the earth!"

The psalmist will have none of that. The wonder of God is that he is at once the Creator of splendors that dwarf us and also the tender God who loves each person and calls each by name. God does know we exist and so has given laws, rules, commands, ordinances, statutes, and wise ideas to help us make our lives as comfortable and productive and safe and happy as possible. Any God who can create the universe can be trusted to give us the straight scoop when it comes to rules that will help us get along better in the very world God himself made.

So the psalmist is not changing the subject or shifting gears between verses 6 and 7. Instead he's following a consistent line of thought: creation teaches us that we serve a great, good, and reliable God. This same God has given us a roadmap for life, and so we follow that map with the joyous assurance that he will not lead us down the wrong paths.

God's ways are said to be perfect and soul-refreshing. They are reliable and can make even the simplest person as wise as a genius. What God recommends is flat out the right thing to do and you sense this when you find God's ways bringing joy to your heart. God's commands are radiant, they fairly shine with the splendor of truth and so provide illumination for the road ahead. God's law helps you pick your way through a dark world the same way your car's headlights enable you to drive on a highway after sunset.

This morning we come to the end of our recent look at the Ten Commandments as they are taught to us in the Catechism. The tenth commandment is technically on the matter of coveting. To covet something means you see something that is not yours but you wish it were. You assume your life would be better if you had a car like that one that Jerry drives. You conclude that all your troubles would be over if you could have a job like that one that Marlene has. If only your kids got along as well as the Johnson kids seem to, if only your house were a little larger, your waistline a little thinner, your hairline a little thicker, then life would be grand. Coveting is the "If only . . ." state of mind.

Generally speaking, being covetous can be a silent, invisible phenomenon. You might well be the most covetous person around but it won't necessarily lead to any obviously bad behaviors. What it will do, however, is make you very, very unhappy. You will be unhappy living in the world God gave to you as a gift to enjoy. You will be dissatisfied, not grateful; restless, not settling into the joy of your heavenly Father.

The Catechism does with the tenth commandment what a lot of commentaries on the Ten Commandments have done over the centuries; namely, it makes coveting a catch-all category for our every tendency to skirt God's laws. The problem with wanting something you don't have is that there is virtually no end to the ways this restless wanting can lead you astray. Coveting can be a silent, invisible matter but it can also lead to stealing, it can lead you to an adulterous affair, it can lead you to lie, it can lead you to a furious pace of life that will ignore the Sabbath, it can lead you, in short, to break all the other laws God ever gave.

But even when you don't break any other laws, the core problem with coveting is that it slays your joy. In the context of Psalm 19, it could be fairly alleged that a main problem with being endlessly dissatisfied with life is that you can't notice anymore the glories of creation. You lose your ability to hear the music of the spheres. And once you lose sight of that larger beauty in the world, you also lose your ability to see that in following God's ways, you are on a path that leads to joy, to repose, to holiness.

It goes without saying that we live in a society that seems almost to depend on coveting. The advertising industry is highly skilled at keeping us in a perpetual state of wanting. Day after day Madison Avenue pours forth speech, and night after night in TV ad after TV ad we receive into our hearts whole boatloads of designer dissatisfaction. But our perpetual state of wanting short-circuits our ability to be thankful for what we already have. It also makes us deaf to creation's choir, to the music all around us all the time.

If you travel by airplane these days, you can't help but be struck by how many of the very consumer goods that advertisers are forever telling us we simply must have involve things that plug into our ears. I-pods provide endless hours of your favorite music. Individual DVD players let you watch movies wherever you go even as GameBoys and the recently released portable PlayStation allow you to immerse yourself in endless hours of videogames. But almost all of these devices involve headsets to block out all else. This is a kind of metaphor for modern life: we can't hear creation's song anymore because we're too busy listening to other things as proffered to us by our technological age and the so-called "good life" that such amenities help to define. We keep desiring what we don't have and it blocks out all else. But it's always been this way.

A traditional line of interpretation of Genesis 3 claims that the first sin of the human race was not, as we often hear, pride but coveting. In order to make Eve take the forbidden fruit, the serpent first had to make her want something. The serpent in Eden never said that the fruit in question would be juicier or tastier than any other food. He didn't try to make Eve rebel against the very notion of having to live with some rules in life. Instead he pointed to some knowledge that could be gained, and once Eve found herself desiring that, once she became convinced she was lacking something, it was a cinch that she would soon reach for that forbidden fruit.

Of course, the irony is that Eve lived in Paradise. She already "had it all." The fact that the devil was able to make her restless even there is chilling. If even in Eden people were vulnerable to desiring more than they already had, the rest of us who now live east of Eden can be well-assured that this temptation remains a strong one against which we struggle constantly. Then again, if it seems ridiculous to us to think about someone in Paradise becoming restless for more, just think of how equally ridiculous it is for us to feel this way considering the vast blessings we have. Most of us, much of the time, are neck-deep in blessing. Yet still we covet, still we hanker for more.

The tenth and last commandment is God's subtle way of calling us to cultivate more than just outward morality. As we come to the end of this list of ten rules, this last rule reminds us that it's not enough to make sure we outwardly keep the other nine laws. It's not enough to worship the true God alone and keep ourselves from taking his name in vain. It's not enough to keep the Sabbath and honor our parents. It's not enough to avoid outward acts of murder, adultery, theft, and lying. All of those rules are vital to life and to its flourishing, of course. These are the ways we must live. These are the commands of our God more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.

But above all else, this last commandment tells us that we need to cultivate and nourish inner gratitude, peace, and repose. We need in our heart of hearts a deep sense of satisfaction with all that God has provided for us in this beautiful cosmos. We need to hear the stars singing for joy, the trees clapping their hands in praise and then join in on that chorus every single day of our lives.

Psalm 19 concludes with the hope that not just the words of our mouths but also the meditations of our hearts will be pleasing to our Creator and Redeemer God. The last word here is "Redeemer," which clamps the whole psalm together. We began with creation and end with redemption. We began with a vision of the orderliness of God's cosmos and now conclude with a vision of God's having saved all that he made. We live in not just an elegant universe but in a redeemed one. Hope is everywhere.

When we began this morning, we talked about Einstein's dislike of a universe that seemed a little jumpy and unpredictable at the level of the very small. He wanted a grand unification theory, a theory of everything, that could unite the whole universe. Einstein never found his theory of everything before he died, and science still doesn't understand what ties the universe together. We still have no clue why atoms in distant places can communicate with one another.

But I am convinced that Einstein was right: God doesn't play dice. Whatever holds reality together, it does hold. It does make sense. It is our joy as believers in God to know this is so. He who is the Creator of a cosmos that still sings his praises has lately become the cosmic Redeemer through Jesus Christ the Lord. He has already given us so much and shown us how to live to enjoy those gifts to the fullest. The ways of our God are right and altogether precious. When you know that, you join the psalmist in calling God not just your Redeemer but your Rock. A rock is something on which you can rest, something you can lean upon and rely on. It's an image of stability, peace, and satisfaction--the very satisfied peace and joy our God desires for every one of us. Amen.