Shiur #61: Psalm 19 ֠"The Heavens Declare The Glory Of God"

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

SEFER TEHILLIM

by Rav Elchanan Samet

 

 

Lecture 61: Psalm 19 – "THe Heavens declare the glory of God"

 

 

(1) To the director of music. A psalm of David.

 

A1         (2)     The heavens declare the glory of God,

                        and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.

(3)      Day to day utters speech,

         and night to night expresses knowledge.

(4)      There is no speech, nor are there words.

         Their voice is not heard.

(5)      Their call goes out through all the earth,

         and their words to the end of the world.

 

A2                   In them He has set a tent for the sun.

(6)      And it is like a bridegroom coming out of his

         chamber.

                        It rejoices like a mighty man running along a path.

(7)      Its going forth is from the end of the heaven,

         and its circuit is to its ends,

         and nothing is hidden from its heat.

 

B1         (8)     The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.

                        The testimony of the Lord is faithful,

                        making the simple wise.

              (9)     The statutes of the Lord are upright,

                        rejoicing the heart.

                        The commandments of the Lord are pure,

                        enlightening the eyes.

              (10)  The fear of the Lord is pure, standing forever.

                        The judgments of the Lord are true:

                        they are all righteous.

              (11)  How much more desirable they are than much gold and

                        fine gold,

                        and they are much sweeter than honey and the                             honeycomb.

 

B2         (12)  Indeed, Your servant is careful about them.

                        In the keeping of them there is a great reward.

              (13)  Who can discern errors?

                        Cleanse me from hidden transgressions.

(14)   Also keep Your servant from willing sinners.

         Let them not rule over me. Then I shall be

         faultless,

         and let me be clean of many transgressions.

 

(15)   May the words of my mouth

and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You. O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

 

I. "THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH AND THE MEDITATION OF MY HEART"

 

            The structure of psalm 19 is very clear: it is composed of two halves similar to each other in length, with a conclusion in the final verse. The first half comprises 6 verses (vv. 2-7) and deals with the glory of God that reveals itself in the heavens that He created. The second half comprises 7 verses (vv. 8-14) and deals with the praise of God's Torah and its effects upon man.[1] At first glance, the conclusion in verse 15 seems to be a direct continuation of the psalmist's prayer in verses 12-14, for only in these verses does the psalmist speak in first person, and it is in them that he turns to God in prayer. Verse 15 appears, then, to be a continuation of the psalmist's prayer in the previous verses, and in it he petitions God that his prayer should be acceptable before Him. Nevertheless, we maintain that verse 15 is meant to serve as the conclusion of the entire psalm, for the entire psalm, in both halves, are the words of the psalmist's mouth and the thoughts and meditations of his heart.[2]

 

            The "words of his mouth" of the author of our psalm lie openly before us in the psalm, but the "meditations of his heart" that gave rise to these words of his mouth hide behind the words and structure of the psalm and obligate us to carefully examine the psalm and understand its meaning, which is expressed in various ways. The method that we must follow in our literary analysis of the psalm is the very opposite of the way that the psalm was composed by its author: he began with the meditations of his heart, which were later transformed into the words of his mouth and the written psalm; we, however, must investigate the words of his mouth expressed in the psalm as they appear before us, and through a precise analysis of the psalm attempt to reconstruct the meditations of his heart that stand behind it. When, with God's help, our mission succeeds, we can join the psalmist in his prayer at the end of the psalm and request:

 

May the words of my mouth

and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You. O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

 

II. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO HALVES OF THE PSALM

 

            It is precisely the clear structure of the psalm that gives rise to the most serious difficulty in understanding its intention. The most blatant question relates to the connection between the first half of the psalm and its second half. These two halves are strikingly different from one another in their content as well as in their style, to the point that it is difficult to point to verbal, stylistic, or conceptual connections between them. Does our psalm then demonstrate unity? Under these circumstances, is the attempt to find a conceptual connection between the two halves mere exegetical speculation?

