Monday, July 6, 2009

Psalm 19: The Heavens and the Days and the Glory of God, for Juan

What a nice milestone in my blog history: a first request. My friend Juan asked that I write a blog entry on Psalm 19, and tonight I oblige.

Nearly a century ago, a German scholar named Hermann Gunkel--and with a name like Gunkel, how could he be from anywhere else?--pioneered modern literary analysis of the Psalms by suggesting that these long-form poems could best be organized and understood in terms of genre. (There he is on the right; eat your heart out, ladies!) Thus Gunkel proposed a handful of generic categories: praise psalms, psalms of lament, wisdom psalms ... you get the picture. Psalm 19, thus, is a praise psalm, a hymn devoted to singing the glory of God.

Now I know what you're thinking. Isn't, like, the whole Bible devoted to singing God's praises? (Well, no--and you obviously haven't been following my blog, jerk. But I get your point.) Because in Psalm 19, that there is singing is unsurprising. It's who's singing that's just so darn interesting.

The psalm opens, "The heavens are telling the glory of God, / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. / Day pours forth speech, / and night to night declares knowledge" (1-2). Get it? This isn't a group of hirsute rabbis singing. Or an ill-trained church choir. It is "heaven," "firmament," "day," and "night." In one respect, it is creation itself that sings God's praises.

Characterized thusly, Psalm 19 is an apt response to the opening chapters of Genesis. In the first chapter of the Bible, God creates the world with divine speech; his words generate the world. Thus, by merely saying "light," God makes light. This psalm, by extension, gives us creation echoing back divine speech in praise.

But perhaps "creation" isn't specific enough a term, for the psalmist singles out two particular elements of the known universe: the cosmos--or space--and days--or time. What a sublime notion--that the very building blocks comprising our experience of the universe actually speak to the majesty of God. That space and time respond to the divine utterance with an utterance of their own.

And the best part? We have no idea what they're saying. I'll let the psalmist explain: "There is no speech, nor are there words; / their voice is not heard; / yet their voice goes out through all the earth, / and their words to the end of the world" (3-4). Though the "voices" of space and time suffuse the material universe--singing the Lord's glories all the while--we cannot perceive them. For us, the "speech" of space and time is "no speech." But really, how could we represent the "speech" of space and time in anything but negative terms? How could we imagine talk about God as anything but ridiculous?

Clearly, the psalmist is in that liminal zone where words bend and break as they try to describe the indescribable--what can one write about the face of God, the song of time? But the psalmist knows as much. For there is a positive element to God--that which we can speak about--and a negative element--that which completely escapes letters, words, thoughts, speech. And in the opening verses of Psalm 19, our author brings us to the precipice where the break between positive and negative occurs and encourages us to listen.

Even though we will hear nothing at all.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, an example of one of my favorite obscure terms: apophasis! Trying to say the unsaid, to speak that which cannot be--or is not--spoken. You've navigated that tricky turn very nicely, Joshua. Kudos.

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