Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14
As a college professor of biblical studies, I consistently find that the most important question for the course is: What kind of book is the Bible?
Ironically, our general education course is designed more for understanding the story of the Bible than it is for exploring the nature of its revelation. Nevertheless, there is almost never a class hour in which this question does not arise in some shape or form. Given that my first career was as a parish pastor, I know that this is also an incredibly important question for congregations. How we use the Bible in personal prayer, corporate worship, doctrinal formation, social ethics, and missional identity hinges on the sort of book that the Bible is. I believe Psalm 19 offers a unique opportunity to direct the church’s attention to the nature and function of scripture.
Two preliminary comments: First, with critical scholarship I acknowledge that there are sound reasons for thinking that Psalm 19:1-6 existed as a separate poem or was written by the author of vv. 7-14 based on an earlier (perhaps) non-Israelite hymn about nature or its gods.1 However, I agree with many scholars that Psalm 19 is best interpreted as a poetic unity.2 So, while the lectionary offers us an opportunity to focus on half of the psalm, the meaning of vv. 7-14 eventually relates to the whole poem, and this can be used to your homiletical advantage, as I’ll try to demonstrate below. Second, I assume that what Psalm 19 affirms about “the law of the Lord” may be applied to the Bible’s revelatory function. This assumption involves a fair amount of theological and hermeneutical complexity, but I believe that preaching can and should engage a congregation’s confessional/creedal traditions, including its doctrine of scripture. Here are three possible affirmations that could be made when we ask what kind of book is the Bible?
First, the Bible is a book that speaks on many levels. I’m talking about how Psalm 19 addresses every aspect of our being through six descriptive phrases (e.g., “the law of the Lord is perfect”) with their accompanying effects (e.g., “reviving the soul”).3 I’m not sure a sermon should try to unpack all of these, so another approach would be to draw attention to their similarity and difference. The parallel pattern demonstrates an underlying unity in their function for our lives,4 while the different items indicate the variety of effects in our lives. To paraphrase Peter Craigie, the six aspects increase our vigor, wisdom, joy, truth, reverence, and righteousness.5 New and life-long students of the Bible will be blessed by the realization that the Bible cannot be classified under one purpose. It is not primarily a moral code book, though it contains laws and ethical principles. It’s not merely a source of doctrine or history, though all of these can be discerned in its pages. It is not just a drama of redemption, because within the overarching narrative structure are several other literary forms. To sum it up, the Bible’s unity and diversity, its continuity and discontinuity exist in a healthy tension. Psalm 19 witnesses to the vibrant nature of the Bible.
Second, the Bible is a book that claims, comforts, and convicts us. The prayer in vv. 11-14 dispels any notion that Bible reading is solely an intellectual activity. To be sure, our prayerful engagement with its message enables us to “love God with all our mind,” but the prayer moves us from the nature of God’s word to its claim upon our lives. Through repetitions, the psalmist displays the close connection between the Word and our prayers: “heart” (vv. 8, 14); “perfect/blameless” (vv. 7, 13), and “much/great” (vv. 10, 11, 13). The second half of the psalm moves from describing the Bible to responding to its truth. And through an echo of the first half of the psalm, our “hidden faults” (v. 12) are revealed by the light of God’s word analogous to the sun revealing what is hidden in nature (v. 6).6 Verses 11-13 depict a vigorous process of conviction, confession, and growth by means of eight verbal forms, laid out in two groups that end with the same Hebrew root, nqh (“clear,” “be innocent”).
Third, the Bible is a book that helps us connect nature’s wonders with God’s mercy, and both of them to us.7 This point integrates the psalm on its own terms and connects creation and redemption through some very interesting parallels with the language and plot of Genesis 2.8 In its canonical unity, the poem declares that God’s revelation doesn’t lead “to awe and fear of natural powers, [or] to legalistic religion, but to a relationship so personal and cherished that one’s desire is simply to be pleasing in Yahweh’s sight.”9 I appreciate McCann’s connection of the psalm’s last word, go’alî (“my redeemer”) with the theme of the kinsman-redeemer in Ruth. We experience God not “as a cosmic enforcer but as a forgiving next of kin.”10 The Bible reveals the true and living God to us through its witness to his creative, redemptive, and restorative activity through Israel’s Messiah on behalf of the cosmos and every human soul.
1 Walter Harrelson, “Psalm 19: A Meditation on God’s Glory in the Heavens and God’s Law.” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honor of John T Willis, eds. M. P. Graham, et. al. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 142-147.
2 See, for instance, J. Ross Wagner, “From the Heavens to the Heart: the Dynamics of Psalm 19 as Prayer.” CBQ 61 (1999): 245-261.
3 By “many levels,” I am not espousing a perspective that embraces endless debates about meaning, with the utter hopelessness for hearing a reliable word from God in scripture.
4 Rolf A. Jacobson, “Psalm 19: Tune My Heart to Sing Your Praise,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 209.
5 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 182. See also the excellent appendix in Willem A. VanGemeren, “The Book of Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:184-187.
6 Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 115.
7 Jacobson notes the unifying theme of “speech” in creation, Torah, and the servant uttering the prayer (204).
8 David J. A. Clines, “The Tree of Knowledge and the Law of Yahweh (Psalm XIX)” VT 24 (1974): 8-14.
9 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 109.
10 J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon: Nashville, 1996), IV:753.