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On Obedience and Butterflies (Psalm 19)

5 October, 2009

corcpicsmallThis is a revision of a post from 2007, here.

Psalm 19 is such a great psalm. We all know the opening lines:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.

I had always assumed this to be a simple affirmation of the creative power of God, and evidence of his design and creation of the world–something that gives the righteous fodder for praise, and leaves the wicked without excuse. And of course these things are true, but why does Psalm 19 seem to completely shift gears in the middle? It talks about the heat of the sun, and all of a sudden comes:

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.

Why the change from the glorious display of the Creator’s works to the perfection of his law? Why move from mountains and butterflies to Torah? Because the first half of the Psalm, like the second half, is an exaltation of and exhortation to obedience to the holy will of God. The created order declares the glory of God, not only or even chiefly by its beauty or complexity, or the evidence of a Designer it offers, although these things have their place. But foundationally it declares God’s glory by constant and complete conformity to the covenant Lord of creation. That’s why, when the psalmist turns to the law and its perfection, and eventually comes to look at himself, he concludes with regard to himself:

Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me.

In light of the natural world’s perfect obedience to its Creator, our own rebelliousness stands out all the more; not only the stars and the Sun, but every insect that flutters by in seeming randomness is perfectly obedient to the will of its God at every moment. Butterflies obey God perfectly. Where does that leave us? We are the high point of God’s creation and the bearers of his image, those who were created to be in covenant fellowship with our good God, created to lead the praises of all creation, whose voices were to make audible the songs of the rivers and mountains — who instead transgress his will every day of our lives. Instead of boldly leading the creational worship of our covenant God, answering back to him in blessed harmony, we cower hiding in the bushes in silence toward God’s calling, or worse, actively attempt to shout him down with scorn as we heap praise upon ourselves.

This is where the end of the psalm rings clear for everyone who recognizes this rebelliousness in their own heart, in the clear light of the condemning witness of the creation praise that we’ve abdicated: if God will only “acquit” and “keep back” his servant from the sinfulness of his own heart,

Then I will be blameless, and I shall be acquitted of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.

The psalmist understood the righteous requirements of God’s law against him as a sinner, and the perfect obedience that alone is acceptable in the sight of our holy God, so that even the natural world would speak against us night and day. That is why the psalmist appeals to the tender mercy of God to acquit him, not to nullify God’s holiness, but that God would be the Redeemer on his behalf — that he would be acquitted by the very One against whom he rebels. Only then does his relationship to the law of God’s righteousness change (v v. 7-11), because in the Book of the Law itself he found refuge in the promised coming of the Righteous One.

The bottom line is that the psalmist, as we Christians must today, trusted in God himself to provide salvation in a way that maintains the righteous obedience to his law that he requires, in order to restore us to our proper place at the head of the creation which does not flee in silence, but comes before the Lord our Maker in thankful praise. That faithful Man who is head of all redeemed creation is Jesus Christ. Although it doesn’t say anything about butterflies directly, Heidelberg 60 still says it best:

How are you right with God? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.

  1. 6 October, 2009 2:04 pm

    “why does Psalm 19 seem to completely shift gears in the middle?”

    I don’t think it was a complete shift. Rather, I think that the Psalmist wanted a comparison to be made between creation and the law. Both creation and the law reveal God, His greatness, His works, and His glory.

    Romans 1:20 states: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

    Man has both creation and the law which both reveal God’s eternal power and divine nature, so they are without excuse.

    In addition, both creation and the law are used by God to bring warnings and rewards. Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

  2. 15 October, 2009 12:08 am

    you’ll make a great preacher bro

  3. 15 October, 2009 5:23 pm

    Dear Phil (chaos):

    You are talking about Brannan (creed)? Right?!

    You had my heart fluttering (is that a word?) for a second by your unaddressed comment following my comment (“you’ll make a great preacher bro”). 🙂

    Yours truly,

  4. 15 October, 2009 5:41 pm

    Dear Bill, you’re a funny man, other bro.

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