Psalm 19: The Power of Holy Speech

How can one gain a sense of God's infinite greatness? The nineteenth psalm utilizes two methods. The first method is to reflect on the beauty and inner order in creation. Thus, the first half of the chapter describes the power and magesty of the heavenly bodies. "The heavens declare God's honor, and the sky tells of the work of His hands" [19:2].

Starting with the eighth verse, however, the psalmist makes an abrupt change, using a second method to contemplate God's greatness. The second half of the psalm reflects on the qualities of truth, clarity, and perfection that are revealed in His Torah. The Torah restores the soul and makes the simple wise. Its laws enlighten the eyes and gladden the heart.

The psalm closes with a request:

"May the words of my mouth and the reflections of my heart find favor before You — God, my rock and redeemer." [19:15]

Why is God referred to as a redeemer? From what is He redeeming us? And why does the psalmist mention his spoken words before the reflections of his heart? Do not people first think and then speak?

Redemption from Failure

Immediately preceding this request, the psalm takes note of the innate fallibility of human nature. "Who understands errors?" "Restrain Your servant from deliberate sins too; let them not dominate me" [19:13,14]. What do human frailties have to do with the wonderful qualities of the Torah?

We may be deeply aware of the purity and truth of God's Torah, as the psalmist expressed. Yet we are hindered from following the Torah's laws as faithfully as we desire due to our innate weaknesses, our limited intellectual capacity, and our flawed self- control. The raging storms of our physical nature continually disturb and hound the spiritual light within us as it yearns for ever-greater holiness. How can we shield and protect the soul's holy aspirations and desires?

Two Gifts

The answer lies in two God-given gifts, one internal and one external.

The first gift is the heart's inner core of purity. When the psalmist speaks of "the reflections of my heart," he is referring to this inner kernel of holiness. Ultimately, we will discover in our hearts the ray of pure, Godly light. When we are able to free ourselves from the darkness of our imaginings, when we are able to overcome our hesitancy and fear and look towards the inner self, then our heart's thoughts will always be imbued with holiness. Our heart's reflections will then be illuminated with light from the source of true, elevated life.

In qualitative terms, this inner holiness of the heart transcends entire worlds. Nonetheless, it may be quantitatively overwhelmed by the rush of everyday life. Therefore, God provided us with a second gift, an external one: the holiness of speech. When we vocalize God's holy words in Torah study and prayer, we are able to restore the dormant holiness of the inner heart. The sublime kernel, our true essence, is like a kidnapped princess who may be rescued by the gift of holy speech. This is the secret power of speech when it expresses the hidden treasure residing in our inner selves.

Thus, the psalmist first mentions "the words of my mouth." Our speech in Torah and prayer in turn awakens our inner kernel of holiness, "the reflections of my heart." We pray that both of these faculties help us live favorably before God, "my rock and redeemer," who redeems us from the emptiness and crassness of mundane life through these two spiritual gifts.

[adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. II. pp. 60-61]

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