Psalm 19: God’s Communication through the Creation and the Word
Psalm 19 is highly relevant to the relation between Christian faith and the natural world. The psalm consists of two distinct sections followed by a conclusion.
- Verses 1-6 celebrate the revelation of God’s glory in creation.
- Verses 7-10 rejoice in the excellence of God’s word.
- In verses 11-14 the psalmist acknowledges a need of God’s grace in order to live according to God’s revelation.
In the Hebrew text, 1 and 2 have different metrical forms. Some have regarded 1 as originally a Canaanite hymn, partly because the word for ‘God’ is also the name of a Canaanite deity. But this is not necessarily correct: the same name is also applied elsewhere to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Like our word ‘god’ it could mean either the God of the Old and New Testaments, or deity in general.
Whatever the particular history of the two main sections (1 and 2), they are now united in this psalm, either by original composition or later combination. Both of them reveal God’s glory. John Calvin comments that God’s glory is ‘mirrored’ in the heavens, whereas God is made known ‘more familiarly’ in his Law. So the creation reveals the glory of God, while the Word instructs us how to conduct ourselves in God’s world.
According to verses 1-6 the heavens communicate without words, bearing witness to the glory of God. Special honour is given to the sun, which is compared to a bridegroom and a strong man (4b-6) and dominates everything – just as in Genesis 1.16 the sun ‘rules’ the day while the moon ‘rules’ the night.
Verses 7-10 celebrate God’s ‘law…decrees…precepts…commandment…fear…ordinances’. They are ‘perfect… sure… right… clear… pure… true and righteous altogether…,’ more precious than gold, sweeter than honey. They ‘revive the soul… make wise the simple… rejoice the heart… enlighten the eyes… enduring for ever’.
Professor D.J.A. Clines points out the connection between the language applied to the Law of the LORD in this psalm, and the description of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in Genesis Genesis 2:9, 17; 3:1-7. The tree of knowledge was perceived as being ‘good for food’, but in fact would bring ‘death.’ By contrast God’s Law ‘revives the soul’ and God’s ordinances are sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:7, 10).
The tempter claimed that eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge would bring godlike powers, but in fact it resulted in concealment and judgment (Genesis 3:5, 8-19). By contrast, the decrees of the LORD ‘make wise the simple’ (Psalm 19:7). True enlightenment comes not from human knowledge without consulting God, but from the commandment of the LORD (19:8b). Finally ‘… the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring for ever,’ (Psalm 19:9) whereas the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit was exclusion from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22).
Clines makes the further suggestion that, if Psalm 19:7-10 allude to Genesis 2-3, Psalm 19:1-6 may relate to the creation story in Genesis 1. Both sections would then allude to the opening chapters of Genesis: Genesis 1 relating to creation, and Genesis 2 – 3 referring to God’s edict and the tree of life.
The message of this psalm for us is that we should be equally attentive to the wordless revelation of God’s glory in creation, and to the verbal communication of the Bible. I used to take myself on solitary ‘walking retreats’. For a few days I would walk, usually on a long-distance trail, opening my consciousness to the natural sights and sounds that met me, and also reading and reflecting on a suitable-length passage of the Bible. I considered both these activities to be potentially forms of prayer, and each to reflect on the other.
Human beings are given powers of observation and reason, but these powers are to be exercised with reverence both for God’s creation and for God’s revealed Word. As Paul much later wrote, faith should rest ‘not on human wisdom, but on the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:5).
In the final section (verses 12-14) the psalmist responds to God’s revelation.
He asks to be cleared from ‘hidden faults’ (unintentional or accidental misdoings) and be ‘innocent of great transgression’ (13) – probably a general term for serious wrong-doing. One wonders how many of our current abuses of God’s creation would fall into this category?
James Luther Mays suggests that verse 14 is a statement of ‘what the psalm is and what is for’:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
Mays entitles the whole psalm ‘Meditation of My Heart.’
Keith Innes was in parish ministry from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. Since then he has studied and written on biblical eco-theology. His notes “God, the Earth and Humanity in the Book of Micah” and “British and American attitudes to nature” are available on the JRI Briefings page of this website
Photo: Sunset over Southern Tuscany, Italy (Martin Hodson)
For further reading
James Luther Mays: Psalms. John Knox Press (1994) pages 96-100.
Peter C. Craigie and Marvin E. Tate: Psalms 1-50. Second Edition. Zondervan (2004) pages 177-184.
 Calvin, John. Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08
 DJA Clines, ‘TheTree of Knowledge and the Law of Yahweh (Psalm XIX)’. Vetus Testamentum 24 (1974) 8-14.
 J.L Mays. Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994, page 100.