“Happy are they…”

I believe that the Psalms are the most pastoral of all scripture and they are unlike any other section of the bible.  I oftentimes encourage parishioners in trouble to read certain psalms and allow the pure poetry help them through their situations.

But of course, not all the psalms are meant for times of grief or anxiety.  Many of the psalms, those of which Walter Bruegemmann calls “psalms of orientation,” describe a world that is orderly and rational.  Let’s investigate one of these psalms of orientation, Psalm 19.

(Note: I am using the translation from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.)

The first six verses tell of God’s glory manifested in creation, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (v. 1).  Furthermore, creation is anthropomorphised: “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another” (v. 2).  (We’ll see more of this anthropomorphism later.)  In the first six verses, everything is oriented towards God; the world is orderly and makes sense.

This theme is continued in vs. 7-10.  “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent” (v. 7).  Again, in this section of the poem, things make sense.  The law of the Lord is more to be desired than gold (v. 10).

Then there is a subtle inward, pastoral, shift.  I believe that this shift happens slowly in v. 11 and in the first half of v. 12, but then comes to the fore in v. 12b: “cleanse me from my secret faults.”  The poet recognizes the specter of sin, even presumptuous sins, that have the potential to gain dominion over us (v. 13).  However, at this point in time, the psalmist is still oriented towards God.  There has been no great tragedy, so reasons for either rejoicing or grieving are absent.

Finally, Psalm 19 ends with one of the most memorable lines in the whole Psalter: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” (v. 14).

As I said, I find it helpful to recommend psalms to individuals in various pastoral situations.  I would recommend this psalm to those who are in stable places, those who need neither to mourn nor to celebrate.

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