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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Third Sunday of Lent

Mar 7, 2021, Author:

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Psalm 19
Exodus 20.1-17
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
John 2.13-22

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

There are some scholars who think that today’s psalm is really two different psalms that ended up getting stuck together by accident. Although at first glance it isn’t hard to see why someone might think that, I would respectfully suggest that this view is quite wrong, and I hope to be able to explain why.

This psalm is definitely a psalm of two halves. The first half is a meditation on the glory of God from a cosmic perspective. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, it begins. “One day telleth another : and one night certifieth another”. There is a sense of the story of God’s glory being passed on from one day to the next. “There is neither speech nor language : but their voices are heard among them. Their sound is gone out into all lands : and their words into the ends of the world.”

The rhythm of day and night and the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars are conceived of as a sort of cosmic psalm, a heavenly song that sings out the glories of God from one day to the next. We are reminded that for many ancient religions the sun and the moon and the stars were themselves understood to be gods; for the psalmist, they are fellow-creatures with us, and in their beauty and order they proclaim the greatness of their Creator, a cosmic counterpart to the worship offered by the psalmist here on earth.

The second half of the psalm shifts from the cosmic perspective to the human perspective; from God’s creation of the heavens with their order and beauty to God’s cultivation of beauty and order in human life through His teaching. “The law of the Lord is an undefiled law, converting the soul : the testimony of the Lord is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple…. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold : sweeter also than honey, and the honey-comb.” The change of perspective from the opening of the psalm, with its sense of the grandeur of God’s creation, is startling. And yet there is also continuity: just as the heavens proclaim the glory of God, so too God’s careful teaching of human beings reveals God’s wisdom, God’s goodness and God’s beauty.

This second half of the psalm then narrows the focus down even further, from speaking in a general way about God’s law to speaking of the psalmist himself in the first person. We find a sense of gratitude, a sense of humility, even a penitential note: “O cleanse thou me from my secret faults. Keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me…”. And then the wonderful, final verse, which is quite well-known because many preachers use it as an opening prayer before a sermon: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart : be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord : my strength, and my redeemer”.

We can imagine the psalmist perhaps in the Jerusalem Temple – the book of psalms as a whole, and many of the individual psalms are closely connected with the Temple – we can imagine the psalmist in the Temple, the orderly round of sacrifice, worship and prayer going on around him as the priests and Levites and pilgrim worshippers move around in their own orbits. We can imagine the psalmist reflecting on the motions of the heavenly bodies, and seeing in them a cosmic counterpart to the worship of the Jersusalem Temple. And we can imagine him turning his thoughts inwards, reflecting on the wisdom of the divine teaching received by the people of Israel, how it has guided him, and how he has sometimes fallen short of his guidance. And he prays in humility that the meditations of his heart would themselves be an interior counterpart both to the orderly and beautiful worship offered by heavenly bodies who proclaim the greatness of God in their motions, and to the orderly worship of the Jerusalem Temple.

But this word meditation that we find at the end of the psalm is a very interesting one. The Hebrew word is here translated as “meditation” is one which has long been considered obscure, but there is now a body of scholarship which suggests that the word is connected to music, and specifically to the music of stringed instruments. And we are reminded that the word Psalm itself comes from a word meaning stringed instrument, we are reminded that the psalms refer repeatedly to stringed instruments, pointing to their use in the Jerusalem Temple, and we are reminded too that King David, to whom the psalms are traditionally attributed, was associated with playing stringed instruments. The psalmist, very likely himself a player of a stringed instrument, likens the meditations of his heart to the music produced by such an instrument, and prays as it were that the music of his heart should be well-ordered and well-tuned and acceptable to God.

What a wonderful image: the harmonious ringing and reverberation of the strings of a harp or lyre stand for the contemplation of the things of God reverberating in the psalmist’s deepest being.

And if we pick up that last verse, and think of meditation in terms of the music of the heart, we are thrown right back to the opening of the Psalm, the heavens proclaiming the glory of God, one day singing the story on to the next, the silent music pervading the universe. And it is worth noting that this connection between the harmony of the cosmos and the harmony of musical instruments was an idea that was around elsewhere in the ancient world, particularly in the thought of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who seems to have been one of the first people to understand the mathematics of pitch, and who was also deeply interested in the mathematics of the motion of heavenly bodies. Pythagoras hypothesised that the celestial bodies all emit their distinctive hum determined by the mathematics of their orbits, but imperceptible to the human ear.

In today’s gospel we find Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple, the music of His heart disturbed by the clinking of coins, assorted bleatings and mooings and cooings, and the rough shouts of bartering and haggling at the tables of the traders. The human heart has been created by God with an insatiable desire that can only be satisfied by the contemplation of the sublime beauty of the Divine revealed in creation, in the holy scriptures and in the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The human heart instead expends itself on the crude pursuit of gain, even here in the Temple, the place that God has chosen as a dwelling place for His Name.

The music of Jesus’ heart, perfectly in tune with the will of the Father, fulfils the calling both of the Jersusalem Temple and of the whole human race, as He pours Himself out to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross. Let us pray that just as He cleansed the Temple, He would cleanse our hearts and the heart of His Church, that the words of our lips and the music of our hearts might take their place in the cosmic hymn of praise to the Holy and Undivided Trinity, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom be all praise and glory, now and unto ages of ages.
Amen