Shiur #63: Psalm 19 ֠"The Heavens Declare The Glory Of God" (Part III)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet


by Rav Elchanan Samet


Lecture 63: Psalm 19 –
"THe Heavens declare the glory of God" (Part iiI)



(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


                        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



B2         (12)  Also 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 sins.

         Let them not rule over me. Then I shall be


         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.




            In this section, we will raise various difficulties with the explanations brought in the previous section. We will not deal with each explanation separately, but rather with the difficulties common to all these explanations or to each of the two categories of explanations.


            First of all, it should be noted that both Rashi and the Radak include in their comments explanations that give entirely different answers to the question of the relationship between the two parts of the psalm. According to one explanation, the relationship is one of comparison, whereas according to the other explanation, the relationship is one of contrast. This fact in itself weakens both explanations and makes them speculative to a certain degree, for it is not at all reasonable that the psalm has in mind both a comparative relationship between its two parts and a contrasting relationship.




            Let us now consider the second category of explanations brought in the previous section – the second explanation in Rashi and that of "those who explain" brought by the Radak.


            These explanations are based on the exegetical assumption that the words found at the end of the first section of the psalm – "and nothing is hidden from its heat" – refer to the harmful heat of the sun and were intended in a negative sense. As we demonstrated in our discussion of this verse (in section III), however, this explanation is not persuasive in that it does not fit into the context in which those words are found, and it does not accord with the word "chamato" (which means "its/his sun"). In that section, we argued that this expression refers to the light of the sun that illuminates the entire world,[1] and not to the heat of the sun, and that the meaning of the words "and nothing is hidden" is that no place in the world is hidden from the light of the sun. According to our explanation, these words are clearly uttered as praise and not as disparagement, similar to the rest of the descriptions in the psalm up to these words, which are all words of praise. According to our understanding, there is clearly no room for those explanations that see a contrast between the sun and the Torah.[2]




            We will now suggest an argument that relates to all the explanations that we mentioned. All of the commentators tried to find a connection between the two parts of the psalm in the words found near the seam on both its sides. At first glance, this seems reasonable, even though it requires proof from the style of the psalm.[3] This assumption, however, fails to make a connection between the two sections of the psalm in their entirety, but only stresses the connection between the two verses adjacent to one another in the psalm. Those who find some kind of connection between the sun and the Torah ignore the first section of the psalm ("The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork"), and even those who connect the Torah to all that is stated in the first part of the psalm (because, according to them, the sun too is described as participating in the declaration of the glory of God) ignore the psalmist's prayer at the end of the second part. This prayer is not mentioned by any of the commentators, and thus far we haven't found anyone who connects it in any way to the first section of the psalm.


            Anyone who is accustomed to searching for, and finding, a rational structure in the psalms of Tehillim will not be satisfied by the words of these commentators (who were not trained to see the psalms of Tehillim as constructed with a certain system). The truth is that one of the early commentators who drew a connection between the sun and the Torah tries to explain the continuity in the entire psalm by way of associative development. Rabbenu Yeshaya says as follows:


"The law of the Torah is perfect" – Thus far he spoke of the virtues of the sun, and now he speaks of the virtues of the Torah.[4] That which the psalmists opened with, "The heavens declare the glory of God" – all this was the reason to speak of the virtues of the sun; and relating the virtues of the sun is the reason to speak of the virtues of the Torah. And relating the virtues of the Torah is the reason to say, "Also Your servant is careful about them… Cleanse me from hidden transgressions."


            However, anyone who understands that like many other psalms in the book of Tehillim, our psalm is also comprised of two halves similar in length, will try to identify the structural and stylistic parallelism between the two halves and find a connection between them that is based on this parallelism.




            Like the parallelism between the two clauses of a single verse in the psalms of Tehillim¸ the parallelism between the two halves of an entire psalm can be chiastic parallelism or direct parallelism. It may be synonymous parallelism regarding the contents of the two halves, or it can be contrasting parallelism.


            The commentators whom we brought in section V did not deal with the issue of the structure of the psalm and the parallelism between its two halves. But were we to try to extend their explanations in the direction of complete parallelism between the two parts of the psalm, we would examine the possibility of chiastic parallelism, because all the commentators drew a parallel between the what is stated on the two sides of the seam, arguing only about the substance of the parallelism, whether it is synonymous or contrasting. The problem is that extending the explanations in this direction seems to be impossible, and it is difficult to find any real connection – stylistic or substantive – between the beginning of the psalm – "The heavens declare…" – and its end, "Also Your servant is careful about them."


