The heavens declare the glory of God;
The skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.
Day to day they pour forth speech;
Night to night they declare knowledge.
There is no speech nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through to all the earth
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
Which comes out like a bridegroom from his canopy,
and exults like a warrior running his course.
It rises from one end of the heavens,
and makes its circuit to the other;
for Nothing is hidden from its heat.
THE LORD’S TEACHINGS ARE PERFECT,
Restoring to life.
THE LORD’S DECREES
ARE STEADFAST, Making the fool wise.
THE LORD’S PRECEPTS ARE UPRIGHT, Delighting the heart.
THE LORD’S COMMANDS ARE RADIANT,
Giving light to the eyes.
THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS PURE, Enduring forever.
THE LORD’S JUDGMENTS ARE TRUTH, All of them are just.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
and sweeter than honey from the comb.
By this teaching is the Lord’s servant warned;
Keeping them is my great reward.
Keep your servant from willful error,
may they not rule over me,
that I may be blameless
of great transgressions.
May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of my heart
Be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
This psalm belongs to series of ‘royal’ psalms as it asserts God’s sovereignty across the universe. It does this in two ways, through the description of the heavens which proclaim God’s creation, and in extolling the torah, which assures God’s wisdom and justice. The first part of the psalm, the creation part, is filled with movement. We are given a vast sense of scale in the words “their voice goes out through to all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” The voices that proclaim are silent however; or perhaps unknown to humans but addressed to other living creatures and to the angels. Certainly, stepping out at dawn on the way to Main House in Pendle Hill I sensed being surrounded by voices – of crickets, birds, and peeping frogs. Aren’t they singing too of God’s creation? Looking up at the sky, seeing pink wisps of clouds – could they be the traces of divine fingertips? The opening of the psalm, is, for the poet and writer C.S. Lewis, “one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” (Reflections on the Psalms, page 63)
The sense of movement continues in the description of the sun, as the psalmist likens the sun to a bridegroom emerging from his tent, and an athlete running his course. The sense of movement is that of an ellipse, of a circular track, which befits the arc of the sun moving across the heavens.
Suddenly, the psalm switches gears; the psalm becomes very static and regular in rhythm. (Robert Alter speculates whether this psalm was created as a hybrid between two different psalms, perhaps as a copyist’s error.) The psalmist now extolls the virtues of studying the torah and the jewels within for those who commit themselves to study and obedience. The teachings, decrees, precepts, commands and judgments of the Lord prompt in us a proper fear of the almighty. But for those who study the word of God through the torah, the value is beyond gold and sweeter than honey.
In reading this psalm, I found that the conclusion makes a unification of these two very different set of verses. The final part brings circular movement to the immutable laws of God. The lines “By this teaching is the Lord’s servant warned; keeping them is my great reward” imply a downward movement from heaven to earth. The next stanza, “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you. O Lord” imply upward movement to heaven. Therefore the circuit of the sun is replicated in our own cycle of daily prayer.
I organized the painting to express this contrast of movement and stability. In my meditations, I saw a sun on a pedestal. The sun was dawning, its rays traveled across the heavens proclaiming the word of God. The pedestal reminded me of the ancient stele on which the kings of Babylon and Sumer had their laws carved into stone. I surrounded the pedestal with stones to form a cairn. Around the image of the sun and the stele was a banner, on which the wisdom of the torah was inscribed. I used the book of Esther again, as I did in Psalm 1. Over this I stamped the conclusion of the psalm, descending from the top of the image and then heading back up to the top. The color changes in the banner were meant to imply moving from day to night, so that movement is circulating along with the circular movement of the verses. Color wise, I imagined the entire psalm to be fairly dark, as the I wanted to capture the sense of the light of dawn just coming into dominance. There is a kind of ‘glow in the dark’ luminosity in this painting which I think also unites the two halves of the psalm.
One more association I made while I was creating this psalm: again, I found a reference in the Gospels to this psalm. Jesus in the Gospels refers to himself as ‘the bridegroom’ which was a reference that I didn’t understand, because I didn’t know this psalm yet. Now I believe that Jesus was referring to this psalm, for as the sun is likened to the bridegroom emerging from his tent, Jesus, like the sun has come into the world as the Light of the world.