Psalm 19 - From Heaven to Torah to Man
The following translation, designed especially for this study, reflects particular aspects of the poetry, and one is advised to use it with this commentary. The physical presentation of the verses is not the same as in the Hebrew.TEXT (For Hebrew, see end)
1. For the leader. A psalm. Of David.
2. The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims His handiwork.
3. Day to day utters speech; night to night declares discernment.
4. With no speech, with no statements; without their sound being heard,
5. their voice carries throughout the earth, their words go forth to the end of the world. He placed in them a tent for the sun
6. who is like a groom going forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course.
7. His going forth is at one end of the heavens, and his circuit reaches the other end; nothing is hidden from his heat.
8 - 9 -10
The teaching of the LORD is pure, renewing life;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The precepts of the LORD are just, rejoicing the heart;
The instruction of the LORD is lucid, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is uncorrupted, abiding forever;
The judgments of the LORD are truth, righteous altogether;
11. More desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the honeycomb;
12. Indeed, Your servant reflects caution about them; in obeying them there is much reward.
13. Who can be aware of errors? Clear me of hidden faults.
14. Also from willful sins keep Your servant; let them not dominate me; then shall I be pure and clear of grave offense.
15. May the speech of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
Sweeping from an awe-inspiring view of the physical universe, through a loving appreciation of God’s Instruction, to the prayer of a faltering man, Psalm 19 weaves a fine and intricate cloth of religious poetry. C. S. Lewis called it “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” (Reflections on the Psalms [London: G. Bles, 1958], p. 63)
One need not strain to divide the poem. The three sections are so differentiated by both topic and form that the greater challenge is unity and, as might be expected, early critical scholars tended to treat it as two, if not three, separate psalms. As we shall see, however, its unity is the source of its greatest power. I proceed as did the psalmist, one section at a time, and return to an overview at the end.
Tale of the Heavens (1–7)
Here the inaudible is heard―no words are spoken, but the sound reverberates everywhere. Further, the radiance of the sun, encompassing all, calls forth the most exquisite pictures of human happiness-and-fulfillment (marriage) and of human enthusiasm (the young warrior). The absence of any first-person reference only serves to augment the impressions of a speaker who is totally awestruck. The descriptions are not offered as opinion, but rather as facts revealed to everyone. The picture is universal both in its inspiration and in its application to all humanity. (Later the name by which God is known to Israel—the LORD—is used, but it is not found here.)
This first section, which animates not only natural phenomena but time as well, is a tale of sound and light. The extreme paradox of sound heard and not-heard dominates, including a developed pun in verse 4b, which can be read either as “without their sound being heard,” indicting no sound, or to the opposite effect as “(even) without [those words], their sound being heard….” The human metaphors of joy and enthusiasm for the sun are as intense as the latter’s path is encompassing (literally end to end, with nothing hidden from it). One easily understands and associates with the wonder of it all, but the poetry here goes well beyond that, not just recalling the sense of wonder, but actually eliciting it. Just as the “sound” metaphor takes us beyond experience, so too does the picture of the sun, at which humans cannot stare. Physically, one feels movement as the verb “goes forth” (Hebrew root – y-ts-’) appears in verses 5, 6, and 7. (The sound, too, is complete and mobile—day speaks to day, night to night.)
Supportive Law (8–10) (and 11?)
Few adjacent sections of the Bible are as different from one another as the first two sections of Psalm 19. After a moving, awe-sustaining section based on poetic imagery, paradox, scope, and metaphor, all articulated in well-known formats of biblical poetry, Psalm 19 proceeds to one of the most highly structured few sentences in the Bible. Here there are three verses, made up of six sentences, each sentence built in a nearly identical fashion: one noun (some reference to God’s Instruction); then “of the LORD”; then a single term describing the first two words; and finally a second, two-word (the first being a verb) description of the same. (I have reflected the division in my translation above.)
One should note that the opening term, “teaching,” is the Hebrew word “Torah,” often translated “Law,” “law,” or “Instruction.” Like LORD, the proper name of God, which is used here in each instance, “Torah” is a particularly Israelite reference. This section is as national-specific as the first was universal.
The unique format gains its power from a combination of apparent framework rigidity (so different from the movement of the first section) and an internal dynamic. Concerning the rigidity, we see that over and above the uniform sentence outline (above), there are overlapping structures that further tie the unit together. Sentences 1-3-5 can be grouped against 2-4-6, the first described by one commentator as emphasizing emotion, and the second, the intellect. In a separate structure, the first three sentences parallel the second three sentences (1-2-3, 4-5-6), both halves in patterns of singular-singular-plural. The six can also be viewed as pairs, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, reflected particularly in the final two-word phrase of each: 1-2 affecting the whole person; 3-4 affecting an organ; and 5-6 an adverbial phrase without an object. The differing patterns serve as stitching—horizontal, vertical, and diagonal—reinforcing the tightness of the section.
