Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14
The lectionary tries to steal this psalm from us, but we don’t need to let it.
We lose verses 1-6 in the prescribed reading, which makes Psalm 19 an altogether different psalm. To be sure, Psalm 19 shows up in its entirety more than once in the Revised Common Lectionary (once earlier this year, on Lent 3, March 15, 2009), so maybe we could allow it to be truncated here. However, if we do, we get quite another psalm. With merely verses 7-14, we have another Torah psalm, a psalm in praise of God’s law in the manner of Psalms 1 and 119–not a bad thing, but not Psalm 19. Psalm 19’s message, its glory, its surprise is the combination of creation psalm and Torah psalm, both God’s creation and God’s law seen as worthy of our praise and the source of God’s revelation.
By severing verses 1-6 from 7-14, the lectionary follows the pattern of critical exegetes of some generations ago who thought this was two psalms, now inexplicably put together. But it is put together, of course–deliberately, no doubt–and we should read it that way. Besides, as McCann notes, the psalm has not just two parts but three: the focus on creation (verses 1-6), on Torah (verses 7-10), and on the psalmist and his or her response to God (verses 11-14).1 All come together to provide the psalm’s message to us.
A key thing that we want to hear in this psalm, that preachers want others to hear, is the rich way in which creation and law, nature and word, complement each other, together bearing fuller witness to God than either alone. It has been easy for people to drive a wedge between the two forms of divine revelation that the psalm brings together. On the one hand, some who claim to find God in creation have been quite suspicious of words and precepts (right brain versus left brain?); on the other, some wed to verbal truth have rejected the possibility of knowing God in nature.
In the first category, for example, we can hear Emily Dickinson’s poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to church, / I keep it staying at home, / With a bobolink for a chorister, / And an orchard for a dome.” For Dickinson, “God preaches,–a noted clergyman,– / And the sermon is never long; / So instead of getting to heaven at last, / I ‘m going all along!”2
In the second category, we could mention Karl Barth’s sharp “No” to natural theology, rejecting any possibility of “a union of humanity with God existing outside of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.”3
Emily Dickinson may have something in common with Psalm 19 when she hears God preaching in nature, but must she thereby reject church and Sabbath? And Karl Barth is right, of course, that we can’t get to Jesus Christ by listening to the birds, but must God’s revelation be thereby limited to Christology? The psalm’s genius is bringing together what many theologians and poets have been unable to connect.
In part one, the psalm recognizes that in creation there is “no speech'” yet, mysteriously creation’s “voice goes out through all the earth.” Here the psalmist hears the praise of creation as does the author of Psalm 148. Jesus’ words may be appropriate for all of us here: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9).
The psalm makes clear that although the sun proclaims God, the sun itself is not divine (as much nature religion, then and now, might want to assert). Though the poem uses ancient mythic language that glories in the sun (and that might once have been an ancient Near Eastern hymn to the sun god), God is now seen to set a tent for the sun as it makes its way across the sky. The sun shines, but God is its originator. We, too, revel in the sun and its light and heat, as we revel in all the wonders of creation, but behind the creature, we worship the Creator. In the beauty and mystery of creation, we see something of God.
Tying the psalm together, the “speech” of verses 2-3 uses the same Hebrew root (‘omer) as the “words” of verse 14. The three parts of the poem have one theme: the “voices” that reveal God, in creation, in Torah, and in the response of God’s servant.
In part two, we hear the psalmist’s extravagant praise of God’s law. God’s law is perfect, God’s decrees are sure, God’s precepts are right, God’s commandments are clear, God’s ordinances are true. This is hardly the voice of a person subjected to the “blue laws” that seem to prohibit good times to the supposed glory of God. The psalmist knows what Deuteronomy knows (Deuteronomy 30:19-20; see Proverbs 6:23), and what the decriers of law do not: the law is made for life.
God’s law is the gift of a loving parent to protect children from playing in traffic: Don’t do that–not because you dare not have fun, but because I will not have you die. The laws and ordinances that protect from harm and that provide the order that allows human life to thrive are praised in Psalm 19. These laws are more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey (verses 10); they are words that proclaim God’s love for humankind and reveal God’s never failing care.
Hearing the voice of God in creation, hearing the voice of God’s law that gives us life, we can join the voice of the psalmist in the psalm’s final section, appreciating the law’s warning and its intention of keeping us from falling into transgression, praying at last that our words, our voice, be acceptable to God. Like the psalmist’s, our prayer will include confession, of course, for without God’s cleansing we cannot finally be blameless and innocent (verse 13). Then, in response to that prayer, we hear another word of God, God’s gracious word of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. With that, we rejoice in God’s Son, even as we rejoice, with the psalmist, in God’s sun, and give thanks to God, our rock and redeemer.
1J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996) 751.
2The full poem is found often online; for example, at www.poetry-chaikhana.com/D/DickinsonEmi/324SomekeepS.htm (accessed 9 May 2009).
3Church Dogmatics II/1, 168; see also Barth, “No! Answer to Emil Brunner,” in Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, ed. Clifford Green (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989) 151-167.