Nahum Sarna in On the Book of Psalms, says that Israel had to constantly struggle with the old, conservative, polytheistic religions around it. One way it did this was through a vigorous, often satirical, polemic against those religions. But, as we saw with his interpretation of Psalm 8, another way they did this was by taking up the vocabulary of the myths, emptying them of their original content, and refashioning them to fit the radical Yahweh worship of Israel.
Part of the popular religion roundabout was sun worship. This reached its peak with the rise and influence of the Assyrian empire. Sarna said there is good reason to think that Psalm 19 was composed after the reforms of King Josiah as a way of disputing the world-view of sun worshipers.
This Psalm consists of two hymns and the transition from one to the other in verse 7 is abrupt. The first hymn reminds us of Psalm 8 with its appreciation of the heavens. The second hymn has more in common with Psalm 1 with its appreciation of the Torah.
While Psalm 8 was inspired by the magnificence of the night sky, Psalm 19 picks up on the course of the sun from rising to setting (vs. 4-6). The sunrise is spectacular. The sun’s course across the sky and its setting are regular. There is no escaping its heat.
Part of sun worship was the idea that the sun daily waged war against darkness and overcame the shadows. Psalm 19 picks up on this to compare the Torah to the sun. What is it that overcomes true darkness in the world and in our lives? Where does true enlightenment come from? This psalm answers that our true sun is the teaching of God found in his law.
This idea is what gives the two hymns that comprise Psalm 19 their unity.
The opening verses personify the heavens and heavenly bodies. The heavens speak. They bear witness. The sun emerges at dawn like a bridegroom from his chambers. It is like a young warrior.
This is like other ancient Near Eastern poetry. The difference is that rather than being divine, the heavenly bodies manifest, reveal, and bear witness to the glory of God. Even the sun, as splendorous as it is, is under God’s control.
The thesis of the 19th Psalm is that the Torah is to the moral and spiritual realm what the sun is to the spiritual realm. You can see this in verse 8, which says in the NET Bible:
The Lord’s precepts are fair
and make one joyful.
The Lord’s commands are pure
and give insight for life.
The Mesopotamian sun god, Shamash, is sung as “the lord of truth and right”. Of the Egyptian sun god, Re, it is said that when he rises a shout of joy goes up from the people and their hearts swell with joy. So the psalmist describes the precepts and commands of the Lord in language that others used for the sun god. As the sun gives light for vision, so the Torah gives insight for life.
In verse 10 the 19th Psalm applies images of honey and gold to the Torah. Both these images were popular in hymns to the sun god. Their golden color represented sunlight.
Sarna saw significance in the Psalm not setting up YWHW as the opposite of the sun god. Rather it was the Torah, God’s word, that stood over against the solar cults. The sun, in Hebrew thought, was a creation of God for the benefit of humans–and so was the Torah.
Verse 11 begins a personal prayer of the psalmist, “your servant”. The psalmist finds warning and guidance in the Torah, yet as he has just heaped praise upon the Torah, he is aware that his own desire to live by the law may fall short of so high an aspiration. So he invokes God’s help and prays that God will keep him blameless (12-13).
The last verse of this Psalm in the KJV is familiar to most church goers as a phrase used in prayers and liturgies:
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
Sarna thought that these words came from the levitical idea that the priest prayed to God that sacrifices would be accepted as an act of worship. The psalmist applies this idea to study and meditation on God’s word. May my study be an acceptable act of worship. May it be a form of communion with God.