Trinity Journal 21NS (2000) 17-24.

Copyright 2000 by Trinity Journal, cited with permission;

 

 

"THE HEAVENS DECLARE THE GLORY OF GOD":

THE LIMITS OF GENERAL REVELATION

 

JAMES K. HOFFMEIER

 

The relationship between general and special revelation has long

been discussed in the history of the church. Romans 1 is the critical

NT text which treats the former.1 At the same time, Ps 19:1-6 is

considered the OT locus classicus for the subject of general revelation.

This psalm, in my opinion, has not always been used with care by

those who have adopted a more inclusivistic soteriology. Based

upon exegetical work on 19:2, and an investigation of this psalm as a

literary unit, I will suggest some implications regarding the

paramount question: what can be known about God from general

and special revelation, especially in matters of salvation?

Beginning with Paul (Rom 10:18, which quotes Ps 19:4) to

theologians of the present time, these verses stand at the center of

most discussions about general revelation. Recently John Sanders, in

his book, No Other Name, cites this passage, and Paul's usage of it, to

argue for an inclusivist position, believing that salvation can ensue

from general revelation? Interestingly, Sanders does not quote from

or refer to any part of Ps 19:7-11, the focus of which is special

revelation. In so doing, he is rather selectively appealing to the

biblical evidence, and uses Ps 19:2-6 as a proof text that he evidently

does not fully understand. On the other hand, Clark Pinnock comes

to the same conclusion as Sanders in his book, A Wideness in God's

Mercy,3 without any mention of Psalm 19. Pinnock avers,

 

Because of cosmic or general revelation, anyone can find God

anywhere at anytime, because he has made himself and his

revelation accessible to them.4

 

* James K. Hoffmeier is Professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern

Archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

1 For some recent treatments of Romans 1 and general revelation, cf. Thomas C.

Oden, "Without Excuse: Classic Christian Exegesis of General Revelation," JETS 41 / 1

(1998): 55-68; Dennis Johnson, "Between Two Wor(l)ds: Worldview and Observation

I: The Use of General Revelation to Interpret Scripture, and Vice Versa," JETS 41/1

1998:69-84.

2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 233-34.

3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 78-80, cf. chap. 3.

4 Ibid., 24.



18 TRINITY JOURNAL

 

He accuses Karl Barth of being Christomonistic, saying, "Barth could

only see God reaching out to people in and through Jesus. To

maintain this position, of course, he had to ignore a good deal of

scriptural material."5 On the latter point, one could say the same for

Pinnock for completely overlooking Psalm 19 and Sanders, who

ignores the latter half of the psalm.

Let us turn now to the psalm, which C. S. Lewis called "the

greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the

world."6 Most commentators recognize a three-fold division of this

psalm:

I. The Glory of God as revealed in Creation (vv. 2-6)

II. The Perfect Law of Yahweh (vv. 7-11)

III. The Psalmist's prayer (vv. 12-15)7

Meanwhile, some scholars see only a two-fold division of vv. 2-6 and

vv. 7-15,8 but they believe that the "prayer" (vv. 12-15), which concludes

the psalm, is thematically linked to the second part of the psalm.

Form critics classify the psalm as a "hymn to creation"9 or a

"wisdom hymn," with the first two parts being a "hymn" and

"wisdom poetry" respectively.10 Based on differences in style, metre,

and language, the two parts are widely believed to have originally

been two separate poems.11 Because of the similarity in the imagery

of the sun in part one and that of other Near Eastern solar hymns, a

Canaanite original has been suggested as the source behind this

pericope.12 Despite this possibility, the psalm is regarded as having

both thematic and liturgical unity,13 and thus constitutes a coherent

unit.14 Bearing this unity in mind, one must look at the psalm as a whole to

appreciate the relationship between the two sections before drawing

theological conclusions about the role of general revelation in theology.

First, one must have a proper understanding of the poetic

structure of the opening sentence of the psalm before interpreting it.

 

5 Ibid., 79.

6 Reflections on the Psalms, 63.

7 A. A. Anderson, Psalms (1-72) (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972),168-73;

Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms (Expositor's Bible Commentary; Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 1991), 178-84; and Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (TOTC; Downers Grove:

InterVarsity, 1972), 97-100.

8 P. C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 (WBC; Waco: Word, 1983),179-80; M. Dahood, Psalms

1-50 AB; Garden City: Doubleday, 1965),121.

9 E. S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 1: Forms of the Old Testament Literature XIV

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988),101-3.

10 Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 179.

