Literary analysis of Psalm 19 – Creation, revelation and redemption

תפילה photo Click here to read “Psalm Six – Translation of the Song”

Three ideas inspire the praisesong: the essence of creation; the revelation of God’s teachings; the promise of redemption. These are the same three themes that make up the daily prayer service (whether the division into these three specific parts is based on Song 19 is not known).
The first 7 verses of Song 19 describe nature — the heavens and the earth– as manifestations and declarations of the glory of God. Form and content converge: 7 is the number associated with the natural world; 7 verses comprise the song’s first section. The heavens “tell”, the sky “narrates” (v. 1); the day “surges” words (v. 3) — all indicate speech; that is, the words spoken by the very fact of the natural world’s existence. Verse 3 introduces a subtle variation: “night shares knowledge with night”. That the night is given the human characteristic of conveying knowledge – indeed, that the night is even described as possessing knowledge – is, of course, a metaphor: the cycle of days and nights not only the testimony to God’s grandeur but actually the announcement of it. Nonetheless knowledge requires an interpreter, someone who will observe but who will also take the gift offered: the knowledge of God’s manifestation. The human presence is thereby felt in the song, though not yet seen.
Verses 4 and 5 recognize that the words of the natural world are unheard — “There is no speech and there are no utterances; yet, without sound, their voice is heard” (v. 4) — and still,
In all the land their hope emerges, like the horizon,  and their words to the edge of the world.  (v. 5)
A voice that is heard by those whose ears are open to listen.
Verse 6 introduces a strange image: the sun is likened to a bridegroom, an apt simile in its suggestion of jubilation, of the promise not only of a new day but of new life to come. The human, suggested only by inference in verse 4 (as the interpreter of nature’s declarations), is now more visibly present, if only as an image: and, indeed, the image of the tent transforming into the wedding canopy makes clear that creation, in its entirety of both nature and humankind, dwells in God.
The introduction of the groom, however, may be prompted by a specific theological reason: the sun “is like a groom going from his canopy, like a hero exuberantly, about to run its course “(v. 6). The sun, likened to the groom, now becomes a colossus who blazes a path from one end of the heavens to the other, the joy of the bridegroom intensifying into the sun’s inescapable heat.
from the edge of the heavens, and its revolution to the ends of it; and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (v. 7)
The description suggests the Egyptian myth of the sun-god – Amun-Ra — who drives his chariot and its horses from one end of the heavens to the other. King David may, by his substitution of a bridegroom for the sun-god, be refuting the idea that natural forces are gods; asserting that, on the contrary, they serve God and fulfill God’s purposes. The fullness of the bridegroom’s joy, the intensity of the sun’s heat – the singer’s images of the energy of both the human and the natural world – are, for him, mere reflections, not exemplifications, of the creative power of God.
The number 8 signifies that which is beyond nature. And it is verse 8 that begins the second part, revelation, of Song 19: verses 8 to 12 praise the qualities of God’s precepts — the teachings are “perfect” and “steadfast” (v. 8); “upright” and “clear” (v. 9); “reviving the soul” and enlightening the mind (v. 8); “gladdening the heart” and “sending light to the eyes” (v. 9). Thus the organs –the natural world of the body– sound God’s presence as surely as do the heavens and the earth. The human participant is once again made essential, even more immediately than suggested in the song’s first part.
Verse 11’s imagery echoes both the images of the sun and the groom of part 1, but now transforms their qualities into the attributes of God’s precepts:
   Coveted more than gold, than bountiful fine gold; and sweeter than honey and the flowing of the honey. (v. 11)
Verse 12 completes the description of revelation, of the teachings of the Torah, stating the benefit of observance: “in guarding them follows great reward”. The caution the singer, who calls himself God’s “servant”, admits to, in verse 12, is at first puzzling: is he “careful” about attempting to describe the qualities of divine teachings or is he cautious in his observance of those teachings? What is clear, however, is that, as the singer names himself God’s “servant”, he also gives the human presence visibility in the song. This visibility appears in the part of the song revealing God’s teachings, the singer’s explicit appearance harkens back to verses 2 and 3, revelation following upon creation, as the singer not only affirms, but promises to act upon, his knowledge of God’s precepts.
The conclusion to the song –its plea for redemption– immediately gives the reason for the singer’s caution: verse 13 asks that God “cleanse” the singer of “hidden” faults he may not be aware of. His caution, then, is due to his sense of his own unworthiness; a sense that verse 14 re-iterates even more intensely: he pleads for control over his “deliberate” sins, admitting, thereby, his responsibility for those offenses he is aware of.

The last verse of the song brings its close back to its beginning:
May You will the speeches of my mouth and the logic of my heart, ADONAI my creator and my redeemer. (v. 15)
The speech of the singer’s mouth echoes that of the natural world; the meditation of his heart harkens back to both the “knowledge” offered by the night (v.3), and that offered by divine teachings (verses 8 to 10). “Redeemer” takes up “reviving the soul” (v. 8). That God is both “creator” and “redeemer” finalizes the themes of the qualities of creation (part 1) and revelation (part 2), in its final hope for redemption. “Rock” is the common translation of צוּר, rather than the “creator” of our translation. Certainly “rock” completes the image of the “tent” that God “has put” as a covering for the sun to traverse: the universe is thus both protected and made stable, rock at its base and tent above. The Hebrew, however, צוּר for “rock” shares a root with both “creating” and “fashioning”, suggesting the artistry of God’s design: the name, “Rock”, has a two-fold significance – God, the creator, gives a shape to the material world, to the rock that is the physical universe; moreover, the rock-like quality of God – of both strength and shelter – thus shares, most directly, the very nature of the world created.
That we today, in unbroken tradition, recite verse 15 with each silent utterance of the Amidah, makes an astonishing other circle to accompany and parallel the one traced by the song: as we recite, in the Amidah, the final verse of Song 19, we enter the song. The human participants, already present within the verses –and which, indeed, include the singer himself– now add to their company the silent speaker of each and every recitation. It is we, then, whose voice rises with the sky, the day and the night, with “no speech” and “yet, without sound”, heard.

תפילה photo

by Grand Parc – Bordeaux, France

Photos by Grand Parc – Bordeaux, France,