This is the kind of psalm that almost begs to be sung, even if it’s just a solo in the shower or car. After all, C.S. Lewis once called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” So it’s no wonder that lyricists have set a number of beautiful interpretations of it, including “The Heavens Declare Your Glory” and “God’s Glory Fills the Heavens,” to music by famous composers such as J.S. Bach and Franz Haydn.
Rolf Jacobson suggests the psalmist organizes Psalm 19’s glorious hymn of praise around the central theme of “word” or “speech.” In verses 1-6 it speaks of creation’s “words” of praise to God. The “heavens’” words, however, are largely inaudible. While the NIV translates verse 3 to mean, “There is no speech or language where [the skies’] voice is not heard,” according to the NIV Study Bible it may also mean, “They have no speech, there are no words; no sound is heard from them.”
The psalmist insists God’s glory is visible in God’s handiwork that is the “heavens” and “skies.” The Reformed confession of faith that is the Belgic Confession makes a similar claim in Article 2 where it insists, “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures … are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity.”
Yet Psalm 19’s poet goes even farther. She asserts that creation somehow joins the worshiping congregation in praising its Creator and Sustainer. After all, what God creates isn’t divine, as parts of our culture insist. Instead, creatures like the “heavens” and “skies” merely point to the glory of the One who makes them. The praise they offer is as unceasing as the rhythms of day and night. God’s creation praises the Lord on a daily basis throughout the day and night. That praise also extends across the whole world, just as the heavens and skies cover that world.
Psalm 19’s preachers and teachers may want to look for ways to help people explore how to slow down enough to “listen” for that praise in a world that’s often far noisier than its skies. They may also want to ask, if those heavens don’t actually make any audible noise, how do they declare God’s glory? Might we think of this a bit like the way we think of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings? After all, we might say something like “Starry Night” “declares its maker’s praise” because one can hardly help but notice and perhaps praise Van Gogh’s artistic genius displayed in it. How much more, then, might God’s handiwork declare its maker’s praise?
Part of God’s handiwork that somehow declares God’s glory is the sun (4b). While some of the psalmist’s contemporaries thought of it as divine, the poet asserts that it’s merely one of God’s many creatures. In fact, it’s a creature that’s eager to do that for which God created it by giving off light and heat as the earth circles it. The psalmist compares the sun to a bridegroom who’s straining to leave his parents’ home for his wedding or a racehorse that’s chomping at the bit to start a race. The latter image recalls scenes of thoroughbreds racing in something like the Kentucky Derby, eagerly lunging forward toward its finish line.
Psalm 19’s verses 7-10 signal a noticeable shift. After all, its Hebrew name for God changes from el to Yahweh. The verses also become poetry with what Jacobson calls “crisp and measured meter.” Most of all, however, they shift our attention from the creation that quietly, if not inaudibly declares God’s praise to Torah that very tangibly declares God’s glory. Verses 7-10’s six phrases have a similar structure. Each lists a synonym for God’s law, plus an adjective, plus a description of that law’s positive impact on those who gratefully observe it.
So in the second part of Psalm 19 a description of the creation’s inaudible words of praise to God morphs into a description of the concrete word of God as we find it in God’s law. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession mirrors that shift. After all, it insists that God “makes himself known to us more openly [than in creation] by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life for his glory and the salvation of his own.” In other words, while God’s creation declares God’s glory, God’s word declares that glory even more plainly, even if still inaudibly.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to invite listeners to consider how the wider culture thinks about God’s law to which the psalm most specifically refers. Do people think of the commandments as a killjoy by which God tries to take away all freedom? Do they think of it as a kind of one-ton albatross that drags them down?
One might say Psalm 19’s poet thinks of it as more like an owner’s manual. After all, a car owner might think of that manual as something that restricts his freedom to use the car as he chooses. So he might choose to exercise his freedom by doing something basic like running the car without putting gasoline in its tank. However, the people who designed and made the car know what’s best for it. So the wise owner is the one who follows the owner’s manual’s instructions by periodically filling the car’s gas tank with gasoline. In a similar way, the wise creature seeks to obey the owner’s manual that is the Law given by the Creator.
Psalm 19’s author uses a number of synonyms for God’s “owners manual for people” that is God’s written revelation. However, no matter which synonym she uses, she always points to the positive benefits of obeying that law. Some of the imagery the poet uses is very vivid. In verse 7, for example, she insists God’s law revives our soul like a cold glass of water revives our drooping bodies and spirits on a hot summer day. In verse 8 she notes that God’s law makes even the simplest people who obey it wiser than members of the Mensa Society who ignore it. And in verse 10 the psalmist insists God’s law is even more precious than two of God’s creation’s most valuable commodities: sweet honey and valuable gold.
Yet in verse 12 it’s as though while the psalmist knows all of this about God’s glorious creation and law, he recognizes that he has still disobeyed that law. It’s almost as if he recognizes he has treated that priceless gift like a worthless piece of junk. After all, knowledge of God’s perfect, trustworthy, right, sure and precious law isn’t enough all by itself to keep God’s sons and daughters faithful. We need God’s gracious forgiveness for sins of which we’re both aware and unaware. We also need the Holy Spirit to equip us to respond to God’s grace with thankful obedience. After all, as Jacobson notes, it’s not the law but the Lawgiver who graciously makes both God’s children and their prayers “pleasing” in God’s sight.
People have always considered gold to be one of the most precious and valuable minerals in the whole world. So the psalmist may have shocked his contemporaries when he insisted that God’s law is “more precious than gold.”
Yet in the last decade alone the price of gold in American dollars has risen more than 320%, from about $260.00 to nearly $1100. One analyst predicts the price of gold will jump as high as $2200.00. So how can we join the poet in asserting God’s law is “more precious than … much pure gold”?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 24, 2016
Psalm 19 Commentary