            It falls upon us, then, to examine the possibility of direct parallelism between the two parts of the psalm. For this purpose, it may be helpful to make use of the breakdown of the psalm found at the beginning of this study and to line up the two halves of the psalm side by side.


            Already upon initial examination, it is evident that this is the correct way to understand the parallelism between the two halves of the psalm.[5] It is readily apparent that sections A1 and B1 are similar in length – each one comprising four verses, each verse made up of two clauses.[6] Sections A2 and B2 are also similar in length – each of them is about a third shorter than the preceding section.[7] Each of these two sections ends with a verse made up of three clauses. This special ending – which changes the rhythm characteristic of each of the two halves up until then –emphasizes that the particular half of the psalm has come to a close.


            The direct parallelism between the two halves of the psalm is not only evident in the formal-quantitative dimension, but in other dimensions as well.


  • We do not find any stylistic connections between section A1 and section B1, but each of them specifies six things that make up the theme of that section. Section A1 deals with the created world, the heavens and the earth, which is the place where the glory of God is declared, and mentions six parts of the world:[8] the heavens, the firmament, day, night, all the earth, and the end of the world.[9] Section B1 deals with the praise of the Torah, which is the "place" where man serves God, and this too is divided into six parts:[10] law, testimony, statutes, commandment, fear and judgments.[11]


  • There are significant links between section A2 and B2. We will first note an important stylistic connection between them and try to understand its importance for the structure of the psalm. The first line of each of the two sections ends with the pronoun "ba-hem" (in them, about them). This is not merely an accidental verbal similarity; in both instances, the word "ba-hem" refers to what was described in the previous section. That is to say, the first line of each of these sections connects the two parts of the respective half in a similar fashion, and thus a general structural similarity is created between the two halves.


Let us explain this: Section A2 opens with the line: "In them He has set a tent for the sun." The term "ba-hem" alludes to the heavens described in section A1: the heavens are the place in which the sun operates, the sun being the most important of the heavenly bodies. Thus, against the background of the heavens declaring the glory of God and serving as a tent for the sun, an account is given of the sun's activity "in them."


Section B2 opens with the line: "Also Your servant is careful about them." Here the term "ba-hem" alludes to the various components of the Torah spelled out in section B1. The Torah is man's realm of operation, for surely it was given for his benefit and to guide him through life. Against the background of the praise for God's Torah, which serves as a framework for human life, an account is given of man's activity "about them" – "about the commandments of the Torah."


In light of what has been said here, it seems that the first half of the psalm aims toward the description of the sun, brought in its second and most important section, whereas the heavens are only the "tent" in which God fixed the sun so that it may fulfill its role. So too, the second half aims at man's prayer, found in its second section, and the description of the Torah in the first section is merely an introduction to an examination of man's conduct in the "Divine realm" in which he was placed – the realm of Torah and commandments. We see from here that the primary parallelism between the two halves should be found between sections A2 and B2, whereas the parallelism between sections A1 and B1 is secondary and is meant to prepare the ground for the primary parallelism.


  • Another stylistic parallelism is found between sections A2 and B2, one whose significance will be discussed below. The word "nistar" (hidden) is found in both sections: in section A2, the word is found in the singular masculine – "and nothing is hidden ("nistar") from its heat' - whereas in section B2, it is found in the plural feminine – "cleanse me from hidden ("nistarot") transgressions."


Now we come to the main point. Were the psalm composed only of sections A1 and B1, we would accept one of the explanations of the medieval commentators, e.g., that of the Ibn Ezra, that the heavens and the Torah are two paths to the knowledge of God and His attributes.[12] However, inasmuch as it has been demonstrated that these two sections serve as an introduction to the two sections that follow them, we can formulate the connection between them in a different fashion: The heavens that declare the glory of God – that testify to their Creator at all times – are the Divine realm in which the most important heavenly body – the sun - for whom the heavens serve as a tent, operates; the Torah that testifies to the attributes of its Giver is the Divine realm in which the creature to whom the Torah was given – man – operates.


It now stands to reason that the sun and man, the two actors in a Divine realm that testifies to God's glory and His attributes, each in his own realm, will execute the mission that God cast upon them with joy and to perfection. But is this really true?


