1. Psalms: Marveling at God's Majesty in Creation (Psalms 8, 19, 139)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (34:10)

Michangelo, Creation of Adam (1510), fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican
Probably the most famous painting of the creation is Michelangelo's huge "Creation of Adam" fresco (1510) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, 280 x 570 cm. The detail above shows God's hand on the right touching Adam's hand on the left. Image of the full scene.
In this chapter we are examining three psalms -- Psalms 8, 19, and 139 -- that marvel at the wonder of God's creation, but in the subsequent meditation on creation go three different directions in applying that knowledge. These psalms are full of awe in God's greatness and minuteness of care.

Before you begin your study of these psalms, I hope you'll re-read the section on Hebrew poetry in the Introduction. Also, take time to read this psalm -- and every psalm we come to -- out loud from your favorite Bible translation before beginning the study, and perhaps after you've studied the material here. As you speak it out loud, you are "praying" it in your own voice. The more you understand the psalmist's words, the more you can invest them with your own prayers and longings.

I'm not trying to be exhaustive in these notes. There are excellent commentaries mentioned among the references that analyze each psalm in great detail. Rather, my purpose here is to help you quickly understand important details that will help you get the gist of what the psalmist is saying. I'll define only the Hebrew words where the definition is important in rounding out your understanding of the concepts being discussed, and try to resist the temptation to get too detailed. If we get bogged down in the details, it'll be hard to be caught up in the sweep of prayer that is our goal here.

Psalm 8 -- How Majestic Is Your Name in All the Earth

"For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David."

Notice that this psalm is meant to be sung. Here it is noted as "of" or "for" the choirmaster or director of music. We can only guess at the meaning of "gittith." The psalm is attributed to David.

After you've read the psalm out loud, step back a moment and see the overall flow of the ideas:

  1. Beginning praise in earth and heavens (8:1-2)
  2. The wonder of contrasting the Creator of the infinite universe with finite man (8:3-8)
  3. Ending praise which echoes the first line (8:9)

How Majestic Is Your Name (8:1-2)

"O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
above the heavens." (8:1)

In our English translations we often miss the impact of the first line, since "LORD" in small caps designates the unique name of Israel's God, Yahweh. The NJB catches it with "Yahweh our Lord, how majestic...."

Verse one consists of two parallel phrases. The first speaks of God's majesty in the earth; the second points to his glory above the heavens. If God's glory in his earthly creation isn't enough, just look at his glory even beyond the heavens! Two words describe Yahweh in verse 1:

  • "Majestic" (NIV, NRSV) or "excellent" (KJV) is the adjective ´addîr, "mighty, majestic, noble, principal, stately," from a root that connotes that which is superior to something else, and therefore, that which is majestic.1
  • "Glory" (hôd) refers here to God's "splendor, majesty, vigor, glory, honor."2

God's "name" refers to his revealed name, Yahweh (Exodus 3:14). But the concept of "name" (shēm) also extends to ideas of existence, character, and reputation.3 Perhaps it also suggests: Your "reputation" is considered majestic in the world you have created.

Praising such a sublime God is fitting, but the next verse is curious at first glance:

"From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger." (8:2)

What do praising children have to do with enemies? Though the translation is a bit difficult, the psalmist seems to be contrasting the supposed weakness of children and infants with the supposed power of God's enemies. The point seems to be that even the weakest have abundant strength when they take the name of God on their lips. See 1 Corinthians 1:27-29; 2 Chronicles 20, especially verses 21-23.

Contrasting the Infinite Universe with Finite Man (8:3-8)

Now the psalmist looks to the night sky, as David must have done countless times in the sheepfields:

"3When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor." (8:3-5)

I can remember driving across the Arizona desert about 2 am. Everyone else in the car was asleep, but I just had to pull over and look at the brilliant stars above. I felt the smallness that David alludes to. We are so infinitesimal compared to the vastness of God's creation. How can he even be bothered to know about or care for a mere human being? The majesty and wonder of God is that he does care about us!

