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Thursday, September 28th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 19

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-14

Is this originally one psalm or bits of two, pieced together to suggest a comparison between the two sources of knowledge of God, which the authors did not dream of? The affirmative is strongly maintained, but, we may venture to say, not so strongly sustained. The two parts are said to differ in style, rhythm, and subject. Certainly they do, but the difference in style accounts for the difference in structure. It is not an unheard of phenomenon that cadence should change with theme; and if the very purpose of the song is to set forth the difference of the two witnesses to God, nothing can be more likely than such a change in measure. The two halves are said to be put together abruptly without anything to smooth the transition. So they are, and so is Psalms 19:4 put by the side of Psalms 19:3; and so does the last turn of thought (Psalms 19:12-14) follow the second. Cyclopean architecture without mortar has a certain impressiveness. The abruptness is rather an argument for than against the original unity, for a compiler would have been likely to try to make some sort of glue to hold his two fragments together, while a poet, in the rush of his afflatus, would welcome the very abruptness which the manufacturer would avoid. Surely the thought that binds the whole into a unity-that Jehovah is El, and that nature and law witness to the same Divine Person, though with varying clearness-is not so strange as that we should have to find its author in some late editor unknown.

Psalms 19:1-6 hymn the silent declaration by the heavens. The details of exposition must first be dealt with. "Declare" and "makes known" are participles, and thus express the continuity of the acts. The substance of the witness is set forth with distinct reference to its limitations, for "glory" has here no moral element, but simply means what Paul calls "eternal power and Godhead," while the Divine name of God ("El") is used in intended contrast to "Jehovah" in the second half, a nuance which must be obliterated if this is a conglomerate psalm. "His handiwork," in like manner, limits the revelation. The heavens by day are so marvellously unlike the heavens by night that the psalmist’s imagination conjures up two long processions, each member of which passes on the word entrusted to him to his successor-the blazing days with heaven naked but for one great light, and the still nights with all their stars. Psalms 19:3 has given commentators much trouble in attempting to smooth its paradox. Tastes are curiously different, for some critics think that the familiar interpretation gives a flat, prosaic meaning, while Cheyne takes the verse to be a gloss for dull readers, and exclaims, "How much the brilliant psalm fragment gains by its omission!" De gustibus, etc. Some of us may still feel that the psalmist’s contrast of the awful silence in the depths of the sky and of the voice that speaks to opened ears thrills us with something very like the electric touch of poetry. In Psalms 19:4 the thought of the great voices returns.

Their hue is usually explained as meaning their sphere of influence, marked out, as it were, by a measuring cord. If that rendering is adopted Psalms 19:4 b would in effect say, "Their words go as far as their realm." Or the rendering "sound" may be deduced, though somewhat precariously, from that of line, since a line stretched is musical. But the word is not used as meaning the string of an instrument, and the very slight conjectural emendation which gives "voice" instead of "line" has much to recommend it. In any case the teaching of the verse is plain from the last clause, namely the universality of the revelation. It is singular that the mention of the sun should come in the close of the verse; and there may be some error in the text, though the introduction of the sun here may be explained as completing the picture of the heavens, of which it is the crowning glory. Then follows the fuller delineation of his joyous energy, of his swift strength in his course, of his penetrating beams, illuminating and warming all. Why should the glowing metaphors, so natural and vigorous, of the sun coming forth from his bridal chamber and, hero-like, running his race, be taken to be traces of ancient myths now innocently reclaimed from the service of superstition? To find in these two images a proof that the first part of the psalm belongs to the post-exilic "literary revival of Hebrew mythology" is surely to lay more on them than they can bear.

The scientific contemplation of nature is wholly absent from Scripture, and the picturesque is very rare. This psalmist knew nothing about solar spectra or stellar distances, but he heard a voice from out of the else waste heavens which sounded to him as if it named God. Comte ventured to say that the heavens declare the glory of the astronomer, not of God; but, if there be an order in them, which it is a man’s glory to discover, must there not be a mind behind the order, and must not the Maker have more glory than the investigator? The psalmist is protesting against stellar worship, which some of his neighbours practised. The sun was a creature, not a god; his "race" was marked out by the same hand which in depths beyond the visible heavens had pitched a "tent" for his nightly rest. We smile at the simple astronomy; the religious depth is as deep as ever. Dull ears do not hear these voices; but whether they are stopped with the clay of earthly tastes and occupations, or stuffed with scientific wadding of the most modern kind, the ears that do not hear God’s name sounded from the abysses above, have failed to hear the only word which can make man feel at home in nature. Carlyle said that the sky was "a sad sight." The sadness and awfulness are taken away when we hear the heavens telling the glory of God. The unscientific psalmist who did hear them was nearer the very heart of the mystery than the scientist who knows everything else about them but that.