At the same time, one is challenged by the variation: each of the three last structures noted, for example, depends on a change from one emphasis to another, and each of these allows for, or suggests, multiple analyses. There are also ever so minor exceptions to the pattern that give pause: the fifth noun (fear of the Lord) is uniquely a way of relating to God’s teaching, not a synonym for it; the first four sentences end with a verb-and-object and the last two with a verb-and-adverb; the last sentence has a noun (truth) where all others have an adjective; and so on. All are suggestive, as are the overall patterns, and all invite poetic analysis, far beyond the scope of these essays. The reader is encouraged to explore them and to discuss them with others.
Verse 11 obviously breaks the pattern, and yet reads like a summary of the section. “Sweet” is compared to two types of honey and “desirable” to two kinds of gold, reflecting the superlatives of the last three verses (while also recalling the “double” simile in the first section for the sun: groom, and hero). Further, by their color, the honey and the gold reflect the sun of the first section. Thus the verse grants a tone of positive closure to the combined first two sections.
Failing Man (11?) (12–15)
Does verse 11 belong with what preceded it? As noted, it clearly breaks the pattern; moreover, verse 12 begins with “indeed” (“further” is also a possible translation), binding verses 11 and 12 together. As so often in Psalms, the verse should be read both ways—as the conclusion of the second part and as the opening of the third.
The greatest innovation of the third part, however, is announced by the first noun of verse 12: “Your servant.” The speaker, never having referred to himself before, enters with a vengeance to become the chief protagonist of the third section. God is also now addressed directly, rather than being described through His handiwork.
The section clearly deals with the relationship of this faltering man, the “servant” (twice) of his God. He is overwhelmingly concerned about sin―four separate terms are used, possibly in ascending degrees: “errors,” “hidden faults,” “willful sins,” and “grave offense.” The biblical tradition knows of such a thing as “hidden” rights and wrongs (Deut. 29:28), but the poet goes beyond such kinds of misdeeds. Whereas verse 13 reads smoothly (errors, hidden sins), verse 14 surprises us by revealing the speaker in his full humanity: he is attracted to the willful sins as well! The word “dominate” is the same word used by the LORD to Cain, when He tells him that he can dominate sin (Genesis 4:7), but here the speaker is afraid that sin will dominate him! Thus the last verse reads as a passionate plea: “Despite me and my failings, accept my great praise as revealing my essence, and accept with it the request I have just made, that You guard me from my shortcomings.”
Despite its vast differences from both the first and the second sections, the third weaves the psalm together. A first echo is the word “pure” of verse 15, reflecting the “pure” instruction of the LORD. A second is the “hidden” sins, echoing that nothing is “hidden” from the sun’s heat (verse 7). A third is in the term “reflects caution” (verse 12), a two-word translation for a single Hebrew word that means “is cautious,” but could also mean “shines,” with the latter recalling the sun, the gold, and the honey above. Even more subtly, the prior six-fold repetition of “the LORD” in the second section almost cries out for a seventh use (seven being a “full” count in biblical literature), and this finally appears at the end of the psalm.
Indeed, the author takes care to frame the poem by inclusion, the “speech” of his mouth echoing the speech that does and does not exist in the universe (verses 3-4, and I note that the word “speech” at the end is in the plural, literally, “speeches,” possibly echoing the earlier double use.). Further, in Hebrew the term “my heart” in verse 15 (libi) echoes, through a reversal of the letters, the term “without” (b’li) of verse 4. (See Psalms 26 and 90 for similar framing using reversed letters.) This in turn reveals an additional layer of meaning, for now one notes that the last verse asks God to accept audible (speech of my mouth) and inaudible (meditations of my heart) prayer―an incredible parallel to the audible/inaudible concentration of the opening section.
A Single, Powerful Psalm
The literary binding by the poet went unnoticed by the many early academic scholars who divided the psalm into at least two separate pieces. (Medieval scholars, though challenged, found explanations: Saadia Gaon saw the sun as saying the verses of praise to the Torah; Ibn Ezra saw the order as natural—the skies and the Torah as two witnesses to God’s glory.) Over and above the literary testimony, two modern seminal studies offer two different (but perhaps ultimately complementary) overviews.
Nahum A. Sarna reworked an earlier essay as a chapter of Songs of the Heart; An Introduction to the Book of Psalms (New York: Schocken, 1993, Chapter 3, “Psalm 19: The Excellence of Torah: An Anti-Pagan Polemic”). He makes the case for the psalm being polemic literature aimed against sun-god worship, that kind of idolatry being a problem in Israel’s history. He explains, in turn, the combination of the first two sections by noting that the pagan sun gods were particularly tied to the concepts of justice and morality in surrounding countries. Independent of a judgment on whether “polemic” is too strong a term (I do not find a polemical tone), the connection between the concepts of sun and justice are reflected (as Sarna shows) throughout biblical literature, providing a solid additional base for unity.
