It’s not hard to understand the message of Psalm 97; it’s just hard to believe. There’s no doubt about its message: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad, let the distant shores rejoice.” But, if a growing consensus of scholars is right, there must have been a great deal of doubt in the minds of ancient Israel about whether that message was true.
Here’s why. Many scholars note that the third book of the Psalter seems to be occupied with the Exile. Psalm 89 in particular is full of the pain of that disruption of Israel’s life; they had lost their land, their king, their temple, even, it seemed, their God. So it is not accidental that Book IV of the Psalter opens with Psalms (93, 95-99) shouting, against all evidence, that “the Lord reigns.” According to Sandra Richter, Psalm 97 is the most dramatic portrayal of Yahweh’s sovereign power to be found in the Psalter. Exiled Israel needed to hear that message. In our day of power politics, so do we.
Further, this Psalm helps us see the earth-shaking importance of Christ’s Ascension, which we celebrate on this seventh Sunday of the Easter season. As Easter fades into the distance and Pentecost rustles just around the corner, we need to be reminded that the ascension of Christ was as important as his resurrection. Indeed, an old preacher friend of mine was fond of reminding me that Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and session at God’s right hand were really one huge saving act. Psalm 97 will help us see just how huge that act was for salvation history and how important it is for our lives.
The Psalm begins with the declaration that Yahweh reigns, not just over his little kingdom of Israel or over the lands he had conquered in the past, but even over the “distant shores” (the ends of the earth) and, yes, even over the foes who have just conquered the kingdom of Israel. In spite of recent events, the Psalmist claims that the whole earth is filled with the glory of the Lord. His is the kingdom and the power and the glory.
But unlike so many earthly rulers, God does not use his power to conquer and oppress and squeeze all he can out of his subjects. That’s because “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” That’s the platform on which God stands, the basis for all God does, the agenda God always pursues. James Luther Mays says that God’s “righteousness” is the rightness of God that makes for life and Shalom, while God’s “justice” is found in the decisions and actions of a righteous God. That is to say, God is righteous; God does justice. Unlike the nations that dragged Israel off into Exile, Yahweh uses his power to rule the world with righteousness and justice.
We might think that isn’t true, given the recent disasters in the world. The overwhelming power of evil might lead us to conclude that God’s righteousness and justice are too weak to have any real impact on the world. But we would be very wrong to think that way, because, look, here comes the Lord. Verses 2-6 read like a theophany, a once in a life-time appearance of God in all his glory. In words that must have reminded Israel of their first theophany at Mt. Sinai, God comes in or out of “clouds and thick darkness.” When God renewed his covenant with Israel at that mountain, Israel felt the earth shake, saw the fire on the mountain and the lightning fill the skies, and were filled with terror at the God who hid himself in deep darkness.
Here in Psalm 97, that’s exactly how the universe responds to the coming of the great King. “Fire goes out before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness and all the peoples see his glory.” Yahweh is not a God to be trifled with.
Those who have trifled with God by fooling around with other gods will cower in shame and despair. Verse 7 shows us a negative reaction to the Cosmic Coronation of the Lord of the universe, while verses 8 and following show us a positive reaction. Many scholars see verse 7 as the theological center of the Psalm, because it is the counterpoint to the point made in verse 1. The nations who have conquered Israel claim that their gods have given them victory, but Israel must not stop believing that “Yahweh reigns.”
In fact, those gods of the nations are nothing more than images (the Hebrew is pesel, meaning something that is crafted, the work of their own hands) and idols (the Hebrew is elilim, meaning something that is vanity because it is powerless and, thus, useless). Those who put their trust in such things will be put to shame. Therefore, not only they, but also their gods should turn to the Lord and worship him. “For you, O Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” Politically incorrect? Yes, but theologically correct.
On the positive side, say verses 8-12, the reign of Yahweh over all the earth is the source of deep comfort and joy for those who love and trust him. That note of joy runs through the entire Psalm. It opens with a call to the ends of the earth to rejoice, because the Lord is King. And it ends with a call for all God’s righteous ones to rejoice in his just reign. When the residents of the capital (Zion) and all the little villages (literally, “daughters”) hear that good news again in the face of their disaster, they will rejoice.
Even now they can rejoice, “because of your judgments, O Lord.” (verse 8). To our modern audiences, it may seem a bit strange to rejoice in God’s judgment, but we need to hear that in the light of Israel’s experience of Exile. This is a reminder and a promise that their righteous God will put things right again. As he did in Egypt, Yahweh will break through into their history and right the wrongs that have been inflicted on God’s faithful children.
