Paul’s Strange Proof: Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18
But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”—Rom 10:18, citing Ps 19:4
How can Paul prove that Israel has heard the gospel by citing Ps 19:4? The psalm doesn’t seem to have the spread of the gospel in view at all but rather something more like general revelation. You’ll find lots of folks who agree with this assessment and, therefore, conclude that Paul is, e.g., using the psalm’s language to make his own point. Richard Hays thus says, “[T]here is no indication that Paul has wrestled seriously with the [text] from which the [citation is] drawn. He has simply appropriated [its] language to lend rhetorical force to his own discourse” (Echoes, 175). Others, like Doug Moo, think Paul is using the psalm to make an analogy. On this reading, “Paul is,” once more, “not…using the text according to its original meaning.” Rather, “[h]is application probably rests on a general analogy: as God’s word of general revelation has been proclaimed all over the earth, so God’s word of special revelation, in the gospel, has been spread all over the earth” (Romans, 666–67). Neither suggestion is implausible, considering the uses suggested are common ways of talking about the NT’s use of the OT. That is, most recognize that the NT’s authors sometimes borrow the OT’s language without suggesting their use coheres in any way with the text’s original meaning (see Beale, Handbook, ch. 4). Which of us hasn’t done this, e.g., with Ps 118:24? And, likewise, most recognize that the NT sometimes uses the OT to make an analogy. “What is happening here is like what happened there.” This way of reading isn’t meant to suggest the comparison works at every point, only that there is enough similarity to make a useful connection or to observe a useful pattern. (Here we must leave to the side the blurred line between analogy and typology.) Again, these are legitimate tools in the interpreter’s case. The problem is that neither appears to work in this particular instance. Let me first explain why and then try to suggest an alternate—and very-much-tentative—way forward.
1. Paul’s proof. First, here in Romans, Paul uses Ps 19:4 to ground his claim that Israel has heard the gospel. The logic of Rom 10:14–18 runs along these lines. Paul wonders, “If faith comes by hearing and hearing (likely the act of hearing) comes through the message about the messiah, then could it be, perhaps, that Israel’s unbelief owes to the fact that Israel hasn’t heard the gospel?” I suspect some in his audience were nodding their heads in silent agreement. Paul, however, raises the possibility only to immediately dismiss it. “Of course they’ve heard,” he says, and this appeal to the obvious is then followed by the text in question, Ps 19:4: “Their voice has gone out….” Second, the psalm, at least on the surface, appears to be a perfect fit. It talks about “words” reaching to the boundaries of the world, which, if speaking about the “word about the messiah,” would indeed suggest that Paul is right and that Israel had heard the gospel, no matter how widely they’d been scattered across the globe.
In short, Paul uses Ps 19:4 as a proof. A mere bit of rhetoric (Hays), however skillfully crafted, or an appeal to an analogous truth (Moo) would not, it seems, bear the sort of weight Paul puts on the psalm here.
2. A Way Forward? What then is Paul doing with the psalm here? First, Paul probably uses the language of Ps 19:4 to draw his readers’ attention to the entire psalm, which moves from the heaven’s proclamation about God (el) (Ps 19:1–6) to Yhwh’s revelation of himself in Torah (Ps 19:7–10) and concludes with the psalmist’s confession before his redeemer (Ps 19:11–14). What this may suggest is that the specific audience in view in vv. 1–6 is the audience in vv. 7–10 that has received Yhwh’s Torah. For this group, at least, one could assume that if they’d heard heaven’s speech, they’d also heard Torah. Second, this nevertheless still leaves open how Paul could equate the universal hearing of Torah with the universal hearing of the (Christian) message about messiah. Perhaps saying it that way, however, already gives a clue. Paul, after all, has already said that messiah was the “end” (goal?) of the Torah, the law (10:4) and, moreover, that the “righteousness by faith” (10:6), which, significantly, he also calls the “word of faith” (10:8), was near and, thus, available to Israel, citing Deut 30:12 and 13 (10:6, 8; cf. esp. Deut 30:6). In fact, it’s what Paul says he “preached” (10:8). I suspect his use of Isa 28:16 (10:11) and Joel 2:32 (10:13) points in a similar direction. Thus, what Paul appears to be saying is that as far as Israel’s culpability is concerned Torah-hearing—Torah understood in its fullest, forward-looking, gospel-anticipating sense—is gospel-hearing. There are, of course, differences between Torah’s gospel-proclamation and the early Christians’ (e.g., Jesus is messiah); however, these differences aren’t Paul’s concern presently, only the similarities are.