It is perhaps one of the most famous wisdom Psalms, and with good reason. Psalm 19 meditates on creation and the law, distilling their message and benefits for Israel’s choirs. However, for at least two reasons readers today may miss the wisdom of the song. Firstly, David’s brevity assumes wisdom in his audience without providing it. Secondly, exegetes living in the present secular age have pathologies that blind them to the wisdom David presumed.
Consider the following as attempted therapy. To begin, let us look at the first half of the Psalm, which will be our focus.
(1) The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
(2) Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
(3) There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
(4) Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
(5) which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
(6) Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
Commentator Willem VanGemeren comments on verse 1 that:
For the psalmist “space” is not empty but a revelation of God’s creation of the magnificent heavenly bodies, which are characterized by radiance and regularity. The verbs “declare” and “proclaim” are participial forms, expressive of the continuous revelation of the heavens, and could be translated “keep on declaring … keep on proclaiming.” The wars and disturbances on earth often camouflage God’s glory, as they divert attention away from the created heavenly bodies, which show more clearly God’s majesty by their regularity and orderliness. 1
Verses 3-4 express a seeming paradox: a voiceless voice speaks. A moment’s reflection can tell us the meaning: David speaks of an inaudible communication that is heard everywhere, to the ends of the earth. The second half of the selection above, 4b-6, focuses on the sun, but comes to the same conclusion. As VanGemeren says: “The sun also reveals God’s glory, power, and wisdom. One does not have to listen for words, because the effect of the sun is evident, as ‘nothing is hidden from its heat.’” 2
Familiarity with a text may obscure important features, so we will pause to highlight some important ones. Firstly, David is quite clear that the heavens declare “the glory of God”. That is, it is not some undefined glory, or some vague sense of “intelligent design”, that the skies speak about. Rather, how the heavens appear make clear that God is glorious. The only God David could possibly be referring to is the Creator of Genesis 1. The heavens, according to the shepherd-king, declare that particular God’s glory. If David had our terminology, he could have said the skies teach monotheism.
Secondly, we must note that it is the heavens in general, and even the Sun specifically, that the Psalm focuses on. The behavior of these creations communicate to human observers. While no doubt David could have focused on other creatures to make his point, in fact he chose the heavenly order to reflect upon. Why might that be? VanGemeren provided the natural explanation above: unlike earthly beings, the Sun and the alternation of day and night are unfailingly regular, and that’s where the Psalm places its focus.
Thirdly, we should attend carefully to the paradoxical idea of “wordless speech”. The Bible contains numerous examples of a common human experience, that of communicating by means of actions. For example, Proverbs 6:13-14: “A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, signals with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord… .” The wicked man, along with crooked speech, uses various kinds of actions to communicate intelligibly. The observer can infer from these actions the intentions of the “speaker”, even though he deploys no words. This kind of inference from action provides the closest parallel to knowledge “spoken” by the regularity of the heavens, and so offers the best interpretation of the apparently incoherent language of the Psalm.
There was a time in the history of the Western world where David’s observations would have seemed obviously reasonable. But we no longer live in such a world. Many highly intelligent and reflective people claim to look at the same things that David did and “hear” no such declaration of God’s glory. They claim not to see any necessary connection between the regularity of the cosmos and the glory of the Creator. Why is this? To grasp the answer, we must consider some of the assumptions David had.
The first one we need to note is not something that would be disputed today, but its importance for understanding David’s reasoning will become apparent later. This first assumption is that the universe was populated by multiple supernatural intelligences. David would have believed this was true, and he also would have known that the nations of the world outside of Israel (at least the ones he had knowledge of) believed this as well. Indeed, he would have probably been familiar with peoples who thought the Sun, Moon, and Stars were themselves deities who had communicated and demanded worship, who were intelligent beings in their own right. This assumption is simply a matter of historical fact (about what the ancients believed).
