According to C.S. Lewis, this is ‘the greatest poem in The Psalms and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.’ (Reflections on the Psalms)
It has inspired two classic hymns: ‘The spacious firmament on high’ (Addison), and ‘The heavens declare thy glory, Lord’ (Watts).
Some commentators think that this psalm is comprised of two or three separate compositions. Broyles: ‘Even in English translation verses 1–6 and 7–14 read like two separate compositions. Their poetic styles (esp. their metrical patterns), genres, and traditions (and perhaps time periods) are markedly different.’
Jacobson notes that ‘the Revised Common Lectionary follows this bifurcating approach, dividing the psalm and then assigning the two parts to different seasons in different years.’ To this, we would respond: ‘What God has joined together, let not man put asunder’.
The same commentator, while agreeing that the psalm may well have originated as two or three separate elements, finds a unifying theme in the idea of ‘speech’:
vv. 1–6 Creation’s Speech—praise for God
vv. 7–10 Torah’s Speech—instruction of humanity
vv. 11–14 Servant’s Speech—prayer to God
Craigie thinks that it is ‘reasonably certain that the psalm in its present form is a unity, either composed as a single piece, or else the author took a fragment of an old hymn (vv 2–7) and extended it by means of a theological commentary and comparison.’
Broyles notes that ‘The psalm makes a remarkable journey from the general to the particular in three stages: from the vastness of God’s skies (vv. 1–6) to Yahweh’s law (vv. 7–10), and finally to the worshiper himself (vv. 11–14).’
Williams expresses a similar thought like this: ‘It is God’s intention in communicating through all the splendor of nature and through all the specifics of His Word to reach us. God speaks, or “shouts,” at us, with all the stops pulled out, in order that we might hear and respond. Behind the primeval explosion of creation and behind the smoke and fire of Sinai is the loving heart of God seeking our hearts. “God speaks” is the thesis of this psalm.’
Kidner suggests that the thought of this glorious psalm ‘may underlie the argument of Rom 1:18ff, that God’s eternal power and deity are “clearly perceived in the things that have been made”. Its theology is as powerful as its poetry.’
Craigie notes how ‘the psalmist moves in a climactic fashion from macrocosm to microcosm, from the universe and its glory to the individual in humility before God. But the climax lies in the microcosm, not in the heavenly roar of praise. For the heavens declare the glory of God, but the law declares the will of God for mankind, the creature. And though the vast firmament so high above us declares God’s praise, it is the Torah of God alone that reveals to mankind that he has a place in the universal scheme of things. It is not a place which gives ground for human boasting or declaration of human might over the cosmos: when the psalmist’s praise of God’s revelation in the Torah dawns upon him personally, it issues immediately in a prayer for forgiveness and acceptance.’
Summarising the overall message of the psalm, Jacobson writes: ‘It teaches that the Creator can be known about through creation, but the torah is the only way that one can know the personal God of Israel. And once one knows this God through torah, one can pray to God in a relational way.’
This psalm famously celebrates ‘the book of God’s works’ and ‘the book of God’s words’ (Francis Bacon, 1561–1626, a pioneering scientific thinker).
Wiersbe (Expository Outlines):
- God speaks in the skies, 1-6
- God speaks in the Scriptures, 7-11
- God speaks in the soul, 12-14
A slight modification of the above:
- The voice of the skies, 1-6
- The voice of Scripture, 7-11
- The voice of the servant, 12-14
For the music director; a psalm of David.
This psalm was intended to be sung. Although we do not know much about the structure and sound of ancient Hebrew music, some of the impact may be felt when listening to (or singing) Haydn’s setting of this psalm in The Creation.
19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the sky displays his handiwork.
I wonder if you have ever seen a really dark night sky? It is a mysterious, wonderful, awesome experience. I have loved the night sky since childhood. What has so often struck me is that it is teeming with stuff, and yet utterly silent. Long before the days of air pollution and city lights, David would have observed such a sky on many occasions. I wonder what he noticed in particular. The Milky Way? A comet? Or simply the full moon, shining brilliantly? This sight is awesome. And so is the silence.
As Jacobson says, the focus of vv1-6 is not creation per se, but rather the wordless speech that creation utters in praise of the Creator.
Moreover, the emphasis is not on God’s creational works generally, but the witness of the heavens – and, especially, of the sun – to the Creator.
‘We can hardly read these lines without hearing “In the beginning God created the heavens…. Then God said, ‘Let there be a firmament …’ ” (Gen. 1:1, 6).’ (Williams)
The glory of God – ‘El‘ is used here. God’s covenant name, ‘Yahweh‘, will be used from v7 onwards, when the psalmist speaks of the Torah.
God’s glory is more often considered as innate to himself, a kind of brilliant radiance. Here, however, we are taught that there is a clear reflection and expression of this glory in the starry sky.