Here we come to the final parallel between the two halves – the parallel between section A2 and section B2, between the sun and man. Do the two function in similar fashion, as is mandated by the environment in which each of them operate, that testifies to the greatness of God?


The parallelism between these two stanzas provides a negative answer to this question: The sun fulfills the role that God imposed upon it with joy and might. Every day it goes forth running along a path, "and it is like a bridegroom coming out his chamber." Not only does the sun fulfill its mission to illuminate the world with joy and might, but it does this to perfection from the end of the heaven to its end, so that no place is hidden from its light.


This is not the case with man. Already in the first line of section B2, there is a downplaying in the description of man's actions: "Also Your servant is careful about them' – he is careful and he strives, but it immediately becomes clear that his care is never perfect. Man is different from the sun in another way as well - man awaits reward: "In the keeping of them there is a great reward."


Now begins the prayer of a person who wishes to observe his God's commandments, but knows that he is far from perfection and always in danger of various kinds of failure:


Who can discern errors?

Cleanse me from hidden transgressions.


Man is liable to error, and some of his actions are hidden even from himself. Not so the sun, from whose light "nothing is hidden." The sun illuminates the light with clear and penetrating light, but man has dark areas that even he himself does not recognize.


Furthermore, man is liable to much more severe failures: the performance of willing sins that will impair his perfection ("Let them not rule over me. Then I shall be faultless"), and even transgressions – rebellion against his Creator.


            Owing to all this, the sun rejoices in its actions (v. 6), whereas man is worried; the sun fulfills its mission with all possible perfection, whereas man – even he who strives for perfection – performs it in a defective manner.




            What, then, is the purpose of the comparison between man and the sun? The purpose, of course, is didactic: man must learn from the ways of the sun and cling to them! The sun serves as a model for man to imitate.[13]


            With the uncovering of the primary parallelism between the two halves, our psalm turns from a psalm with a theological purpose, as is was generally understood, into a psalm with a didactic aim; it focuses not upon the knowledge of God in itself, but upon what man must learn from the sun by way of an a fortiori argument.


            This objective sounds like a derasha that does not accord with the thinking of the medieval commentators and those that followed in their paths. This may be true, but the idea expressed here is explicitly stated in a rabbinic midrash (Sifrei Ha'azinu 32), and it is clear from its wording that this is the way Chazal understood our psalm:


"Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak" (Devarim 32:1) – The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: Say to Israel: Look into the heavens that I created to serve you. Have they perhaps changed their ways? Did perhaps the sphere of the sun say: I shall not rise in the east and illuminate the entire world? Rather as it is stated, "The sun also rises, and the sun goes down" (Kohelet 1:5). And what is more, it is happy to do My will, as it is stated: "And it is like a bridegroom coming out of his  chamber." Surely there is a kal va-chomer argument: If they who act not for reward and not for loss – if they merit they do not receive reward, and if they sin they do receive punishment – and do not have compassion for their sons and daughters – if they do not change their ways, then you, who if you merit you receive reward[14], and if you sin you receive punishment, and you have compassion for your sons and for your daughters, all the more so you must not change your ways.


This midrash is the essence of the parallelism between the two halves of our psalm, and it reflects the didactic message of the psalm as a whole. This is our psalmist's "meditation of the heart," for whose acceptance with favor he offers the prayer that closes our psalm.[15]


            Here, the rationale reader, trained to think in a philosophical manner, cries out and asks: What kal va-chomer have our Sages made between the sun and man, and what lesson may be learned from the sun according to our psalm? Surely the sun has no free will whatsoever, whereas man has free will!


            Chazal and the author of our psalm were not unaware of this objection. Let us formulate the matter in a way that it will be acceptable even to those who raise this objection:


            The free will given to man, as soon as it is exploited for evil, impairs the harmony that rests on the created world. For the created world testifies to the Creator's wisdom, as is described in detail in psalm 104, and it praises Him through its very existence and harmonious activity - and then man comes and with his wicked actions ruins the joy resting upon God's world. Therefore, the author of psalm 104 concludes his praise with the prayer, "The sinners will be consumed out of the earth, and the wicked will be no more."