Now the psalmist recounts the responsibility that God gave to Adam and Eve over his creation:

"Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28)

David puts it poetically:

"6You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
7all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas." (8:6-8)

Now he closes the psalm as he began it:

"O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (8:9)

His majesty is in the greatness of creation, on earth and extending to the farthest heavens. And yet he wants to know us and include us in his plan. The glory of his infinite creation is seen in his particular care for lowly man. Oh, yes, Lord, how majestic you are!

A Christological Application

The author of Hebrews carries this even farther (Hebrews 2:6-9). He sees a Christological application in "the son of man" of Psalm 8:4, which was Jesus' primary self-designation in the Gospels. The boundless God of creation so cares for us that his Son humbles himself to become lower than the heavenly beings that he might become a man, and then goes farther yet to humble himself to die a shameful death, "even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8), that he might restore his rebellious creation to fellowship again with their Creator.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

Psalm 8 is about the infinite creation of God contrasted with the weakness of man. But to man he gives an opportunity to take a role in the creation. The psalm helps me gain:

  1. Perspective -- our minuteness contrasted with God's majesty as shown in his humongous creation, and
  2. Purpose -- To serve God by ruling responsibly over his creation, the work of God's hands. Our rule is never independent of God, but in submission to God.
Q1. (Psalm 8). What does this psalm teach about God? What does it teach about human beings? What does it teach us about Christ? What does it teach about our responsibilities?
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Psalm 19 -- The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God

Our second creation song is found in Psalm 19. Here again, David is amazed by the infinite expanse of the heavens, and what it says about the Creator. It also is a sung psalm -- "For the director of music" -- and is attributed to David. The psalm has several parts.

  1. The Unspoken Word Expressed in the Heavens (19:1)
    1. The Heavens Express God's Word Wordlessly (19:2-4a)
    2. The Glory of the Sun (19:4b-6)
  2. The Perfection of God's Written Word (19:7-9)
    1. The Value and Sweetness of God's Word (19:10)
    2. The Word Exposes and Protects Against Sin (19:11-13)
  3. A Prayer for a Pure Heart (19:14)

On first glance, you wonder how the parts fit together. But on reflection they make wondrous sense. C.S. Lewis, an Oxford professor of medieval English and a Christian apologist, wrote of Psalm 19, "I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world."4

God's Glory Proclaimed by the Heavens (19:1)

"The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands." (19:1)

The first couplet of parallel lines considers two descriptions of the expanse of outer space:

"Heavens" is shāmayim, "heaven, heavens, sky."5
"Skies" (NIV) or "firmament" (NRSV, KJV) is rāqīa`, literally, "expanse" (NASB). The basic idea of the root is "stamping, as with the foot, and what results, i.e. a spreading out or stretching forth." Here the word identifies "God's heavenly expanse."6

The word in verse 1 for "glory" (kābōd) is different from the word (hôd) we saw in 8:1b above. Kābōd is by far the most common word for glory in the Old Testament, from a root with the basic idea of "to be heavy, weighty." From this figurative usage it is an easy step to the concept of a "weighty" person in society, someone who is honorable, impressive, worthy of respect. When referring to God it expresses "the unchanging beauty of the manifest God," sometimes of a visible manifestation. Here, it is not only God's reputation which fills the earth, but it is the very reality, the splendor of his presence.7

The Heavens Express God's Word Wordlessly (19:2-4a)

"2Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
3There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
4Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world." (19:2-4a)

What an amazing insight! Each time someone looks up at the heavens -- day and night -- they receive a wordless but powerful message of God's greatness and glory. The Apostle Paul expressed it this way:

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Romans 1:20).

