Canticles—Psalm 19: Sweeter than Honey

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

C.S. Lewis once called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”1 That’s high praise.

The psalm starts beautifully, with an intricate, lyrical paean to God’s glory as revealed in the skies and the sun. It also ends beautifully, with one of the Bible’s most quotable passages, often prayed fervently (or out of obligation and habit) by preachers: “Let the words of my mouth/and the meditation of my heart/be acceptable to you/O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

It’s the middle that trips us up, I think. It certainly tripped up Lewis. He admitted that he originally found the middle four verses (7-10) “utterly bewildering.”2 The psalm abruptly shifts from nature to God’s law. The flowing lyrics of the first six verses are replaced by an awkward passage that reads almost like the psalmist hunted, thesaurus in hand, for all possible synonyms for “law,” then paired them, Mad Libs style, with random adjectives. All of this culminates in describing the law as more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey. The psalm reads like a poetic version of Frankenstein’s monster, patched together from leftover parts.

Discerning commentators like Walter Brueggemann, William Bellinger and Rolf Jacobson have unearthed thematic and metaphorical connections between the poem’s three parts (1-6, 7-10, 11-14).3 All three sections have to do with speaking: the unheard voice of the skies revealing God’s glory, the word of God acting through the law, the psalmist praying for acceptable words. Nothing is hidden from the sun, just as the law enlightens the eyes and the psalmist worries about hidden faults.

Of course, the problem for many of us may not be the disjunctive poetry, but rather the law itself. I’d wager that for most people the law is cold. It is something that has to do with punishment for crimes. The word connotes stuffy people in stuffy rooms debating the minutiae of ordinance 58, subsection 32. For others, the law is something that is constantly failing, an inadequate measure barely holding back our inhumanity toward each other. For still others, the law is rigged, an unjust system built to oppress some and favor others. In the Christian tradition, some emphasize what we read in Paul’s letters about Christ freeing us from slavish devotion to the law. We pit law against grace.

Yet, somehow, for the psalmist, the law is sweeter than honey, more desirable than gold. Why? […] The psalmist delights in God’s law because in that law the psalmist is constantly reminded of his relationship with God.

For many in the congregations I have served, God’s law is representative of a harsh divine tyrant. They consider the laws of God, especially as found in the Hebrew Bible, archaic, barbaric, and obscure. Scripture in general has become a muddled thing, a quicksand in which people sink and love is lost. Debates over interpretations of certain laws in the Bible have led to division, hatred and anger.

Yet, somehow, for the psalmist, the law is sweeter than honey, more desirable than gold. Why?

It’s helpful to remember what laws are for. Laws are for relationship. At their best, they create community. They enable people to live together, and to live as part of the ecology of creation. Laws, after all, are only necessary when more than one person or thing is involved.

The psalmist delights in God’s law because in that law the psalmist is constantly reminded of his relationship with God. As Brueggemann and Bellinger see it, the final verse is critical. “In the Holiness Code,” they write, “the redeemer is the next of kin who redeems a person out of dire circumstances. In Psalm 19, the creator of the universe is in the end the petitioner’s next of kin.”4 This is why the very first laws for Israel, the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, begin with a statement of identity and relationship: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is why, in Leviticus, one of the most law-oriented books of the Bible, God continually reminds the people of their history together: “you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” (Leviticus 19:34) and, “you shall have honest balances…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (Leviticus 19:36). In the densest parts of Leviticus, when the laws are coming thick and fast, the words, “I am the Lord,” repeat every few sentences, like a verbal tick (see Leviticus 19, 21 and 22).

In the end, Psalm 19 is about relationship.

Which makes sense for a Christ-follower who reads the psalms, since Jesus had a nifty way of summing up “all the laws and the prophets”: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Following Christ into the way laid out by this double love commandment is no easier than keeping fastidiously all of the seemingly archaic laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are many times when we must question what it really means to love our neighbor and to love God, much less to love ourselves. Which way is the way of love?

But we do have a guide, one who gives direction, Jesus Christ. And it is in following him that we find delight. It is not easy to follow Jesus. It may even cost us our lives. But perhaps we can still say today that following Jesus is worth more than fine gold, and sweeter than honey.

Song Recommendations:

Carl P. Daw, God’s Glory Fills the Heavens – This is one of the best paraphrases of Psalm 19. Carl Daw brings out the psalms’ poetry and the musical setting emphasizes God’s glory. One might say that this version unifies the psalm through the lens of the first six verses (the paean to nature), carrying the feeling of those verses through the rest of the psalm. Though sung here by choir with piano, the hymn could be sung a capella with harmonies, or even (gasp!) with guitar. The recently released hymnbook Psalms for All Season provides chords.

Tim Hughes, May the Words of My Mouth – If Carl Daw’s version aligns the whole of the psalm through the lens of verses 1-6, then Tim Hughes brings everything together around the last four verses (the personal prayer). I love this song, though I think that Hughes’ musical phrasing is sometimes awkward to sing in congregation. In his original, lyrics are sung in strange places in the measure and the guitar and drum work obscure a steady beat. The linked version is my own recording of this song, with the musical phrasing slightly altered for congregational singing.

Sons of Korah, Psalm 19a and 19b – This is the only version of Psalm 19 that represents the disjunctive jump in the psalm, while still registering as a whole. The music demonstrates the different tones within the psalm, while still offering a smooth transition from part A (up to minute mark 3:50 in the video) to part B (3:50 to the end). Plus, I find the music flat out beautiful. The Sons of Korah have recorded multiple CDs, all focused on the psalms. You can hear more from them here.

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Footnotes:

1. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1958, 1986), p. 63.
2. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 54.
3. Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).
4. Brueggemann and Bellinger, Psalms, p. 103.

 

Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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