‘The idea of nature praising God is not foreign to the Psalter. Psalm 148:3–10, for example, implores sun, moon, heavens, waters, and the like to praise God. Both in Psalm 148 and here in Psalm 19, the call to praise God is a tacit polemic against Israel’s polytheistic neighbors. Whereas Israel’s neighbors worshipped sun, moon, stars, and so on as divine beings, the poems of the Psalter stress that the Creator is one God and these natural phenomena are merely creatures whose true end is to praise the one God.’ (Jacobson)
‘There is no pantheism here, no nature religion. There is some evidence that the poet knew and drew on hymnic traditions from other ancient Near Eastern religions that praised the sun as god. But the poet keeps creator and creation separate. The creation is moved from the side of the divine to that of the congregation; it is not divine but praises the divine. The psalm is a witness against nature worship and finding God in nature.’ (Mays)
‘In modern times, superstitious people (like the pagans of old) ‘hear’, by way of astrology, more than the heavens are actually saying, while secular people hear less than they have to tell. For those who are seriously listening for a divine word, the voices of what is called ‘natural religion’ can be confusing, for the beauty of nature says one thing, its harshness another; but one idea at any rate comes over clearly—how wonderful must the Maker of all this be!’ (Wilcock)
The sky displays his handiwork – more accurately, ‘the firmament’. ‘The Hebrew term raqiaʿ (“firmament”) reflects an ancient understanding of cosmology (the formation and structure of the world) that differs from our modern scientific view. The raqiaʿ is a sort of upside-down bowl that sat on the circular, plate-like earth to form a sealed environment in which human, animal, and plant life were secure. God created this arrangement at the beginning to bring order to the chaotic waters, which were limited by his decree to prescribed boundaries above and below the earth. The celestial objects (sun, moon, stars, etc.) were thought to be fixed in the raqiaʿ and to move about there.’ (Wilson)
God, like an artist, has signed his own work. (Williams)
Referring to his work in astronomy, Johannes Kepler said: ‘I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.’
‘I once took the funeral service of the husband of a woman who was part of the church where I was one of the ministers. I had not met the man before he died, but when I visited their house every wall was full of the most beautiful paintings and drawings. I asked who the artist was and the woman said, ‘It’s all the work of his hands.’ I saw in his paintings a person of perception, imagination, creativity and joy. The paintings spoke to me of him.’ (Wilkinson)
Is this revelation of God in nature known only to those who already know him as their ‘rock and their redeemer’? No, asserts the inspired apostel: ‘Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made’ (Rom 1:20).
‘David is expressing poetically what Paul puts theologically in Romans 1:18–20: that the natural creation is there as a witness to God, even a proof of his existence, power and nature. This is what he preached to ignorant pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:8–18)—that the works of nature should not be made objects of worship but seen as pointers to the God who made them. He took a similar line in preaching to educated pagans in Athens (Acts 17:24–30).’ (Eric Lane)
‘We have always regretted that endeavours should have been made to depreciate nature with a view of exalting revelation; it has always appeared to us to be nothing else than the degrading of one part of God’s work in the hope thereby of exalting and recommending another.’ (Spurgeon)
‘The creation is more than just giving knowledge about the Creator. There is a strong sense here of creation itself giving praise to its Creator.’ (Wilkinson)
19:2 Day after day it speaks out;
night after night it reveals his greatness.
Day after day…night after night – Both in the brilliant journey of the sun across the sky during the day, and in the quiet intricacy of the night sky. God’s glory is many-splendoured.
‘Without the night skies man would have known, until recently, nothing but an empty universe.’ (Kidner)
‘Though all preachers on earth should grow silent, and every human mouth cease from publishing the glory of God, the heavens above will never cease to declare and proclaim his majesty and glory. They are for ever preaching; for, like an unbroken chain, their message is delivered from day to day and from night to night. At the silence of one herald another takes up his speech. One day, like the other, discloses the same spectacles of his glory, and one night, like the other, the same wonders of his majesty.’ (Tholuck, quoted by Spurgeon)
Their voice goes out into all the earth – The repetition of ‘voice’ is ‘clumsy’ (Kidner). Following the lead of the LXX, we should perhaps read this sentence: ‘Yet their cry goes out into all the earth, their sound to the ends of the world.’
Speaks out – ‘Pours forth’ (NIV), suggesting ‘the irrepressible bubbling up of a spring, and therefore perhaps the unfailing variety with which the days reflect the Creator’s mind.’ (Kidner)
This double witness is not occasional, but continuous. God’s glory in creation is not seen occasionally, as in an eclipse, or the appearance of a comet. No: for those with eyes to see, it is declared continuously, both day and night. It is, as we might put it, a 24/7 revelation. There is, in fact, ‘an unbroken chain of communication going back to creation’ (Wilson). It is only our very familiarity with these daily and nightly ‘light shows’ that dulls their impact on us.
‘The speech of the heavens and firmament, of day and night, has a twofold thrust: it is addressed to God as praise, yet it is also addressed to mankind as a revealer of “knowledge” (v 3). That is, as mankind reflects upon the vast expanse of heaven, with its light by day and its intimation of a greater universe by night, that reflection may open up an awareness and knowledge of God, the Creator, who by his hands created a glory beyond the comprehension of the human mind.’ (Craigie)
‘The repeated question, “Are people lost who have never heard about Jesus?” has two answers: (1) Yes, they are lost, because God speaks to them all day long, and they refuse to listen; (2) What are you doing about getting the message to these people?’ (Wiersbe)
God loves to communicate! He does it all the time!
19:3 There is no actual speech or word,
nor is its voice literally heard.
Commentators, going back at least as far as Calvin, have recognised that two rather different translations are possible:
(a) It could refer back, indicating the wordless nature of God’s revelation in the skies. The meaning would therefore be as in the translation above (NET). So also NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV, New Living, Good News. Alternatively,
(b) it could connect with what follows (in v4), in which case the meaning would be that the divine revelation has reached every tribe and language across the globe: ‘there is no language where its voice is not heard.’ So AV, NIV (1984), NKJV. This approach would accord well with Paul’s teaching in Rom 1:18-23, when he says that the pervasive declaration of God’s glory in creation renders all people without excuse.
