Why is a Psalm About Creation Proclaimed on the Feast of the Apostles?

Thursday’s feast of Saints Philip and James, like that for almost all the apostles, contains passages from Psalm 19. This has always intrigued me because this psalm is not a reference to human preaching or witness at all, but rather a reference to the wordless witness of creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:2-3; 4-5).

While it is true that the voice of the apostles has gone out to all the earth, that is not what this psalm is really about. There is a kind of daring and glorious transposition of meaning. The witness through the words of the apostles is joined to the wordless witness of creation. Why? Well, are not the apostles—indeed all humans—part of creation? And if the lower parts of creation proclaim the glory of God, do not we as well?

Here, then, is a beautiful reminder of the two books of revelation: Scripture and Creation. It is also a reminder that we are part of that creation. Creation is revelation, as St. Paul reminds us:

For God’s 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 (Romans 1:20).

Yes, the whole universe shouts, “Order! Consistency! Intelligibility!” Our bodies and all the delicately functioning systems on this planet echo back this refrain. While I do not ask scientists (as scientists) to affirm the biblical and Christian God, the existence of consistent order in the universe is obvious and serves as the basis of the whole scientific method.

If things were truly random, scientists could not propose theories, test results, or verify them; repeated experiments would not turn out similar results. The scientific method presupposes order and consistency within a verifiable range. Thus, while scientists need not draw conclusions as to how this order came about, it is wholly inappropriate for them to be dismissive of believers who conclude from this order that someone must have ordered it so.

Yes, what a glorious and magnificent thing creation is! To this believer, it loudly proclaims the existence of God, who made it.

The beautiful hymn “The Spacious Firmament on High,” which I have seldom heard in Catholic parishes, takes up the voice of creation—especially that part of creation we call the heavens or the sky. It is based on Psalm 19, and to me it is a minor masterpiece of English poetry. It was written by Joseph Addison in 1712.

The hymn was written before skeptical agnosticism and hostility to the very notion (let alone existence) of God had taken deep root in our culture. It also comes from a more sober time, when it was accepted as obvious that creation is ordered and therefore ordered by someone in a purposeful and intelligent manner. We believers call that “someone” God.

Consider the beautiful words of this song and its reasoned conclusion that creation shouts the existence of its Creator.

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display;
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth:
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice;
forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Why Do Some of the Psalms Seem Boastful?

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

  • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
  • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
  • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.