Psalm 19: The Greatest Poem

The superscription of Psalm 19 is its Biblical title:

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

But so significant and beautiful is this psalm, that C.S. Lewis wrote of it:

I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.

Biblical scholars, from left to right, from conservative to liberal, are united in their estimation of this psalm, calling it powerful, full of metaphorical language, substantive, creatively superior, on par with Haydn and Beethoven, full of profound Biblical theology.

This psalm has a curious pedigree. It is actually made up of two poems. The first is ancient, and the second may be much more recent, possibly composed after the Babylonian Exile. The first poem declares the glory of God as revealed in the heavens and the second one speaks of God’s will as revealed in His Word.

A good outline of Psalm 19 may be as follows:

1. The world of God, verses 1—6

Joyce Kilmer’s words echo in our minds as we read these opening verses of Psalm 19:

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Human beings learn about God in a limited way through the world around them but specifically from the Word of God. And of course, with the coming of Christ, humanity received the living Word. But at the time of this psalm’s composition, without the profusion of Bibles and without the Incarnation, nature served to reveal God to those with eyes to see.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (vs. 1)

Rightly understood, all of nature testifies to the existence of its Creator. Interestingly, the Bible never tries to prove the existence of God through creation, but uses the material universe as evidence of God’s majesty and wisdom. The opening phrase, “the heavens declare the glory of God,” is written in the emphatic present, meaning nature continually shows the glory of God. Here El is used of God: the God of power and might. The glory of God is the sum total His character and nature: His wisdom, His power, His omniscience, and His omnipresence.

The material universe continually testifies to God’s greatness, as evidenced by the phrase “day and night.” All the time, the world around reveals aspects of God and all but the most hardened can see it. Verse 4 is difficult to understand because it may mean two different things:

There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. (vs. 4)

This may be a curious way of saying Creation speaks to all people regardless of the language they speak. In other words, the testimony of creation is as wide as the human race. Or it may mean that creation communicates God’s greatness without words. Regardless of what the psalmist was precisely trying say, his meaning is clear: nobody can miss out on the testimony of nature; everybody is capable of understanding the greatness of God through what creation reveals about it. John Calvin, in a run-on sentence, wrote:

When a man, from beholding and contemplating the heavens, has been brought to acknowledge God, he will learn also to reflect upon and to admire his wisdom and power as displayed on the face of the earth, not only in general, but even in the minutest plants.

From the great expanse of the universe, the psalmist narrows his thought to the sun.

It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat. (vs. 6)

This is not, of course, a scientific statement, but the psalmist’s perception of how the sun’s rays and heat are able to cover the entire planet. This is how complete creation’s testimony of God’s greatness is: it literally covers the whole earth. Not only that, life on earth depends on the sun and its constancy.

While the author of this psalm praises the sun and the stars as they relate to their Creator, he does not worship them. They are not his gods. Instead, they were created things that made by God to reveal His glory.

2. The Word of God, verses 7—10

Creation functions with amazing dependability. You can count on the sun rising and setting, for example. Depending on where you live, you can count on the seasons changing. In this, creation displays not only the glory of God, but also a kind law. However, as dependable as this “law of nature” may be, God did not choose to communicate His covenant or His love to His people this way. Instead, He chose a more complete revelation of His character and purpose using words; His Word to man.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. (vs. 7)

To most people, laws are cold and heartless and certainly reading about “state laws” or “real estate laws” is uninspiring. But to this psalmist, God’s Law was something different—it was exciting and life changing. In this section, the psalmist uses different synonyms (depending on what translation you are reading) to describe the Word of God—the Bible: law, testimony, precepts, commandments, fear, and ordinances. All these words are describing the Bible, and they are combined with some beautiful and important adjectives: perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and altogether righteous.

Verse 10 is like a crescendo:

They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.

The “they” refers to God’s Word. Like God, the Bible is priceless; it is the most valuable of all books. The Bible endures; though tyrants had sought to destroy it, though its pages are sprinkled with the blood of martyrs, the Bible remains. The Bible is the standard that guides the way we live our lives. Like honey, God’s Word is sweet and it is nourishing. The Bible also has healing qualities. Like the sweetest dessert set before a hungry man, the Word of God makes his mouth water!

As wonderful and as beautiful nature is to behold, to the Christian the Word of God is incomparable. The revelation of God through His Word is far superior to natural revelation because Words are precise and not open to interpretation. In other words, generally speaking, words mean what they say with very little leeway. Of course, with translations into different languages and so on it becomes easier to play fast and loose with the original meaning; however, those who take their spiritual nourishment from Scripture, will never be left hungry.

Another very big difference between the revelations of God in nature versus the Bible is that while God may be seen in nature, He is found in His Word. Nature acts as a directional sign pointing the onlooker in the right direction. The Word is his destination; it is where God may be found and salvation experienced.

3. The Way of God, versus 11—14

By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

The remainder of this psalm tells us what the Bible actually does—what the way of God is like. The writer of this psalm, referring to himself as God’s “servant,” declares that the Word of God contains both warnings and rewards, or as old time preachers used to say, “there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun!”

A lot of Christians misunderstand the “rewards “side of the Bible. Nobody is rewarded for simply knowing the Word, but in keeping God’s Word.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.  (James 1:22, 23)

What follows in Psalm 19 is what the Law—the Word—meant to the writer. There are five things the psalmist loves about it:

a. Convicts, 12a.

Who can discern his errors?

Of course, the answer to this question is “no one!” Nobody really sees themselves with accuracy. This is why many Bible teachers have noted that the Bible is like a mirror. As we read it, for better or worse, we begin to see ourselves reflected in its pages. Sometimes what looks back at us from the Bible is not very pretty! As we read and study it, we are confronted with the sin in our lives or at the very least the chinks in our armor that could lead to our downfall.

b. Cleansing, 12b.

Forgive my hidden faults.

The word “faults” is misleading and unfortunate because it makes it sound like our faults are just that, things we have no responsibility for. What the writer is talking about are hidden or secret “defects” of the heart. We might refer to these “faults” as the sin nature common to all people. Errors are one thing—they can be seen. But these faults cannot be seen and the psalmist needs help, not only with sins that can be seen, but the serious problems hidden deep inside.

c. Curbing, 13a.

Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.

“Willful sins” are “wins with a high hand,” and refer to sins committed deliberately against God and His Law. The Word has a “keeping” effect—it can restrain you from giving into the temptation to sin. The last phrase of this sentence is a little ominous because if suggests sin is something to be feared with a healthy fear. Give in once and you run the risk of being forever enslaved to it.

d. Correcting, 13b.

Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression.

The Word can keep you from sin and that will result a better life; a life of righteousness and a life without a guilty conscience! Such is the beauty of the Word! It is not only negative, that is, it not only tells you what not to do, but it also very positive; it tells of the benefits of right living!

e. Confirming, 14.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Something very special happens when we study the Bible and take it seriously: we become conscious of sin and develop a desire for holiness. The psalmist understood the dangers of pride and presumption, of sin and temptation, so he prayed to be strong in the face of it. But the twin of pride is hypocrisy,  and therefore in this last verse he wants to make sure his actions and his words line up properly. It’s not enough to believe the right things; it’s not enough to know the right things, we must live right.

When Christ is Lord of every area of our lives, we may live worry free. Only those who relegate Christ to Sundays worry about their standing before the Lord. No wonder Paul wrote this:

…we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5b)

All sin begins as a thought. May the Lord help us take control of our thoughts so that our actions may always be pleasing to Him!

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