No sound is heard, yet the message carries to the four corners of the earth (v4).
‘Paradoxically, though they pour forth speech (2) there is no speech (3). The created order both tells and does not tell: it speaks to our intuitions, that there is a glorious God who created such marvels, but its message is limited—it cannot tell about him—and confusing, for the beauty of the hills tells one truth and the storm and volcano another.’ (NBC)
‘All people may hear these natural immortal preachers speak to them in their own tongue the wonderful works of God’ (MHC).
‘The difference and variety of languages does not prevent the preaching of the heavens and their language from being heard and understood in every quarter of the world.’ (Calvin)
19:4 Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;
its words carry to the distant horizon.
Although v3 may not link directly to Rom1, the present verse certainly does.
Voice represents an emendation of a word normally translated ‘line’. The difference is not great, since the parallelism indicates that the psalmist is thinking of the message of the skies, a message that reaches all parts of the globe.
v4 is quoted in Rom 10:18, although with some license, because the psalmist has been talking about the voice of creation, whereas the apostle is referring to preachers of the gospel. ‘The apostle uses this as a reason why the Jews should not be angry with him and others for preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, because God had already made himself known to the Gentile world by the works of creation, and left not himself without witness among them (Rom. 10:18).’ (MHC)
Craigie enters a caveat: ‘In this hymn of praise, it is not the primary purpose of the psalmist to draw upon nature as a vehicle of revelation, or as a source of the knowledge of God apart from the revelation in law (or Torah, v 8); indeed, there is more than a suggestion that the reflection of God’s praise in the universe is perceptible only to those already sensitive to God’s revelation and purpose.’
Williams comments: ‘No place or person is without some knowledge of God. Missionaries like Don Richardson (Eternity in Their Hearts) have documented many tribal groups who have awaited the arrival of evangelists bringing a book telling of a Savior. By general revelation they have already known of the Creator and the Fall. Thus God has prepared the way through His continual speech, and the door is wide open for evangelism.’
‘Now the preaching of the heavens is wonderful in three respects.
- As preaching all the night and all the day without intermission: verse 2. One day telleth another, and one night certifieth another.
- As preaching in every kind of language: verse 3. There is neither speech, nor language, but their voices are heard among them.
- As preaching in every part of the world, and in every parish of every part, and in every place of every parish: verse 4, Their sound is gone into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.
They be diligent pastors, as preaching at all times; and learned pastors, as preaching in all tongues; and catholic pastors, as preaching in all towns.’ (John Boys, quoted by Spurgeon, italics added)
In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun.
19:5 Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber;
like a strong man it enjoys running its course.
19:6 It emerges from the distant horizon,
and goes from one end of the sky to the other;
nothing can escape its heat.
The psalmist turns from the general (the heavens) to the particular (the sun).
‘The biblical poet mixes metaphors by viewing the sun first as a bridegroom (19:5a) and then as a mighty man running a race (19:5b). The shifting metaphors make a gradual progress—from residing in the tent (19:4c), to departing from the pavilion (19:5a), to running a course (19:5b), and finally to the sun’s trip through the whole “circuit” of the heavens (19:6).’ (Wilson)
In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun – The poetic idea may be that ‘the reference is probably to the place of the sun’s night-time rest, from whence it comes forth each day at dawn.’ (Craigie)
The sun, magnificent as it is, has been put in its place by its Creator.
The rising of the sun is as joyful and welcome as a bridegroom setting forth to meet his bride.
If the allusion is to the pagan myth of a sun-god who returns at the end of each day to his bride, it is to ‘repudiate’ it (Kidner). The sun is a part – though a glorious part – of God’s handiwork.
‘Even with the use of poetic personification, the psalmist leaves us in no doubt that the sun is a creation of God, thus separating biblical religion from the surrounding pagan cultures that believed the sun was a deity.’ (Longman)
The psalmist ’employs this familiar imagery in order to continue the polemic against creation worship, especially worship of the sun. This psalm stresses that the sun is not a god but something created by God. It is God who set it in the heavens. The sun runs the circuit that God has appointed for it.’ (Jacobson)
Sunrise is pictured as a bridegroom emerging from his chamber. ‘The chamber of a bridegroom was the specially prepared room in which the marriage was consummated.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
As such, it is a joyful and public affair. ‘The public nature of such an occasion would involve the whole village population in the celebration, emphasizing the impossibility of missing the event—or, by parallel, the revelation of God. Not to be present at such an occasion would require studied indifference or active enmity toward the family of the bridegroom. God, in his creation of the heavens and the sun, is making himself known to all on just such a scale of joy and glory.’ (Wilson)
It emerges from the distant horizon, and goes from one end of the sky to the other – Who has not stood and stared in wonder at a sunrise or a sunset? But these are meant to point us beyond themselves to the sun’s Creator.
Like a strong man it enjoys running its course – ‘The picture here is either one of a warrior or an athlete plunging into a race with joy.’ (Williams)
Nothing can escape its heat – For C.S. Lewis, this is the key clause of the psalm. Craigie writes that ‘the clause marks the transition between the two parts of the psalm and at the same time links them intimately together. Just as the sun dominates the daytime sky, so too does Torah dominate human life. And as the sun can be both welcome, in giving warmth, and terrifying in its unrelenting heat, so too the Torah can be both life-imparting, but also scorching, testing, and purifying. But neither are dispensable. There could be no life on this planet without the sun; there can be no true human life without the revealed word of God in the Torah.’