 

            As expected, the dominant view among biblical critics is that psalm 19 is made up of two separate psalms, which, for one reason or another, were united into a single psalm.[3]

 

            This view in itself does not necessarily contradict the traditional approach; it introduces no changes into the text, but merely in the division of the psalms. In most of the book of Tehillim, this division is determined in an objective manner by way of the headings of the psalms, but a significant number of psalms lack headings, and this allows us to consider joining two psalms together or dividing others into two. In fact, the accepted division of the book of Tehillim into one hundred and fifty psalms was not accepted by Chazal.[4] The Yerushalmi (Shabbat 16:1) mentions that the book of Tehilim comprises a hundred and forty-seven chapters,[5] and this division is mentioned in several other sources from the Late Middle Ages. In the medieval Hebrew manuscripts, we also find other divisions of the book of Tehillim into less than a hundred and fifty psalms or into more than that number of psalms.

 

            The deficiency in the critical approach is that it has a ready solution to the problem of the connection between the two halves of our psalm, and the inclination to adopt this solution is liable to stem from intellectual laziness. The force of the tradition that sees psalm 19 as a single psalm[6] obligates the commentator to painstakingly examine the possibility of a connection between the two halves of the psalm; to further this end, he must search for all possible connections between the two halves – stylistic, structural, or conceptual.[7]

 

            It may be added that this phenomenon of psalms dealing with diverse themes that on the face of it are unconnected is also found elsewhere in the book of Tehillim, even in places where the unity of the psalm is beyond question.[8]

 

            Before we discuss the connections between the two parts of the psalm, which will lead us to an understanding of the psalm as a whole, let us examine each half on its own.

 

III. THE FIRST HALF (VV. 2-7)

 

            The first half of our psalm is clearly divided into two sections:

 

  • Verses 2-5 (excluding the third clause of v. 5) – the heavens' declaration of the glory of God.
  • Verses 52-7 – a description of the daily activity of the sun – one of the heavenly bodies.

 

We shall first comment upon each of the two sections and then discuss the connection between them.

 

1. (2-51) "THE HEAVENS DECLARE THE GLORY OF THE LORD"

 

            In this section, there are four parallels, in each of which we find words connected to speech, whether as verbs or as nouns:

 

The first parallel:                    "declare"[9]; "proclaims"

The second parallel:             "utters speech"; "expresses knowledge"[10]

The third parallel:                   "speech"; "words"; "their voice"

The fourth parallel:                 "their call"[11]; "their words"

 

            This intensive repetition of verbs (4) and nouns (6) connected to speech the entire length of the section determines its theme: the oral testimony of the heavens regarding their Creator.

 

            The third parallel (v. 4) seems to contradict both what is stated before it and what is stated after it:

 

There is no speech, nor are there words.

Their voice is not heard.

 

But surely it said earlier, "Day to day utters speech"! How are we to reconcile this contradiction?

 

            This question can only be raised by someone who doesn't understand the spirit of poetry, but rather expects that a poem should be governed by scientific logic.[12] The reasonable reader, on the other hand, joins the Radak (and other commentators) who said:

 

"The heavens declare" – for through their proper movement and revolution, the glory of God is seen, and that very revolution is the declaration and proclamation… And that which it says, "There is no speech, nor are there words" – there are no words like human words, but rather the actions that they performed are the words and the declaration and the proclamation.

 

            But since the heavens' declaration of God's glory is done without speech and without words that the ear can hear, special attention is required in order to comprehend it.[13] The routine and the mundane, and also godlessness, prevent a person from listening to the story being told by the heavens, as it was poetically stated by Chazal (Yoma 20b):

 

Were it not for the sound of the tumult of Rome, the sound of the revolution of the sun would be heard.

 

As it is stated there, these two sounds travel from one end of the world to the other, and they contradict each other.

 

            The heavens' declaration of the glory of God who created them is soundless, but no time or place is void of it. This is a universal declaration that spreads across the expanses of time and place, constantly and everywhere. The second and fourth parallels are dedicated to this idea. The second parallel (v. 3) relates to the dimension of time:

 

Day to day utters speech,

and night to night expresses knowledge.

