"How God Speaks”Dr. Stephen Clyborne Psalm 19 Year C: The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Do you ever wish that God would just speak to us audibly and dramatically as God seems to have spoken to some of the characters in the Bible? “Go here, do this, do not do that, make this choice, go in that direction . . .” Life would be so much easier if God would just speak that clearly to us. I say that, and yet I have to confess that I’m never quite sure what to make of those people who claim to have heard God speak.
For some reason, it is easier for me to accept that God spoke audibly in Biblical times than it is for me to believe that God speaks that way now. Maybe that’s because I have never heard God speak audibly myself, or maybe it is because, through the years, I have been burned more than once by someone who began a conversation with me by saying, “God told me to tell you this . . .” What follows is almost never good for me.
I hear some people talk as if God tells them every move to make – – what kind of cereal to buy, how to invest their money, and even what to wear. And sometimes it feels like I can’t get God to say a word to me. But I do believe God speaks. And I believe I have heard God speak.
Psalm 19 is a poem about how God speaks. In fact, it appears to have been two hymns originally. Verses 1-6 and verses 7-14 appear in Hebrew to be so different in style, vocabulary and rhythm that many scholars have concluded that they are actually two separate poem by two different authors, or two intentionally different poems by the same author.
But both hymns center around the theme of God’s revelation, which is probably why the two hymns were combined. The first poem extols the revelation of God in creation; the second, the revelation of God in God’s word. The first revolves around God’s non-verbal communication; the second around God’s verbal communication.
The poet of verses 1-6 had seen the presence of God in the heavens; the poet of verses 7-14 had known God’s presence in God’s word and in his reflection on it. The first poem reflects a sensitivity to God’s revelation in the majesty and glory of the soundless music of the heavens; the second poem reflects a sensitivity to God as expressed in ideas and the concise expression of them.
It is what theologians have called general and special revelation. General revelation refers to the general truths that can be known about God through nature and creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the psalmist wrote, “and the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.”
According to this poem, God actually speaks silently in the grandeur of the universe. The order, intricacy, and wonder of creation speak to the existence of a powerful and glorious Creator. This poem reflects a continuing account, a kind of heavenly commentary, which keeps unfolding new wonders and dimensions of God’s being and activity.
Our choir often sings an anthem that says, in part, “The whole world resounds with the grandeur of God. The world is a wonderful symphony of praise.” That is why, in writing to the Romans, Paul made the argument that even people who have had no other revelation of God can hear God speak in the silent majesty of creation enough to respond in faith to God.
The psalmist here makes the claim that God’s creative power and glory are clearly understood in what has been made. Day after day bubbles forth a knowledge no one day can contain, and night after night disseminates even more knowledge. And all of this communication from God is non-verbal, without speech and without words. The grandeur and glory of God have been revealed to all people at all times and in all places in the wonder of God’s creation.
Every September, we spend some time in the mountains of North Carolina, in one of the most beautiful spots you could imagine. The grass was bright green, the flowers were every color of the rainbow, the skies were clear and blue, the placid lake was surrounded by an expansive mountain range.
It might be my most favorite spot in the world because it is there that I can see God in the beauty and hear God in the silence of creation. Don’t ask me to tell you exactly what I heard God say. Don’t ask me to articulate the revelation of God in the grandeur of God’s creation.
As the psalmist put it, “There is no speech, nor are there words” (Psalm 19:3). If you want to hear God speak, open your door and pick out a spot in the beauty of God’s creation. You will not have to go far and you will not have to listen long before you will hear the silent sounds of God’s voice in creation. Sometimes when God speaks, God’s communication is non-verbal.
But as the second poem in Psalm 19 makes clear, sometimes there are words. Sometimes God speaks to us verbally. And this is part of what theologians refer to as special revelation, the communication of God in Scripture. By the time this psalm was composed, the written word of God was confined to the Law, the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.
And in typical poetic style, the psalmist uses several parallel words to refer to the written word of God, which he says is complete, reviving the soul; sure, making wise the simple; right, rejoicing the heart; clear, enlightening the eyes; pure, enduring forever; true and righteous altogether. The revelation of God in Scripture is more to be desired than gold, the poet wrote, and sweeter than honey from out of the comb.
Some time ago, I was talking to a friend of mine in another state who said he was looking for another passage when he stumbled on a verse he had never noticed before. He said it was just what he needed to hear and that God had spoken clearly to him through that verse of Scripture. I have had similar experiences, and I’m sure you have, too, when God spoke in a special way through the written word.