The second assumption is different. It becomes apparent when we ask directly: why would the regularity of anything, including the heavenly bodies, imply God’s glory? While wise people today claim not to see this, it’s actually not difficult to comprehend. Regularity is a kind of repeated behavior, where the object could conceivably behave differently, but does not. The Sun, for example, regularly runs its circuit, but David would have known the story about the one day it stood still. If, then, the Sun could possibly stand still, or equally possibly (for there is no self-contradiction in imagining this) act in totally unpredictable ways, why does it continue to behave in the specific way that it does? It seems as if the Sun is somehow directed toward running its cycle. How can this apparent “directedness” be explained? The only analogy from experience we have which can provide the answer is in the activity of intelligent beings. That is, we know that human beings can possess plans, and can direct other things toward fulfilling those plans. For example, an artist possessing a mental plan can turn a block of marble into the likeness of a king. Because this is the only sensible way to explain, e.g., the motion of the sun from the same starting point to the same end day after day, we infer intelligence governs this behavior. Regular behavior communicates reason.
That is, granting that we make a third assumption. Once again, this is an assumption some very educated people today claim to question, but nevertheless it is widely held. It’s the belief that possibilities cannot be made real except by real things. And as one contemporary writer, William Lane Craig, has argued:
I think that one could produce arguments for the principle, but that since the principle is so intuitively obvious in itself, it would be perhaps unwise to do so, for one ought not to try to prove the obvious via the less obvious. After all, does anyone sincerely think that … say, a raging tiger should suddenly come into existence uncaused out of nothing in the room in which he is now reading this article? 3
The previous assumption takes this principle for granted, for in inferring an intelligence from regularity, reasoning assumes there must be an explanation for why a given possibility is real, rather than another. If the contrary were true, if possibilities could become real apart from the work of already real things, then one could not infer any kind of explanation from any realized possibility, since there could always (on this false assumption) be simply no explanation at all.
Thinkers today claim to question these latter two assumptions, but most people live their lives assuming them, especially the second one. In fact most people are not secularists, and innumerable people would claim the starry sky impresses upon them the existence of a Creator. There are complicated historical reasons explaining why a small minority of very educated individuals claim they do not see these assumptions as obviously true, but it is not important to lay out that story here. It’s only necessary to recognize that David would have assumed them, and in fact must have been using these premises in his implicit argument.
There are two ways David could conceivably be reasoning here. One is as an inference to the best explanation. This reasoning would move from the regularity of the heavens to intelligent governance of the heavens (by means of the second assumption noted above), and from intelligent governance to a single intelligence by means of Ockham’s razor (do not multiply hypothesized entities needlessly). One problem with this argument comes from the first assumption. David knows there are multiple supernatural intelligences, and he knows other people claim evidence that celestial bodies are gods themselves, and have communicated with those peoples. In light of those claims, how could the heavens teach those peoples monotheism? They couldn’t, since a celestial polytheism would equally explain the regularity of the heavens. Interpreting David charitably, we can assume he would not make an obviously fallacious argument.
Thus we need to look elsewhere to understand how David was reasoning. And another option presents itself. This argument would move from regularity to intelligence, but would also recognize that even higher intelligences like angels (or small-g gods) live and act with a kind of order, and further, that their being unreal is not logically absurd. That is, small-g gods are the kinds of beings that themselves cry out for an explanation: supernaturally powerful spirits could live in various different ways (e.g., the varieties of angels, or the differences between the members of the Greek pantheon). Their present identities express only one possibility, and that they do so requires some kind of explanation.
What real thing could provide this explanation? Only one: a totally independent reality. And what would this real thing be like? Since it ultimately explains whatever order there is in the universe, it must have intelligence and the power to create order. This far the present argument assumes the cogency of the previous one. But more things must be true of an independent being. Firstly, it couldn’t have a body like we do, since the various parts of our body can be intact or not. But being intact when the contrary is possible would require some further explanation, which this independent being is itself supposed to provide. So the reality in question must be spiritual, not bodily. Secondly, in fact, this thing couldn’t have parts at all, since any parts by definition could conceivably be in union with each other or not. For example, the union of mind and body is human life, but there is a very real possibility that the union might not be, a possibility that comes to reality in death. This kind of union thus requires explanation just as much as the union of body parts. Therefore a totally independent thing would have to be radically unified, being wholly one. And thus, thirdly, this being would have to be unique. Two such beings could only be distinguished by some feature the other lacked, and thus would have a part (the distinguishing feature) holding together with another part (the features held in common). But this union would demand explanation, making such a being dependent, which it cannot be on pain of absurdity. Thus, this kind of reasoning clearly shows that heavenly regularity necessitates monotheism, unlike the previous interpretation. And so charitable interpreters seeking to understand David ought to conclude this is his implicit reasoning, rather than the previous option.