11 Ibid.

12 Gerstenberger, Psalms; Anderson, Psalms, 167; J. Morgenstern, "Psalm 8 and

19A," Hebrew Union College Annual 19 (1945-46): 515.

13 Gerstenberger, Psalms; Craigie, Psalms 1-50.

14 J. W. Rogerson and J. W. McKay, Psalms 1-50 (CBC; Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1977), 86.



HOFFMEIER: THE LIMITS OF GENERAL REVELATION 19

 

It reads, "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim

the works of his hands." This sentence is chiastic in nature, but this

aspect is completely lost in modern translations.15 The following

rendition better reflects the Hebrew word order even though it

requires changing the voice of the second verb.

The Heavens declare the glory of God,

the work of his hands are proclaimed in the sky.

A the heavens

B declare

C the glory of God

C' the work of his hands

B' proclaim

A' the sky

The A B C C' B' A' pattern in the Hebrew alerts the reader to the

close relationship between the two statements, and that "the glory of

God" and its counterpart "the works of his hands," are the focal

point of the verse. In light of this structural observation, two

important exegetical issues need to be explored. First, why is the

term El, not Elohim or the divine name, YHWH, used here? Second,

what is the "the glory of God" (kebod 'el) and what does it tell us

about general revelation?

The use of El, rather than the fuller form Elohim for God, has

contributed to the argument that this is a Canaanite hymn to El, the

creator god of the Ugaritic pantheon.16 Even if this is the case, the

psalmist certainly understands El to be equated with El-Shadday or

YHWH. However, El is used with such frequency in the Psalms (e.g.,

5:4; 7:6, 11; 10:11-12; 16:1; 17:6; 18:2, 30, 32, 47; 22:1) that one can

hardly conclude that each occurrence of the shortened form, El,

means that a Canaanite original lies behind the hymn. Clearly, the

terms El and Elohim are used interchangeably in the OT, especially in

poetic literature like the Psalms.17

The word "glory," kabod, has a wide range of meanings. It

appears to derive from the word for liver, kabed, which is a dense

and heavy organ--hence the meaning "heavy."18 Just as in English,

the idea of "weighty" leads to the concept of importance, respect,

and glory.19 Bound up in this word is the idea of something which

"catches the eye" and impresses the viewer.20 Gerhard Von Rad puts

it this way: kabod is "that asset which makes peoples or individuals,

and even objects, impressive, and usually this is understood as

 

15 Van Gemeren, Psalms, 179.

16 Ibid., 179 n. 5.

17 "Names of God in the OT," ABD 4:1006.

18 TWOT 426-28.

19 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (2 vols.; Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1967), 2:30.

20 Ibid.



20 TRINITY JOURNAL

 

something that can be perceived or expressed."21 Consequently

Isaiah can speak of the glory of Jacob (Isa 17:4) and Kedar (21:16),

when referring to a people.

Throughout the OT, the expression the "Glory of the Lord

[YHWH]" is ubiquitous, and is generally associated with God's

revelation at Mt. Sinai (Exod 24:16-17), in which "the Lord came

down upon Mount Sinai" (Exod 19:20). It was the same "glory of

YHWH" that resided in the Tabernacle beginning in Exod 40:34 and

subsequently in Solomon's Temple (1 Kgs 8:10-11). It is important to

note that never in these contexts is the variant expression, "Glory of

God," used. "Glory of God" does not occur in the Psalter, except in 19:1.

Prov 25:2 compares the glory of the king with that of God.

Clearly, the king's glory, or impressiveness, is not being elevated to

the same level as divine revelation, i.e., YHWH's glory that is in the

Holy of Holies. Therefore it appears that the "glory of God" in Prov

25:2 is not to be equated with the expression "glory of YHWH." Only

when we get to the sixth century writings of Ezekiel are the two

expressions used synonymously, but even then the idiom is

qualified by "the glory of the God of Israel" (cf. Ezek 1:28; 3:12, 23

[uses YHWH]; 10:19; 11:22-23 [uses Elohim]).

From this discussion two observations can be made:

1) The "glory of God," which is associated with general

revelation in Psalm 19, is not synonymous with "the

glory of YHWH" which is identified with special

revelation.

2) The structure of Ps 19:2 shows that "glory of God" is

equated with "the work of his hands." Naturally, his

works "reflect positively upon the Maker," says the late

Peter Craigie, and, he continues, "that reflection may

open up an awareness and knowledge of God, the

Creator, who by his hands created a glory beyond the

comprehension of the human mind."22

From these observations, I conclude that the revelation of God

that is apprehended by looking at the expanse of the heavens, or any

part of God's creation, is limited to providing veiled information

about God, but not what is necessary to know God in any intimate

or salvific sense.