 

That is to say, the heavens' declaration is made by way of the alternation of day and night - God's glory that is revealed during the day by way of the sun's travel across the sky from sunrise to sunset reveals itself anew each and every day, and God's glory that is revealed during the night through the appearance of the moon and the stars reveals itself anew each and every night.

 

            The fourth parallel relates to the dimension of space:

 

Their call goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

 

In other words, there is no place in the world that the heavens' declaration does not reach; it is possible to hear the heavens' words of praise even at the end of the world.

 

            Between these two parallels is the third parallel: "There is no speech, nor are there words. Their voice is not heard." This parallel teaches that the "speech" and "knowledge" in the previous parallel and the "call" and "words" in the next parallel should not be understood literally; spiritual effort is required in order to hear them. Expression is thereby given to a paradox. On the one hand, it is not at all difficult to encounter the heavens' declaration, and it is even inescapable, for it is related in all places and at all times; on the other hand, in order to hear it, special attentiveness and inner listening is required, in order to filter out the earthly sounds that blur this subtle and delicate sound.

 

            The structure of this section can be summarized as follows:

 

The first parallel: the basic fact – the heavens declare…

The second parallel: the time - day to day utters speech

The third parallel: the manner – their voice is not heard

The fourth parallel: the place – through all the earth

 

2. (VERSES 52-7) THE SUN

 

            The third clause in verse 5 serves as a heading for this verse and as a connecting link between the first and second sections:

 

In them [the heavens] He [God] has set a tent for the sun.[14]

 

From here on, the sun is described (always in the masculine[15]) in its daily course. The first parallel (v. 6) comprises two clauses, each of which contains a metaphor for the sun with respect to a particular period of its daily activity.

 

The first metaphor describes the sun when it rises:

 

And it is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber.

 

This metaphor embraces two characteristics of sunrise. First, it describes the splendor of the sun's appearance: "A bridegroom is like a king" (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 16), and he comes out of his chamber – the domicile in which he lives with his bride during the seven days of their wedding celebration –  wearing magnificently colored and eye-catching garments.[16] Second, the metaphor describes the joy of the novelty of the birth of a new day: a bridegroom coming out of his chamber emerges in the midst of a celebration of the start of his new life. Similarly, every morning, the sun joyously emerges with the feeling that each day is the beginning of a new life.

 

            The second metaphor relates to the sun over the course of its daily journey:

 

It rejoices like a mighty man running along a path.

 

This metaphor also embraces two characteristics of the sun's travels. First, it describes its swiftness and pleasantness – it transverses the sky not like an old man, but rather like "youths delighting in their running."[17] Second, it describes the strength that the sun reveals in its travels, which is alluded to by the metaphor of a "mighty man."

 

            In the concluding portion of this section, in verse 7, there are three clauses. The first two clauses stand in chiastic contrasting parallelism:[18]

 

From the end of the heaven is its going forth

       and its circuit[19] is to its ends[20]

 

This parallel notes the borders of the sun's travels, from the end of the eastern horizon to the end of the western horizon, and it describes the all-encompassing action of the sun, which illuminates all of the heavens and all of the earth.

 

            Now we can understand the connection between the third clause in this section and the two previous clauses:

 

and nothing is hidden from its heat.

 

Since the sun's activity is all-encompassing, from one end of the world to the other, there is therefore nothing hidden from its heat.

 

            Does the description of the sun conclude on a negative note? Reading the first half of our psalm from beginning to end leads us to reject such an assumption. The two parts of this half describe only the positive actions of the heavens and the sun; why, then, should the psalmist suddenly conclude his account with something negative?

 

            On the other hand, the heat of the sun, while pleasant on cold days, is oppressive on hot days, and people try to hide themselves from it to the extent possible. When the psalmist says, "and nothing is hidden from its heat," he implies that people would like to hide from it, but are unable to do so.

