Psalm 19 – Heaven and Earth Speak

Here are the words of Psalm 19:

1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
   and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hidden from its heat.

7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
13 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.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19 (NRSV)

The speechless speech of Psalm 19

Several years ago, I watched the sunrise over the hills of Kentucky. Cows lowed repeatedly and loudly in the minutes just before the sun’s light peeked over the horizon. I was visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived and worked. It was at the end of a five-day silent retreat. My bags sat in the trunk of the car I had rented for the short drive between the airport and the abbey.

Spending that much time in silence, then watching the sun come up was a funny experience. The colors were more vibrant. The sounds from the cattle reverberated more deeply. I continued to watch the sky as I drove into the airport for the return flight home. Instead of losing the striking quality of sunrise and sunset, and becoming only a backdrop, the sky persisted in pulsing with beauty.

There isn’t much more to say about it, just that the world above seemed so full of life. That sky was overflowing with richness. So, it comes to mind when I read verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 19. “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.” All that richness held a powerful message. Though, it wasn’t the kind of message that you wrap up and walk away with. Even now, years later, as I try to describe it, I know the vibrancy of the sky that day just isn’t captured in the words.

Psalm 19’s contradiction in terms

Verses 1 through 4 present some contradictions, if only in a small way. First, verse 2 says “Day to day pours forth speech.” Then, verse 3 follows shortly to say “There is no speech.” Further, verse 3 continues “nor are there words.” Yet, verse 4 ends with “their words to the end of the earth.”

In the case of “Day to day pours forth speech” and “There is no speech,” the Hebrew root for “speech” is the same, omer, in both places so it is hard to deny the uses are contradicting each other. Some translations, see the NET, try to smooth over the contradiction by rendering it “There is no actual speech” in verse 3.

In the other case, that of “nor are there words” and “their words to the end of the earth,” the Hebrew roots for “word” in each place is a different root, dabar and milah respectively. In any case, the roots, while different, are roughly synonymous, so the NRSV rendering them the same seems appropriate, or at least defensible.

What’s in a word

So, what are we to make of this, at least seeming, contradiction? First, it would seem easy to gloss over the paradox in the first verses of Psalm 19. A reader could apply a platitude to it like, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” as though the discrepancy between experience and expression were that small, then move on to the rest of the psalm without another thought. Doing so would miss a lot of richness from the text, though.

To begin, let’s remember that words and speech are typically about communication, either directly or indirectly. Usually, we speak with purpose, even if the purpose is a trivial one. That purpose might be more artistic, too, as in poetry. What gets captured in poetry, even some of the most abstruse poems, still communicates something. Though that something may not be more than an impression.

In order to communicate, a word, or language itself, must conceptualize and encapsulate the world of experience to make it expressible. Like everyone who has struggled with expressing themselves has experienced, though, something gets lost in the process of conceptualization. Nevertheless this conceptualization is so prevalent that we even think in terms of language and its concepts.

More than words

A reader can take the first verses of Psalm 19 as an expression of what is felt when experience is detached from conceptualizations. The world overflows with glory. Life is shot through with an expansive openness. How to put this experience distanced from words into words? Well, the reader can see how Psalm 19 does it. Speech flows forth, but there is no speech. There is no voice, but it reaches every corner of the world. Words can’t capture it, yet word of it spreads everywhere. Contradictory, and a little confounding, but it is the best we have.

Well, maybe the second best we have. The best we have is to quiet the mind and loosen the grip of conceptual understanding, and regain experience at a distance from the ways we think about it. Meditation can help us do this with time and consistency.

Word of law in Psalm 19

Language can only vaguely capture the world of experience. It is never truly or fully expressed. Instruction, teaching, and law belong to a different class of speech. Since they are a little more abstract, teachings lend themselves more readily to words. If you’ve ever actually read through some of the legal documents that are an inevitable part of human life, you can probably appreciate just how many words go into such things. They can be pretty verbose.

Teaching and guidance is maybe a little less precise in its language than the law, but it still comes through words. Fortunately, words convey teachings pretty well. Those words that guide and instruct get a beautiful tribute in verses 7-11 of Psalm 19. The gift of turning these over, repeating them, meditating on them is sweet. You can find the vitality of that practice in other psalms, too.

Beginning with verse 12, though, the limitations of words come up in regard to teaching, too. The writer of Psalm 19 can ask “Who can detect their errors?” without need for an answer. Even with the guiding words of teaching, there is not enough wisdom to clear anyone of errors. There is not clear enough instruction that faults may not still be hidden.

A plea and a trust in Psalm 19

In terms of conduct and life itself, the human situation is uncertain even with the best guidance. That can be an uncomfortable thought. Especially for those of us who like to know what is what, Solid ground feels much, much better than uncertainty.

It doesn’t seem we can do better than what the writer of Psalm 19 does. In verses 12-14, the writer leaves a plea. A plea for being freed from fault. The writer wants protection from the wrong kind of guidance. In the end, the last verse asks for acceptance, both in their own (ineffective) words and the meditations of their heart. So, the writer of the psalm ends with a trust but also a kind of insecurity. There is wisdom in that, however much discomfort can come with it.

Redemption in uncertainty

The word of Psalm 19 conveys trust of uncertainty. The transcendent experiences of the natural evade the neat boundaries of language. We can’t bottle them up in words and so feel mastery of them. Teachings, even the best, can’t give the answer to every circumstance of life. Uncertainties abound and our place in life seems uncertain.

We are prone to misunderstanding and to misdeed. Still, the writer’s last word is to call God a redeemer. Whatever the shortcomings might be, the writer of psalm trusts that they have a place in the world. They take their acceptability as truth, regardless of feelings to the contrary. In other words, the mercy at the heart of the world, all the compassion and joy of God, breaks through the difficulties of our existence. If you listen, maybe it can even be “heard” in the music of the sky, speaking figuratively of course. We can take St. John Chrysostom’s advice and listen with our eyes.

The heavens may be silent, but the sight of them emits a voice that is louder than a trumpet’s sound, instructing us not by the ear but by the medium of the eyes.

St. John Chrysostom

Resting in wordless awareness

Certainly, if you want a word about this redemption, they are out there. There are a lot of texts and proclamations of compassionate mercy throughout the bible and in many teachings. The history of Israel, the gospels, the proclamations of Christ’s resurrection all express the love of God that moves the world.

Silence can’t name it as such. Meditation won’t provide anything to hold onto, much the opposite. The quiet of meditation is a gesture of letting go. There is a rest there. That rest is rest from the constant attempt to capture the world around you in thought, to make it work for you. And you need to do that. After all, we need to be practical. We need to function in the world. This has its limits, though, as Psalm 19 teaches. The invitation to the wordless awareness of meditation, is an invitation to take a break from trying capture or control life. This is a break from conceptualizing, however closely our mental lives are bound to it. And in that break, to breathe free from the need to produce and be practical, and just see what is there.

The real rest comes in the realization that your life does not depend on your thoughts (or your heart). So, take a rest and let life find you. Listen to the heavens speak.

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Discussion about Psalm 19 - Heaven and Earth Speak

Ah! The joys of silence...

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