Williams agrees that this clause ‘marks the transition from the works of God to the Word of God and links them both together. As the sun rules the day, so God’s Law rules us. Both the sun and the Law radiate the light of the God who is light. Nothing is hidden before the sun and before the God who made the sun.’
‘The lofty thought of vv1-6 serves as a corrective to a number of misconceptions: to that of
- the pagan, who worships the sun, moon and stars (cf. Ex. 20:4–5; Deut. 4:14–19; 5:8–9)
- the astrologer, who imagines that the patterns and movements of the the celestial objects determine our lives on earth (cf. Isa. 47:13–14; Jer. 10:1–5)
- the materialist, who may contemplate the stars with wonder, but has no-one to thank for their creation. Richard Dawkins, for example, can title the first volume of his autobiography ‘An Appetite for Wonder‘, and yet vehemently repudiates what that wonder points to. ‘Only the Christian is moved to filial wonder and joy at the thought of their Maker.’
Craigie says that although antecedents to the first part of this psalm may be found in ancient Babylonian and Egyptian hymns to the sun, there is one critical difference: ‘In those psalms, nature itself is deified; the gods are praised in nature. Yet in Ps 19, nature is personified, not deified, and personified nature raises the chorus of praise to the only Creator and only deity, the one true God. The antecedents to this poetic conception are to be found in Gen 1:3–19, in which it is clear that the heavens and firmament, day and night, light and darkness, are a part of creation: they are not gods.’
‘Concerning the sun observe here,
- The place appointed him….The sun is said to have a tabernacle set him, not only because he is in continual motion and never has a fixed residence, but because the mansion he has will, at the end of time, be taken down like a tent, when the heavens shall be rolled together like a scroll and the sun shall be turned to darkness.
- The course assigned him. That glorious creature was not made to be idle, but his going forth (at least as it appears to our eye) is from one point of the heavens, and his circuit thence to the opposite point, and thence (to complete his diurnal revolution) to the same point again; and this with such steadiness and constancy that we can certainly foretell the hour and the minute at which the sun will rise at such a place, any day to come.
- The brightness wherein he appears. He is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, richly dressed and adorned, as fine as hands can make him, looking pleasantly himself and making all about him pleasant; for the friend of the bridegroom rejoices greatly to hear the bridegroom’s voice, Jn. 3:29.
- The cheerfulness wherewith he makes this tour. Though it seems a vast round which he has to walk, and he has not a moment’s rest, yet in obedience to the law of this creation, and for the service of man, he not only does it, but does it with a great deal of pleasure and rejoices as a strong man to run a race. With such satisfaction did Christ, the Sun of righteousness, finish the work that was given him to do.
- His universal influence on this earth: There is nothing hidden from the heart thereof, no, not metals in the bowels of the earth, which the sun has an influence upon.’ (MHC)
‘In singing these verses we must give God the glory of all the comfort and benefit we have by the lights of the heaven, still looking above and beyond them to the Sun of righteousness.’ (MHC)
‘If David had lived today, maybe he would have written about other properties of the sun, like the power of God as seen in nuclear reactions and looping magnetic fields. As it is, he makes two important points. One is the universal warmth of the sun, by which God provides for all life on earth. The other is the faithful path of the sun, day after day, unchanging year after year. In the book of Jeremiah, God promises his people that he will not break his covenant with them, any more than he would break his covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth. The sun is a persistent reminder, woven into our lives, of God’s faithfulness to his promises.’ (Deborah Haarsma, astronomer)
‘Even to the ancients, who did not have an awareness of the actual vastness of the heavens or the size of the sun, moon and stars, the skies gave a sense of transcendence, of someone above themselves.’ (Longman)
‘God’s world is not a shield hiding the Creator’s power and majesty. From the natural order it is evident that a mighty and majestic Creator is there. Paul says this in Romans 1:19-21, and in Acts 17:28 he calls a Greek poet as witness that humans are divinely created. Paul also affirms that the goodness of this Creator becomes evident from kindly providences (Acts 14:17; cf. Rom. 2:4), and that some at least of the demands of his holy law are known to every human conscience (Rom. 2:14-15), along with the uncomfortable certainty of eventual retributive judgment (Rom. 1:32). These evident certainties constitute the content of general revelation.’ (Packer, Concise Theology)
‘In the expanse above us God flies, as it were, his starry flag to show that the King is at home, and hangs out his escutcheon that atheists may see how he despises their denunciations of him. He who looks up to the firmament and then writes himself down an atheist, brands himself at the same moment as an idiot or a liar. Strange is it that some who love God are yet afraid to study the God-declaring book of nature; the mock-spirituality of some believers, who are too heavenly to consider the heavens, has given colour to the vaunts of infidels that nature contradicts revelation. The wisest of men are those who with pious eagerness trace the goings forth of Jehovah as well in creation as in grace; only the foolish have any fears lest the honest study of the one should injure our faith in the other.’ (Spurgeon)
Spurgeon quotes McCosh: ‘We have often mourned over the attempts made to set the works of God against the Word of God, and thereby excite, propagate, and perpetuate jealousies fitted to separate parties that ought to live in closest union. In particular, we have always regretted that endeavours should have been made to depreciate nature with a view of exalting revelation; it has always appeared to us to be nothing else than the degrading of one part of God’s work in the hope thereby of exalting and recommending another. Let not science and religion be reckoned as opposing citadels, frowning defiance upon each other, and their troops brandishing their armour in hostile attitude. They have too many common foes, if they would but think of it, in ignorance and prejudice, in passion and vice, under all their forms, to admit of their lawfully wasting their strength in a useless warfare with each other. Science has a foundation, and so has religion; let them unite their foundations, and the basis will be broader, and they will be two compartments of one great fabric reared to the glory of God. Let one be the outer and the other the inner court. In the one, let all look, and admire and adore; and in the other, let those who have faith kneel, and pray, and praise. Let the one be the sanctuary where human learning may present its richest incense as an offering to God, and the other the holiest of all, separated from it by a veil now rent in twain, and in which, on a blood-sprinkled mercy-seat, we pour out the love of a reconciled heart, and hear the oracles of the living God.’