 

It seems, therefore, that the word "chamato" does not mean "its heat." In four other verses,[21] the word "chama" designates the sun itself, and this is the standard term for the sun in rabbinic literature. There is no reason to assume that in our verse the word "chama" is used in a different sense than in the rest of Scripture, when the verse could just as well have used an inflected form of the standard term for heat, "chom" – "ve-ein nistar me-chomo."[22]

 

What, then, is meaning of the possessive pronominal suffix in the word "me-chamato"? It seems that we should accept Rav S.R. Hirsch's explanation of our verse: the pronominal suffix refers to God, and what it says here is that nothing is hidden from God's sun. The allusion to God at the end of this section brings us back to the beginning of the section, where God is also mentioned by allusion, "for the sun [which is His sun] He has set a tent in them."[23]

 

If we accept this explanation, the meaning of the third clause is as follows: The sun illuminates the entire world from one end to the other, and there is no place on earth that is hidden from its light.[24] This clause constitutes a direct continuation of the two previous clauses, and it does not introduce a new idea into the description of the sun that had not been mentioned previously. The main advantage of this understanding is that it is now clear that what is stated here, that nothing is hidden from the sun's light, was said in praise and not in disparagement.

 

3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE FIRST SECTION AND THE SECOND SECTION

 

            The connection between the two sections comprising the first half of our psalm seems to be simple: the sun is one of the heavenly bodies, and accordingly, the declaration of God's glory, discussed in generalized manner in the first section, is illustrated through a description of the sun (as is alluded to already in the first section, "day to day utters speech").

 

            This connection is also expressed in the words common to the two sections:

 

  • The word "heavens" with which our psalm opens appears also in the second section in verse 7, "from the end of the heaven," and is alluded to in the pronoun, "in them," at the beginning of the second section.
  • The root yod-tzadi-alef, which appears as a verb at the end of the first section, "their call goes out (yatza) through all the earth," appears twice in the second section: as a verb in verse 6, "and it is like a bridegroom coming out (yotze) of his chamber," and as a noun, "its going forth (motza'o) is from the end of the heaven."
  • The noun "katzeh," which appears at the end of the first section, "and their words to the end (u-vi-ketzeh) of the world," appears twice in the second section close to the end: "from the end (mi-ketzeh) of the heaven… to its ends (ketzotam)."

 

These linguistic connections actually point to a fundamental difference between the first and second sections, for the words that are repeated in the two sections appear in very different contexts. If we properly distinguish between these two contexts, we will uncover the precise theme of the second section and the difference between it and the theme of the first section.

 

  • "The heavens," the subject of the first section and which declare the glory of God, serve in the second section merely as a tent for the sun, and "the end of the heaven" serves merely as the starting point for the sun's going out to illuminate the earth.

 

  • The other two linguistic connections demonstrate the opposite difference: In the first section, the verb "yatza," "goes out," is used to describe the speech of the heavens and of the day and the night, and the noun "katzeh," "end," is used to describe the place where that speech reaches, "the end of the world." In the second section, on the other hand, the sun itself, which is the subject of the section, goes out, and its course (not its words or the knowledge of its words) is what reaches "from the end of the heaven to its ends."

 

In the second section, even though an allusion is made to the sun's connection to God (twice, as was explained in the previous sub-section), it does not state that the sun declares or proclaims the glory of God or anything else. All the words denoting speech appearing in the first section (and there are ten such words) are absent from the second section.

 

Why, then, is the sun described in the second section in such great detail, if not to declare the glory of God? The answer is that the account comes to illustrate the sun's obedience and dedication to the fulfillment of the mission that God cast upon it. The sun acts not out of mechanical compliance or routine, but rather out of joy and bravery and with a feeling of novelty each morning. The second section also teaches us that the sun fulfills its role to illuminate the earth in perfect manner; it moves from the end of the heaven to its ends, and no place is hidden from its light.

 

Thus, the second section expresses a new idea that is not identical to the idea expressed in the first section. In both sections, the heavens and the celestial bodies undergo personification, but the human traits attributed to them are different in each section. In the first section, it is the trait of speech with religious content – the declaration of the glory of God; in the second, it is the trait of perfect execution out of joy and identification.

 

The question that now stands before us is why the psalmist affects this shift from the theme of the first section to that of the second section. Why doesn't he continue to use the description of the sun to express the idea of the declaration of God's glory in the world?

 

We cannot answer this question before clarifying the structure of the entire psalm. For this we must continue and explain the second half of our psalm.

