Psalm 19, 16 Sep ’18

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework. The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:

Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.1

These world-views centre on materialism and science. The last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens — provided you are no post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.

Standard model; Image: University of Zurich

People in any era have been fascinated by the mysteries of the universe. Gods, elemental matter, dreaming, creative spirits good and evil, magic and more have been devised in many mythologies to tame, explain or narrate. In more recent years, the Schrödinger wave equation, the little-understood W-boson carrying the weak force, and now gravity waves have equally fascinated as wordless signals “go out to the ends of the world”. But this is not science. Any single interpretation of this soaring imaginative poetry will surely serve to blinker and constrain. Readers dream afresh according to their history, situation and current cognitive settings.

So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more phrases that resonate in our experience and memories. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.) From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)

These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious justice and wisdom:

‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)

Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’, to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)

Read the psalm for yourself here> (NIV). And for more discussion on this poem and associated music — which ranges blithely from Händel and Hans Hassler and even, sort of, to There’s a bear in there — please see the post on 3.10.2017.

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Psalm 19 Genevan
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Here are some settings in our regular sources:

  • Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.

  • Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.

  • PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. It is also a reminder that:

  • A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’  (song-sheet here: Ps19 Babylon) picks up that much-quoted verse: ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.

Notes:

1Wright, NT, Finding God in the Psalms, page 119.

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