‘The notion of a Deity is engraven on man’s heart; it is demonstrable by the light of nature. I think it hard for a man to be a natural atheist; he may wish there were no God, he may dispute against a Deity, but he cannot in his judgement believe there is no God, unless by accumulated sin his conscience be seared, and he has such a lethargy upon him, that he has sinned away his very sense and reason.’ (Thomas Watson)
19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect
and preserves one’s life.
‘In the ancient world the sun god was usually the god of justice. For the psalmist, then, it is natural to move from the relationship of Yahweh and the sun to Yahweh’s provision for justice through the law. Much of the imagery used to describe the law can also be found related to sun gods in the ancient world.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
‘This verse, and the two next following, which treat of God’s law, are in Hebrew, written each of them with ten words, according to the number of the ten commandments, which are called the ten words, Exodus 34:28 (Henry Ainsworth, quoted by Spurgeon)
Jacobson reminds us that, despite the obvious contrasts between vv1-6 and what now follows, they share the common theme of ‘words’ or ‘speech’.
Mays invites us to see the connection by considering that behind the authority of the Torah lies the power of the Creator of the universe.
In the ancient pagan world, the sun was often thought of as the god of justice. What has just been written about the sun paves the way, then, for a consideration of God’s Torah. Jacobson: ‘As the god of justice, the sun-god was seen not only as the one who judges sinners but the one who could provide protection. In this Israelite psalm, those functions are obviously transferred to the one God of Israel.’
‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe…the starry heavens above and the moral law within.’ (Kant) This psalm goes further than ‘the moral law within’ and contemplates the divine law revealed.
Craigie notes that this carefully portion of the psalm presents six aspects of the Torah: ‘law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, and judgments.’ Although these are synonymous, they indicate the Torah’s comprehensive nature. And it is not only comprehensive, but also good: “perfect,” “sure,” “upright,” “pure,” “radiant,” and “true.” And not only comprehensive and good, but beneficial: “reviving the life”, “making wise the simple”, “making the heart rejoice”, “enlightening the eyes”, “enduring forever”, and “entirely righteous”.
‘Jokes abound about the difficulty of reading through certain parts of the Bible and the boredom of listening to preachers. However, here the psalmist is delighting in the book of God’s words, as something essential, helpful and indeed exciting and beautiful.’ (Wilkinson)
Wilson understands this section as presenting God’s Torah ‘as guide (19:7–10), warning (19:11a), and reward (19:11b).’
Noting the piling up of synonyms, Williams comments: ‘As the sun is comprehensive for our world, the Word is comprehensive for our lives. Before the Word of God, “there is nothing hidden from its heat.”’
‘He has in mind the books of Moses, the only Scriptures in writing available at that time. The stories of Joshua and the Judges may have circulated in oral form, but there were no histories, prophets or wisdom writings, and he himself had yet to write the first collection of psalms!’ (Eric Lane)
‘Verses 7–9 present six bicola. Each uses a different term for the law (law, statutes, precepts, commands, fear and decrees of the LORD) and then praises it by describing it as perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure and firm.’ (Longman)
The law – Not legislation, but instruction; ‘the comprehensive term for God’s revealed will’ (Kidner). Jacobson suggests that the word ‘instruction’ conveys the meaning well: ‘Torah is understood here not strictly as law in the legal sense, but as instruction for right living.’
Spurgeon: ‘not merely the law of Moses but the doctrine of God, the whole run and rule of sacred Writ.’
Various synonyms will be used in these verses (law, precepts, commands, and so on). These ‘are no sharply distinguished, yet each has a certain character of its own…Together, these terms show the practical purpose of revelation, to bring God’s will to bear on the hearer and evoke intelligent reverence, well-founded trust, detailed obedience.’ (Kidner)
This rich variety of synonyms should be a reminder to the reader, and to the preacher, that Scripture comes to us in a variety of genres, each making its own contribution to the well-rounded whole and each requiring its own ‘rules’ of interpretation and application.
Note not only the nouns, but also the adjectives: ‘perfect’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘right’, ‘radiant’, ‘pure’, ‘sure’, and so on. These ‘move in a different world from the compromise, insincerity and half-truths of human intercourse.’ (Kidner)
Then again, as Kidner remarks, the verbs are equally telling. They tell of what Scripture does for us. It ‘revives’, ‘makes wise’, ‘gives joy to the heart’, ‘gives light to the eyes’, etc.
