Commentary on Psalm 19
Epiphany and the days surrounding it celebrate the “appearance” or “manifestation” (the meaning of the name’s Greek root) of God in the world.
Most immediately, the church reflects on the appearance of the infant Christ — particularly to the Gentile world the magi represent — but the other lectionary readings of this season provide opportunities to reflect on a whole variety of divine manifestations. On this third Sunday after the Epiphany, Psalm 19 represents, in many ways, a poetic celebration of this variety and how it works to bring humanity into relationship with the God who appears in creation, in instruction, in relationship, and in flesh.
Like many psalms, Psalm 19 defies simple genre categorization. Scholars believe the psalm’s current form is a composite of originally separate psalms: a creation hymn (verses 1-6), hymn to God’s torah or “instruction” (verses 7-10), and the prayer of a servant (verses 11-14). The celebration of speech illustrated by related images holds these parts together.1 In the context of Epiphany, a sermon on this text might emphasize the power of speech of all kinds (not always using words!) to make things known — God to humanity, humanity to itself, humanity to God, and so on.
Psalm 19 begins on a cosmic level and progressively narrows to conclude with the human heart.2
The theme of revelation through speech dominates the opening verses (verses 1-4). Every line contains some reference to it: the heavens declare, the firmament proclaims, speech is poured out, knowledge declared, and even the silence of creation sends forth wordless words and voiceless voices about the Creator. The psalmist then focuses on how one part of creation — the sun — makes known the glory of the God who created it merely by being (verses 5-6).
The sun was a critical part of ancient Near Eastern religions, and many scholars think that the psalmist has adapted a Canaanite or Babylonian hymn to the sun god as a polemic against these other deities. In Psalm 19, nothing is hidden from the sun and its journey across the heavens, but the sun is clearly subservient to the God who set its course.3 The light and heat and life the sun brings are just a few examples of how God appears in and cares for the world.
The next portion of the psalm turns from God “showing” God’s character to “telling” about it through divine instruction about who God is and how God intends us to live in relationship (verses 7-10). Fittingly for a psalm about speech, the psalmist offers in these verses six different synonyms for the Hebrew word torah: law, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances.4 This section also introduces the personal name of God — Yahweh, “the LORD” — rather than the more general name — El, “God” — that appeared in the first section.
Yahweh is the God who spoke out of the burning bush to Moses, who led Israel out of slavery, and who gave the gift of instruction at Sinai to help the people live in right relationship to Yahweh and to each other. Yahweh’s words are as eternal and unquenchable as the sun and prompt those who encounter them to recognize Yahweh’s power and to live as Yahweh calls. Far from being the burden we often associate with instructions, the psalmist characterizes life lived in accordance with Yahweh’s speech as revitalizing, joyful, illuminating, and sweeter than honey.
With an introductory “Moreover,” the final section of Psalm 19 builds on the preceding celebration of Yahweh’s torah to illustrate how those to whom God speaks also speak to God (verses 11-14). Here the psalmist starts using second-person pronouns to speak directly to the God who has appeared across the cosmos, in specific instructions, and who has invited creation into relationship guided by these instructions. After the dramatic hymns in verses 1-10, this prayer testifies to the fact that the God of creation and Sinai wants to have a dialogue with us, not just speak in soliloquies. The psalm ends with the psalmist asking the God whose glory is announced by every aspect of creation and who speaks perfect instruction to help ensure the psalmist’s own speech — external and internal — pours forth as an “acceptable” offering of praise.5
Psalm 19 and Epiphany
Psalm 19 offers preachers numerous avenues for exploring different ways God appears and what implications these appearances have for our lives:
- God appears in the complexity of the universe and in the ways the Creator provides life through nature’s reliable rhythms (light, heat, seasons, and tides).
- God appears in the words of Scripture and in the ways these Scriptures are fulfilled.
- God appears in the lives of those who follow the divine call to strive for perfect wholeness, wisdom, joy, truth, and justice.
- God appears in the honest prayers of those who recognize their own flaws and trust in God’s love.
- God appears in the quiet gifts of protection, strength, and courage offered to those in need.
- God appears in the dialogues of faith we have with ourselves, with one another, and with God.
Beyond the text or the sermon, the diversity of divine appearances in Psalm 19 can encourage congregants to pay attention to how God appears in diverse ways in their day-to-day lives — and to celebrate that diversity together.
- Nancy L. DeClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 203-4.
- Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 101.
- Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 112-13.
- Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 113-14.
- The word “acceptable” is often used in reference to the kinds of sacrifices God would accept (e.g., Lev 22:17-20). (Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 103.)