Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 7, 2016
Psalm 33:12-22 Commentary
Our Psalm reading for today is the second half of a Psalm of praise to Yahweh. It is focused on the sovereignty of the God of Israel. It is one of the first Psalms of praise in the Psalter and one of only a few such Psalms in the first book of the Psalter, which is heavily concentrated on lament.
Several features of Psalm 33 make it feel like a model for all the Psalms of praise that will follow. Its 22 verses correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (though it is not an acrostic), suggesting that it is designed to be complete praise. The words used to describe the excellence of Yahweh in verses 4-5 are the most frequently mentioned attributes of God in the Old Testament. The format of the Psalm is the pattern of most other Psalms of praise. It begins with a call to praise (verses 1-3), ends with a response to that praise (20-22), and in between we hear the actual praise in two almost equal stanzas (4-11 which focus on God’s greatness and 12-19 which zero in on God’s goodness). In fact, Psalm 33 is so typical that one wonders how to preach a fresh and vibrant sermon on it.
We might start outside the lectionary reading and pick up on the “new song” of verse 3, which is the first occurrence of that phrase in the Psalter. Brueggemann does that, though what he says doesn’t give us much new to preach on. “Psalm 33 is a new song that sings about a new world. It is the world about which Israel always sings, the new world Yahweh is now creating. It is a world ordered by God’s justice over which God presides with faithfulness. To such a world the only appropriate response is confident and sure praise to the one who makes that world available to us.” That is true, wonderfully true, but since it is what Israel “always sings,” how can we make a new sermon on Psalm 33.
I suggest starting with verse 12. I have a very vivid memory of that verse from my youth. Driving down narrow state highways as my family made the annual trek to my childhood home in South Dakota, I would often see verse 12 emblazoned on huge bill boards along the side of the road. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord….” Whether the people who erected that billboard were rebuking a godless nation or encouraging the remnant who still believed in God, they clearly saw Psalm 33:12 as a patriotic passage. Maybe we can use it that way.
Indeed, one scholar thinks that Psalm 33 was written in a time when Israel was threatened militarily, which happened many times in her history. Verse 10 and especially verses 16 and 17 can certainly be read that way. A military take on Psalm 33 would resonate with many North American congregations, as we are constantly reminded of the threats of Islamic terrorism and some new military provocation by Russia or North Korea. Our nation responds to military threats by calling for more sanctions or for more appropriations or for more boots on the ground. Force is met with force. Psalm 33 responds by calling the nation back to the God who is Yahweh. Force is met with faith.
Of course, that approach to Psalm 33 raises a big question. Can we apply this Psalm to America? The rest of verse 12 describes the nation whose God is Yahweh as “the people he chose for his inheritance.” Clearly, that was true of Israel. The Bible says so in many places.
Does the Bible say that America is God’s chosen nation? From the beginning of our nation that belief has been part of our civil religion, but the Bible says nothing about that. If any group of people is God’s chosen nation, it is the transnational Church of Jesus Christ, the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). Besides, it is very difficult to claim that American is a nation whose “God is Yahweh,” as much as Christian revisionists might want that to be so. If we’re going to take this patriotic, militaristic approach to Psalm 33, we’ll have to apply it to the church or to all nations.
That, in fact, is how our reading continues in verse 13, where the emphasis is on “all mankind.” We might want to believe that our own nation is the “apple of God’s eye,” but Psalm 33 uses 4 visual words to emphasize that God “looks down,” “sees,” “watches over,” and “considers” everything everyone does. The God of Israel keeps his eye on all the nations of the world. That can be heard as a kind of threat or as a kind of assurance. I suspect that Israel heard it as the later, though many of the nations probably heard it as the former.
The Psalm goes on to address the military might of the nations whose plans and purposes Yahweh “foils and thwarts (verse 10).” Contrary to the conventional wisdom that drives the military buildups of every nation, “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite its great strength it cannot save.”
Now, that is simply pious nonsense in the ears of the warrior class. It isn’t the real world. But the Psalm asks us to think about the real world. As necessary as war is sometimes, when has it ever “saved the world?” For a moment, yes, even for a decade or more, perhaps. But isn’t war always followed by more war? That’s the real world. As much as we might hope that the military solution will bring us victory and peace, the hard truth is that it doesn’t. Indeed, the word “hope” in verse 17 is a very different word than the word “hope” in verses 18, 20, and 22. The first hope (in armaments) is a deceptive confidence, while the second (in Yahweh) is a lasting trust that won’t be disappointed.
I’m not suggesting that we preach a pacifist sermon on this text. It doesn’t call us to lay down our arms; it calls us to rest in the arms of God. That’s exactly where the Psalm goes next, and where it ends. After pointing out the futility of any arms race, the Psalmist says, “But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.”
Here is the theological heart of the Psalm. Though God sees everything everyone does, the “eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him” in a special way. In an age of ubiquitous surveillance, your sermon should work with the image of “the eyes of the Lord. “ And the phrase “those who fear him,” which is so often misunderstood, is explained here in lovely terms. It means “those whose hope is in his unfailing love.” It has to do not with terror or even reverence, but with looking to Yahweh with hopeful trust.
We can trust him because of “his unfailing love.” The Hebrew there is that covenantal word chesed, which is the main theme of the Psalm (verses 5, 18, 22). In a world filled with militaristic nationalism, where plots and plans aim to disrupt our lives, where promises are made and broken every day, what can we trust? Whose word can we believe? Well, says Psalm 33, you can trust the chesed, the covenantal faithfulness of Yahweh. He promises to be your God, and he will be your God through all the crises of our times and all the chapters of our lives. That is reason to praise Yahweh. Indeed, that is the central reason Israel praised God. Psalm 33 is a model of that praise.
After the praise, the Psalmist closes with a confession and a petition. Because Yahweh is so great and good, “we wait in hope for him; he is our help and our shield.” Notice the military language there. We wait in hope, “for we trust in his holy name.” That’s a confession of faith any Christian can make.
So is the closing petition. After rejoicing in Yahweh’s chesed, the Psalmist prays that the chesed of Yahweh may rest on us. That may sound a bit peculiar, but it fits the wavering character of our faith. We believe, but we wrestle with unbelief. So, though we trust God’s unfailing love in Christ, we still pray that God’s unfailing love in Christ will rest upon us. Given the uncertainty of life, we can’t help but plead with God to stay faithful. But there really isn’t any possibility that he won’t. That’s the good news for any nation/people/church whose God is Yahweh.
One way to help people think about the “eyes of the Lord” is to contrast God’s eye with the fearsome, flaming eye of Sauron in the movies based on Tolkien’s Trilogy of the Ring. Mounted high on a mountain, it surveyed Middle Earth with malevolent intent. Everyone feared being seen by that terrible eye.
Psalm 33 calls those who fear the Lord to wait in hope. That’s how the friends of the bridegroom waited for his arrival in Jesus parable in Luke 12:32-40, which just happens to be the Gospel reading for today. Contrast that kind of waiting with the restless, nervous, and ultimately fruitless waiting of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s devastating play, Waiting for Godot. Told that they will be visited by a mysterious stranger named Godot, the two ne’er-do-wells wait and wait and wait. They don’t know what Godot looks like, so they aren’t sure how they will know that he has come. At the end of the play, Godot has not come. Or has he, and they just missed him? Or does Godot even exist? Beckett’s play reflects the existential angst of a world that waits and waits to no good end. Nothing ever happens to relieve our angst. Thank God that our hopeful waiting is met with God’s unfailing love.
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