The heavens proclaim God’s glory

the Horsehead nebula
The ‘horsehead’ nebula

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘The heavens proclaim God’s glory’ by Martin Leckebusch. A setting of Psalm 19, set in the book to a tune called ‘Stand up’, though John used the tune ‘Morning Light’ better known to the words ‘Stand up, Stand up for Jesus’. The three verses reflect the three parts of the psalm.

The first verse covers probably one of the best known of all passages in the psalms, “The heavens proclaim God’s glory, the skies sing out in praise”.  The passage of day and night, the movement of stars and planets, has always fascinated humankind and been seen as evidence of a powerful creator.  Contemporary understanding of the immense (possibly infinite) size of the universe and the features ancient people could not have imagined such as the ongoing formation of stars and galaxies, black holes, and so forth, have not lessened that sense of awe. The intellectual debate about whether the complexity or even existence of a stable universe is random, or a necessary result of the conditions at its beginning, or truly evidence of intelligent design, will probably never be resolved, but for those who have faith, we can still praise God for all this.

The second verse is about God’s laws, and the benefits to the individual of obeying them. This move from the stars and planets to the moral law may seem illogical, but I think it would have seemed logical to the author, for whom the planets were obeying God’s instructions just as much as he exhorted people to do. The message is, that if we go along with what God has determined to be the way for us to live, we will find it the way of happiness.  Just as the planets have to make no effort to continue in the course that God (or gravity) determines for them, so it should be effortless for us to live a good life.

The last part of the psalm then explains why this is not so.  “Forgive my secret failures, the faults I do not know; from wilful sins protect me, the ways I should not go”. The human tendency is to err from God’s ways, even if we don’t always know when we are doing so.  Like an asteroid that breaks free from its orbit and heads towards the sun or another planet, we may up harming ourselves and other heavenly bodies.  We need God’s help to put us back on the correct course.

This reflection is not, of course, meant to be good astronomy, or even good theology.  But perhaps it might get us a bit closer to what the writer of the psalm had in mind.

1 thought on “The heavens proclaim God’s glory”

  1. To me, the most important thing that Psalm 19 is saying is that although the heavens – and the other amazing aspects of nature, including the microscopic – declare the glory of God, this declaration only goes so far, and to get a better measure of what God is like we need to turn to what he has revealed about himself in his word, the pages of scripture, and (as their culmination) his Word as himself coming to dwell among us. There’s an essential progression from v1-6 to v7-12 of the Psalm.

    I thought this metrical version of the Psalm was very well crafted: Martin did a fine job of confining the essences of the psalm’s observations into three verses to reflect its overall structure, and I was particularly impressed that he managed to make the third verse substantial enough to occupy the whole verse (whereas in the Psalm the third section is much shorter than the others). It was a pleasure to sing it.

    On the tune – I chose “Morning Light” partly for ease of playing and singing it (I had toothache, and couldn’t give the concentration needed for a new tune) and partly because I felt an unfamiliar tune would simply take the viewers’ attention away from the words which merited appreciation. But “Morning Light” uses a lot of high notes, and maybe on a future occasion I would use a different tune (or transpose “Morning Light” lower).

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