“The law of the Lord is perfect. . .” Psalm 19
Just one of the amazing things about Psalm 19 is the tenacity with which David keeps twisting meaning out of the wonderful metaphor he uses to begin. “The heavens declare,” he says, and goes on to spin that idea in a number of ways—how God Almighty speaks in the sky. Seemingly, he loves the idea, just as he loves his God. It’s as if he can’t stop toying with the novelty of God’s triumphant voice in the silent heavens.
Then he turns on a dime. His eyes drop, or so it seems, to what we might think of as the parchment in his hands, the law of God. Without warning, with his choir enraptured in their star-gazing and millions of readers around the world looking up at the sky to hear the Lord preach, he extols, of all things, the law: “the law of the Lord is perfect,” he says, as if he’s just now read through the Decalogue.
It’s doubtful, but not impossible that he has parchment in his hands, but we’re misreading the idea if we believe that what he’s talking about being “perfect” is only the Mosaic Law, or the Ten Commandments. His “bible” would have been slim pickins, whether or not it existed in a handy palm-sized edition.
What David is talking about as “perfect” has to be more than what Christians, following the Apostle Paul’s explanations, normally consider “the law of God.” More than likely what he’s referring to is the whole package of goods which God Almighty delivered to his chosen people the Israelites—the Mosaic law, to be sure, but also the covenants he offered and the stories he gave them to remember and retell. What is “perfect” to David is the whole “way of the righteous,” as it’s referred to in Psalm 1, the life of praise and commitment afforded to believers on the basis of their being God’s own beloved, of knowing him and his word. That’s what strikes him as perfect.
In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis calls Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” He gives this poem such high praise because its music is as beautiful as its instruction is profound; it has equally bountiful portions of head and heart. In spite of what may well appear to be a 180-degree turn in the structure here at verse seven, David knows what he’s doing and where he’s going. He’s got a specific agenda of ideas, and he very deliberately works that agenda out, while he’s, well, singing.
Somewhere at the root of the word Torah, I’m told, is the idea of “instruction,” of being taught. So much of the rhetoric of the Old Testament stories are aimed, it seems, at definition—what God is saying to the Israelites, throughout their history, is this: “I am God, and those other things people worship are not.”
In the sequence of verses which follow his evocation of God’s own presence in the heavens, David begins to work through what he knows about this eternal God on the basis of this book, this Torah, what he can define of him through the courses of instruction God has given him and all of us in doing life itself in this Godly way, something akin to what the Navajos might call “the Beauty way.” He wants us to know more profoundly the “ways” of this God—how he works, what he does for those he loves, and the way he expects them to live.
In the first six verses of Psalm 19, we’ve seen and heard a beautifully imagined vision of him in the skies that canopy the world.
But there’s more, David says. Let me tell you. Better yet, let’s just sing.