Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 19 (continued)

Psalm 19, continued

The first portion of this Psalm (vv. 2-7 [1-6], discussed in the previous study) presented the natural world as a manifestation of God’s power and presence as Creator. The very processes and operations within nature bear witness, “speaking” of YHWH, even as God Himself “spoke” it into existence. As a theme we might call this “nature as the word of God”. In the second half of the Psalm, we find a parallel theme: “the Torah as the word of God”. It is not necessary to limit the use of the word hr*oT (tôrâ) here to the Law Code preserved in the Pentateuch, though certainly that would be paramount. Rather, it refers to the “word of God” expressed within the religious and ethical sphere, in contrast to the natural world.

Psalm 19:8-15 [7-14]

Verses 8-10 [7-9]

“(The) hr*oT  of YHWH (is) complete, returning [i.e. restoring] (the) soul;
(the) tWdu@ of YHWH (is) firm, making wise (the) open (mind);
(the) <yd!WQP! of YHWH (are) straight, making glad (the) heart;
(the) hw`x=m! of YHWH (is) clear, enlightening (the) eyes;
(the) <ha*r=m!> of  YHWH (is) pure, standing until (the end);
(the) <yf!P=v=m! of YHWH (are) truth–(all as) one they are just!”

These verses consist of a series of six parallel couplets, each of which follows a basic pattern, with a 3+2 meter. The pattern is set by the first couplet in v. 8a. The initial 3-beat line is a statement regarding the hr*oT (tôrâ) of YHWH; the second (2-beat) line modifies the first, with a participial phrase which states what the hr*oT does—i.e., its effective energy and power, with its effect on the one faithful and loyal to it. The following couplets are strophic variations, using different words and descriptive phrases to expound and elaborate the opening couplet. As the principal nouns are a bit difficult to translate literally, with precision, in a poetic setting like this, I have left them untranslated above; now let us consider them here, each one in turn:

  • hr*oT (tôrâ)—typically translated “law”, this noun is more properly rendered “instruction”, literally something “thrown” across, for the purpose of teaching/training someone. In Israelite and Jewish tradition, it is the primary term for the collection of teaching, recorded in Scripture, that expresses what God requires of His people (i.e. the terms of His covenant with them).
  • tWdu@ (±¢¼û¾)—derived from the root dwu, it refers essentially to something that is repeated, often in the specific sense of giving/bearing witness (i.e. repeating what a person has seen or heard). It may be understood here specifically in terms of the recorded hr*oT as preserving a witness and testimony to what YHWH has said to His people.
  • <yd!Q%P! (piqq¥¼îm)—plural of the noun dWQP!, which, like the root dqp in general, is notoriously difficult to translate. The basic meaning has to do with a person exercising oversight and supervision over a situation, and what he/she might require (others to do) in response. A flat English translation of the plural here might be “requirements” —i.e. the things YHWH requires of His people. Also implicit is the idea of the hr*oT as part of God’s supervision over Israel.
  • hw`x=m! (miƒwâ)—usually translated “command”, though perhaps more accurate is the idea of a charge or duty placed on someone by a superior. Here the singular noun is comprehensive—i.e., all that YHWH requires a person to do.
  • ha*r=m! (mir°â)—the Masoretic text here reads ha*r=y] (“fear”), which seems out of place, and may well represent a textual corruption; unfortunately, there is no help from the Qumran scrolls since this portion of Ps 19 is not preserved in the only surviving MS. I have tentatively followed Dahood  (p. 123f) in emending the text (slightly) to ha*r=m!, on the basis of the Ugaritic root mr° (“command”)—i.e., the command of YHWH (as Lord/Sovereign). Another possibility, based on the parallel in Ps 119:38, would be hr*m=a! (“word, utterance”), with the same general sense (cf. Kraus, p. 268).
  • <yf!P=v=m! (mišp®‰îm)— “judgments”, specifically in the sense of the rulings made by YHWH as King (and supreme Judge).

In the first four couplets, the effect of the Torah, etc, of YHWH, indicated in the second line, is upon a specific part (or aspect) of the human person, symbolizing primarily our consciousness and awareness:

    • vp#n# (“soul”)—that is, the life and being of the person as a whole, which the Torah, itself being complete (<ym!T*), is able to restore (lit. “return”) to completeness.
    • yt!P#, which I render rather literally as “open (mind)”; Dahood (p. 123) would identify it as a rare noun tP) (cf. Isa 3:17), related to Akkadian p¥tu (“forehead, face”). The mind (or face?) that is open (or turned) to God’s Instruction will be embued with the Wisdom of God.
    • bl@ (“heart”), in ancient Near Eastern thought, commonly located as the place of the mind/intellect, where decisions are made; the requirements made by YHWH in the Torah, being right and “straight” are appealing to one’s heart/mind and “make it glad”.
    • <y]n`yu@ (“eyes”)—an association with light (and enlightenment) is natural and obvious; through the eyes one “sees” what is right and true, as it conforms with the requirements (or “commands”) of YHWH in the Torah.

