Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The abrupt change in rhythm, and apparently in thought, at Psalm 19:7 of this poem suggests a compilation from two originally distinct pieces. This view, it is true, is not supported by any ancient texts or versions, and, among modern scholars, there are some of eminence who still maintain the original unity. They urge that the psalm merely repeats what is the fundamental principle of the Theocracy, which is expressly testified by the Old Testament from the earliest times—the identity of the God of Revelation with the Creator of the universe. But this gives a very imperfect, and hardly a correct, explanation of the psalm. For the second part does not treat the moral law as a revelation of God to man, but as a revelation to man of his duties, and implies that man continually needs forgiveness for lapsing from the road of right. It would be truer to the spirit of the Old Testament to urge that a poet, thrown by the contemplation of the glory of the heavens into a state of religious emotion, naturally passes on to the Law where he has had prepared for him a guide and help in his religion. But for the original separation of the two pieces, the versification, the tone, the poetic feeling all plead. It was, however, an inspired moment when they were united, and thus made to suggest the deep truth that man’s obedience to the Divine will, though it cannot be so unswerving as that of the heavens, but is inconstant, and often fails, yet is of a higher order, and is fruitful of yet higher and nobler praise than all the evidence of power and majesty in the outward works of God. The glory of conscious above that of unconscious obedience did not definitely present itself, perhaps, to the mind of him who completed the poem, but it is latent there. The sun leaping forth from his eastern tent to flame through his glorious day, knows nothing of the self-questionings and fears felt by God’s human servant trying to do His will. It is only by a bold metaphor that Wordsworth can connect the idea of duty with the law which “preserves the stars from wrong.” More in harmony with the feeling suggested by the psalm is the answer put by another poet into the mouth of nature to console the human soul ashamed of its “struggling task’d morality” in view of the serene service of earth and sky—
“‘Ah! child,’ she cried, ‘that strife Divine,
Whence was it, for it is not mine?
There is no effort on my brow;
I do not strive, I do not weep;
I rush with the swift spheres, and glow
In joy, and when I will, I sleep.’ ”
The Davidic authorship of the first part of the psalm is hardly to be questioned.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.(1) The heavens declare.—Better, the heavens are telling. The poet is even now gazing at the sky, not philosophising on a familiar natural phenomenon, nor is he merely enjoying beauty. Not only is his æsthetic faculty satisfied, but his spirit, his religious nature is moved. He has an immediate apprehension, an intuition of God. He is looking on the freshness of the morning, and all he sees is telling of God, bringing God before him. This constitutes the essence of the greater part of Hebrew poetry. This is the inspiration of the bard of Israel—a religious inspiration. The lower, the aesthetic perception of beauty, is ready at every moment to pass into the higher, the religious emotion. All truly great poetry partakes of this elevation—Hebrew poetry in its highest degree. Some lines from Coleridge’s “Hymn before Sunrise in the Yale of Chamouni not only supplies a modern example, but explains the moral, or rather spiritual process, involved—
“O dread and silent mount! I gazed upon thee
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Did’st vanish from my thought; entranced in prayer,
I worshipped the Invisible alone.”
(See an article on “God in Nature and in History,” in The Expositor for March, 1881.)
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.(2) Uttereth.—Literally, ours out, or makes to well up, like a fountain, undoubtedly in reference to the light streaming forth.
Sheweth.—Literally, breathes out; perhaps with reference to the cool evening breeze, so welcome in the East. (See Song of Solomon 2:17, Note.) Notice that it is not here the heavens that are telling (as in Psalm 19:1) the tale of God’s glory to man, or “to the listening earth,” as in Addison’s well- known hymn, but day tells its successor day, and night whispers to night, so handing on, as if from parent to son, the great news.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.(3) There is no speech.—The literal rendering is Not speech, not words, their voice is not heard. Explaining this is (1) the English version (Bible and Prayer Book) and (if intelligible at all) the LXX. and Vulg.: “There is no speech nor language without their (the heavens’) speech being heard (i.e., understood).” But this gives an inadmissible sense to davar, which does not mean language, but a spoken word. Besides, it was not a likely thought for the psalmist, that the Divine tradition of the heavens, while it travels over the whole earth, would be everywhere intelligible. (2) “It is not speech, it is not words whose voice is inaudible,” i.e., unintelligible, but, on the contrary, it is a manifestation to all the world. But the parallelism is against this. The line “their voice is not heard” is but the rhythmic echo of there is no speech nor word.” (3) We therefore keep close to the literal rendering, There is no speech, there are no (uttered) words, their voice is inaudible; understanding the poet to say, that the manifestation of the Creator’s glory, which he has just imagined the heavens proclaiming, and of which each succeeding day hands on the tale, is not made in audible words. The communication of the sky is eloquent, but mute; its voice is for the heart and emotion, not the ear. So Addison—
“What though in solemn silence all
Move round this dark terrestrial ball,
What though no real voice or sound
Amidst their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine
The hand that made us is Divine.”
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,(4) Their line.—Heb., kav, a cord, used of a plummet line (Zechariah 1:16); a measuring cord (Jeremiah 31:39, where also same verb, gone forth). In Isaiah 28:10, the word is used ethically for a definition or law. But neither of these seems very appropriate here. The verse wants sound or voice, and words of this intention actually appear in the LXX., Vulg., Symmachus, Jerome, and the Syriac.
