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Lent 3B Psalm

The most well-known lines of Psalm 19 are at the very end: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” But in order to truly understand the trust expressed in this closing confession, we must consider the rest of the psalm, which moves from a hymnic celebration of God’s glory in Creation to a hymnic celebration of God’s glory in Torah to a final petition for forgiveness and protection.

The opening verse of Psalm 19 explodes with the force of the universe’s ongoing praise to YHWH: “The heavens are telling the glory of YHWH” (v. 1, NRSV). The universe’s very existence sends forth a liturgy of praise, continuously telling of God’s glory. The psalmist treats Creation as a revelation of God’s life and light and justice, and celebrates Creation as God’s personal endeavor. The psalmist looks to the sun, arguably the crowning glory of creation, and claims that as God moves the sun through the heavens so that “nothing is deprived of its warmth.” Nothing is lost or hidden from God’s light, and in the light from the sun’s regular movement across the heavens, God’s justice and good order are exercised. But just as we might expect the psalmist to continue in this vein, crafting a hymn that celebrates God’s glory in creation, the next section presents Torah as God’s crowning glory. In the eyes of the psalmist, of all God’s good and marvelous gifts, there is none greater than Torah; in fact the only thing that might come close is the sun itself.

Some scholars see the abrupt change in subject as cause to question the continuity of these two parts of the psalm, but we may notice that several other creation-law sequences appear in the corpus of Hebrew poetry, like Psalms 119:89–96 and 147:15–20, for example. The connections between the creation hymn and the Torah hymn center on God, the giver of both, the authority behind both. Also, we may notice that moving from a creation hymn to a TOrah hymn emphasizes that, “The covenant instruction to the people of the Lord is set within a universal context; it concerns everyone. Just as the sun’s warmth benefits all life, the Torah is life-giving and enhancing. The heavens have no voice, but the torah of the Lord is word in many forms. The creation does not speak, but the Lord has spoken in Torah.”[1]

In Israel’s understanding, YHWH is characterized by life and light and justice, and the law of the YHWH is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous altogether, and service to YHWH is the only right response for humanity. A companion text in the lectionary readings this week is Exodus 20 and the Decalogue, which presupposes what the psalmist celebrates: we are never absolutely free, but rather always in service to something, so the real question is what or whom we will serve. “The primary demand of Ex. 20 is that God be the one served; no other gods, whatever the form are appropriate as masters of humankind. For the psalmist, this servitude of God in and of itself brings wisdom, revival, rejoicing, and enlightenment.”[2]

To western minds, and products of an individualistic culture, it might seem inherently contradictory to affirm that there is abundant life and freedom in service to a law, but this was the deeply held view of ancient Israel: “I shall walk at liberty for I have sought your precepts” (Psalm 119:45). For Israel, the law of YHWH is a great gift to be joyfully celebrated, not a burden to be sadly borne. Ancient Israel’s view the Torah is beautifully expressed in Psalm 19, one of those elemental texts which reminds us of the power of Torah to bring joy and purpose to human life.

For Israel, Torah is God’s perfect gift, a perfection that is revealed in the the symmetry of the beautiful symmetry in verses 7-9, one of the clearest examples of the beauty of form and structure in ancient Hebrew poetry, especially characteristic of the Priestly literary tradition woven throughout the Old Testament (for comparison, turn to Genesis 1:1-2:3). If we might take a moment to notice the syntax, we notice each line begins with a synonym for Torah:

The Torah of YHWH