The Glory of the Sun (19:4b-6)

Now the psalmist considers the amazing glory of the sun God created:

"In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat." (19:4b-6)

David paints the vigor and power of the sun with word images:

  • A tent represents the darkness of the night when the sun is hidden.
  • A bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, expresses the enthusiasm of the bridegroom emerging from either the tent in which the ceremony was conducted or from the wedding chamber the morning after the wedding.
  • A mighty man of valor, a renowned runner who takes great pleasure in the race.8

The Perfection of God's Written Word (19:7-9)

While it may seem like an abrupt shift from the heavens to the Torah, the shift is quite natural. The psalmist has been relating how God speaks wordlessly through creation. Now he shifts to how Yahweh speaks through his written Word:

"7The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous." (19:7-9)

Notice the obvious parallelism of verses 7-9. Each line uses a synonym for the law, adds "of Yahweh," follows with a descriptive adjective, and concludes with a benefit. It's a brief meditation on God's Word and the wonders David finds in it.

For the Jew, "the law of the Lord" would refer to the Torah, the commands contained in the first five books of the Bible. For the Christian, "the law of the Lord" refers to the whole Word of God, especially the teachings and commands of Jesus our Lord and supreme Teacher sent from God.

Consider the imagery of verses 7-9, reviving, giving joy, giving light. "Reviving" (NIV, NRSV) or "converting" (KJV) is shûb, "turn, return." Here it is used in a covenantal sense, returning to God, being restored to full fellowship.9 Look at the benefits of meditation on the Word: the inner life of the soul is revived, the ignorant are made wise, the heart is gladdened, one's spiritual eyes are enlightened, reverence for God is extended forever, and their righteousness is readily apparent.

The Value and Sweetness of God's Word (19:10)

Having considered the benefits of meditation on God's word, David now turns to value and sweetness of his Word:

"They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb." (19:10)

Two new images are invoked to suggest the value (gold, the most precious metal) and sweetness (honey, the sweetest food) of God's Word in verse 10.

The Word Exposes and Protects Against Sin (19:11-13)

"11By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then will I be blameless,
innocent of great transgression." (19:11-13)

When faced with the glory of God in the creation and the awesome requirement of God in his Word, the psalmist is suddenly conscious of his own sins. The psalm has begun with all creation, narrowed to those who honor God's Word, and now narrowed again to David himself -- and the reader. What about me? How do I fit in all of this? How about my sins?

The psalmist rightly observes that by ourselves we often cannot discern our own errors. We have blind spots that keep us from seeing ourselves as others see us -- and especially as God sees us. "Discern" (NIV), "detect" (NRSV), "understand" (KJV) in verse 12 is bîn, "understand, consider, perceive." The background idea of the verb is to "discern."10 That's why God's Word is so important to us as a mirror (James 1:22-25), and as a "discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12-13, KJV).

Notice how the parallel phrases of verses 12 and 13 progress from "errors" to "great transgression."

  1. "Errors" is shegîâ, from the verb shāgā, "go astray, stray, err." The primary emphasis is on sin done inadvertently.11
  2. "Hidden faults" (NIV, NRSV) or "secret faults" (KJV) is from sātar, "hide, conceal."12
  3. "Willful sins" (NIV), "presumptuous sins"(KJV) renders the adjective zēd, "proud, arrogant," from zîd, zûd, "act proudly, presumptuously, rebelliously."13 It could be a prayer for God to deliver from "the insolent" (NRSV), "presumptuous persons"14 who would lead us astray. Unwitting errors are one thing; the psalmist prays that overt, willful, arrogant rebelliousness might not take hold in his life and turn him from God. The Word helps us see that for what it is; it helps us call sin "sin" instead of excusing it.
  4. "Great transgression" is the final culmination of sin's progress. May God help us nip our sins in the bud when they are small and have little hold over us, long before they begin to manifest themselves in great and open transgression.

A Prayer for a Pure Heart (19:14)

The psalm concludes with a very humble and personal prayer:

"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer." (19:14)

David prays for both his outer life, "the words of my mouth" that others will hear, as well as his inner life, "the meditation of my heart," to be pleasing before God. "Meditation" is higgāyōn from hāgā, that has the basic meaning of a low sound, such as the cooing of a dove.15 Here it refers to the whisperings of the heart. We are instructed to meditate on the Word of God (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2), the works of God (Psalm 77:12; 143:5), and God himself (Psalm 63:6).