The focus of the last two couplets shifts a bit, from the effect of the Torah on the righteous person to a more general statement regarding its overall character: (1) it endures, lasting (“standing”) forever (“until [the end]”), and (2) they are all true and right/just, together forming a single unified whole (dj^y~).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“The(se) being delightful (more) than gold,
and (even) much more than pure (gold),
and (also) sweet, (more) than (the) sticky (honey),
even (the) dripping (honey) of the flowing (comb),
(so) also your servant is made to shine by them,
(and) in guarding them (there is) much (from its) heel!”

A pair of short, proverbial 2+2 couplets are followed by a single 3+3 couplet, which brings the entirety of vv. 8-12 to a dramatic climax. The plurals here (“these, them” in translation) refer to all the 6 nouns mentioned in vv. 8-10—hr*oT and its synonyms–the entire Instruction of YHWH, taken together (cf. verse 10b above). The proverbial comparisons in verse 11 are simple: more delightful than gold, sweeter than honey. But more than the enjoyment God’s Torah brings, is the defining effect it has on a person’s entire character and being. This is expressed two different ways:

    • the verb rh^z` (“shine”), continuing the sun/light imagery from earlier in the Psalm; the light of God’s own word and presence illuminates the righteous person, causing him/her to shine. There is almost certainly an intentional bit of wordplay here, since there is similar root rh^z` (II), often used in the passive Niphal stem (as here), which means “teach”. I.e. being taught by God’s Torah = being made to shine.
    • an idiom involving the noun bq#u@, which essentially refers to a “footprint” (lit. a mark by the heel), i.e. something that is imprinted on the surface. The Hebrew idiom signifies something that is left behind, often in the generic sense of an end result. By “guarding” the Torah of YHWH, His word is ‘imprinted’ on the person, and, in turn, there is something ‘left behind’, i.e. the reward/result of the person’s faithful devotion to YHWH.
Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Going astray, who can discern it?
Clear me from (my inclination)s to turn (aside)!
(So) also hold your servant (away) from (the) arrogant (one)s,
(that) they would not rule o(ver) me!
Then shall I be complete,
and will be clear (from so) much rebellion!”

Verse 13[12] is another proverbial 2+2 couplet, reflecting the influence of Wisdom traditions, seen frequently in the Psalms. The wording is a bit difficult, especially the parsing of the verb of the second line. The parallelism suggests a passive-reflexive form of the root rWs (“turn [aside]”), rather than the simple passive of rts (“hide”); however, the idea of “hidden (faults/sins)” would be applicable as well. The structure and meter of v. 14[13] is irregular, the tension indicating a climactic point for the second half of the Psalm—a prayer by the Psalmist that YHWH would help him to remain faithful and loyal, in terms of “guarding” the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 12b).

The final, uneven couplet intentionally echoes the wording of that earlier line (cf. above), however difficult it may be translate accurately in English. The uP^v=m!, variously rendered “transgression”, “rebellion”, properly refers to the breaking of the (covenant) bond between YHWH and His people. In terms of the royal theology expressed in many Psalms, this idea extends specifically to the bond between YHWH (as Sovereign) and the Israelite/Judean king (as vassal). To break such a bond is fundamentally an act of rebellion.

The context here suggests that the “rebellion” (i.e. breaking of the bond) should be understood strictly in a religious sense—that is, in terms of the ‘idolatry’ (i.e. religious syncretism) present in Israelite/Judean society. The deities of the surrounding (Canaanite) culture are dz@ (literally, “bubbling, boiling”), meaning that they have been given (or give themselves) an inflated sense of worth, compared with the true God of Israel (El-Yahweh); cf. Exodus 18:11 etc. The word can more generally connote “arrogance”, “presumption”, etc, and, as such, can be applied to both the religious and social-ethical sphere—the two aspects being interrelated. As the Torah became more central to the Israelite religious identity, a failure to guard and preserve its teachings was viewed as tantamount to idolatry.

Verse 15 [14]

“May (the) utterances of my mouth be for (your) pleasure,
and (even the) murmurings of my heart (be)fore your face,
YHWH, my Rock and my Redeemer!”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon that serves as a doxology to the Psalm. It is also an extension of the prayer in vv. 13-14, and relates primarily to the focus on the Torah of God in vv. 8ff. Properly, a line praising YHWH has been added to what otherwise would stand as a unified couplet. The parallelism of this couplet has two interlocking strands:

    • Synonymous:
      “utterances of my mouth” / “murmurings of my heart”
    • Synthetic:
      “for (your) pleasure” => “before your face”

The faithfulness and loyalty of righteous extends from what a person says (vb rm^a*) out loud, to what they ‘say’ (“murmur”, root hg`h*) deep in their heart. That is, even their innermost thoughts conform to the word and will of God. Moreover, the guarding/preservation of YHWH’s teaching, done because it corresponds with what is pleasing to Him, allows the faithful one to come and stand before the very presence of God (i.e. his “face”). The latter line also recognizes the very point made in vv. 2-7 (and in other Psalms): that YHWH’s presence is everywhere, and all that we do in the world takes place “before His face”.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993); English translation of Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th edition, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978).


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