Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 19

Psalm 19

This Psalm is a hymn to YHWH, and, like the previous Ps 18, may represent a combination of two distinct compositions. It can be divided into three sections:

    • vv. 2-7 [1-6], which may be characterized as a nature-hymn, in praise of YHWH as Creator
    • vv. 8-12 [7-11], which extols the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH
    • vv. 13-15 [12-14]: a prayer by the Psalmist, that he would live according to the word and will of God

Many commentators would recognize a 2-part division, with two poems—A and B—joined together. Poem A (vv. 2-7 [1-6]) is thought to be considerably older than Poem B, but both make use of a common set of motifs, reflected in the Genesis Creation account, of creation through the word of God. This “word” is manifest in nature no less than in the written documents of the Torah. The binding image between the two parts of the Psalm is that of the sun (vv. 6-7), to which the Torah may be compared as a source of light for humankind.

The superscription to the Psalm simply indicates that is a musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Psalm 19:2-7 [1-6]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“The heavens are giving account of (the) weight of (the) Mighty (One),
and the work of His hands the stamped-out (surface) is putting (up) front;
(from) day to day (there) pours forth (what is) said,
and (from) night to night (there is) declared (what is) known.”

These first two couplets are 4-beat (4+4) bicola. I have preserved much of the word order, as a way of illustrating how the parallelism of Hebrew poetry can be expressed in different ways. The first couplet is a chiasm, establishing the sphere of the universe (or at least, the upper hemisphere) as constituting the expanse (and boundary) of the created world:

    • the heavens (<y]m^V*h^)
      • are giving account (<yr!P=s^m=)
        • (the) weight of the Mighty One (la@ dobK=)
        • (the) work of His hands (wyd*y` hc@u&m^)
      • is putting up front (dyG]m^)
    • the stamped-out [surface] (u^yq!r*h*)

The “heavens” (dual <y]m^v*) represent the entire expanse of the upper hemisphere (of the universe), while the “stamped-out (surface)” is the firm ‘shell’ of the hemisphere that separates the heavens from the waters above. Cf. Gen 1:2, 6-8 for the simple Old Testament expression of this ancient Near Eastern view of the universe (cosmology). The term u^yq!r* literally refers to a surface that has been stamped (or hammered) out. Also parallel are the verbs rp^s* (“count, record”) and dg~n` (Hiphil “put before, set in front, set above”), which refer to something that is continually made known (the regular/continuous aspect indicated here by the use of participles). The central pair in the chiasmus explains what is made known—namely, the weight or worth (dobK*) of YHWH himself, which is made evident through “the work of his hands” (i.e. creation).

The second couplet has a simpler structure, with a precise synonymous parallelism. The main parallel is between “speech” (rm#a), i.e. what is said) and “knowledge” (tu^D^, what is known). The creation, which itself was made through the spoken word of God (Gen 1, etc), speaks in turn of its Creator. This takes place all the time, every moment, from “day to day” and “night to night”.

Verses 4-5ab [3-4]

“There is no(thing) said, and there are no words—
their voice cannot be heard;
(yet) in all the earth their gathering-call goes forth,
and, at the end of what (the earth) contains, their (word)s in response.”

This pair of 4+3 couplets expounds the point made in vv. 2-3—that is, how the universe can “speak” and declare (make known) the truth of its Creator, El-Yahweh. The world cannot actually speak (as a person would), yet it still has a wordless “voice” (loq) that can declare this truth everywhere and at all times. The negative point is stated in the first couplet, using the particle of absence (/ya@, “there is no…”) twice in line 1, and then a separate particle indicating failure/inability (yl!B=) in line 2. The corresponding positive statement is in the second couplet (v. 5ab). The parallel between “the earth” and lb@t@ is similar to that between “the heavens” and u^yq!r* in verse 2 (cf. above). Both indicate the boundary, and the extent/expanse, of the hemisphere of the universe. The noun lb@t@ is actually quite difficult to translate in English. The root lby has the basic meaning of “bring, carry, transport”, but the derived noun lb@t@, insofar as it relates to the inhabited earth/world, seems to refer to what the earth contains—i.e., all that lives and moves on/in it. I have attempted to convey this in the translation above, though not without some awkwardness. The “voice” of creation is manifest by the very life that exists dynamically in nature—it calls things to gather together, and they come, answering in response.

Verses 5c-7 [4c-6]

“For (the) sun He set a tent in them,
and he (is) as a bridegroom going forth from his covering,
he rejoices as a strong youth to run (along) his path;
from the end of the heavens (is) his going forth,
and his coming round (again) unto their ends—
there is no turning (away) from his pavilion.”

The structure and rhythm of these closing lines is curious. The two couplets of vv. 6-7ab (4+4 and 3+3, respectively) are flanked by single lines at the beginning and end. This would indicate an inclusio, suggesting that the first and last lines (5c, 7c) are parallel. For this reason, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 123) in reading the final word wtmjm as “from his pavilion [tm^j@]”, rather than MT (“from his heat [hM*j^]”). The word —mt (“tent, pavilion”) is known in Ugaritic (cf. Kirta I. col. iii. line 55), as well as in Arabic and other cognate languages. Less certain is the parsing of rT*s=n] as a reflexive t-infixed conjugation of the root rWs (“turn [away/aside]”), though that would seem to fit the context. The MT reads the verb as a simple Niphal form of rts (“hide, conceal”). Unfortunately, there is little help to be had from a comparative study of the Qumran texts, as Ps 19 is preserved in just one small fragmentary MS (11QPsc).

The focus on the sun (vm#v#) is quite natural, as the most visible (and sensible) manifestation of the creative power. The life-giving power of the sun is readily apparent, as is the extent to which human beings (and all living creatures) are dependent on it. Within the ancient Near Eastern milieu, it was in Egypt that we see the greatest emphasis on the creative power of the sun (Re), and as the manifestation of the deity as Creator (Re-Atum). However, such solar-imagery was equally applicable to El-Yahweh as the Creator; commentators have repeated noted the similarities, for example, between Psalm 104 and the hymn to the Aten (the creative power manifest in the disc/orb of the sun) from the Amarna period in Egypt.

Next week’s study will explore the remainder of the Psalm (vv. 8-15 [7-14]), the putative second poem praising the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

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