It follows that to see ‘the law’ in narrowly legalistic terms (i.e. as a list of ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’) is inadequate. It should be seen in broader terms, as ‘instruction’. The Torah is presented in this psalm, as elsewhere, as a gift from God in which his people can delight. It is, indeed, ‘the source of wisdom (19:7), joy (19:8b), and light (19:8d). Torah is both precious (19:10a) and pleasurable (19:10c)’ (Wilson).
‘Clearly the poet does not think of torah as the letter that kills (II Cor. 3:6) or the law that condemns (Rom. 3:19f.). Calvin observed that “these titles and commendations by which he [the psalmist] exalts the dignity and excellence of the Law would not agree with the Ten Commandments alone.” And Calvin concluded that the psalm speaks of “the whole body of doctrine of which true religion and godliness consists”.’ (Mays)
Jesus, of course, upheld the validity of the Torah, and railed only againsts its abuse and misuse.
Against Wilson (in his generally excellent commentary in the NIVAC series) we think it preferable to ‘Christianise’ the joyful teaching of this psalm about the Torah by celebrating God’s revelation as found in the Scriptures (rather than by trying to tease out the positive aspects of the OT law, as more narrowly conceived).
The Lord – Until now, this psalm has used the most general word for God (El), and only once (in v1). In vv7-14 his most personal, covenant name of Yahweh will be used no less than seven times.
Perfect – complete, without blemish, lacking nothing. Because human language is changeable and varied, God’s word requires translation. But it never needs revision.
‘It is perfectly free from all corruption, perfectly filled with all good, and perfectly fitted for the end for which it is designed; and it will make the man of God perfect, 2 Tim. 3:17. Nothing is to be added to it nor taken from it.’ (MHC)
This general statement is the basis for all the other characteristics of the law: ‘trustworthiness (19:7c), rightness (19:8a), radiance (19:8c), purity (19:9), certainty (19:9c), and righteousness (19:9d)’ (Wilson).
v7f – Four benefits of God’s law. It:
- revives the weary
- gives wisdom to the simple
- brings joy (inner peace and tranquility) to the sad
- gives insight for life to the blind
Reviving the soul – something that a contemplation of the splendours of the cosmos (vv1-6) can never do.
Wilson thinks that this expression may have a double meaning: God’s word not only revives, but also calls us to repent and return. (Note the ‘warning’ of v11, and the need for forgiveness expressed in v12f).
‘The function of the law is to convert us. Through it we are “restored” or “returned” (šûb) to our Creator. Thus the legislation in the Torah reveals God’s holiness and our sin. It drives us to despair so that we may be driven to Christ (Luther).’ (Williams)
‘Whatsoever we are by corruption of nature, God’s law converteth us, and maketh us to speak with new tongues, and to sing new songs unto the Lord, and to become new men and new creatures in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17.’ (John Boys, quoted by Spurgeon)
The rules set down by the LORD are reliable
and impart wisdom to the inexperienced.
Reliable – ‘We can throw our weight on God’s testimony, and it will hold us up.’ (Williams)
‘The testimony of the Lord…is sure, incontestably and inviolably sure, what we may give credit to, may rely upon, and may be confident it will not deceive us. It is a sure discovery of the divine truth, a sure direction in the way of duty. It is a sure foundation of living comforts and a sure foundation of lasting hopes.’ (MHC)
The inexperienced – Not the intellectually challenged, but young people who need guidance as they seek to make their way in life.
Conversion opens the mind.
These are people ‘who are “open-minded or open to instruction.” The instruction of wise fathers as they teach their children is carried in the meaning of this word. The purpose of Proverbs, for example, is “To give prudence to the simple, / To the young man knowledge and discretion” (Prov. 1:4). Again wisdom calls, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here” (Prov. 9:4). Psalm 119:130 picks up this theme: “The entrance of Your words gives light; / It gives understanding to the simple.”’ (Williams)
19:8 The LORD’s precepts are fair
and make one joyful.
These precepts are ‘“orders” or “directions” that guide one, like a road map or verbal directions that allow you to find a place you have never visited before.’ (Wilson)
‘All God’s precepts, concerning all things, are right (Ps. 119:128), just as they should be; and they will set us to rights if we receive them and submit to them.’ (MHC)
They make one joyful – As Wiersbe remarks, some human laws are evil, and bring misery. But the Lord’s precepts bring joy.
Williams, more fully: ‘In the context of modern relativism and our rebellious quest for “freedom,” the thought that statutes bring joy and light seems foreign. While outside of Christ the law evokes guilt, when we are in Christ, with a regenerated, Spirit-filled heart, God’s will becomes our joy. What Jesus desires for Himself will become our desire. As He tells the Jews, “I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (John 5:30).’
Does our reading of Scripture bring us joy? Do we read the Bible for pleasure?
The LORD’s commands are pure
and give insight for life.
New life brings understanding, joy, moral boundaries, and reverence for God, and a new set of values.
NIV: ‘The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.’ This translation makes clear the connection with the first part of the psalm, with its references to the sun. Both God’s works and his words shine with dazzling brilliance.
19:9 The commands to fear the LORD are right
and endure forever.
The commands to fear the Lord – lit. ‘the fear of the Lord’ (translated as such in most versions). This is not, of course, a synonym for the Torah. Some scholars have proposed an emendation, whereby “fear” ( yirʾat) is altered to “speech” (ʾimrat). According to Wilson, this is not impossible, but he prefers to think that the psalmist is already turning towards the human response to the Torah.
