A central doctrine of biblical Christianity is that God has revealed himself, and he has done so in two ways, both of which we can find in the first chapter of Genesis. The opening phrase of Scripture expresses the first form of God’s revelation: “In the beginning God created.” Creation itself is God’s revelation—it is God revealing certain things to us, which is why we sometimes call this God’s Natural Revelation or God’s General Revelation.
But then verse 3 of Genesis 1 expresses the second form of God’s revelation: “And God said.” And again in verses 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, and 26 of Genesis 1, we find God revealing himself through spoken words. And then in verse 28 after he created Adam and Eve, “God blessed them. And God said to them.” And then in Genesis 6:13, “God said to Noah.” And in Genesis 12, “the Lord said to Abram.” And in Exodus 3, God called to Moses out of the burning bush. And later at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God spoke the words of his law to his people. And as Hebrews 1 tells us, “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” So God has revealed himself not only through what he has made, his natural revelation, but also through what he has said, what is sometimes referred to as God’s Special Revelation. And many of these words were written down by holy men as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21), compiled into the Holy Scriptures, which Paul says “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” these Scriptures being “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:15–16).
So God has revealed himself, and he has done so both through his Natural Revelation—what he has made—and through his Special Revelation—what he has said.
Perhaps one of the most succinct and, indeed, beautiful articulations of these two forms of God’s revelation is found in Psalm 19. This psalm describes both God’s natural and special revelation in a strikingly vivid poem. In fact, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”
Psalm 19 is unique for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its genre. In the Psalter, we might expect to find songs of praise or even songs of lament, but Psalm 19 is neither of those. In fact, it reads more like a Proverb than it does a psalm, which is why it is often referred to as a wisdom psalm. But another unique characteristic is its focus on God’s revelation, his Torah—Law. These unique features are found in only two other psalms in the entire 150, Psalm 1 and Psalm 119. These three psalms are wisdom psalms that focus on God’s revelation.
And so let’s consider what Psalm 19 says about God’s natural revelation and his special revelation, and then notice what it says about the proper responses we should have to God’s revelation.
God’s Natural Revelation
First, verses 1–6 express God’s natural revelation.
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
This is the natural created order—heavens, skies, what God has made. And as these opening verses poignantly say, what God has made reveals certain things about him—creation is God’s revelation. It reveals his glory and his handiwork. And not just some of creation, all of creation is God’s revelation; the psalmist uses poetic expressions in verse 2 to communicate this:
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
From morning till evening, day and night, what God has made reveals his glory and handiwork; nature is God’s speech and knowledge revealed to us. As Maltbie Babcock wrote, “This is my Father’s world . . . in the rustling grass I hear him pass; he speaks to me everywhere.”
But I want to stress one point here that I have said several times but that we often take for granted because we say it so often: Nature is God’s revelation. God created the heavens and the earth, and he did so intentionally to reveal himself. Nature is the voice of God. We know this; we affirm this. But I think sometimes, especially in our modern scientific, naturalistic society, we tend to view nature as apart from God, sort of doing its own thing.
No, nature is God’s revelation just like Scripture is, but it does differ from Scripture in a couple key ways, and they are communicated in this psalm.
First, nature reveals God without words. Notice what David says in verse 3:
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
It’s interesting—he just said in verse 2 that “day to day pours out speech,” so nature is God’s speech, but then he says just two phrases later, “there is no speech” in nature. In other words, David is clarifying what kind of revelation nature is. What God created is like speech—it reveals something about him, but it is not exactly speech. It is not actual words. We do not actually hear the audible voice of God in nature. When we sing, “in the rustling grass I hear him pass; he speaks to me everywhere,” we don’t mean that literally. There’s no audible sound or voice.