In that experience, I just knew in my heart it was God’s word for me. That is why every Sunday morning when we read the Scripture, we punctuate the reading by reminding ourselves that the words of Scripture are not just any words. This is the word of the Lord. And we respond by saying, “Thanks be to God.” That is our way of acknowledging that God’s word is a gift to us. One sure way to hear God speak is to open your Bible and listen for God’s voice.
Psalm 19 tells us two primary ways to hear God speak – – through creation and through Scripture. But we have to leave the Old Testament to find the clearest revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the very word by which the world was spoken into existence, the Word made flesh, the creative Word of God personified.
The greatest revelation of God by which all other revelations are to be measured is the person of Jesus Christ. In creation, God is revealed to us non-verbally. In Scripture, God is revealed to us verbally. But in Jesus Christ, God is revealed to us personally.
The writer of Hebrews begins his sermon this way: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our ancestors through the prophets, but in these last days, God has spoken to us through a Son.” And then, in the rest of the sermon, the writer goes on to demonstrate how the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is superior to all other revelations.
But the revelation of God in Jesus Christ was not just personal, it was progressive. The revelation of God which began in creation and continued in Scripture became complete in Jesus Christ. The word of God in Jesus Christ became personal and incarnational.
Whether we are talking about the non-verbal revelation of God in creation, the verbal revelation of God in Scripture, or the personal revelation of God in Jesus Christ, at some point for us all the question becomes very personal.
Some look at the grandeur of creation and reach other conclusions about its origin, informed more by science than by faith, as if the two must be separated.
Some read the words of Scripture and find them to reflect more the cleverness of humanity than the inspiration of God.
Some look at the life and teachings and ministry of Jesus and find Him to be an impressive historical figure, but not the personal revelation of God.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham tells the rich man that, if his brothers couldn’t be persuaded by the Scriptures, they wouldn’t be convinced if someone should rise from the dead (Luke 16:31).
In the hymn, How Firm a Foundation, the hymn writer John Rippon asked: “What more can He say than to you He hath said?” The problem is not a lack of revelation; the problem is our reluctance to accept and believe the revelation we have already received in the wonder of creation, the claims of Scripture, and the person of Christ.
God is unlimited and sovereign in the ways God speaks. In many and various ways, God has spoken to us. But the primary ways God speaks are in creation, in Scripture, and in Jesus.
Regardless of how many ways and times God speaks, and how dramatically God is revealed, responding to God’s revelation is still a matter of faith; and faith, by definition, can never be proved or disproved in a scientific laboratory or a court of law.
For those who will believe, final proof is not necessary; and for those who will not believe, final proof is never enough. God may not speak the way we might prefer. God may not give us the specific direction we might wish to have.
But God has done something far better: God has spoken to us through the grandeur of creation, the words of Scripture, and the person of Jesus Christ. And that is really all we need to hear. The question for us is not so much how God speaks, but how we listen and how we respond. Amen.
About the writer:
Dr. Stephen Clyborne was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and has served churches in the Greenville area for thirty-five years. After having served on staff in six churches, he is now in his tenth year as senior pastor of Earle Street Baptist Church in Greenville, after first serving Earle Street as associate pastor for seven years. Upon graduation from Furman University, Stephen earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees at Erskine Theological Seminary, where he served as an adjunct professor for seventeen years.
He is married to the former Sylvia Davis, who is recently retired after having served two churches as a ministry assistant for twenty-seven years (combined). They have two daughters: Rachel (a supervisor in adoptions with the Department of Social Services) and Rebekah (a third-grade teacher at Robert Cashion Elementary School). Also, Stephen and Sylvia have two stepsons: Patrick Swift and his wife, Jennifer, who have two daughters and two sons (Hannah, Sarah Grace, Sam and Ben); Micah Swift and his wife, Suzanne, who have three daughters (Emma Kate, Addie and Ella).
Scripture and Music:
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
O for A thousand Tongues to Sing
Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
Where Charity and Love Prevail
God Is Here
How Great Thou Art
Jesus Shall Reign
To Thee, Our God, Creator, King
Open My Eyes, That I May See
O Clap Your Hands (John Rutter)
The Heavens Are Telling (Haydn)
O for A Thousand Tongues to Sing (Young)
Good News (Jane Marshall)
The Body of Our Lord (Roger Copland)
I‘m Goin a Sing When the Spirit Says Sing
Many Gifts, One Spirit (Allen Pote)
Consecration (John Ness Beck)