Friday, June 3, 2011

Creation and Conduct

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. . . . 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. (Psalm 19:1-2, 7-8)

Some nineteenth-century literary critics, who regarded the Bible as a work of exclusively human origin, were convinced that Psalm 19 was a composite of poems from two different sources. The same author could not have composed both parts, they believed, because of their contrasting subject matter. The first section deals with the natural order, the starry heavens and the sun’s course across the sky. Never mind that the idea of the heavenly bodies communicating knowledge seems fanciful, or that the sun’s revolving around the earth is an antiquated concept in today’s Copernican view of the solar system. At least this part of the psalm celebrates a universal perspective.

By contrast, the second section focuses narrowly on an Israelite nationalistic concern, and celebrates the Law of Moses. An enlightened perspective, the critics thought, would surely relegate most of the Jewish Law to its proper niche in the museum of discarded standards, where they believed the superior insights of modern social and religious thought had placed it. Evolving humanity had arrived at a new way to formulate morality, one that didn’t purport to originate in divine pronouncements from on high.

What did these critics miss? They overlooked the insight that no “law,” or pattern for human conduct, rests upon any enduring foundation apart from the acknowledgment of God’s “handiwork” in the creation of the physical universe. If God is not “real”—if His work doesn’t underlie all that exists—then neither is there any basis for order on the plane of human relationships. Values and standards will be set merely by whichever human group is able to impose its ways upon others and force them into its mold. As William Penn said, “Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.” The God who brought what is seen out of what is unseen, who separated light from darkness, has also differentiated human conduct into actions that are either right or wrong—and made the differentiation clear.

Paul wrote to the Romans concerning those who would sidestep this truth, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse . . .” (Romans 1:19-20). Psalm 19, in linking the Law of the Lord to the cosmic panorama, makes the same point. However enlightened we may consider ourselves, when it comes to questions of how to deal with others and manage our personal lives—or the life of our society—we can’t write our own standards. The parameters have been set by the Word of Him who made all things.