By Walter Fenton
Like many people these days, my wife and I cancelled our vacation plans. We were hoping to hike in the Colorado mountains where we enjoy the cool air, the cold mountain lakes, the deep blue sky during the day and the star filled sky at night. Sometimes when we gaze at the magnificent vistas in the mountains we cannot keep from recalling that line from Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God.”
Since we spend much of our time working indoors, when we are hiking in the mountains it is easy to embrace a romanticized view of God’s creation: it is benevolent, it is where we go to re-create ourselves, and to find refuge from the confines of an office. And since nearly all of our treks into the mountains have been exhilarating and restorative we sort of get the temptation of panentheism: believing God and creation are so inextricably inter-related that it is in creation where God really meets us, where he really reveals himself to us and shines forth in all his majesty.
But I did say nearly all of our hikes have been exhilarating and restorative. On one hike we found ourselves well above tree line and in the midst of a powerful thunderstorm. The claps of thunder were booming and ground to sky lightening threatened all around us. It was not a restorative experience, and it was only exhilarating in the sense that it bordered on terrifying.
It was potent reminder that if God only or principally reveals himself to us in creation we might be able to conclude he is omnipotent, omnipresent, and perhaps even omniscient, but that would be about it. And our experience of such a god would be one of capriciousness: benevolent conditions one day, and conditions to destroy us the next. In this case, the only lines that would be true about God in Psalm 19 would be those awe-inducing lines that remind us of creation’s great expanse and yet its inability to tell us much about God’s relationship with us and his intentions for us:
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 (Psalm 19.4 NRSV).
To be sure, the words are majestic, but if that were all the psalmist had to say about God, it would leave us attempting to discern God’s plans for us by trying to discern “knowledge” about God via a creation where we are unable to hear the “speech” and “words” it is declaring. Again, we might deduce that a god who speaks only through the marvels of his creation is mighty and powerful, but we would probably also conclude he is distant from us, and perhaps not even interested in us.
However, there are two parts to Psalm 19, and in the longer second part the psalmist bears witness to the goodness of God’s law. To describe God’s law, he uses several biblical synonyms for it: decrees, precepts, commandments, and ordinances. But whatever word he uses for it they all amount to the same thing: God’s law is perfect, it revives the soul, it makes wise the simple, it rejoices the heart and it enlightens the eyes. And most importantly, it is knowledge and wisdom that comes to us from God in words and speech we can understand.
For the ancient Israelites, God’s law demonstrates his interest in us, his intentions for us, and even his profound care for us. Just as God ordered creation according to his own divine plan, so God’s revelation of the law brings the gift of order to human society. Therefore, it is to be praised and admired as a gracious gift. And when it is followed it creates the conditions for shalom, the well-being of all people, including the orphan, the widow and the alien. It is ultimately an expression of God’s love for his people. First revealed to our ancient ancestors, and then passed on by countless others, the goodness of God’s law informs how we are to live together in societies marked by justice, righteousness, and peace today.
We have become so familiar with and dependent upon a society grounded in law that it is easy for us to take it for granted, or even worse, abuse it, fail to protect it, or allow for miscarriages of it. But when we see societies where the law is abused or where it breaks down completely, nihilism reigns and the will to power has no regard for justice, righteousness, and peace.
When we read the story of God’s giving of the law in Exodus, we remember that the people were frightened by the thunder and lightning on the mountain. God, revealed to them in creation, frightened them, so they bid Moses to serve as their intercessor between God and themselves. And in doing so the Israelites remind us that God’s revelation is most fruitfully manifested to us not in the pyrotechnics of a mountain storm or even a supernova exploding in space, but rather in his words to us, in the gracious gift of his law that creates communities of righteousness and peace where people and creation can flourish.
We Christians confess that we come to know God through the words of the Bible given first to his chosen people, and then to his holy Church, and above all, through the Word — Jesus Christ. And the three are inextricably bound together. In the Bible, through the Word, and in the community of faith, God reveals himself to us. And all the glories of creation would not help us at all without any one of them.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.