Psalm 19
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm consists of two distinct parts. The first part celebrates the revelation of the Power and Majesty of God in Nature, the universal and unceasing testimony of the heavens to their Creator (Psalm 19:1-6). The second part celebrates the moral beauty and beneficent power of Jehovah’s ‘Law’ in its manifold elements and aspects (Psalm 19:7-11); and the Psalmist, viewing his own life in the sight of this holy Law, concludes with a prayer for pardon, preservation, and acceptance (Psalm 19:12-14).

The identity of the Lawgiver of Israel with the Creator of the Universe was a fundamental principle of Old Testament religion (Amos 4:13; Amos 5:7-8): and the Psalm is certainly intended to suggest a comparison between the universal revelation of God’s majesty in creation, manifest to all mankind (Romans 1:19-20), and the special revelation of His moral character and of man’s duty in His ‘Law,’ given to Israel only. The use of the Divine names is significant. In the first part God is styled El, as the God of power, the Creator: in the second part He is styled Jehovah (seven times repeated), the Name by which He made Himself known as the covenant God of Israel, the God of grace and redemption.

Were the two parts the work of one poet? Form, style, and tone point to a negative answer. No doubt the same poet might have adopted a fresh rhythm to correspond to the change of subject; and the abruptness of the transition from one part to the other cannot be pressed as an argument against unity of authorship, for it is quite in accordance with the spirit of Hebrew poetry to place two thoughts side by side, and leave the reader to draw the intended inference. But the closest parallel to the first part is Psalms 8 : to the second, Psalms 119.

We know from the example of Psalms 108 that no scruples were felt in combining parts of different poems into a new whole; and it seems most probable that the second part of the Psalm was written as a supplement to part of an already existing poem, or that portions of two poems were combined, with a view of suggesting the comparison between God’s two great volumes of Nature and the Scriptures.

Each of these volumes has its special lessons. Rightly interpreted, they can never be in conflict. “It is written,” says Lord Bacon, “Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei; but it is not written coeli enarrant voluntatem Dei: but of that it is said, ad legem et testimonium: si non fecerint secundum verbum istud &c.” (Advancement of Learning, II. 25, 3).

“The starry sky above me,” said Kant, “and the moral law in me, … are two things which fill the soul with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence.” Wallace’s Kant, p. 53.

What does the Psalmist mean by “the law of Jehovah,” which he describes in different aspects as testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, judgements? it is the moral law embodied in the Pentateuch, but not this exclusively, but all the priestly and prophetic teaching by which Jehovah’s will was made known. The “Law” is to the writer no burden-some and vexatious restriction of liberty, but a gracious reflection of the holiness of God, designed to lead man in the way of life and peace. Yet already in the closing verse we have a hint of the sterner function of the Law as an instrument for teaching man to know his own sinfulness (Romans 3:20), and to feel the need of an effectual atonement (Romans 8:3).

Psalms 19 is one of the Proper Psalms for Christmas Day. The Revelation of God in Nature, and the Revelation of God in His Word, prepared the way for the crowning Revelation of God in the Incarnation (Bp. Perowne).

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
1. “The glory of the Lord” denotes (1) that visible manifestation of His Presence by which He was wont to reveal Himself to Israel, the Shechinah as it was called in later times (Exodus 16:7; Exodus 16:10; Exodus 33:22; Romans 9:4): and (2) in a wider sense, as here, the glory of God is the unique majesty of His Being as it is revealed to man, that manifestation of His Deity which the creature should recognise with reverent adoration. All creation is a revelation of God, but the heavens in their vastness, splendour, order, and mystery are the most impressive reflection of His greatness and majesty. The simplest observer can read the message; but how much more emphatic and significant has it become through the discoveries of modern astronomy!

the firmament) Lit. the expanse: the vault of heaven, spread out over the earth (Genesis 1:6 ff.; Job 37:18), proclaims what He has done and can do.

1–6. The universal revelation of God in Nature.

Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
2. This proclamation is continuous and unceasing. “Dies diem docet.” Each day, each night, hands on the message to its successor in an unbroken tradition. Day and night are mentioned separately, for each has a special message entrusted to it: the day tells of splendour, power, beneficence; the night tells of vastness, order, mystery, beauty, repose. They are “like the two parts of a choir, chanting forth alternately the praises of God.” (Bp. Horne.)

uttereth] Lit. pours out, in copious abundance.

sheweth] Or, proclaimeth, a different word from that of Psalm 19:1. Knowledge is “that which may be known of God” (Romans 1:19). “Aristotle says[10], that should a man live under ground, and there converse with works of art and mechanism, and should afterwards be brought up into the open day, and see the several glories of the heaven and earth, he would immediately pronounce them the works of such a being as we define God to be.” Addison in The Spectator, No. 465.

[10] The passage is a fragment of Aristotle’s Dialogue on Philosophy quoted by Cicero De Natura Deorum, ii. 37. 95, and is well worth referring to.

There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
3. (a) The rendering of A.V. means that the message of the heavens reaches all nations of every language alike, and is intelligible to them. But the Heb. words rendered speech and language will not bear this explanation.

(b) The rendering

It is not a speech or words

Whose voice is unintelligible,

is that of most of the ancient versions (LXX, Aq., Symm., Theod., Vulg., Jer.). But it does not satisfy the parallelism, and it is unnatural to refer their voice to ‘speech and words’ rather than to ‘the heavens.’

(c) It is best to render (cp. R.V.)

There is neither speech nor words,

Unheard is their voice.

Their message though real is inarticulate. Thus understood, the verse qualifies Psalm 19:2, and is in close connexion with Psalm 19:4. Theirs is a silent eloquence, yet it reaches from one end of the world to the other. Comp. Addison’s paraphrase:

“What though in solemn silence all

Move round the dark terrestrial ball?

What though nor real voice nor sound

Amid their radiant orbs be found?

In reason’s ear they all rejoice,

And utter forth a glorious voice,

For ever singing, as they shine,

‘The hand that made us is divine’.”

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,
4. This proclamation is universal. The phrase Their line is gone out &c., is to be explained by Jeremiah 31:39; Zechariah 1:16. The measuring line marks the limits of possession. The whole earth is the sphere throughout which the heavens have to proclaim their message. The rendering of P.B.V. their sound follows LXX, Vulg., Symm., Jer., Syr., but it is not justifiable as a rendering of the present text, though it may be got by an easy emendation.

A wider application is given to these words by St Paul in Romans 10:18. But his use of them is not merely the adoption of a convenient phrase. It implies a comparison of the universality of the proclamation of the Gospel with the universality of the proclamation of God’s glory in Nature.

In them &c.] How naturally the poet singles out the Sun as the chief witness to God’s glory, and personifies it as though it were a king or hero, for whose abode the Creator has fixed a tent in the heavens.

Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
5. Thence he comes forth morning by morning like the bridegroom in all the splendour of his bridal attire, in all the freshness of youthful vigour and buoyant happiness (Isaiah 61:10; Isaiah 62:5): like the hero exulting in the consciousness of strength, and eager to put it to the proof. Cp. Jdg 5:31.

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.
6. The beneficent influences of his light and heat are universally felt.

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
7. The law of the Lord] Instruction, teaching, doctrine, are the ideas connected with the word torah, rendered law. See on Psalm 1:2. Like Jehovah’s work (Deuteronomy 32:4), and His way (Psalm 18:30), it is perfect, complete, flawless; without defect or error; a guide which can neither mislead nor fail. Observe that the name Jehovah now takes the place of God (Psalm 19:1); for we have entered the sphere of the special revelation to Israel.

converting the soul] Rather, as R.V., restoring the soul; refreshing and invigorating man’s true self (cp. Psalm 23:3); like food to the hungry (Lamentations 1:11; Lamentations 1:19); like comfort to the sorrowful and afflicted (Lamentations 1:16; Ruth 4:15).

the testimony] The ‘law,’ regarded as bearing witness to Jehovah’s will, and man’s duty (Exodus 25:16; Exodus 25:21). It is sure, not variable or uncertain. Cp. Psalm 93:5, Psalm 111:7.

the simple] A character often mentioned in Proverbs (Proverbs 1:4, &c.): the man whose mind is open to the entrance of good or evil. He has not closed his heart against instruction, but he has no fixed principle to repel temptation. He needs to be made wise. Cp. Psalm 119:130; 2 Timothy 3:15.

7–11. Yet more wonderful than this declaration of God’s glory, more beneficent than the sun’s life-giving light and heat, is Jehovah’s revelation of His will, which quickens and educates man’s moral nature. Its essential characteristics and its beneficent influences are described with an enthusiastic and loving admiration.