"Pleasing" (NIV), "acceptable" (KJV, NRSV) is rāṣōn, "pleasure, delight, favor." In a ritual sense rāṣōn can describe the "permissibility" or "acceptance" of a gift or sacrifice (Leviticus 1:3; 22:20; Isaiah 56:7).16 We want our thoughts to be acceptable before God. But even more we want him to take delight in our thoughts and actions -- not to earn points that we might cash in on Judgment Day, but because we are loving children of our heavenly Father and make it our aim to please him (2 Corinthians 5:9; 2 Timothy 2:4).

Yahweh our Rock and Kinsman-Redeemer (19:14b)

David concludes the psalm with twin names for Yahweh: "my Rock and my Redeemer."

"Rock" (NIV, NRSV) or "strength" (KJV) is ṣûr, "rock." Yahweh is often referred to as a Rock because he is a sure source of strength and endures throughout every generation.17

"Redeemer" is gā´al, "redeem, avenge, revenge, ransom, do the part of a kinsman."18 In Hebrew culture, the redeemer was a kinsman who had responsibility to help members of his extended family. If someone's property had to be sold, he would "redeem" it buy buying it back into the family. If a cousin or uncle owed so much that he had to be sold as a slave to pay his debt, the kinsman-redeemer would pay the ransom price to redeem him. The story of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 1-4) gives us the picture of Boaz as the kinsman-redeemer who marries a kinsman's widow (Ruth) and redeems his property to carry on his name. The psalmist's point here is that God is to us our Kinsman-Redeemer who will rescue us in trouble and redeem us from slavery of any kind.

Q2. (Psalm 19) Verses 1 to 6 seem very different from verses 7 to 13, but there is a common thread that relates the first part to the second part. What is it? In what way does the psalmist seem to bask in God's Word? Have you ever felt that way? How does the psalmist's wonder in creation seem to affect him in this psalm? In the classic prayer of verse 14, what is David asking God to do?
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Psalm 139 - The Creator and Searcher of My Inmost Being

Since I have covered Psalm 139 in much greater detail as "David's Psalm of Surrender" in the Great Prayers of the Bible series, I'll want to skip directly to the portion of the psalm which speaks of God's creation. However, I encourage you to open your Bible and read the entire psalm out loud right now before going on.

Though earlier in the psalm David has complained that God has searched him out, almost hounded him, here he begins to relax and reflect on God's love expressed in the intricacy of his own personal creation in his mother's womb.

"13For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be." (139:13-16)

If you've ever wondered about the trivial value of human life -- your life, perhaps -- this psalm makes it clear that God values each of us with a love and intimacy. "Created" (NIV), "possessed" (KJV), and "formed" (NRSV) in verse 13 is qānā, which here (and 5 other places in the Old Testament) appears to mean "create."20 God has made the heavens and the earth by his great power, but also the tiniest parts of a tiny human while still an embryo, a fetus. God's awesome power extends to the smallest detail. "Inmost being" (NIV), "inward parts" (NRSV), and "reins" (KJV) is kilyâ, "kidney," then a symbol of the innermost being.21

"... You knit me together in my mother's womb." (139:13b)

The psalmist uses a fascinating word, here translated "knit together" (NIV, NRSV) and "covered" (KJV). The verb is śākak (also in Job 10:11) which probably means "weave together," parallel to "woven together" in verse 15, an allusion to cloth woven with different colored threads.17 Imagine a weaver, an artist in cloth, weaving an intricate pattern, and you see God's love and care.

David realizes that along with intricate, intimate formation, God's creation means that God knows his whole life from its very beginning to its very end. The Creator is both omnipotent (all-powerful), but also omniscient (all-knowing). We might feel that God's foreordination might be imposing on our supposed freedom, but his full knowledge of us is just a fact of life.

Experiencing the Psalms, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, a Bible study on Psalms in 12 lessons
Now all the lessons are available together in e-book and paperback formats.

This is the third creation psalm we've considered. Look at how meditating on God's creation affects the psalmist on this occasion:

"23Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting." (139:23-24)

His prayer is a prayer of surrender to God the Creator, the Searcher. Search me, know my heart, test me, check out my worries. And God, if you find anything in me that needs your help -- and you will -- cleanse my heart. Lead me back to the path that I might experience your everlasting life.

