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Psalm 19

C.S. Lewis has said of Psalm 19 ‘I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.’ It has found a definite place in Christian worship. Verse 14 alone is often singled out as a prayer for illumination. The whole psalm has been the inspiration for more than one hymn.

Psalm 19 divides into two sections, vv. 1-6 and vv. 7-14, with the subject matter changing from an expression of the glory of God seen in the canopy of space to a psalm focusing on the ‘law of the Lord.’ Each of these two sections can be further subdivided into two parts.

Verses 1 to 6 break up into vv. 1-4a, a hymn based on a reflection on creation, and vv. 4b-6 which sings the praises of the sun. These verses could be an ancient hymn to the sun-god thoroughly adapted for Israelite use, now with the sun controlled by Israel's God (v. 4b). Finally, vv. 7-14 can also be subdivided into vv. 7-10, which focus on the praise of torah, and vv. 11-14, which constitute a personal prayer of supplication.

We should also note that there are certain connections between the parts of the psalm: word connections (e.g. ‘hid’ and ‘hide’ in vv. 6 and 12; ‘heart’ in vv. 8 and 14). Also the theme of ‘speech’ ties the psalm together (e.g. in vv. 1, 2, and 14, and presumed in the words ‘precepts’ and ‘commandments’). These connections invite us to consider the psalm as a unity with the meaning of the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

In vv. 1-4a the glory of God is seen as declared clearly in God's creation. The paradoxical thing is that this speech is silent. The ‘voice’ of creation pervades every nook and cranny of the earth, but it is not a voice that can be literally heard. The psalmist observes the beauty and wonder of the sky, and interprets it as reflecting God's glory. Such reflections in the ancient world are a part of what modern scholars call ‘wisdom literature.’ By observing various aspects of nature, God's wise instruction is revealed.

A wider mythic background is clearly present in vv. 4b-6 indicate. The sun is pictured first as a bridegroom coming forth from his wedding canopy (v. 5a) and then like a strong warrior (v. 5b). Each proceeds on his destined journey. In the ancient Near East, the sun-god was perceived as a god of judgment from whom nothing was hidden. The theme of pervasiveness ties this section to vv. 1-4a where the word of creation that reaches everywhere spreads forth the knowledge of God. Added to this theme of pervasiveness is the theme of judgment - ‘nothing is hid from its heat’ (v. 6). The glory of God and his handiwork are proclaimed, but this is coupled with his judgment of all that goes on in creation.

The focus of the psalm changes dramatically in vv. 7-9 with a catalogue of the qualities of the torah. The six separate words are used in Hebrew to describe the subject of this section are translated by six separate English words - law, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, ordinances. Any English distinctions between these words ought not to preoccupy us as the effect is meant to be cumulative. We are meant to gain a total appreciation of the effect of God's torah on our lives. It is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, enduring, true and altogether righteous. It revives, makes wise, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes. In v. 10 we hear of the human desire for this torah. It is more desirable than the best gold, sweeter than honey. The torah of God brings life to humans. But it is not simply given for the benefit of humans. It is of immense value in its own right, both for what it does and for what it is.

In vv. 11-13 the focus shifts to the human response to torah. They are always seen as dependent on torah. It warns them and preserves them from sin. The psalmist seeks God's protection and only by observance of it can the servant of God become like torah itself, blameless and innocent (v. 13). The theme of judgment in human life in vv. 11-13 recalls the judgment that lies in the mythological background to the reference to the sun in vv. 4b-6. But the theme of the pervasiveness of the word of God is also present, cementing the inner connections within the whole psalm. Just as the knowledge of God pervades the world and nothing is hidden from its searching rays (v. 6), so the psalmist would let torah pervade his or her life in being warned, blessed, reproached, and protected. Torah, like creation itself, carries forward the revelation of God and they both point beyond themselves to their creator.

In v. 14 the psalm comes back to the theme of words, this time the words of the psalmist. Verse 14 continues the focus of vv. 11-13. The psalmist prays that their words may match the words of God. But this returns us to the words of creation which declared the work of God (vv. 1-4a). In effect the psalmist prays that their words will be in concert with the silent voice of creation as well as with the word God has given to his people in torah.

In vv. 11-14 the psalmist is aware of the need of redemption. The psalmist is not in some pure, automatic relation with God. The sun as well as the torah search the psalmist out. There are two sides to the praise of torah just as there are two sides to the observance of the beauty of creation. Nevertheless, for the psalmist the praise of God in creation and in torah set the context for hope and generate confidence. The process of recitation of the nature of torah not only reminds the psalmist that the torah is judge, that which reveals faults, but it is also the psalmist's hope in that it offers the possibility of living a life in harmony with the way of God. The psalmist has the opportunity to observe the words of the torah, and to desire that his or her own words may be acceptable to God. In such circumstances the psalmist then would live in harmony with creation.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Verse 1 could be clearly used as a call to worship at the start of the service.

Other verses could be adapted to other purposes. Verses 7-10 could serve as a litany around the word of God with some slight modification. This is not to deny the concept of law in ancient Israelite faith or modern Jewish tradition. It is a way of appropriating the thoughts of the psalm into the Christian understanding in relation to Jesus as Word, without denying the original sentiment of the psalm. It could work as follows:

The law of the LORD is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
    More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.
Finally vv. 12-14 could be adapted to conclude the prayer of confession leading into the declaration of forgiveness.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear us from hidden faults.
Keep back your servants also from proud thoughts;
do not let them have dominion over us.
Then we shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of our mouths
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable to you, O LORD,
our rock and our redeemer.
Old Testament reading: Exodus 20:1-17

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