Note the peculiar rhythm of Psalm 19:7-9, in which each line is divided by a well-marked caesura. Cp. Lamentations 1:1 ff. See Introd. p. lx.

The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
8. The statutes] Rather, as R.V., the precepts, the various special injunctions in which man’s obligations are set forth. These make glad the heart with the joy of moral satisfaction.

pure] An epithet applied to the sun. Song of Solomon 6:10. “The law is light” (Proverbs 6:23), and light-giving. Cp. Psalm 119:105; Psalm 119:130; Ephesians 1:18.

The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
9. The fear of the Lord] Another synonym for the ‘law,’ inasmuch as its aim and object is to implant the fear of God in men’s hearts. (Deuteronomy 4:10). It is clean or pure (Psalm 12:6), in contrast to the immoralities of heathenism. It is like Jehovah Himself (Habakkuk 1:13), and like Him, it stands fast for ever (Psalm 102:26); for “righteousness is immortal” (Wis 1:15).

The judgments] Decisions, ordinances. These are truth (John 17:17); one and all they are in accordance with the standard of absolute justice (Deuteronomy 4:8).

More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
10. Such is the law in all its parts; a treasure to be coveted; the sweetest of enjoyments when received into the heart. Cp. Psalm 119:72; Psalm 119:103; Psalm 119:127.

the honeycomb] Lit. the droppings of the honeycomb, the purest honey which drops naturally from the comb.

Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.
11. The Psalmist, as Jehovah’s servant, lets himself be warned by the law. Cp. Ezekiel 33:4 ff.

great reward] Cp. Proverbs 22:4; 1 Timothy 4:8; 1 Timothy 6:6.

Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.
12. More exactly:

Errors who can discern?

From hidden (faults) clear thou me.

Who can be aware of the manifold lapses of ignorance or inadvertence? Acquit me, do not hold me guilty in respect of them.

12–14. The contemplation of this holy law leads the Psalmist to express his personal need of preservation and guidance.

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.
13. For sins committed ‘in error,’ (A.V. through ignorance) and for ‘hidden’ offences, the ceremonial law provided an atonement (Leviticus 4:1 ff., Leviticus 4:13 ff; Leviticus 5:2 ff.; Numbers 15:22 ff.); but for sins committed ‘with a high hand,’ in a spirit of proud defiance, there was no atonement (Numbers 15:30-31). From such presumptuous sins he prays to be restrained, as David was once restrained from a desperate act of revenge (1 Samuel 25:39). Such sins soon become a man’s masters, and he becomes their slave (John 8:34). They rule over him, instead of his ruling over them (Genesis 4:7). For presumptuous, lit. proud, cp. presumptuously, lit. in pride, Exodus 21:14; Deuteronomy 17:12-13.

Then (he continues) if Thou dost grant me this grace, shall I be perfect, heart-whole with Thee (Psalm 18:23), and I shall be clear from great transgression, innocent of the deadly sin of rebellion (Isaiah 1:2) and apostasy from Jehovah.

But the word rendered ‘presumptuous sins’ everywhere else means ‘proud men,’ and this may be its meaning here. The Psalmist prays to be saved from the oppression of the proud and godless, lest he should be tempted even to deny God. Cp. Psalm 119:121-122; and note how often “the proud” are mentioned in that Psalm, and how the thought of faithfulness to the Law in the teeth of mockery and persecution is emphasised ( Psalm 119:51; Psa 119:69; Psa 119:78; Psa 119:85-87).

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
14. be acceptable] An expression borrowed from the laws of sacrifice. See Leviticus 1:3-4 (R.V.); cp. Exodus 28:38. Prayer, “uttered or unexpressed,” is a spiritual sacrifice. Cp. Psalm 141:2; Hosea 14:2.

The P.B.V., be always acceptable, is from the LXX. The Heb. for always would be tâmîd. If this word may be restored to the text on the authority of the LXX, it would suggest a reference to the daily sacrifice which was to be offered continually (Exodus 29:38 ff.), and in later times was called the Tâmîd.

my strength &c.] My rock (see on Psalm 18:2), and my redeemer, delivering me from the tyranny of enemies and the bondage of sin, as He delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt. Cp. Exodus 15:13; Isaiah 63:9.

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