But they need to be faithful. Verse 10 spells out what covenant faithfulness looks like in a world overcome by evil. “Let those who love the Lord hate evil….” That was the central command of the covenant. It was not an easy command. In fact, it is terribly difficult to understand and to do. What does it mean? Well, if we focus on the law God gave when he renewed covenant with Israel back at Sinai, then loving the good Lord entails hating everything that is not good, like murder and adultery and lying.
That’s clear, but it is very easy to get confused about this. For example, we can take verse 10 the wrong way and end up hating people who do evil. Jesus clarified this once and for all when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s not easy. It is very difficult to separate people from the evil they do. But, if we are supposed to show our love for God by the way we love our neighbor (I John), we must guard against demonizing the neighbor who does evil to us.
The difficulty of this central covenant criterion doesn’t stop with loving our enemy. It is also hard to hate evil without becoming self-righteous. We must remind ourselves that evil tempts us, too. Further, it is the case that when we hate evil, we may court trouble from those who delight in doing it.
All of which is to say that hating evil is a hard and tricky business. So, it is a distinct relief to hear the Psalmist say that the Lord “guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.” Do we really believe that? Languishing in Exile, Israel must have struggled with this statement of faith. But Psalm 97 assures us that the righteousness of God will indeed be the source of light and joy even for those who feel like they have been overwhelmed by evil. The Lord of the universe will break through the chains of evil that enslave his people and set them free. The proclamation of God’s reign over all the earth offers hope to the righteous in their opposition to evil.
Indeed, says Brueggemann, “the kingship of Yahweh causes an inversion. The wicked are exposed for what they are. They are denied their preeminence. Conversely, the righteous, the ones who keep covenant and do Yahweh’s will, are given life and power.” Contrary to the way it seems in the world, the ultimate power in the universe is in the service of righteousness and justice, so the exiles, the righteous may now expect a better life.
It is no wonder that the Psalm ends, as it begins, with a call to joy. Indeed, if we miss this note of joy, we have missed the whole point of the Psalm. To those who laid down their harps by the willows of Babylon saying, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” Psalm 97 is a call to rejoice anyway. This is an important word for Christians who lament the wicked state of things in the United States and Canada (or wherever you live and preach).
We in the church often emphasize the love and grace of God to such an extent that we miss the good news in a text like Psalm 97. The love and grace of God are righteous and just. Our loving and gracious God will not only forgive us our sins and get us to heaven. He will also, and more importantly (?), set all things right in the world. After all, righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. So his agenda, his platform, his passion is to make all things right again and thus restore the Shalom of paradise. No wonder the Psalm ends with this call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.”
There is a prophetic tone in this call to rejoice. As we look out over the political scene, particularly in this election year in America, we have to critique what we see in the light of Psalm 97. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s reign. What is the foundation on which the various candidates and their parties stand? Rather than merely reacting to personalities and soundbites, Christians should be asking about the moral and spiritual platforms on which our would-be leaders stand. What is their ultimate agenda? What is their passion? We hear what they are against all the time, but what do they stand for? Is it their own power and self-interest? Or America’s self-interest? Or the cause of the poor? Or the welfare of the world? Or righteousness and justice? We need to be careful about making partisan statements from the pulpit, but we should be asking those kinds of questions. What are the foundations of their thrones? And what difference will it make for us and for the world if one or the other wins?
Finally, there is surely a gospel message in this Psalm. The inventors of the Revised Common Lectionary were entirely correct in choosing this Psalm for Ascension Sunday. It is a reminder that Christ’s Ascension was about a lot more than a man magically levitating into the clouds. It was about the re-enthronement of God’s Son who had left his throne for a cross. He now rules “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion….” (Ephesians 1) When he returns, he will make everything right. The evil in the world will melt in the fire, the world will be reborn whole and clean, and the righteous will rejoice. In the meantime, let us love God, hate evil, and sing for joy.
An enterprising preacher with access to decent AV equipment would help the congregation envision the effect of the theophany depicted in Psalm 97 by showing (or verbally describing) that climactic scene from the Tolkien movie, “The Return of the King.” With Sam’s assistance, Frodo finally hurls the terrible Ring into the fires, which triggers the end of the kingdom of evil. The way the earth collapses and the mountains quake and volcanoes erupt and the hordes of evil creatures run for their lives—all give us some notion of the earth-changing effect of the coming of the King in all his glory and power.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2016
Psalm 97 Commentary