But that does not make nature any less God’s revelation. It just reveals God in ways other than words. God’s spoken revelation does do some things that his natural revelation cannot, which we’ll look at in a moment. But the fact that nature reveals God without words actually allows it to reveal God to us in ways that words cannot, which leads us to the next point:
God’s natural revelation is universal. That cannot be said for his spoken special revelation—you have to be able to read, or at least listen to Scripture in order to understand what God wants to reveal through Scripture. But what God reveals through what he has made is universal. This is what David communicates in verse 4:
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
There is no place on earth, nor is there any person on earth where God’s natural revelation does not reach—it is universal. In fact, the apostle Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10:18 to argue that Israel has no excuse for rejecting God’s revelation, for
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
God’s natural revelation is universal. David uses the image of the sun to picture this beginning at the end of verse 4:
No one can escape the sun; it’s universal.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
The same is true for God’s natural revelation—nothing is hidden from it. Its voice goes out through all the earth, and its words to the end of the world. It is universal, which is why sometimes it is called “general revelation,” meaning it reaches all people in general.
So what then is the nature of this universal, non-verbal revelation from God? Verse 3 says its voice is not heard, but verse 4 says its voice goes out through all the earth. So what is this voice?
Well, the Hebrew word in verse 4 literally means “line,” which is often used of a measuring line, but that doesn’t really make sense in this context. It can also be used for a line of text, like a line of poetry, so that begins to fit a bit better.
But what’s really interesting is how the Greek translators interpreted this word. I mentioned a moment ago that Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10:18, but of course, Paul is writing in Greek, so he’s quoting the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. And the Septuagint (LXX) uses a Greek word for “voice” that means “musical sound.”
In other words, nature communicates revelation from God to us, not in actual words, but more like music—non-verbal communication of the beauty and order of God. Even ancient secular philosophers believed that music is the public demonstration of the harmony of heaven. They recognized an inherent order to the physical universe; they found that natural principles of physics and acoustics and geometry and astronomy all share an amazing unity and that music was one of the best representations of that unity. They believed that music harmonized the universe; the intervals of music ordered all things, even the planets—they called it the “music of the spheres.” They believed that the universe is characterized by a quality of interrelatedness that is highly evident in music.
And Christian theologians have long agreed with those early philosophers and considered music to be a particularly powerful expression of the order and harmony of heaven. One of the earliest theologians of the church, Augustine, defined music as “the art of the well-ordered.” God created the universe with an orderliness that displays his glory and handiwork universally to all people.
Natural Revelation is the music of God, a display of his nature and the order of what he has made, and because it is not dependent upon words, natural revelation is universal. What music communicates is not limited to one group of people like spoken language is; music communicates at a natural level universally because it is part of God’s created order, and this is what all nature does—it communicates naturally to all people regardless of language, ethnicity, or culture.
Paul highlights this universal power of general revelation in Romans 1 when he says,
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
So nature is God’s revelation that universally communicates God’s invisible attributes to all people, and because it does, Paul, says, God’s natural revelation condemns all people. It is on the basis of natural revelation that Paul says,
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
We have no excuse, because God’s general revelation is universal—it is all around us. In fact, God’s natural revelation is within us. We are made in God’s image, and so even our own existence reveals God to us. But as Paul says, even though God reveals himself to all people through what he has made, all people suppress the truth and are therefore deserving of God’s wrath.
In fact, David expresses this very idea in two ways when he describes natural revelation in the first six verses. First, he uses the generic title El—God—in verse one, instead of Yahweh, the covenant name of the Lord. He’s using the term that all people would use generically to refer to deity as a way of emphasizing the universal nature of God’s natural revelation in declaring his glory and condemning all people, even if they don’t have his law. Later, when he switches to special revelation in verse 7, he deliberately uses the covenant name for God—Yahweh. But here when he’s focused on universal natural revelation, he uses the generic word for God.
And second, when David references the sun in verses 4–6, he deliberately borrows phraseology from Babylonian sun worship as a another way to emphasize the universal condemnation of natural revelation. Contrary to Babylonian worship, the sun is not a god; the sun is part of what reveals the true God to us. In Babylonian mythology, the sun god was the one who gave the law to the king; in contrast, verse 7, Yahweh is the giver of the law. Just in his use of the sun metaphor to describe the universality of God’s natural revelation, David was also emphasizing its universal condemnation. All people are without excuse because God has revealed himself universally through what he has made.
However, the non-verbal, musical aspect of God’s natural revelation that enables it to be universal is also a weakness—it cannot tell us specifics about the true God nor his Son, Jesus Christ. This is another reason it is called general revelation—it is general in that it is given to all mankind in general, and it is also general in that it only gives a general revelation of God. Natural revelation condemns all people, but it cannot reveal the remedy for that condemnation. This is why we need a second, special revelation from God.
