The psalm considers the glory of God in creation, and moves to reflect on the character and use of "the law of the LORD". A comparison is made between the law and the sun, which lends a degree of unity to the psalm. C. S. Lewis suggested that in verse 7, the Psalmist starts talking about something else, "which hardly seems to him like something else because it is so like the all-piercing, all-detecting sunshine." Like the Sun, the law is able to uncover hidden faults, and nothing can hide from it. As the Psalmist meditates on the excellencies of the law, he feels that his sins have been laid open before God's word, and asks for forgiveness and help.
Background and description
According to the text, Psalm 19 was composed by king David. Psalm 19 is said as part of the preliminary Jewish service on Saturday (Sabbath) mornings and also at festivals. Parts of it are quoted in the New Testament Epistle to the Romans. Even though there only are 14 verses, they cover topics of central importance to the author's faith. He uses similes and metaphorical phrases to describe the purity of the law. C. S. Lewis said of Psalm 19: "I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world."
Verses 1–6: The glory of God
(Note: Some Hebrew versions number the title or preface text as verse 1, with other verses one number higher, for a total of fifteen verses. This article follows the English numbering.)
Psalm 19: To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David.
- The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
- Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
- There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
- Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
- 5 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
- 6 His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The opening verses of Psalm 19 present the heavenly bodies and their movement as a universal witness to the glory of God that is understood by people of every language. The language connects day and night as a continuous presentation. The words suggest energy, strength, joy, and light.
Some commentators have suggested that the author may have used ideas from the literature of the proto-Phoenicians, who worshiped heavenly bodies such as the Sun. However, others point out that the belief in one God is not in doubt here because the author specifically says that the heavens and the things in them were made by his God.
This idea is recalled in the book of Romans: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:" (Romans 1:20) Paul the Apostle later cites Psalm 19:4 as a prophecy about the universal spread of the awareness of Jesus Christ as the expected Messiah.
Verses 7–11: The law – sweeter than honey
- The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
- The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
- The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
- More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
- Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.
In verses 7–11 the law of the LORD, that is the Torah, is presented as another source of revelation about God's character and expectations. The instructions are referred to as "direct" from the Hebrew yesharim meaning to make straight, smooth, right or upright. One commentator's interpretation indicates that since this law shows a person what to do and keep in mind, what to avoid, how to please God, and what help he can expect from God, they are highly desirable and valuable.
The description of the law as radiant and enlightening ties the earlier references to the lights of nature to the character of God and to his laws as revealing truths. The Torah is associated with light in other passages as well, such as Proverbs 6:23 "For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life:"
Verses 12–14: David's prayer to the LORD
- Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.
- Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.
- Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
As the author spends time thinking about God's demands, he realizes that his own actions and thoughts fall short of this law that he loves. The author prays to be kept from sins of ignorance as well as deliberate sins. He also asks that his words and thoughts be pleasing to God.
Psalm 19 has been set to music several times. Notable settings to the German text include Heinrich Schütz in Die Himmel, Herr, preisen Dein göttliche Macht und Ehr, SWV 115 (1628), Johann Sebastian Bach in the cantata Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76 (1723), Joseph Haydn in the chorus at the end of part 1 of his oratorio The Creation (1798), Ludwig van Beethoven in his 1803 song for voice and piano, "Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre".
- Psalm 19 is recited in its entirety during the Pesukei dezimra of Shabbat and Yom Tov.
- Is recited at weddings in some traditions.
- Is recited on the first day of Shavuot in some traditions.
- Verse 14 is found in the repetition of the Amidah during Rosh Hashanah.
- Verse 14 is recited during the closing to the Amidah.
In the Catholic Church
- C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), ISBN 0-15-676248-X p.64
- Commentary on Psalm 19, in Berlin, Adele and Brettler, Marc Zvi, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York pp. 1302–1303
- C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), ISBN 0-15-676248-X p.63
- Various Writers, The One-Volume Bible Commentary: A Commentary on the Holy Bible, The Macmillan Company, New York, New York, 1950 pp. 336–337
- Terrien, Samuel, The Psalms and Their Meaning for Today, Merrill Company Inc. Publishers 1952, pp. 51–53
- Romans 10:18 But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.
- Psalm 19, in Earle, Ralph, Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri, 1967, pp. 471–472
- The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 374
- The Artscroll Tehillim, p. 329
- The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, p. 351
- The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 119
- "Psalter of the Divine Office according to the Rule of Saint Benedict". Rosarychurch.net. Retrieved 2013-01-31.
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