What the Heavens Declare
Psalm 19 begins with one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The first half of the psalm celebrates God’s glory in nature—in the heavens (v. 1), in the sun’s course across the sky (vv. 4, 6), in the similarities between the sun and a warrior and a bridegroom (v. 5). This revelation has gone out to the entire world so that there is no place where God’s revelation is not heard (vv. 2–4). In other words, the psalm begins with a celebration of what theologians call “general revelation.” General revelation includes all the ways that God reveals himself in creation—in the ordinary course of nature and the general course of history. In other words, it’s not just the heavens that declare the glory of God.
Everything that God has made declares the glory of God. The apostle Paul tells us that 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” (Rom. 1:20). In other words, made things make invisible attributes visible. Created things make eternal things perceivable. God’s own power and righteousness and beauty and wisdom and mercy are invisible attributes. We can’t see them directly. But when we see a tornado tear across the plains, we see his power. When we stand on a giant mountain, we feel the firmness and stability of his righteousness. When we watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, we see his beauty. When we witness the magnificent intricacy of the food chain—deer eating grass and then being eaten by lions—we see his inscrutable wisdom and mercy over all that he has made. Made things make invisible attributes visible.
That’s what we mean by general revelation, and by its nature, it is pervasive and constant. It’s accessible to all men everywhere. “There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard” (Ps. 19:3). As C. S. Lewis said, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”1 Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth-century American pastor and theologian, testified that he believed that the whole universe, heaven and earth, from top to bottom and front to back is filled with “images of divine things, as full as a language is of words.”2 By this, he meant that everything in creation is communication from God about God. God speaks to us everywhere and in everything.
Earthly Categories for Spiritual Things
General revelation works both directly and indirectly. It works directly by creating categories in our minds and hearts for knowing God. This is direct because we move straight from the made thing to God himself. How do the heavens declare the glory of God? Through their size and majesty. The vastness of the heavens points to the greatness of God. Or the beauty of a sunset gives us a visual picture of the beauty and holiness of God. Or the sun’s perpetual and constant shining images God’s constant and everlasting goodness. In each case, we move straight from the made thing to God himself. Our experience of the world gives us categories for knowing God and his word.
And not just God himself. General revelation gives us categories for knowing many aspects of the spiritual life. Consider Psalm 1.
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Ps. 1:1–4)
In this psalm, fruitful trees are audiovisual aids to help us understand the blessed and righteous man, just as tumbleweeds are audiovisual aids to help us understand the wicked. Men are like trees, and different trees help us understand different types of men. This is why God made the world he did and gave us eyes and ears and a nose and a mouth and skin. Our senses are designed to take in the world, and then our minds and hearts are designed to connect our experience of the natural world to the spiritual world and the God who governs both.
In the course of writing this, I found the perfect opportunity to illustrate the way that our experiential knowledge of the world through general revelation helps us to understand the Bible and thus to know God more deeply. Every year, Bethlehem College & Seminary hosts a pastors’ conference in Minneapolis. In January. And every year a few thousand pastors and church leaders journey to the land of ice and snow in order to be encouraged through worship, teaching, and fellowship. For our brethren from the South, we know that the trip is almost a rite of passage. They get to return home and regale their congregations with stories of their exploits in the frozen tundra. “The snowdrifts were up to my waist. My eyes almost froze shut. I nearly died attempting to cross the street to scavenge for food.”
In January of 2019, however, the cold went to another level. The wind chill dropped down to –45 degrees. Even for native Minnesotans, that’s cold. That year I told the pastors assembled there:
You’re going to go home and try to explain to your people how cold it was here. You might try to use math. You’ll tell them, “You know the difference between 80 degrees and 40 degrees? It was like that temperature difference over again, and then over again—80 to 40 to 0 to -40.” And they might get some idea of the cold. But you know that they won’t really get it. You, on the other hand—you walked outside with your little Target beanie and windbreaker. Your nose hairs turned to ice in under five seconds. You lost feeling in your fingers before you made it from your car to the conference center in the parking garage. And because you experienced all of that, Psalm 147 now means more to you:
He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
who can stand before his cold? (Ps. 147:15–17)
No one. No one can stand before his cold. Not you. Not me. Our experience of nature, of general revelation, has built categories in our minds so that we read Psalm 147 with fresh (and frozen) eyes.3
A Web of Images
General revelation also works in a more indirect fashion. Again, Psalm 19 shows us how. When the psalmist unpacks how the heavens declare the glory of God, he turns to the sun as it journeys from horizon to horizon:
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. (Ps. 19:4–5)
Notice that the psalmist makes two comparisons. The sun is like a bridegroom leaving his chamber and like a strong man who runs his course with joy. David looks at the sun as it moves across the sky, and then he looks at a groom on his wedding day, and he sees a connection. In the brilliance of the sun, he sees the gladness of a groom. He looks at the sun again and is reminded of Josheb-as-hebeth, one of his mighty men, running into battle with spear raised and eyes blazing (2 Sam. 23:8). The sun is like the groom, and the sun is like the warrior. It’s this indirect web of images that shows us how the heavens declare the glory of God. The sun is bright and triumphant, the bridegroom’s face is shining as he stands at the aisle, the warrior is intense but joyful since he is doing what he was built to do.
God draws us into this web of creation so that we might know him through it.
This means that reality is a web of images, pictures, patterns, analogies, and metaphors all woven together by the wisdom and skill of our Creator. Metaphors and analogies operate on a principle of comparison. We set one thing next to another thing in order to better understand them both. The sun helps us to understand weddings, and weddings in turn help us to see the sun with new eyes. Warriors help us to understand bridegrooms, and bridegrooms in turn illuminate warriors. In the psalm David recognizes the likenesses among these various things of earth. They’re not identical, but they are similar. And this web is held together by Christ—in him all things hold together (Col. 1:17).
Therefore, if we want to know God through general revelation, we don’t always go directly to him. Instead we move horizontally between the images, among the things of earth, understanding how they relate to each other, so that the whole picture and experience of the world can then lead us to God. God draws us into this web of creation so that we might know him through it. It’s how he reveals himself to us in a way that fits our frame.
And notice how in each of these passages, it’s something outside the Bible that helps us to understand the meaning of the Bible. If you’ve never seen the sun move triumphantly across the sky, then Psalm 19 doesn’t mean anything to you. If you’ve never seen a fruitful tree on the edge of a river or a tumbleweed blowing across the highway into a ditch, then Psalm 1 doesn’t mean anything to you. And the reason we hold the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders in January in Minnesota is that we want those pastors to really know the meaning of Psalm 147. No one—and I mean no one—can stand before his cold.
- C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1992), 75.
- . Jonathan Edwards, Typological Writings, vol. 11, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Wallace E. Anderson, Mason I. Lowance, and David H. Watters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 152.
- Joe Rigney, “Christian Hedonism and the Things of Earth,” Bethlehem College & Seminary website, February 4, 2019, https://bcsmn.edu /archive-video/christian-hedonism-and-the-things-of-earth/.
This article is adapted from Strangely Bright: Can You Love God and Enjoy This World? by Joe Rigney.
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