Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Psalm 111, Ray Bradbury's "Picasso Summer," and a Gomer Pyle Look at Everything

Far from enjoining men to listen to such tales are we, who avoid the practice of soothing our crying children, as the saying is, by telling them fabulous stories, being afraid of fostering in their minds the impiety professed by those who, though wise in their own conceit, have no more knowledge of the truth than do infants. For why (in the name of truth!) do you make those who believe you subject to ruin and corruption, dire and irretrievable? Why, I beseech you, fill up life with idolatrous images, by feigning the winds, or the air, or fire, or earth, or stones, or stocks, or steel, or this universe, to be gods; and, prating loftily of the heavenly bodies in this much vaunted science of astrology, not astronomy, to those men who have truly wandered, talk of the wandering stars as gods?” (Clement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to the Heathen”)

I quote Clement once more because our thoughts are centered on the matter he here presents: people are soothed with fabulous stories that are no more than idolatrous images. Rather than look at the stars and find their Maker, people would rather look to the stars and find themselves. Why does man do this? Fear. Religion is an expression of how man understands the world in order to feel secure, an explanation against what he fears. Through religion man attempts to grasp his relationship to the Universe and with others, to find meaning for life in the shadow of death, to honor what is sacred and to deal with otherwise aberrant behavior. Religion is man’s way to master life by focusing on anything but God Himself.

Psalm 111 contains this golden nugget in verse 2, which is the theme of the psalm (the “Rosetta Stone,” as it were, for our understanding): “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.” The lines of this psalm (and 112) form an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet (alephbet); that is, the lines are arranged in a specific order with the first word of the first verse beginning with the first letter of the Hebrew alephbet (aleph); the second line of the first verse starts with a word that begins with the second letter (bet); and so on. This psalm can be understood at the most elementary level—a child could learn it! But a child is learning something more than his or her ABC’s (or in this case, ABG’s)—they are learning theology: God is the context of life.

Here is a chart that presents the psalm in a format to illustrate (I don’t want to take too much time or space explaining technicalities, but they are so fascinating) how the principles of the psalm are communicated. The psalmist has taken great care under inspiration of the Holy Spirit to remind the reader/worshipper that the LORD is the one who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. “LORD” is the English designation for God’s personal, convenant-making name. Let there be no room for error concerning the deity involved here; that is, this is not a god of one’s own making or understanding.

The “works” the psalmist has in mind here are worth study because they are full of splendor, majestic. His works are worth remembering; for example, He is a provider and is powerful. Remember when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years and ate the heavenly manna? Remember when God delivered Israel from the Egyptians by judging the false gods through the plagues? God’s works demonstrate His faithfulness and His justice, because He is good. His greatest work is His redemption. God does not do work for the sake of keeping busy. There is a reason for His works, namely, to be studied.

The works of God are beneficial to those who study them. They help man learn that His righteousness is forever-enduring; that He is gracious and merciful; that God is a missionary God (He remembers His covenant forever and His inheritance is for the nations--not just one, but the whole world); that His Word is trustworthy, does not change and is meant to be obeyed. Understanding comes to those who live by His Word.

What are the gods of this able to reveal about themselves, their character and expectations? “Mythology exists to show the wickedness of men through the depravity of their gods, whose deeds are so repulsive that men abandon them. The Bible records the depravity of men against a righteous God, who alone can save them.”

Theology is a science, the study of God that produces knowledge about Him, the definite and objective subject. The Word of God explains the works of God; that is, the Bible (God’s Word) is the founding document concerning God, so we must study what God reveals about Himself in nature (Natural revelation, or natural theology) in the light of God’s special revelation, the Bible. The works of God are not intended to explain everything about Him, only point to Him. Study the natural without the supernatural, and one drifts into idolatry.

Ray Bradbury wrote a wonderful short story (“In A Season of Calm Weather”) of George Smith and his wife vacation in Europe. They were getting settled into a villa on a beach when they heard a rumor that Pablo Picasso was visiting nearby. This nearly upset the entire vacation because George Smith was a great lover of art, and had a deep appreciate for Picasso’s work. At his wife’s behest, George Smith tried to forget the rumor and spent the afternoon enjoying the surf. "If only," she said, "you liked other painters." Near sunset, George Smith decided to talk a walk along the nearly deserted beach. Far up ahead, George Smith noticed a small man bent over scratching the sand with a discarded popsicle stick.

George Smith, drawing nearer, saw that the man, deeply tanned, was bending down. Nearer yet, and it was obvious what the man was up to, George Smith chuckled. Of course . . . Alone on the beach this man--how old? Sixty-five? Seventy? -- was scribbling and doodling away. How the sand flew! How the wild portraits flung themselves out there on the shore! How . . . George Smith took one more step and stopped, very still.”

One can well imagine George Smith’s reaction to his realization of what he’d found. A good reader will find the story and read for himself what happened at the end when George Smith realized he had no camera, the sun was going down, the tide was coming in and nobody else was around. But his initial reaction . . . can you imagine the flood of emotion?

According to Psalm 111:1-2, 10, we should find ourselves responding to God in a similar and much higher way. The psalm begins with a geyser of praise and closes with the same running river. This is indicative of a spontaneous response. This is a weak illustration, but consider: a young child has been coloring away on a sheet of paper. Stick figures and lopsided houses are presented with a small, “Here. I made this for you.” You take the picture and embrace the child, you talk about the picture and hug the child. You kiss the child. You take what he has done and put it on the refrigerator. You high-five the child. You make the child his favorite snack. Why? You have studied and responded. Honestly, I am not sure I understand everything about what the picture is, but I love that child.

This psalm is filled with nearly overwhelming affection. There is a little Gomer Pyle’s, “gollll-ly!” with a sprinkling of a child’s amazed pointing, “did you see THAT? Woah!” History is chock full of God’s activity. Miracles abound! God is active in time and space, to the praise of His Glory, and those who believe and respond in worship are blessed to see and know. The Lord He is God! The rocks and trees and fire and space and the earth and my lowly ideas are not. Fables are just that—fables.

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