Third Sunday in Lent (Year B)

Psalm 19 offers plenty of useful avenues of engagement. Indeed, it presents the interpreter with an embarrassment of options.

March 11, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 19

Psalm 19 offers plenty of useful avenues of engagement. Indeed, it presents the interpreter with an embarrassment of options.

The Psalm touches on a number of major biblical themes — creation, law, sin, forgiveness, and ethical conduct among them — and also offers a rich set of imagery and well-known language on which to draw. The preacher will be well-advised to focus on a selection or combination of these themes according to the needs and situation of the congregation.

Whatever themes or images are emphasized, however, the overall structure and movement of the Psalm offer a solid pattern for exposition.

There are three clear sections of the Psalm:

Verses One through Six

Here the Psalmist offers a vivid description of the glories of creation, focused particularly on the heavens. According to the text, the orderly succession of day and night offer mute but eloquent testimony to the power of the God who has created and continues to maintain them. The daily progress of the sun also illustrates this power. While some of the neighboring cultures viewed the sun as either divine in itself or at least a visible manifestation of a god’s presence, the Psalmist sees its movement across the sky as evidence of the remarkable might of the One who could and did arrange and regulate such a spectacle.

Verses Seven through Ten

The focus of the Psalm switches abruptly from God’s creation to God’s torah (law, instruction). This torah is praised repeatedly, whether it is referred to as “commandment,” “precepts,” “decrees,” or any of the other various terms deployed here. The value of God’s instruction for “reviving the soul…making wise the simple…rejoicing the heart…enlightening the eyes…enduring forever…[and being] true and righteous altogether” certainly goes a long way toward explaining why it is more valuable and desirable than the richest gold and the sweetest honey.

Verses Eleven through Fourteen

Recognizing all of the virtues of torah, the Psalmist now turns specifically to its value as a guide to right conduct. At first glance, the ethical consequence of receiving torah seems straightforward: if one keeps the law, great reward will result. If one does not, the consequences alluded to in the line “by them is your servant warned” would instead come into play. The difficulty, as the Psalmist goes on to point out, is that one does not always even realize when one has transgressed the law. Thus, the Psalm concludes with a series of pleas to God for forgiveness of unconscious sin, for protection against evil influences, and for the acceptability to God, deserved or otherwise, of the Psalmist’s words and thoughts.

The flow of the Psalm through these three sections (with torah serving as the bridge between creation and human conduct) offers a number of possible directions for proclamation. Depending on the specific context and concerns of a particular congregation, exposition could focus on:

The Psalm’s case for Scripture (or for torah) as the essential guide and authority for determining Christian moral and ethical conduct. It is, in the structure of the Psalm, only after God gives torah to enlighten, make wise, and so forth that a person can be “warned” and guided to proper conduct and choices.

The need for God’s sovereign and gracious salvation even in the light of torah. The recognition of “hidden faults” and of the need for God’s protection from evil influences is a deep admission of human inability to live according to the law, and therefore of the powerful need for forgiveness and the Gospel. This approach might be particularly attractive during penitential seasons in the life of a congregation.

The failure of “natural theology” to offer full, saving knowledge of God. In effect, the Psalm could be construed as saying “The heavens may tell of God’s glory, but it is only after God gives torah that the believer can make enough sense of the creation to recognize sin, to cry out for forgiveness, and to place all hope and trust in God’s grace.

While any of these approaches to the text might well suit a particular moment in the life of the church, there is a more straightforward and broadly applicable way to engage Psalm 19 as well.

This text is a celebration of three great gifts of God: creation, torah, and forgiveness. Its reading and interpretation can and should summon the people of God to join in, giving thanks for the particular ways these gifts have been manifest in their lives and the life of their community. Such a celebration is appropriate for any congregation, and will surely be found acceptable in God’s sight.