 

(To be continued.)

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] The theme and style of the second half are similar to those of psalm 119, all of which deals with the Torah and its effect on those who study and observe it. We will discuss the connection between the two psalms later in this study in section V, which deals with the second half of our psalm.

Owing to the fact that our psalm deals with praise of the Torah and with its effect on man, it was chosen as the "psalm of the day" for the festival of Shavuot according to the custom of the Vilna Gaon.

[2] A stylistic examination of the closing verse supports our argument:

a) The noun, "omer," which appears in verse 15 in the phrase, "words (imrei) of my mouth," appears twice in the first half: in verse 3, "day to day utters speech (omer)," and in verse 4, "there is no speech (omer)." The heavens that declare the glory of God have no mouth, and thus their declaration is made such that "there is no speech, nor are there words," whereas the psalmist, who has a mouth, speaks the meditation of his heart with his mouth, and he serves as a mouthpiece also for the heavens.

b) God's name appears 6 times in the first section of the second half, in verses 8-10, in a construct state with the Torah or an equivalent term and in the concluding verse it appears for the seventh time (in the first half of the psalm God's name appears only once).

These connections indicate that the closing line serves as a conclusion for the psalm in its entirety.

[3] Here are the words of one representative of the critical school who wrote his commentary to the book of Tehillim in Hebrew – Tz.P. Chajes, in his "Tanakh im Perush Mada'i": "This psalm divides into two separate parts, which at the outset were undoubtedly two separate poems. The first poem, verses 2-7, speaks of the splendor of nature in elevated poetic style, whereas the second, from verse 8 until the end, speaks of the greatness of the Torah." Chajes then surveys the form and contents of "poem 1" by itself and of "poem 2" by itself, making no attempt to connect the two.

[4] The division into a hundred and fifty psalms is found also in the Septuagint, which attests to its antiquity, only that in the Septuagint, the internal division is slightly different than that found in the Masoretic text. See about this in Prof. Nachum M. Sarna's introduction to the book of Tehilim in the "Olam ha-Tanakh" series, p. 11.

[5] The division of the psalms in the book of Tehillim until psalm 19 is discussed in Berakhot 9b. R. Yochanan rules there that at the end of the Amida prayer, one should recite the closing verse of our psalm, "May the words of my mouth…" The gemara asks why it enacted that this verse should be recited at the end of the prayer (rather than at the beginning). The gemara answers, "Since David said it only after eighteen chapters [of Tehillim], the Rabbis also enacted that it should be said after eighteen blessings." On this, the gemara asks, "But those eighteen psalms are really nineteen?" In other words, our psalm is not the eighteenth psalm, but rather the nineteenth. And the gemara answers, "'Happy is the man' and 'Why are the nations in an uproar' form a single chapter." According to Rashi in his commentary to Megilla 17b, s.v. be-parasha teshi'it amra, another two psalms at the beginning of Tehillim should also be united into one. According to Rashi, psalms 9-10 constitute a single psalm (as is attested to by the partial alphabetical acrostic that continues from psalm 9 to psalm 10, and as is found in the Septuagint).

While it is true that these sources indicate that psalm 19 was regarded as a single psalm, we bring them only to demonstrate that the division found today in our Tanakh is not the only possible division; just as there are psalms that, according to our division, are separate but are joined into one in other sources, the reverse phenomenon exists as well.

[6] As stated in the previous note, viewing psalm 19 as a single psalm follows also from the words of Chazal in various places.

[7] If and when we find such connections between the two halves of the psalm, the damage caused by the critical approach will become evident – how it conceals from those who accept that approach all the levels of meaning that could have been revealed had the text as it appears before us been explored more deeply.

[8] One example is psalm 136, the first half of which deals with God's actions in creation and which suddenly (in verse 10) shifts to God's actions in the history of the Jewish people. An extreme example is psalm 24, which deals with three different themes; in fact, critical scholars saw in its ten verses two or even three different psalms.

[9] In our study of Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (2nd series, p. 127, note 9) we noted that the root s-p-r in its various inflections, both in the kal and in the pi'el conjugations, is connected to speech.