Q3. (Psalm 139). In what way does the wonder of creation in the psalm seem to affect the psalmist? In his concluding prayer in verses 23-24, what does he ask God to do?
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The wonder of creation is at many levels:

  • Awe at the magnitude and scale of the heavens and the earth,
  • Realization that God has created human beings for a particular role within his creation, and finally,
  • Acute awareness that God has created me, you, very deliberately, very specifically. We don't just matter, we have a particular mission in God's world.
Exercise. For one of the psalms in this lesson -- or another psalm with a similar theme -- do one of the suggested exercises to help you experience the Psalms (www.jesuswalk.com/psalms/psalms-exercises.htm). These include such things as praying a psalm, meditating, reading to a shut-in, paraphrasing, writing your own psalm, singing, preparing a liturgy, and memorizing. Then report to the forum what the exercise meant to you personally or share what you've written with others.
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Prayer

Creator of the Universe, God and Father of mankind, we come to you with awe and wonder, worship and rededication. Help us relate to you as is appropriate to our status as created beings. Help us to learn to approach you as beloved children. Reform us in your image. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Songs

  • "How Majestic Is Your Name," words and music by Michael W. Smith (© 1981 Meadowgreen Music Company, Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing). Psalm 8.
  • "O Lord, Our Lord, How Excellent Your Name Is," words and music by Peter Jacobs (© 1984, Maranatha Praise, Inc., Admin. by Music Services)
  • "Search Me, O Lord, and try this heart of mine," words: (1875) by Fanny Crosby, music: ("Ellers," 1869) by Edward J. Hopkins (1869).
  • "Search Me, O God, and know my heart today," words (1936) by J. Edwin Orr (1912-1987), music, Maori tune
  • "The Law of the Lord Is Perfect," by J.J. Williams (© 1978, Living Way Ministries). Psalm 19.
  • "Let the Words of My Mouth," words and music by Warren W. Wiersbe (© 1989, Hope Publishing Co.), Chalice Hymnal #301. Psalm 19:14.

 References

  1. Leonard J. Coppes, ´ādar, TWOT #28b.
  2. Victor P. Hamilton, hwd, TWOT #482a.
  3. Walter C. Kaiser, shēm, TWOT #2405.
  4. C.S. Lewis, Psalms, p. 63.
  5. Hermann J. Austel, shmh, TWOT #2407a.
  6. J. Barton Payne, rāqa`, TWOT 2217b. Our English word "firmament" means literally "the vault or arch of the sky" from Latin firmare, "support."
  7. John N. Oswalt, kābēd, TWOT #943e.
  8. "Champion" (NIV) or "strong man" (NRSV, KJV) is gibbôr, "mighty man." The word is used particularly of the heroes or champions of the armed forces, such as David's mighty men of valor (John N. Oswalt, gābar, TWOT #310b).
  9. Victor P. Hamilton, shûb, TWOT #2340.
  10. Louis Goldberg, bîn, TWOT #239.
  11. Victor P. Hamilton, shāgā, TWOT #2325a.
  12. R. D. Patterson, sātar, TWOT #1551.
  13. Leon J. Wood, zîd, zûd, TWOT #547.
  14. Craigie, Psalms, p. 178.
  15. Herbert Wolf, hāgā, TWOT #467b.
  16. William White, rāṣā, TWOT 2207a. Craigie follows Dahood, in rendering this, "be according to your will" (Craigie, Psalms, pp. 178-179).
  17. John E. Hartley, ṣwr, TWOT #1901a.
  18. R. Laird Harris, gā´al, TWOT #300.
  19. For more on names of God, see my book Names and Titles of God (JesusWalk Bible Study Series, 2006). www.jesuswalk.com/ebooks/names-god.htm
  20. Leonard J. Coppes, qānā, TWOT #2039.
  21. John N. Oswalt, klh, TWOT #983a.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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