Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 10, 2016
Psalm 29 Commentary
Psalm 29 may feel a little hard on ears that are tired and worn down by all the recent holidays’ noise. It is, after all, a “noisy” hymn of praise that the poet fills with the sounds of music, thunder, wind and even the sound that earthquakes make. It’s a psalm that the psalmist also fills with vivid images of angels around God’s throne, flashes of lightning, twisted trees and skipping countries. So it’s the kind of psalm whose reading its preachers and teachers might enhance through vivid sounds and images.
It’s as if the psalmist is peering into God’s heavenly “throne room” as he writes this lovely psalm. After all, he calls “mighty ones,” perhaps, as James Limburg suggests, the heavenly beings that surround God’s throne, what we sometimes call angels, to lift their voices in praise.
So the poet doesn’t just, as she often does, call worshipers to praise the Lord. She also summons both heavenly and earthly creatures to join in a cosmic choir that praises the Lord who creates and cares for them. The call to offer that praise seems to play a central role especially in Psalm 29’s first verses. After all, the psalmist repeats that call three times in the first two verses alone.
Verse 10 lends support to the suggestion that God’s heavenly throne room is Psalm 29’s backdrop. After all, it refers to the Lord’s sitting enthroned over the flood. It also speaks of the Lord as “King forever.” This gives credence to an understanding of this psalm as not just a hymn of praise to God the creator, but also as a polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions.
After all, the “neighborhood” in which the psalmist’s Israel lived was no less spiritually confused than the world of the 21st century. The Canaanites, for example, thought of their Baal as the god of the storm. Psalm 29, by contrast, asserts that Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth, is the God who not only rides on those storms but also rules over them. In fact, the psalmist mentions the Lord’s name 18 times in this psalm alone, as if to emphasize by sheer repetition that it’s the Lord, not other gods, whose majestic power rules over creation.
So while Israel’s neighbors thought of floods as persistently threatening creation, the psalmist insists that God is the boss of even floods. In fact, God’s Israelite sons and daughters recognized God as the One who’d promised after the catastrophic flood never again to allow such an inundation to wreak such havoc.
It’s not easy to understand to what the psalmist refers when he calls the whole creation to give “glory” to God (1). After all, the Hebrew word for it, kabod, generally connotes a kind of heaviness or abundance. So, for example, clouds can be kabod with rain and hail is kabod. However, when the Scriptures use the word kabod to describe God, they often, says Limburg, imply weightiness, splendor, majesty and magnificence. So by calling it to give “glory” to God, perhaps the psalmist is calling the whole cosmos to join together in praising God’s majesty.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the psalmist sitting at the edge of a lake as she writes this psalm. Perhaps at first she’s surrounded by an eerie calm, maybe in that kind of green-grey light that sometimes precedes storms. However, slowly, initially almost imperceptibly the western horizon takes on a darker hue. Clouds begin to race each other across the sky. The wind slowly morphs from a gentle breeze into a howling gale that raises whitecaps on the water. Flashes of lightning and bursts of thunder bunch more and more tightly together. Suddenly sheets of rain chase the psalmist toward cover.
Thoughtful readers can hardly miss the sense of wonder that fills the psalmist as he contemplates all of this. However, his awe stems not from the mighty storm, but from the majestic Lord whose glory the storm displays. In that way, Psalm 29’s imagery evokes that of William Cowper’s moving hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way:” “God moves in a mysterious way, / His wonders to perform: / He plants his footsteps on the sea/ and rides upon the storm.”
The psalmist’s sense of wonder at God’s majestic work in creation offers preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on responses to dazzling natural phenomena. To what do rumbles of thunder draw our attention? To the power and sometimes fear they may evoke? Or to the God who somehow “rides” on them? Do we hear in the winds that sometimes rattle our windows and shake our trees just disturbed air? Or do we somehow hear the voice of God calling us to worship the Lord?
Of course, it’s not easy for citizens of the 21st century to think about God’s voice as thundering or flashing lightning. Even modern Christians recognize that God’s voice that called all things into being and shook Israel at Sinai is “powerful” and “majestic.” But does God’s voice literally break cedars, make whole countries to skip like calves, shake deserts and twist trees? How should we think about what seems like Psalm 29’s “pre-scientific” understanding of God’s voice’s work in creation? This psalm can almost sound like childhood claims that thunder is the sound angels make when they’re bowling.
We might think of this assertion of God’s mighty voice in creation as another part of Psalm 29’s polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions. After all, their gods couldn’t speak (or hear, as Baal’s prophets learned at Carmel). The Lord of heaven and earth alone is able to speak. And speak that God does, whether in Jesus Christ or, to the psalmist’s’ contemporaries, in rumbles of thunder. God speaks, whether in God’s Word, or, to the psalmist’s contemporaries, in gusts of wind. In a psalm that’s full of voices, none speak louder or more commandingly than the Lord’s.
All of God’s speaking invites all in God’s temple to respond by crying “Glory!” (There’s that word kabod again!) That temple may be God’s temple in Jerusalem. It may refer to God’s “temple” that is God’s creation. Then the “all” who cry “Glory!” would refer to every creature. Or God’s “temple” to which verse 9 refers may allude to the temple that is God’s throne room.
Yet perhaps it’s not necessary to try to delineate just who precisely cries “Glory!” After all, it’s a gasp of praise that God’s majesty squeezes out of every creature whether in heaven or on earth. No matter who the “all” are, the psalmist calls them to join in exclaiming praise and wonder.
Yet the psalmist perhaps strikingly ends this noisy psalm rather quietly, with descriptions of God’s tender, loving care for God’s adopted sons and daughters. Throughout the psalm the poet talks about God’s displays of strength. Yet she ends by insisting that God also gives strength to God’s people. However, perhaps especially poignantly, the psalmist ends her hymn of praise to God the creator by asserting that God uses God’s strength to graciously grant God’s people “peace,” shalom in the Hebrew. After all the noise and action of Psalm 29, the poem ends with the word “peace.” Not, as one colleague notes, peace and quiet, but the “peace that passes all understanding.” The peace for which God created God’s people with God, their neighbors and creation. The peace that comes through the Prince of Peace.
Psalm 29 is the kind of psalm that almost begs worshipers to sing the stirring hymn, “How Great Thou Art:” “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder/ Consider all the worlds thy hands have made, / I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, / Thy power throughout the universe displayed; / Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; / How great thou art! How great thou art!”
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