The use which St. Paul makes of these words (Romans 10:18) is as natural as striking. The march of truth has always been compared to the spread of light. But the allegorical interpretation based on the quotation, making the heavens a figure of the Church and the sun of the Gospel, loses the force and beauty of the Apostle’s application.
In them hath . . .—This clause is not only rightly joined to Psalm 19:4, but concludes a stanza: the relative in the next verse of the Authorised Version mars the true construction.
A tabernacle.—The tent-chamber into which the sun retired after his day’s journey, and from which he started in the morn, Aurora, or dawn (according to Grecian mythology) drawing back the curtains for his departure, was naturally a conception common to all nations. That the phenomena of sunset should engage the poet’s attention before those of sunrise was inevitable in a race who reckoned “the evening and the morning were the first day.” The LXX. and Vulg. completely spoil the picture by rendering “he hath pitched his tent in the sun.”
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.(5) Which is.—Better, and he is. The suddenness of the Oriental sunrise is finely caught in the image of the uplifted tent-curtain and appearance of the radiant hero (“strong man;” Heb., gibbor. Comp. Judges 5:31). This want of twilight, this absence of silent preparation for the supreme moment, distinguishes Eastern songs of sunrise from the poetry of the West. There are no musterings of “mute companies of changeful clouds,” no “avant couriers of the light,” no “grey lines fretting the clouds as messengers of day.” Unheralded, unannounced, the sun leaps forth in all his splendour—a young bridegroom with the joy of the wedding-day still on his countenance, a hero leaping forth on his path of conquest and glory. How different the suggested feeling of this from the wistful tenderness of Milton’s dawn coming forth “with pilgrim steps in amice grey;” or Shakespeare’s “morn in russet clad,” that “walks o’er the dew” of the high eastern hill.
Chamber.—Heb., chuphah, a marriage chamber or bed (Joel 2:16). In later Hebrew the canopy carried over the wedded pair, or even the marriage itself.
Rejoiceth.—Literally, leaps for joy.
A race.—Better, his race, i.e., his daily course or journey.
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.(7) The law.—The ear catches even in the English the change of rhythm, which is as marked as the change of subject. Instead of the free lyric movement of the preceding verse, we come suddenly upon the most finished specimen of didactic poetry in regular metre, exhibiting a perfect balance of expression as well as of thought, so perfect in the original, that in Psalm 19:7-9 the number of words is the same in each clause. In each clause, too, the Law, under one or another of its many names and aspects, is praised, first for its essential character, then for its results.
The law . . . . the testimony.—These are collective terms embracing, under different regards, the whole body of statutes and precepts in the Jewish code. The law, tôrah, means in its primary use “instruction,” and therefore is used of prophecy (Isaiah 1:10; Isaiah 8:16), but here undoubtedly bears its common and more limited sense. Testimony, from a root meaning “to repeat,” suggests the solemn earnestness and insistence of the Divine commands.
The description “perfect” and “sure” suggests the lofty ideal prescribed by the Law, and the reliance which the Hebrew might place upon it as a rule of conduct. The word “simple” is generally used in a bad sense, but here has its primary meaning, “open,” “ingenuous,” “impressible,” easily led either towards folly or wisdom.
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.(8) Right.—Here in its original sense of “straight,” or direct. A fine moral insight suggested this touch. The road of duty, when plain and unmistakable, inspires a sense of gladness, even if it be difficult and dangerous.
“Stern Lawgiver, yet thou dost wear
The Godhead’s most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face.
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
And fragrance in thy footing treads.”
WORDSWORTH’S Ode to Duty.
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.(9) The fear of the Lord.—Here plainly not a moral quality of the individual, but, as in Proverbs 15:33 (comp. Deuteronomy 17:19), religion, the service demanded by the Law, which, being “pure and undented,” endures, while the false systems of idolatrous nations perish. Based on the eternal principle of right, the judgments of God, it is eternal as they are.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.(10) Honeycomb.—(See margin.) The honey that drops from the comb is the finest and purest.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.(11) Warned.—Better, illuminated, instructed.
Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.(12) His eulogium on the Law was not Pharisaic or formal, for the poet instantly gives expression to his sense of his own inability to keep it. If before we were reminded of St. Paul’s, “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good,” (Romans 7:12), his own spiritual experience, contained in the same chapter, is here recalled: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil that I would not, that I do.”
Who can understand.—In the original the abruptness of the question is very marked and significant. Errors who marks? From unconscious ones clear me, i.e., pronounce me innocent, not cleanse, as in Authorised Version.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.(13) Presumptuous sin.—The Heb., from root meaning to “boil up” or “over,” is properly masculine, and always elsewhere means proud or arrogant men. (So Symmachus and Aquila.) Hence here explain, “Keep thy servant from the companionship of arrogant men, so that they may not get dominion over me, and lead me away from thy Law.”
The great transgression.—Rather, a great transgression, though even without the article it is possible the particular sin of idolatry is intended.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.(14) Meditation.—Heb., higgaîon. (See Psalm 9:16; Psalm 92:3.)