By way of analogy, one can marvel at the Pieta in the Vatican, be

impressed with the exquisite execution of the sculpting and its life-

like qualities, and conclude that the artist was a true master.

However, even with the trained eye of an art historian, careful

scrutiny of this masterpiece does not by itself inform the viewer of

 

21 Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology (2 vols.; San Francisco: Harper &

Row, 1962),1:239.

22 Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 180.



HOFFMEIER: THE LIMITS OF GENERAL REVELATION 21

 

the identity of the artist. While one may conclude that the artist was

indeed skillful, little else can be ascertained about the master

artist--such as his name or what kind of person he was.

Commenting on this psalm and what we can learn about God

through his creation, John Calvin wrote,

While the heavens bear witness concerning God, their testimony

does not lead men so far as that thereby they learn truly to fear

him, and acquire a well-grounded knowledge of him; it serves only

to render them inexcusable.23

 

While I agree with Calvin on this point, there is a positive

dimension of general revelation. The psalm, when taken as a whole,

suggests that general revelation, i.e., God's creation, points the

beholder of "the work of his hands" to special revelation. Because of

the limited nature of general revelation, God provides special revelation

to complement and complete creational revelation. This interconnection

between the two is what Craigie argues for when he declares:

To the sensitive, the heavenly praise of God's glory may be an

overwhelming experience, whereas to the insensitive, sky is simply

sky and stars only stars; they point to nothing beyond. In this

hymn of praise, it is not the primary purpose of the psalmist to

draw upon nature as a vehicle of revelation, or as a source of the

knowledge of God apart from the revelation in law (Torah);

indeed, there is more than a suggestion that the reflection of God's

praise in the universe is perceptible only to those already sensitive

to God's revelation and purpose.24

 

Undoubtedly, this is why the psalmist turns to the law of YHWH,

the primary means of special revelation in the OT era.

The following section begins with "The Law of the Lord is

perfect." In the second paragraph, the divine name occurs six times,

and a seventh is found in the closing prayer. The absence of the

divine name in the opening section as compared with its ubiquity in

19:7-11 is poignant. The use of YHWH is frequently associated with

God as covenant maker. There is often a distinction made in the OT

between God, the creator of the cosmos (as in Genesis 1), and

YHWH, who is more intimately involved with his creation (contrast

Gen 2:4ff). In Exod 3:14, the only time there is an attempt to

elucidate the meaning of YHWH, as C. J. H. Wright notes, "Yahweh's

character and acts as Israel's redeeming, covenant God, not His role

as Creator, are indicated."25 The use of El or Elohim, and not YHWH

 

23 Commentary on the Book of Psalms (trans. James Anderson; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1948), 1:317.

24 Ibid., 1:181.

25 C. J. H. Wright, "God, Names of," ISBE 2:507.



22 TRINITY JOURNAL

 

in 19:2, reflects the qualitative difference the psalmist sees between

general and special revelation. As Derek Kidner observes,

In this section (7-14) the revealed name of God, Yahweh (the Lord),

is heard seven times; earlier, true to the theme of general revelation, only

the least specific term for God (El) was used, and only once.26

YHWH's Torah is "perfect," temima, a word associated with

sacrificial animals and indicating the quality of being free from

defect.27 In the following verses, other aspects of divine revelation

are given and its benefits to the individual who is opened to it. These

include: the statutes of the LORD (v. 7); the precepts and commands

of the LORD (v. 8); the fear of LORD (v. 9); and the ordinances of the

LORD (v. 10). The terminology of this section, especially "making

wise the simple," "enlightening the eyes," and "fear," consciously

connect God's revelation in the Torah to wisdom28 The conclusion is

obvious--the true source of wisdom is found in God's special

revelation in Scripture. This of course is in contrast to Adam and

Eve, who thought that they could be enlightened (i.e., eyes opened)

and gain knowledge by eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge

of good and evil. David Clines has convincingly shown that the

second part of Psalm 19 uses the very terms and expressions found

in the Fall narrative of Genesis 3 "to assert the superiority of the law

to the tree of knowledge as a means of obtaining wisdom.29

The same positive affirmations made regarding Scripture in Ps

19:7-10 are also applied to YHWH himself. Leslie Allen has shown

that "What is postulated of Yahweh in Ps. 18 is in three cases applied

to his Torah in Ps. 19, in chiastic order.30 In Ps 18:26-30 YHWH is

said to be "pure," "light," and "perfect." Regarding the Law (19:7-9),

these attributes are found in reverse order. The juxtaposition of these

two psalms is no accident, and the chiastic order is no coincidence.

