For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
The heavens declare the glory of God / and the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech / and night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language / their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth / and their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun / which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber / and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.
His going forth is from the end of the heavens / and his circuit unto the ends of it / and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of YHWH is perfect, restoring the soul / the testimony of YHWH is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of YHWH are right, rejoicing the heart / the commandment of YHWH is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of YHWH is clean, enduring for ever / the ordinances of YHWH are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold / sweeter also than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned / in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? / Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins / let them not have dominion over me: Then shall I be upright, And I shall be clear from great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart / be acceptable in thy sight, O YHWH, my rock, and my redeemer (Psalm 19:1-14).
“I take [Psalm 19] to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world ” (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 63).
Psalm 19 is justly famous as an ode to YHWH the Creator and how He has made the universe. Psalm 19:1 is famous in its own right as is Psalm 19:7-10, the latter of which is frequently sung as a hymn. It has thus been fashionable to consider Psalm 19 in its various parts; many in fact suggest Psalm 19 is a compilation of two or three separate psalms all put together. Is it really just two or three Psalms put together? What is David attempting to communicate in Psalm 19 as presently arranged?
The three main sections of Psalm 19 are Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 19:7-11, and Psalm 19:12-14. Psalm 19:1-6 describes how, as Psalm 19:1 says, the heavens declare God’s glory and handiwork. The whole system betrays an intelligent Artificer behind the scenes (Psalm 19:2). God has set all things in their place and has made the course for the sun; the sun is spoken of in terms of a bridegroom leaving the chamber, or rejoicing as a man finishing his task, shining over all the earth with nothing hidden from it (Psalm 19:3-6).
Psalm 19:7-11 commend YHWH’s instruction. David speaks of YHWH’s law, testimonies, precepts, commandments, fear, and ordinances, terms reminiscent of the Torah (Psalm 19:7-9; cf. Deuteronomy 4:45, Psalm 119:4). YHWH’s instruction is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true; they restore the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever, and are altogether righteous. The poetry is succinct; the lines are sharp. YHWH’s instruction is more desirable than gold or honey, warning the servant, providing great reward (Psalm 19:10-11).
Psalm 19:12-14 feature David’s response. He rhetorically asks who could discern God’s errors? No mortal can, of course; he therefore wishes to be cleansed of hidden faults and to be kept back from presumptuous sins (Psalm 19:12-13a). He will then be able to stand upright and be clear of transgression, and he prays that his words and meditation are acceptable in the sight of YHWH his Rock and Redeemer, the source of his strength, refuge, and vindication (Psalm 19:13b-14).
It is easy to see why people might think that two or three psalms have been put together here: what does the sun have to do with the Law? What do they have to do with hidden faults? Yet we do well to consider why David and/or the Psalter has prepared Psalm 19 as a whole. Is there anything that might bind Psalm 19 together?
The theme of all of Psalm 19 is found in Psalm 19:1: God’s glory is seen in His handiwork. Of all the things David could have featured when speaking of the heavens he focuses on the sun and how things are in their proper courses (Psalm 19:1-6). The sun, and particularly the way in which the sun is described, expresses not only God’s majestic structure in the heavens but their benevolent function as well. The sun gives light and life, joyful as the man who has just experienced his first copulation or who is about to finish a race (Psalm 19:5). As the heavens and the sun do not speak themselves but show the speech of YHWH and His benevolent structure in the heavens, so the words of YHWH in the Law, in His Torah, provide benevolent structure for the conduct and behavior of His people (Psalm 19:7-11). Keeping YHWH’s Torah provides great reward (Psalm 19:11); what if David actually meant what he said and believed that just as the sun allows for life to exist and flourish so YHWH’s Torah restores the soul, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes? And what would be the appropriate response to seeing YHWH’s benevolent structure in His creation, both in the heavens and in the Torah? Humility and faithfulness: asking for forgiveness from hidden faults and presumptuous sins, trusting in YHWH’s benevolence and beneficence, maintaining YHWH as refuge, strength, and source of deliverance (Psalm 19:12-14).
Thus Psalm 19 can be well understood in its unity: all we are and have are thanks to YHWH’s benevolent structure He established in the creation. He made the heavens so that the earth could be inhabited; He established His Torah, His Law, so that people could live and thrive; in response we do well to give thanks, ask to be kept from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and to trust in YHWH as our Rock and Redeemer. May we allow Psalm 19 to give voice to us to proclaim the greatness of God’s handiwork in the heavens and in His instruction, to ask to be kept from presumption, and trust in our redemption secured by His Son the Lord Jesus Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry