Psalm 19


Some are voiceless, some form a narrative, and others offer a response.

Psalm 19 is a meditative response to words that make no sound and words that shape the life of Israel. The Psalmist offers a meditation on how God encounters Israel through creation and Torah and how believers respond to such gracious revelation.

Creation’s Words

In successive synonymous parallelisms, the poet describes the impact of creation’s voiceless words.  One cannot read “heavens” and “firmament” as well as day and night without thinking about Genesis 1. The “firmament” is the protective barrier that shields the habitable earth from chaos. It is not merely “sky,” but the word reflects God’s creative love.  God’s glory is that God has acrafted (God’s handiwork) a place that speaks without words.

Creation itself announces or proclaims, and it does this continually–day and night. Creation speaks unceasingly about the reality of God’s care for the creation. The intent of God’s glorious speech is to “reveal knowledge.”

In our post-Enlightenment world we might immediately think that this refers to some kind of deductive inference about the existence of God. In other words, some stress that Psalm 19 affirms natural revelation and that it assumes nature demonstrates the existence of God. That may be true to a point (and Paul in Romans 1:19-21 seems to think something similar), but “knowledge” here is more about relationship and encounter. The Hebrew conception of “knowledge” is more about intimacy than it is propositional information.

Creation is a place where God encounters humanity, and creation speaks in such a way that humanity experiences (“knows”) God. The kind of knowledge assumed here are not mere facts but the reality of God engaged with the human story. Many testify to their encounters with God through the creation. Whether it is a mountain top, a sunrise, or waves crashing against the rocks, many have experienced God within and through the creation itself. God communicates–creation speaks for God–in such moments.

That speech, though unheard, is unceasing (day and night!), and it is universal as it is heard “through the whole earth” and to the “ends of the world.” Everyone has access to this speech or revelation; everyone may encounter God through God’s good creation.

The sun is a prime example of this speech. It is universal as it moves from one end of the earth to the other. The sun’s heat is not hidden from anyone or anything. Everyone feels its heat–whether it is warmth on a cold day or scorching heat in a dry summer. One cannot miss the sun, and the sun declares the glory of God–it testifies to God’s unceasing presence.

This glory is like the glory of a bridegroom on his wedding day. As he emerges from the wedding canopy (or wedding night chamber), he faces the future with joy, excitement, and hope. Like a champion who wins a race, the sun races across the sky in triumph. The rising sun brings a new day with all the potential excitement of a new adventure.

The Psalmist focuses on the sun, and perhaps this is a mild polemic against Ancient Near Eastern sun-worship, or perhaps it is simply the grandest example of God’s glory day-t0-day. Whatever the case, the sun illustrates the grandeur, pervasiveness, and accessiblity of God’s speech through the creation.

Creation is God’s first act of self-revelation, and it is an act of gracious engagement. Humanity does not discover God as much as God speaks within and through the creation. God makes the first move.

Torah’s Words

Israel knows that God speaks in other ways than through the rising sun and the testimony of the heavens. God has spoken in history, and God has acted within history to enter into covenant (relationship) with Israel. That story is told in concrete ways–it is written in the Torah. These words are heard, and they are heard in the assembly of the people of God. Israel has been given the “oracles of God” (cf. Romans 3:2), and this comes in the form of Torah (often rendered “law”).

“Torah” heads the praise of this divine speech. It is, one might say, the controlling metaphor for the following descriptions:  decrees, precepts, and commandment. Those further terms are couched in the framework of Torah, and Torah is not primarily a legal code but a story that guides Israel in walking with God. Torah is instruction and guidance through narrative and story rather than merely specific case-law or isolated commands and rituals.

Embedded within God’s story with Israel are guidelines, directions, and formative practices that transform people into the image of God. This story:

  • restores the soul, that is, it renews life
  • makes the simple wise, that is, guides the inexperienced
  • gives joy to the heart, that is, enables a life free of burdens
  • enlightens the eyes, that is, enables us to see more clearly

The Torah–the story of God with Israel–provides a path for healthy, joyful and wise living.

The colon “making the simple wise” is particularly significant. This is the language of Proverbs 1:1-7. There are two paths in life–the foolish one and the wise one.  But the “simple” are often too inexperienced to discern the difference. The Hebrew term “simple” does not refer to a mental deficiency, but to the lack of life experience. The “simple” are easily deceived, easily driven by desires, and act on impulse rather than careful reflection (they react rather than respond to situations). Due to a lack of experience, their discernment is impaired or underdeveloped.