[10] The word da'at, which parallels omer, means a "saying of knowledge" – a word of wisdom. The root ch–v–h is familiar to us from Aramaic, where it means to show and to tell. The expression "le-chavot da'at" appears once again in Scripture in the sense of speaking words of wisdom in Iyov 32:6: "I am young, and you are very old; therefore I was afraid, and dared not declare my opinion (me-chavot dei'i) to you." In the next verse, Elihu says that it is fitting for the old in years to speak and to teach wisdom. The Modern Hebrew expression "chavat da'at" is taken from here, but its meaning is slightly different than the original.

[11] The word "kavam" parallels the word "mileihem," and so the meaning of the word "kav" must also be related to speech. Amos Chakham brings the explanation of Yaakov Bart, Albright, and Dahud that the word "kav" denotes speech and that perhaps this word appears as a verb in Tehillim 52:11: "I will give You thanks (odekha) for ever, because You have done it; and akaveh Your name, for it is good, before Your pious ones." The usual meaning of "akaveh" – in the sense of hope – does not fit in here, both because of the parallelism and because of the end of the verse, "before Your pious ones." It is possible that in Yeshayahu 28 as well, the word "kav" is used in the sense of speech in the expression that is repeated there several times, "kav le-kav."

[12] Tz.P. Chajes raised this question in his commentary, struggled with it, and then, of course, offered the readily available solution: "It has been suggested that this verse is not part of the original poem and that it should be removed, and then verse 5 follows from verse 3 without any problems, and in this way it is in the proper order… The idea [in verse 4] is very prosaic, and destroys the beauty of the wording." This exemplifies the commentator's lack of literary-poetic feeling, as well as the principle that whatever blemish you attribute to another (the style of verse 4) is a blemish that you yourself possess.

[13] See the Ibn Ezra on verse 4.

[14] Amos Chakham in his commentary to our psalm writes (note 16): "It is not clear why the words 'He has set a tent for the sun' serve as the ending to verse 5, rather than as the beginning of the verse 6. The Masoretes (who determined the division of the verses by establishing a sof pasuk) may have wanted to insert a full stop at the end of verse 5, so as to differentiate between 'He has set,' which refers to God, and 'it is like a bridegroom,' which refers to the sun." The truth is that the theme of the first section is the glory of God, and from this perspective, the fact that God put the sun in the tent of heaven is part of the declaration of God's glory and proclamation of His actions. The theme of the second section, in contrast, is the sun and its movements, without any clear connection to the declaration of God's glory (we will return to this point later in this section), and therefore the clause "He has set a tent for the sun" is a transitional link between the theme of the first section and that of the second section.

[15] In Scripture, the word "shemesh" is treated both as a masculine and as a feminine. In our verse, it is appropriately found in the masculine because of the two masculine metaphors: bridegroom and warrior.

[16] See Yeshayahu 61:10: "For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland."

[17] For whom, because it is easy and pleasant for them, it is permissible to run even on Shabbat (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 301:2).

[18] Most of the parallels in our psalm are direct - rather than chiastic – parallels, but the parallel that opens our psalm is chiastic (and synonymous).

[19] "Tekufato" means “its circuit,” that is to say, the place where the sun finishes its course of daily travel – in the western end of heaven.

[20] The words "miktzeh" and "ketzotam" stand in contrasting parallelism; the former alludes to the eastern end, whereas the latter alludes to the western end.

[21] Yeshayahu 24:23; 30:26; Iyov 30:28; Shir Ha-shirim 6:10.

[22] The word "chom" appears five times in Scripture.

[23] According to this explanation, this section opens with the word "shemesh" and closes with the synonymous term "chama," both of which are connected to God.

[24] While it is true that the sun is called "chama" because it give heat (mechamemet), when Scripture uses the term "chama" as a synonym for "shemesh," it does not intend to emphasize its heat. In the verses brought in note 21, the "chama" appears in the context of giving light, and it appears similarly in our psalm. Replacing the term "shemesh," which appears at the beginning of the section, with the term "chama," which appears at the end, is done for the sake of variation.