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
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
2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 233-34.
3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 78-80, cf. chap. 3.
4 Ibid., 24.
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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
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;
A. VanGemeren, Psalms
(Expositor's Bible Commentary;
Zondervan, 1991), 178-84; and Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72
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.
12 Gerstenberger, Psalms; Anderson, Psalms, 167; J. Morgenstern, "Psalm 8 and
13 Gerstenberger, Psalms; Craigie, Psalms 1-50.
14 J. W. Rogerson
and J. W. McKay, Psalms 1-50 (CBC;
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
C the glory of God
C' the work of his hands
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.;
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
YHWH" that resided in the Tabernacle beginning in Exod 40:34 and
subsequently in Solomon's
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
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
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.;
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
as Creator, are indicated."25 The use of El or Elohim, and not YHWH
23 Commentary on the Book of Psalms (trans. James Anderson;
Eerdmans, 1948), 1:317.
24 Ibid., 1:181.
25 C. J. H. Wright, "God, Names of," ISBE 2:507.
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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
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
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.
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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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