‘To “fear Yahweh” is to assume an appropriate attitude of humility, loyalty, and absolute dependence on Yahweh’ (Wilson). Wilson adds that the psalmist is beginning to turn from listing the characteristics of God’s law to a faithful response to it.
They endure for ever – They are ‘of perpetual obligation and can never be repealed.’ (MHC)
‘The ceremonial law is long since done away, but the law concerning the fear of God is ever the same. Time will not alter the nature of moral good and evil.’ (MHC)
The judgments given by the LORD are trustworthy
and absolutely just.
Trustworthy and absolutely just were precisely what the pagan gods were not. They were ‘notoriously changeable and could manipulate, trick, and overpower one another; thus, humans could never be certain which god would rule at the moment or what exactly that god might demand.’ (Wilson)
Again: the pagan gods were at least as morally corrupt as the people who worshiped them. ‘They lied, cheated, stole, were sexually promiscuous, and generally outdid their human servants with their lack of consistent morality. They were distinguished from humans by only two major characteristics: They were powerful, and they lived forever. Therefore, whatever the gods demanded had to be obeyed because they had the power to make human existence miserable, and there was no hope of outliving them.’ (Wilson)
Not so the one true and living God, Yahweh. His judgements are completely trustworthy and absolutely just because they are the expression of his own trustworthy and judge character.
19:10 They are of greater value than gold,
than even a great amount of pure gold;
they bring greater delight than honey,
than even the sweetest honey from a honeycomb.
More precious than gold, sweeter than honey, are God’s judgements.
This verse, which concludes the second part of the psalm, ‘echoes the creation theme of vv. 1–6 by affirming that the word of the Lord is more to be desired than anything in creation.’ (Jacobson)
‘Torah is our true treasure. Jesus warns us, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19–20). To hear His Word and to do it is to build our house upon the rock. To seek, to study, and to obey God’s Word is to labor with that which lasts. No precious metal can compare.’ (Williams)
Sugar was not available in those time. The first reference here to honey is probably to date honey, which was the most usual form. But honey from a honeycomb would, of course, be bee honey.
‘The pleasures of sense are the delight of brutes, and therefore debase the great soul of man; the pleasures of religion are the delight of angels, and exalt the soul. The pleasures of sense are deceitful, will soon surfeit, and yet never satisfy; but those of religion are substantial and satisfying, and there is no danger of exceeding in them.’ (MHC)
19:11 Yes, your servant finds moral guidance there;
those who obey them receive a rich reward.
Your servant finds moral guidance there – NIV – ‘By them your servant is warned.’ ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…’ (2 Tim. 3:16).
Jacobson says that the word can also mean ‘illumined’; this would then recall the earlier theme of sun/light’.
The psalmist is probably referring to himself; thus, the psalm is moving towards its intensely personal conclusion.
The teachings of the Torah are, according to this verse, both warning and promise (Mays).
‘The word of God is a word of warning to the children of men; it warns us of the duty we are to do, the dangers we are to avoid, and the deluge we are to prepare for, Eze. 3:17; 33:7. It warns the wicked not to go on in his wicked way, and warns the righteous not to turn from his good way.’ (MHC)
A wise minister replied, “Take heart. When you pour water over a sieve, no matter how much you pour, you don’t collect much. But at least you end up with a clean sieve.” (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 29)
A rich reward – ‘The reward is threefold. It is, first, the reward of doing the Father’s will. It is, second, the reward of living a fulfilled life—converted, wise, rejoicing, enlightened, enduring, true, and righteous. It is, third, the assurance of being ready to stand before Christ’s judgment seat: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).’ (Williams, italics added)
‘Saints may be losers for a time, but they shall be glorious gainers in the long run, and even now a quiet conscience is in itself no slender reward for obedience.’ (Spurgeon)
‘The joy, the rest, the refreshing, the comforts, the contents, the smiles, the incomes that saints now enjoy, in the ways of God, are so precious and glorious in their eyes, that they would not exchange them for ten thousand worlds. Oh! if the vails, (Gratuities, presents), be thus sweet and glorious before pay-day comes, what will be that glory that Christ will crown his saints with for cleaving to his service in the face of all difficulties, when he shall say to his Father, “Lo, here am I, and the children which thou hast given me.” Isaiah 8:18. If there be so much to be had in the wilderness, what then shall be had in paradise!’ (Thomas Brooks, quoted by Spurgeon)
‘There is a reward, not only after keeping, but in keeping, God’s commandments, a present great reward of obedience. Religion is health and honour; it is peace and pleasure; it will make our comforts sweet and our crosses easy, life truly valuable and death itself truly desirable.’ (MHC)
Question: what can we do to promote biblical literacy in ourselves, in our families, and in our churches?
19:12 Who can know all his errors?
Please do not punish me for sins I am unaware of.
