It is highly appropriate that the psalms should have frequently been set to music in modern times, for they were originally songs which would have been sung by soloists or choruses, often to instrumental accompaniment. Very probably some were also accompanied by dancing. Though some seem like private meditations, many psalms seem to call for public performance. The collection which exists in the Hebrew Bible is a varied one, probably gathering together established favorites written over several centuries by different authors, some of whom are mentioned by name in the introductions. The most famous of these is the great musician-king David, who is not only said to be the author of many of the psalms, but to whom Jewish and Christian tradition alike attributes all of them, including those clearly labeled as being by others. Modern scholars have questioned whether, in fact any of the psalms can be traced to David. Whatever their origin, they reflect a common poetic heritage which made skillful use of parallelism: one line expresses an idea and the following line parallels it by expressing the same or a related idea in different wording. The effect is often majestic. Psalm 19 is typical of a number of psalms which share the Genesis creation story’s vision of a natural world providing witness of a powerful and loving creator. The first stanza explores the paradox that although nature cannot speak literally, it nevertheless testifies to God’s greatness. The second stanza focuses on one aspect of nature: the glorious sun, whose warmth penetrates everywhere, like God’s knowledge. The third stanza shifts from the natural world to one of Judaism s favorite themes: the greatness of the law. Far from being seen as a burden or a curse, it is compared to honey in the mouth. The next stanza refers to the main function of the law: to make clear to the believer what should be done to please God; but the author is concerned that he may inadvertently violate laws of which he is unaware, and asks to be protected from such errors. The closing stanza makes a fitting conclusion, and is frequently used in worship services.
Although Jews praise God through nature, he is not nature itself, as in many other religions. How does the first stanza make this clear?
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (1)
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, (2)
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure, (3)
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant (4) warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart (5)
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
The history of the great royal period of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel is framed by two periods of exile and captivity: in Egypt, and in Babylon. The conquest of Samaria, the capitol of Israel by Assyria in 721 BCE and of Jerusalem, the capitol of Judah by the Neobabylonians in 587 were only the most striking events in a centuries-long process of repeated attacks and shifting alliances. Because the Covenant with God had been seen as promising an everlasting kingdom for his chosen people, Jewish prophets argued that the Covenant had been broken and vitiated by the failure of the Jews to remain faithful to its terms. The prophetic writings are filled with attacks on the Hebrew people, principally through worshipping other Gods. This psalm, either written in exile, or on the way home, takes a much more sympathetic tone as it portrays the Jews longing for their homeland and seething for revenge against their former neighbors, the Edomites, who had allied themselves with the Babylonians.
How do the Jews react when the Babylonians ask to be entertained by some of their exotic folk songs?
By the rivers of Babylon– (6)
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion (7)
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion!
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy. (8)
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem s fall,
how they said, Tear it down!
Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
New Revised Standard Version and dash them against the rock! (9)
(1) I. e., to the farthest reaches of the world (in space) not the end of the world in time.
(2) Jewish weddings take place under a canopy, which is here compared to the nightly refuge of the sun, from which it rises triumphantly and joyously like a young man who has just been married.
(3) “The fear of the Lord” is a kind of respectful awe before his majesty and justice which is often praised in the Writings as the essence of wisdom.
(4) The speaker, representing any worshipper.
(5) Note that the opening stanza portrays speech which is not literally uttered;,later the poet turns to sins which are unconscious and involuntary, and here the subject is thoughts which remain unspoken. Despite its varied themes, their is a strong unity running throughout the poem.
(6) Babylon was situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
(7) “Zion” is a poetic religious name for the mountain on which Jerusalem was built and where the great temple was erected by Solomon. It is often used to refer to the future re-establishment of the temple (torn down by the Babylonians) and later, to a kind of paradise on earth to be established during the Messianic age. In modern times Zionism has described the drive to reestablish a Jewish political state in Israel, ending the third great Jewish exile known as “The Diaspora” (the scattering).
(8) This stanza meditates on a paradox: singing about the fact that one refuses to sing about Jerusalem.
(9) This vindictive final stanza is often omitted in public recitations, but it has had its consequences. During the First Crusade, Christian knights are said to have slain Jewish and Muslim children while chanting these verses.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.
The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:
Department of English
Washington State University
Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.