            It therefore falls upon man to strive to blend into nature that does the will of God without question, so that his existence should not upset that marvelous harmony. This is the way the Ramban describes the future human ideal (Devarim 30:6):


"And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed to love the Lord" – It seems from Scripture… that from the time of creation, permission was given to man to do as he pleases, [to be] righteous or wicked… But in the days of the Messiah, choosing what is good for them will be [part of their] nature. The heart will not lust for what is unfit or desire it at all. This is the circumcision mentioned here… And this is the cancelation of the evil inclination and the heart's natural performance of the worthy act…


            Does the Ramban mean to say that in Messianic era man will no longer enjoy free will? No. In the days of the Messiah man will internalize our psalm's message and the message of Chazal cited above, to the point that he too will blend into the harmony of all of creation, which does the will of its Creator with joy, with might, and to perfection.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] As is evident from the first two clauses of verse 7.

[2] One commentator explains these words in the usual manner as referring to the heat of the sun, but nevertheless understands that they were stated as praise and not as disparagement, as is dictated by the general context of the psalm up until this point. The Meiri states as follows: "'And nothing is hidden me-chamato' – that is to say, from its heat, that it not heat him and bestow benefit upon him [i.e., there is no one to whom the sun's heat fails to reach for his benefit], even though it is not the same for all. Men of science say that the heat of the sun in the world is like the heat of the heart in the body. It turns out that nothing is hidden from its benefit." It is clear that this commentator can not accept that the two halves of the psalm stand in a contrasting relationship. See, however, what we bring below in note 4 from the commentary of R. Yeshaya.

[3] Indeed, Rashi, the Ibn Ezra, and to a certain degree the Radak tried to find stylistic proofs from the second half of the psalm to the connection that they found between the two halves, as was emphasized in the previous section. An objection may, however, be brought against Rashi and the Ibn Ezra; the verses that they bring (Rashi: "the commandments of the Lord are pure, enlightening the eyes"; Ibn Ezra: "the testimony of the Lord is faithful, making the simple wise") are not close to the seam between the two halves.

[4] Later in his comment, R. Yeshaya contrasts the virtue of the sun to the virtue of the Torah, saying as follows:

"The law of the Lord is perfect" – that is to say, the virtue of the Torah is greater than the virtue of the sun, because the sun is not perfect at all times, for at night it does not illuminate, whereas the Torah illuminates by day and at night.

Attention should be paid to the fact that R. Yeshaya does not build the contrast between the sun and the Torah on the words, "And nothing is hidden from its heat," as do the others who draw a contrast between them, as he interprets those words as praise, rather than as disparagement.

[5] I was introduced to the possibility of direct parallelism by Shlomo Dvaikh, z"l, in a paper on psalm 19 that he submitted to me many years ago.

[6] With respect to the number of words, section B1 is 8 words longer than section A1, because the six clauses that sing the Torah's praises (vv. 8-10) are particularly long.

[7] Section A2 is made up of two and a half verses and has 6 clauses. Section B2 is made up of three verses and has 7 clauses, and is only 3 words longer than A2 (24 words as opposed to 21 words).

[8] It should be noted that one of the four verses in this section (verse 4) makes no mention of any of the parts of creation.

[9] There is a difference between the first four components, which declare God's glory, and the last two components, in which this declaration is made. However, the declaration of God's glory depends upon the latter no less than upon the former.

[10] Once again, it should be noted that one of the four verses in this section (v. 11) makes no mention of any of the designations of the Torah.

[11] In section III above, we discussed the question whether we have here six synonymous designations of the Torah, or whether these six designations denote six different parts or aspects of the Torah. We tend to the latter view, even though we did not enter into a precise clarification of the six different parts.

[12] In such a case, owing to the absence of any stylistic connection between the two sections, we would seriously consider the possibility that we are dealing with two independent psalms.

[13] Here we have an answer to the question raised in section III - why section A2 of the psalm, which describes the sun, raises a new idea that is not a continuation of the first section. The sun does not declare the glory of God, but rather fulfills the mission cast upon it by God with joy and to perfection.

[14] Anyone who examines the parallelism in the lines between sections A2 and B2 will see that a line is missing in section A2 that would parallel the line in section B2, "In the keeping of them there is a great reward."

[15] We must add an important, poetic comment to the meditations of the heart and words of the mouth of the author of our psalm. While it is true that the didactic objective of our psalm is that a person should learn from the sun's qualities, a person can only do this after the sun is likened to man and personified. Only after the psalmist likens the sun to a "bridegroom coming out of his chamber" and to "a mighty man" who rejoices in "running along a path" - only after nature has absorbed the spirit of man - can man go back and relate to nature as a basis for comparison and learning a lesson.