The Torah serves as a wise sage to help the “simple”discern good from evil, make choices, and understand the consequences of the different paths life can take. In other words, the Torah–God’s guidance–is for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live. It is not an oppressive legal chain, but divine wisdom spoken for the sake of human health and well-being.

As a result, the wise response is submission, that is, it is to fear (awe, reverence) Yahweh. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), and this humble submission and reverent respect for God calls us to embody the Torah’s wisdom in our own lives.

It is little wonder, then, that the Psalmist regards God’s speech as more valuable than gold or silver and sweeter than honey.  This speech is about life, authentic life. A discerning, wise life has better consequences than hoarding gold or silver, and it is much sweeter than the momentary taste of honey.

Our Words

The Psalmist confesses that Torah, God’s guidance, is both life-affirming (there is great reward in living a wise life) and a warning (there are dangers into which the “simple” might fall).

Indeed, the dangers are so pervasive that often they are hidden from our own eyes. The human ability for self-deception and self-delusion knows no practical limits. Most of our faults, I would guess, are “hidden” from us. We are unaware due to ignorance–ignorance both of the Torah and of our own selves.

The danger is that this self-deception can grow into an arrogance, and arrogance leads to presumptuous or defiant behavior.  It leads to willful sin, that is, sin that rebelliously lives outside the story. Arrogance presumes that the story (Torah) does not apply to them and they are the exceptions to the rules a community shares for the sake of the common good.

Because this danger looms large in every soul, the Psalmist asks God to forgive the hidden sins and prevent them from developing into a rebellious attitude. The Psalmist is committed to God’s story and wants to live within it. Yet, the poet knows the dangers and seeks God’s help in cleansing and self-understanding.

Yahweh is the Psalmist’s “rock and redeemer.” The fear of Yahweh is a stable place and a sure foundation upon which to build a life, and though our own self-deception often intrudes and disrupts that life, God is also a redeemer who forgives sin, renews life, and gives joy.

Let us offer our meditations–on creation and Torah–before the Lord, recommit ourselves to wise living in the fear of Yahweh, and humbly submit to God’s guidance.


5 Responses to “Psalm 19”

  1.   Kim Says:

    LOVE this! So much information and explanation! Encouraging! Thanks!

  2.   Jordan Says:

    “Many testify to their encounters with God through the creation. Whether it is a mountain top, a sunrise, or waves crashing against the rocks, many have experienced God within and through the creation itself. God communicates–creation speaks for God–in such moments.”
    –yes, but about such moments. By whom are the “words” heard? Does a Bronze Age agrarian nation of peasants experience an appreciation of nature like modern city dwellers? Does the shepherd in grunting pursuit of a lost sheep in the high country delight in the rocky vista, does he “hear the speech pouring out” the way that, for example, Francis Collins remembers having heard it on a hiking trip vacation in the Cascades?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I suppose we might note that David, an iron age shepherd, recognized it, or at least a Psalmist within Iron Age Israel recognized it. Seems to me that the ancients were fascinated with the wonder of the world, even worshiping the moon, stars, and sun. So, there is some draw there, though the unheard voice is often ambiguous (at least to our understanding) and misinterpreted. Even shepherds who are frustrated with rocky crags while looking for a missing sheep have other times in life when the wonder of the world captures them.

      I think it is a both/and. The creation has its negatives because it is not yet complete, finished or reached its goal. So, there are moments where creation is “heard” to question God rather than speak for God. And, at the same time, the rain that brings the floods also waters the ground and produces beauty and food, and even the rain has its romantic dimension. But mere romanticism is not the point. Rather, it is the reality that speaks of something greater than what we see and speaks a word about divine care, interest, and ultimately even a goal. Its message is difficult to discern at times, just as life frustrates us at times. Nevertheless, the creation continually pours out speech, and is sometimes heard.

  3.   Jordan Says:

    Much thanks for both the meditation and for this helpful reply!

  4.   Mike Hendricks Says:

    Dr. Hicks. I enjoy reading your work, and how God speaks through you. I especially enjoyed your thoughts here on Torah, and how it is used in relation to the simple. Instead of law, it is more a story and guide. I have been thinking of Galatians 3 lately, particularly where Paul refers to the law in verse 24 as a tutor. It watches over us while we are, or were simple. But now that we have matured, now that we have passed beyond a tutor, we operate in a relationship of faith. Or to attempt to use your words and ideas – we have progressed into a deeper fulfillment of the covenant relationship that God desires to have with us (mankind), in and through faith in his son, Jesus Christ.

    God’s continual blessings to you.

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