‘While God’s creation in the skies may move one to awe, it is the ordinances of the LORD that are more valuable than gold and that warn Yahweh’s servant. They lead him finally to petition Yahweh’s forgiveness and to own Yahweh as his Redeemer.’ (Broyles)
‘After this survey of the works and word of God, he comes at last to peruse the third book, his conscience; a book which though wicked men may keep shut up, and naturally do not love to look into it, yet will one day be laid open before the great tribunal in the view of the whole world, to the justifying of God when he judges, and to impenitent sinners’ eternal confusion.’ (Adam Littleton, quoted by Spurgeon)
Who can know all his errors? – ‘From the rectitude of the divine law he learns to call his sins his errors. If the commandment be true and righteous, every transgressions of the commandment is an error, as grounded upon a mistake; every wicked practice takes rise from some corrupt principle; it is a deviation from the rule we are to work by, the way we are to walk in.’ (MHC)
‘Apart from revelation, the answer is “no one.” However, as Calvin says, the Word of God is like a mirror. In God’s Law we see our true condition and crisis. Our rationalizations are exposed. Our repressions are surfaced. Verse 12 continues: “Cleanse me from secret faults.” After God opens us up, He cleanses us (see 1 John 1:9). What joy to be forgiven!’ (Williams)
Do not punish me for sins I am unaware of – NIV: ‘forgive my hidden faults’. ‘A fault may be hidden not because it is too small to see, but because it is too characteristic to register.’ (Kidner)
‘Secret sins, like private conspirators, must be hunted out, or they may do deadly mischief; it is well to be much in prayer concerning them.’ (Spurgeon)
‘These are not sins of omission, but acts committed by a person, when at the time, he did not suppose that what he did was sin. Although he did the thing deliberately, yet he did not perceive the sin of it. So deceitful is sin, we may be committing that abominable thing which casts angels into an immediate and an eternal hell, and yet at the moment be totally unaware! Want of knowledge of the truth, and too little tenderness of conscience hide it from us. Hardness of heart and a corrupt nature cause us to sin unperceived.’ (A.A. Bonar, quoted by Spurgeon)
19:13 Moreover, keep me from committing flagrant sins;
do not allow such sins to control me.
Then I will be blameless,
and innocent of blatant rebellion.
God’s instruction is wonderful. But the psalmist knows that no one can measure up to its exacting requirements. Transgression must be fully acknowledged before God.
Sins I am not aware of – Some sins are unintentional (see Lev 4–5; Num 15). Others are wilful (v13).
‘The implication seems to be that for these inadvertent sins, there is little to do but to trust in the mercy of Yahweh.’ (Wilson)
Cf. Lk 23:34 – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.
Craigie notes the change of tone in this last section of the psalm: ‘The initial praise of God in nature and law evokes in the psalmist a sudden awareness of unworthiness. Although the transition is sharp, it is entirely natural. The psalmist began by looking at the heavens and reflecting on the divine law, and such reflection naturally evoked praise; but, as his eyes turn back from this double and glorious vision to gaze upon himself, the shock is almost too much. He becomes aware of his own insignificance and unworthiness in so glorious a context and can only pray. He prays for acquittal, or forgiveness; he asks to be protected from presumptuous persons and the control which they could so easily exert over him. Only with forgiveness and deliverance would he be a complete person, delivered from the “great transgression” (v 14).’
‘Precepts’ and ‘commands’ ‘indicate the precision and authority with which God addresses us.’ (Kidner)
‘Fear’, or reverence, ’emphasises the human response fostered by his word.’ (Kidner)
‘Ordinances’, or judgments, are the judicial decisions he has recorded about various human situations.’ (Kidner)
Blameless – ‘How is it possible then to be “blameless,” “innocent,” and “acceptable” (Ps. 19:13–14)? Only through Christ. He himself is the Word through whom the world was created (John 1:1–3). He has ultimately become the “redeemer” (Ps. 19:14) whose righteous record is the “rock” of a believer’s life (Matt. 7:25).’ (Gospel Transformation Bible)
Blatant rebellion – ‘The social environment of life does not encourage the observance of torah; insolent people scorn torah piety. So the psalmist prays that God protect him from domination by their prestige and power (the language of v. 13 is reminiscent of Gen. 4:7).’ (Mays)
19:14 May my words and my thoughts
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my sheltering rock and my redeemer.
Jacobson says that ‘blameless’ (unblemished, v13) and ‘acceptable’ (v14) are redolent of the sacrificial language of the Pentateuch. The purposes of such sacrifices is to bring a sinner back into a right relationship with God.
This prayer may be understood more narrowly, as referring to the words and thoughts expressed in the psalm (Mays), or more widely, as referring to and words and thoughts of the pray-er.
May my words and my thoughts be acceptable in your sight – ‘Words of the mouth are mockery if the heart does not meditate; the shell is nothing without the kernel.’ (Spurgeon)
O Lord – The personal, covenant, name of the Lord is reserved until the very end of the psalm.
Redeemer – ‘The final word of the psalm, gōʾēl, translated here as redeemer, is language borrowed from the realm of kinship law. The gōʾēl refers to the next-of-kin who bears the responsibility to “buy back” or “redeem” a relative who had fallen into slavery (Lev 25:48–49) or the responsibility to execute vengeance against someone who has murdered a kinsman (Num 35:16–28). The poet closes this psalm by referring to God as a family member. Yet God is not just any family member. God is the family member who bears the responsibility to rescue the psalmist when the waters of life run too deep or to execute justice on the psalmist’s behalf when justice is beyond the psalmist’s grasp.’ (Jacobson)
‘The heavens “declare,” “proclaim,” “pour forth,” and “display” without the benefit of human speech; yet they speak clearly of the glory, power, and wisdom of God. The Lord has revealed his word in speech and written forms accessible to people. In turn the psalmist, as a redeemed creature of God, prays that his expressed and unspoken words may be acceptable to his God, his Rock and his Redeemer; namely, the Lord, the covenant-loving God.’ (EBC)