Rather, the correspondence shows that the very character of YHWH

is found in the written revelation. The same, however, is not

extended to "the work of his hands."

The two halves of Psalm 19 clearly distinguish what can be

known about God from general revelation (part 1) and from special

revelation (part 2). The prayer which concludes the psalm is also

directed to YHWH, who is called "my Rock and my Redeemer" (v.

14). The term "Redeemer" is go'el, which is associated with the

redemption of a family member from enslavement or debt, as in the

story of Ruth where Boaz acts as "kinsman-redeemer" (Ruth 3:12-13;

 

26 Kidner, Psalms, 99.

27 Anderson, Psalms, 171.

28 Rogerson and McKay, Psalms, 88; Van Gemeren, Psalms, 184-6; and D. J. A.

Clines, "The Tree of Knowledge and the Law of the Lord," VT 24 (1974): 8-14.

29 Clines, "The Tree of Knowledge," 8.

30 Leslie Allen, "David as Exemplar of Spirituality: The Redactional Function of

Psalm 19," Bib 67 (1986): 544-46.



HOFFMEIER: THE LIMITS OF GENERAL REVELATION 23

 

4:1-4). But more significantly, this term takes on a salvific dimension

in the exodus from Egypt when God declares to Moses,

Therefore, say to the Israelites: "I am the LORD and I will bring

you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from

being slaves to them and will redeem you with an outstretched

arm and with mighty acts of judgment." (Exod 6:6)

The association of the divine name in this psalm, first with the

law (19:7), and then with the salvific terms in v. 14, suggests that

salvation derives from a covenant relationship with YHWH. Mention

has already been made to Allen's drawing a connection between

Psalms 18 and 19. I should like to suggest yet another link in the

soteriology of the two. Ps 19:14 reads, "O LORD my Rock and my

Redeemer," while Ps 18:46 lauds, "The LORD lives! Praise be to my

Rock! Exalted be God my Savior." Thus both psalms attach salvific

terms to God as the psalmist's rock.

In closing, let us return to Clines's structural comparison

between the three parts of the psalm and the Creation-Fall narrative

of Genesis 1-3. He believes that the "background" of Ps 19:2-6 is

Genesis 1, i.e., Creation, and that 19:7-11 is connected to Genesis 2-

3.31 He then wonders if the prayer of 19:12-15 is not a reflection on

the Fall itself, especially when the psalmist asks for forgiveness and

mentions "great transgression" (v. 13). I believe this suggestion has

merit because it is YHWH in Gen 3:8 who pursues sinful humanity.

His cry "Where are you" has "all the marks of grace."32

By looking at Psalm 19 as a whole, it appears the intent is to

show that from creation one can only obtain an impression of God,

whereas through special revelation a clearer picture is obtained. So

maintains VanGemeren,

The revelation of God's law is clearer than the revelation in nature.

Nature "declares," "proclaims," "pours forth," and "displays" the

revelation of God's majesty, wisdom and power. However, the

revelation of the law is greater. It is greater because it is given by

the covenant God, whose name is Yahweh.33

I conclude, then, that Psalm 19 does not support an inclusivistic

view of salvation based on general revelation, as Pinnock and

Sanders aver. However, this beautiful psalm shows the important

interplay between the two forms of revelation, and how special

revelation is necessary to make general revelation result in salvation

because fallen, sinful humans can not comprehend the inaudible

message of natural revelation.

This tendency is precisely the problem addressed by Paul in

Rom 1:18-21. He sadly observes that people "exchanged the glory of

31 Clines, "The Tree of Knowledge," 12-13.

32 Derek Kidner, Genesis (TOTC; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1967), 70.

33 VanGemeren, Psalms, 181.



24 TRINITY JOURNAL

 

the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and

birds and animals and reptiles" (1:23). Then he continues, "They

exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served

created things rather than the Creator" (1:25). While the people Paul

wrote about knew something about God through general revelation,

they did not have a saving knowledge of the LORD. Similarly, we in

the Christian academic community must be careful to avoid the folly

of the people described by Paul. We run the risk of creating

intellectual idols, if we place general and special revelation on the

same plane and think salvific knowledge can be apprehended from

the inaudible message in nature rather than only from his written

Word, and/or the incarnate Logos.

 

 

 

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