With an abrupt transition which is full of poetical force, the singer turns to the praises of the better revelation of Jehovah. Nature speaks in eloquent silence of the strong God, but has no witness to His righteous will for men or His love to them which can compare with the clear utterances of His law. The rhythm changes, and in its cadence expresses the psalmist’s exuberant delight in that law. In Psalms 19:7-11 the clauses are constructed on a uniform plan, each containing a name for the law, an attribute of it, and one of its effects. The abundance of synonyms indicates familiarity and clear views of the many sides of the subject. The psalmist had often brooded on the thought of what that law was, because, loving its Giver, he must needs love the gift. So he calls it "law," or teaching, since there he found the best lessons for character and life. It was "testimony," for in it God witnessed what lie is and what we should be, and so witnessed against sin; it was a body of "precepts" (statutes, A.V.) giving rich variety of directions: it was "commandment," blessedly imperative; it was "fear of the Lord," the effect being put for the cause; it was "judgments," the decisions of infinite truth concerning duty.

These synonyms have each an attribute attached, which, together, give a grand aggregate of qualities discerned by a devout heart to inhere in that law which is to so many but a restraint and a foe. It is "perfect," as containing: without flaw or defect the ideal of conduct; "sure" or reliable, as worthy of being absolutely followed and certain to be completely fulfilled; "right," as prescribing the straight road to man’s true goal; "pure" or bright, as being light like the sun, but of a higher quality than that material brilliance: "clean," as contrasted with the foulness bedaubing false faiths and making idol worship unutterably loathsome: "true" and "wholly righteous" as corresponding accurately to the mind of Jehovah and the facts of humanity and as being in full accordance with the justice which has its seat in the bosom of God.

The effects are summed up in the latter clauses of these verses, which stand, as it were, a little apart, and by the slight pause are made more emphatic. The rhythm rises and falls like the up-springing and sinking of a fountain. The law "restores the soul," or rather refreshes the life, as food does; it "makes the simple wise" by its sure testimony, giving practical guidance to narrow understandings and wills open to easy beguiling by sin; it "rejoices the heart," since there is no gladness equal to that of knowing and doing the will of God; it "enlightens the eyes" with brightness beyond that of the created light which rules the day. Then the relation of clauses changes slightly in Psalms 19:9 and a second attribute takes the place of the effect. It "endures forever," and, as we have seen is "wholly righteous." The Old Testament law was relatively imperfect and destined to be done away, but the moral core of it abides. Being more valuable than all other treasures, there is wealth in the very desire after it more than in possessing these. Loved, it yields sweetness in comparison with which the delights of sense are bitter; done, it automatically rewards the doer. If obedience had no results except its inward consequences, it would be abundantly repaid. Every true servant of Jehovah will be willing to be warned by that voice, even though it rebuke and threaten.

All this rapture of delight in the law contrasts with the impatience and dislike which some men entertain for it. To the disobedient that law spoils their coarse gratifications. It is as a prison in which life is wearisomely barred from delights; but they who dwell behind its fences know that these keep evils off, and that within are calm joys and pure pleasures.

The contemplation of the law cannot but lead to self-examination, and that to petition. So the psalmist passes into prayer. His shortcomings appal, for "by the law is the knowledge of sin," and he feels that beyond the sin which he knows, there is a dark region in him where foul things nestle and breed fast. "Secret faults" are those hidden, not from men, but from himself. He discovers that he has hitherto undiscovered sins. Lurking evils are most dangerous because, like aphides on the underside of a rose leaf, they multiply so quickly unobserved; small deeds make up life, and small, unnoticed sins darken the soul. Mud in water, at the rate of a grain to a glassful, will make a lake opaque. "Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth." Conscience needs educating; and we have to compare ourselves with the ideal of perfect life in Jesus, if we would know our faults, as young artists go over their copies in front of the masterpiece. But the psalmist knows that, servant of God though he is, he is in danger from another class of sins, and so prays to be held back from "presumptuous sins," i.e. wilful conscious transgressions. Such deliberate contraventions of law tend to become habitual and despotic; so the prayer follows that they may not "have dominion." But even that is not the lowest depth. Deliberate sin, which has gained the upper hand. is but too apt to end in apostacy: "Great transgression" is probably a designation for casting off the very pretence of worshipping Jehovah. That is the story of many a fall. First, some unsuspected evil habit gnaws away the substance of the life, as white ants do wood, leaving the shell apparently intact; then come sins open and palpable, and these enslave the will, becoming habits, and then follows entire abandonment of the profession of religion. It is a slippery, dark stairway, and the only safety is in not setting foot on the top step. God, and God only, can "keep us back." He will, if we cling to Him, knowing our weakness. Thus clinging, we may unblamed cherish the daring hope that we shall be "upright and innocent," since nothing less than entire deliverance from sin in all its forms and issues can correspond to the will of God concerning us and the power of God in us, nor satisfy our deepest desires.

The closing aspiration is that Jehovah would accept the song and prayer. There is an allusion to the acceptance of a sacrifice, for the phrase "be acceptable" is frequent in connection with the sacrificial ritual. When the words of the mouth coincide with the meditation of the heart, we may hope that prayers for cleansing from, and defence against, sin, offered to Him whom our faith recognises as our "strength" and our "Redeemer," will be as a sacrifice of a sweet smell, well-pleasing to God. He best loves the law of Jehovah who lets it teach him his sin, and send him to his knees; he best appreciates the glories of the silent heavens who knows that their witness to God is but the prelude of the deeper music of the Scriptures’ declaration of the heart and will of Jehovah and who grasps Him as his "strength and his Redeemer" from all evil, whether evil of sin or evil of sorrow.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 19". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-19.html.
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