Michael Fishbane (in Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts, New York: Schocken, 1979) finds unity of a different sort, locating the “religious-psychological motivation” for the psalm in the third section. As opposed to Sarna, who sees the combination of the first two sections as the basic point of the poem, Fishbane sees the first two sections as “prologue and counterpoint” to the speaker’s desire to be forgiven. Quite insightfully, I believe, Fishbane locates the core in the unity, the progression being from background to essence. He offers the following overview: “Nature reveals God the Creator, the Torah reveals God’s will, but the prayer of the lonely soul reveals man’s presence and situation.” The awe-filled, religious devotee is ultimately the failing, struggling, requesting individual. (In fairly trite terms, we might say we have the answer here to the age-old question of whether there is sound if a tree falls in the forest when there is no one to hear it. The awe of Creation and the beauty of Torah are relevant only because of the human who sees, hears, and reacts.)
* * * * * * * * * *
Additional Notes on Liturgy
I recall that others (e.g., Hacham) have noted that the tripartite division of Psalm 19 (creation, Torah, and redemption) may well have been the model for the Jewish daily morning and evening prayers, which to this day concentrate on these three themes, in order, surrounding the central biblical citations (“Hear O Israel” et al.).
The final verse of Psalm 19 stands on its own as a moving prayer. It is, in fact, used in another section of the Jewish daily prayer book, where it ends every Silent Devotion. (Some suggest that the last two verses of Psalm 19 may have borrowed certain terminology, “purity” and “acceptance,” from Leviticus 1:3–4, which refers to sacrifice, thus redirecting these terms from sacrifice to prayer. It would therefore be doubly appropriate that the last verse of the psalm has found a permanent place in the prayer book.)
Obviously, the verse ends the third section of the psalm, but it also sends the reader back to the beginning, for the specific application of verse 17 would seem to be Psalm 19 itself – may this poem be acceptable. The author need not have feared. Few prayers so successfully communicate the weave of awe, devotion, and supplication through poetry that invites and demands constant rereading and thought.
Perhaps as a matter of general appreciation, perhaps simply reflecting the seven-fold use of “LORD,” and perhaps both, the Jewish liturgy includes this psalm in the preliminary service every Sabbath. Further, this could reflect a view that the essence of the psalm is in the first section, Creation, which is celebrated on Sabbath. Later tradition assigned this psalm to the holiday of Shavuot, Pentacost, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, reflecting an opposing emphasis on the middle section. As noted above, I believe that the original emphasis was specifically on the end and on the combination of all three sections.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
א לַמְנַצֵּחַ מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד
ב הַשָּׁמַיִם מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד-אֵל וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו מַגִּיד הָרָקִיע
ג יוֹם לְיוֹם יַבִּיעַ אֹמֶר וְלַיְלָה לְּלַיְלָה יְחַוֶּה-דָּעַת
ד אֵין-אֹמֶר וְאֵין דְּבָרִים בְּלִי נִשְׁמָע קוֹלָם
ה בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ יָצָא קַוָּם וּבִקְצֵה תֵבֵל, מִלֵּיהֶם לַשֶּׁמֶשׁ שָׂם-אֹהֶל בָּהֶם
ו וְהוּא כְּחָתָן יֹצֵא מֵחֻפָּתוֹ יָשִׂישׂ כְּגִבּוֹר לָרוּץ אֹרַח
ז מִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם מוֹצָאו וּתְקוּפָתוֹ עַל-קְצוֹתָם וְאֵין נִסְתָּר מֵחַמָּתוֹ
ח תּוֹרַת יְהוָה תְּמִימָה מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ עֵדוּת יְהוָה נֶאֱמָנָה מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי
ט פִּקּוּדֵי יְהוָה יְשָׁרִים מְשַׂמְּחֵי-לֵב מִצְוַת יְהוָה בָּרָה מְאִירַת עֵינָיִם
י יִרְאַת יְהוָה טְהוֹרָה עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד מִשְׁפְּטֵי-יְהוָה אֱמֶת צָדְקוּ יַחְדָּו
יא הַנֶּחֱמָדִים מִזָּהָב וּמִפַּז רָב וּמְתוּקִים מִדְּבַשׁ וְנֹפֶת צוּפִים
יב גַּם-עַבְדְּךָ נִזְהָר בָּהֶם בְּשָׁמְרָם עֵקֶב רָב
יג שְׁגִיאוֹת מִי-יָבִין מִנִּסְתָּרוֹת נַקֵּנִי
יד גַּם מִזֵּדִים חֲשֹׂךְ עַבְדֶּךָ אַל-יִמְשְׁלוּ-בִי אָז אֵיתָם וְנִקֵּיתִי מִפֶּשַׁע רָב
טו יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי-פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ יְהוָה צוּרִי וְגֹאֲלִי