< September 30, 2012 >

Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14

 

C. S. Lewis called Psalm 19 "the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world."1

The song employs beautiful imagery, playful poetry, and elegant prayer-petitions. For the pastor who opts to preach on the psalm this week, most of the challenge will be to get out of the way so that this gorgeous song can ring. (The same challenge is true for the cantor who arranges the psalm to be sung or chanted this week.)

The Psalm as a Whole: The Root Metaphor of Speech
The first task for the pastor or cantor will be to decide whether to use the whole psalm or just the assigned verses. Unfortunately, the Revised Common Lectionary assigns only the latter half of the psalm. The division of this psalm into two halves follows a now outdated interpretation of the psalm. In the middle of the last century, many interpreters viewed this psalm as comprised of two (or three) unrelated poems. This was the case for several reasons.
- In the first section (verses 1-6), the focus is on creation, the genre is similar to a hymn, the poetry is flexibly fluid, and the generic name for God (El) is used.
- In the second section (verses 7-10), the focus is on God's Torah (translated in the NRSV and NIV as "law" but "instruction" would be better), the genre is similar to a wisdom psalm, the poetry becomes consistently formal, and the proper name of the LORD (YHWH) is used.
- In the third section (verses 11-14), the focus shifts to the "servant" who speaks the psalm, the genre is similar to a prayer, the poetry becomes more informal, and the proper name for the LORD (YHWH) continues to be used.

The noted scholar A. Weiser went so far as to write, "Why these. . . dissimilar psalms were united in one single psalm cannot any longer be established with any degree of certainty."2 The lectionary's choice of only the second half of the psalm is informed by this older view.

But most current interpreters hold that the poem is a coherent whole. The root metaphor of the psalm is speech:

Part I (verses 1-6) Creation's Speech -- praise for God
Part II (verses 7-10) Torah's Speech -- instruction of humanity
Part II (verses 11-4) Servant's Speech -- prayer to God

Clint McCann has summed up the psalm's message thusly: "Psalm 19 intends to teach."3 The first part of the poem teaches that the heavens tell us that there is a God. The power of the creator can be known about through the paradoxical, unspoken speech of creation: "There is no speech, nor are there words; [the heavens'] voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (verses 3-4).

But the second part of the psalm teaches us who God is and what God wills. The Lord's Torah -- we would call it Scripture -- is a word that we can actually understand and gives us words to follow.

The Assigned Verses: "The Torah of the Lord is Perfect"
As already mentioned, the poetry and focus of the psalm change beginning with verse 7, which is the first verse in the psalm's second section. The focus shifts to the "Torah of the Lord." The poetry becomes rigidly regular. Each of the lines in verses 7-9 is constructed identically: noun + YHWH + adjective + participle + noun.4

Each phrase begins with a synonym for the Torah of the Lord -- Torah, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances -- are a reference to the word of God revealed in the Scriptures. Torah is not here "law" in the legal sense, but as "instruction" in a more holistic sense. This section of the poem celebrates what God has done and continues to do through the Scriptures. God revives the soul, makes wise the simple, enlightens the eye, endures forever, and is altogether righteous.

Stop a moment. Pause briefly and linger on the promise here.

The Bible is such a part of Western society that we often fail to appreciate the means of grace that Scripture is. The psalm offers poetic testimony that invites both church and synagogue to realize the miracle that we hold in our hands. And it does this by offering promises about what the Word does (revive the soul, make wise the simple, enlighten the eye, and so on).

Even the laws of the Bible are to be treasured as gracious gifts from God. Aren't you glad that God has told you how to live? The psalmist is! And the psalmist is overjoyed to be part of the people that God has blessed with the laws and promises of Scripture. As Deuteronomy puts it, "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?" (4:7-8)

The poem then offers two (literally) golden metaphors for the Word. It is more desirable than refined gold. It is sweeter than the golden honey of the honeycomb. (Warning: At the children's sermon, you probably should not have the kids go all Winnie-the-Pooh and dip their hands into the "hunny" pot as an illustration of this psalm. But it would be funny . . . unless you are my pastor.)

A Prayer for Forgiveness
Lest some Christian reader be tempted to the crypto-Marcionite conclusion that Psalm 19 teaches some sort of "works righteousness," the poem closes with a prayer for forgiveness.

Yes, the Torah of the Lord is perfect. Yes, its laws are a gracious gift from the very God who created us -- they show us how to live and they offer pictures of what it means to love the neighbor.

As the psalmist knows, "in keeping them there is great reward" (verse 11b). Reward here doesn't mean that God miraculously rewards those who keep God's law. Rather, reward here means that good things come in the very earthly keeping of the laws -- don't steal and you stay out of prison, don't kill and you won't be executed, and so on.

But, as the psalmist also knows that perfect obedience is beyond human capacity. The psalmist knows that no one "can detect their [own] errors." Therefore the psalmist prays, "Clear me from hidden faults" (verse 12).

A Final Word
The psalm ends with a prayer that many preachers use for the start of their sermon: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer." The use of this prayer in connection with preaching begs us to wonder if even our proclamation of God's word needs God's forgiving, gracious blessing.

Are there "errors" in our sermons? I am sure that there are in my sermons -- and not just grammatical mistakes. Surely from time to time (and perhaps every time) my proclamation of the gospel includes heresy.

Are there "hidden faults" in our preaching? Absolutely -- especially my own. Not just slips of the tongue. Surely from time to time (and perhaps every time) my explanation of the law includes immoral or unethical conclusions.

But this, too, God -- our Rock and our Redeemer -- has redeemed.

Thank and praise God.


1C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1986), 63.
2Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 197.
3McCann, "Psalms," 751.
4 The pattern is broken slightly in the last part of verse 9, which brings the section to a fitting climax.