God’s Special Revelation
Verse 7 shifts the focus from God’s natural revelation to what some call his Special Revelation, specifically here “the law”—the Torah—”of the Lord. David uses six different terms in the following verses to describe God’s special revelation: law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, and rules. These six terms are spread throughout the psalms, but only Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 use all six.
The first term, Torah, gives no question as to what David is talking about—God’s inscripturated, authoritative, written Word. In its narrowest sense, the term refers to the first five books of Moses, but it can also refer to all of the Old Testament Scriptures. Most of the books of the Old Testament are quoted in the NT by Jesus and his apostles as authoritative Scripture. And New Testament authors also refer to other parts of the New Testament as Scripture. For example, Paul refers to Luke’s writings as Scripture (1 Tim 5:18), Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Pet 3:15–16; cf. 3:2), and Paul calls his own writings “a command of the Lord” (1 Cor 14:37–38) and “the Word of God” (1 Thess 2:13).
In other words, God’s special revelation spoken of here by David is the 66 books of inscripturated Word of God. Paul calls God’s special revelation “the sacred writings” and says that Scripture is “breathed out by God”—we use the term “inspired” to capture this truth. Human authors penned the words of Scripture, but Peter teaches that they “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). So the Bible is God’s inspired special revelation.
David also lists six characteristics of special revelation—perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true—and six benefits of special revelation—it revives the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes, endures forever, and produces righteousness.
David is not really trying to be technical with all of these terms—remember, this is poetry, not a scientific textbook, but his stacking on layers of six terms with six characteristics and six benefits communicates the perfect comprehensiveness of God’s special revelation. God’s special relation is all encompassing; it is sufficient.
And that is exactly what is communicated with the terms themselves. The Word of God is perfect—it is without error. The theological term we have come to use to clarify this is inerrancy. The Bible is inerrant. It is without error because it is God’s special revelation—he breathed it out. And since it is perfect, God’s special revelation is “sure”—it is reliable and trustworthy. It is right and pure and clean and true.
God’s inspired special revelation is sufficient to reveal God to us, just like his natural revelation does, but God’s special revelation is also sufficient to transform us. That’s what is communicated by the six benefits David lists. It revives the soul—complete transformation from death to life. Paul says the Word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). And special revelation can do this, unlike natural revelation, because special revelation uses words. It tells us that we are guilty before God, and it tells us that whoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. God’s special revelation uniquely reveals the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. And special revelation is profitable, as Paul says, to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17).
David also says God’s Word makes wise the simple. Wisdom is the ability to fit things together properly. We gather all the information of life around us, and wisdom enables us to know how to all fits together as God intended. My favorite illustration of the difference between knowledge and wisdom is that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing that a tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad.
This is important, because the sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that the Bible explicitly addresses each and every decision or issue that we might face. The fact is that we face a lot of decisions the Bible does not explicitly address. But the Bible is sufficient to make us wise so that when we face a decision it doesn’t explicitly address, we are able to determine what fits with how God designed the world to work and with what he has revealed through both natural and special revelation. That’s biblical wisdom.
In particular, Paul says that God’s special revelation is able to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Natural revelation cannot do this, but God’s Word, which reveals Jesus Christ to us, is able to recognize God’s design for all creation to worship and glorify him, to recognize that sin destroys that purpose and deserves judgment, and that the only fitting response is unreserved faith in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Again, God’s special revelation is sufficient to transform us because it is God’s revelation, and his words have power. His words created nature, and his words transform hearts. The Holy Spirit of God inspired this revelation, and so the Holy Spirit of God will sanctify us through the very revelation he inspired. God’s special revelation is everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3).
God’s very words have power to enact his will. For this reason, verse 10:
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
This is exactly what Psalm 1 promised. The blessed man, Psalm 1 teaches, will delight in the law of the Lord; he will meditate on it day and night. He will recognize the authority and inerrancy and sufficiency of God’s special revelation, and he will muse on God’s Word so that he is transformed into God’s image from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).
But keep one very important truth in mind that distinguishes God’s special revelation from his natural revelation: because it is expressed in written words, it is only sufficient for those who have those written words.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?Romans 10:14
Special revelation’s strength is also a weakness—it is able to make us wise for salvation, it is able to transform us, but only if we read it. Natural revelation is more universal because it is non-verbal, but it can only condemn us; it cannot convert or transform us.
Response to God’s Revelation
So in Psalm 19 David presents these two forms of God’s revelation: his natural revelation and his special revelation. Both reveal God to us, but they do so in different ways—natural revelation is non-verbal and universal, while special revelation is contained within the written Word of God.
All Revelation, however demands a response, and this is where David concludes the psalm. He concludes with three appropriate responses to God’s revelation.
The first is confession. Notice verses 12–13:
Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. 13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
We have already seen how both God’s natural revelation and his special revelation condemn us. They reveal to us our incompatibility as sinners with the holiness of God and the way he designed his universe to operate for his glory. Scripture explicitly teaches us that the payment for sin is death, it reproves and corrects us. It warns us, as David just affirmed in verse 11. It explicitly teaches us that if we confess our sins, Christ is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:6).
And so that is exactly what David does: he confesses his sins. And he does so in such a way that relates to the condemnation that comes from both natural and special revelation. He first asks God to declare him innocent from hidden faults, sins he might not even know he had committed without the law, the special revelation of God. As Paul says in Romans 7, “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Rom 7:7). In other words, just because someone doesn’t have special revelation and might not even know they are sinning does not excuse them. Simply by virtue of universal natural revelation, they are guilty and without excuse. And so David asks forgiveness for those hidden faults.
But then also he asks God to help keep him from presumptuous sins, those sins committed in deliberate opposition to God’s special revelation. And David knows that through this humble confession of sin, God would count him blameless and innocent of great transgression.
David’s second appropriate response to God’s revelation is dedication.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
In response to God’s revelation, David commits his life to God. And notice the two aspects of his life he commits to God and their relationship to the two forms of God’s revelation: the “words of my mouth,” which corresponds to the verbal special revelation of God, and “the meditation of my heart,” which corresponds to God’s natural revelation. The term translated “meditation” is a word that literally refers to “resounding music,” relating back to the musical nature of natural revelation that he highlights in verse 4. The term is also from the same root word as the psalmist uses in Psalm 1 when he says that the blessed man meditates on God’s law day and night. So this commitment to God is not disconnected from God’s revelation; David recognizes that commitment to God can happen only by means of and in response to God’s natural and special revelation.
Trust in Christ
But notice that final word: redeemer. David’s final response to God’s revelation is trust in Christ as his redeemer. He knows from both God’s natural and special revelation that he deserves condemnation, and he knows from God’s special revelation that redemption comes to those who confess their sin and trust in Christ.
One final instructive point about this psalm. The editors of the 150 psalms organized these songs very intentionally into five books with a very deliberate progression. Psalms 1 and 2 form an introduction to the whole book, and they are a pair that includes a Torah psalm—Psalm 1—with a Messianic psalm—Psalm 2. The same thing occurs about halfway through Book V of the Psalter: Psalm 118 is a Messianic psalm paired with Psalm 119, which is the most well-known Torah psalm.
The same thing is true here of psalms 18 and 19. Psalm 18 is Messianic psalm. It concludes,
Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.(v 50)
And Psalm 19, as we have seen, is a Torah psalm. This pair of psalms creates a transition in Book 1 of the Psalter, and the way the editors arranged the psalms before and after this pair is a way to show what meditation on God’s revelation is supposed to do to us. What is fascinating is that there is no mention of the Messiah or the law from psalms 3 to 17, but once they appear here in psalms 18 and 19, they are abundant in the rest of Book I—psalms 20 through 41. And likewise, there is no explicit confession of sin in psalms 3—17, but after psalms 18 and 19, confession is abundant.
This is the psalter editors way—God’s way—of showing what happens when a righteous person delights himself in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1) and submits to the rule of his Anointed One (Psalm 2). When that happens, as encapsulated in psalms 18 and 19—when we meditate on God’s revelation and delight in it, we will confess our sins, trust in the Messiah as our redeemer, and we will be blessed.