Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 10, 2017

Psalm 149 Commentary

Psalm 149 is one of the five Psalms that make up the “Hallelujah Chorus” with which the Psalter ends.  Beginning with Psalm 146 each of these Psalm begins and ends with Hallelu Yah, which means, literally, “Praise Yahweh.”  What a fine uplifting way to end this magnificent, variegated collection of Israel’s song!  Let’s just praise the Lord.

So what a shock it is to find that the second to last Psalm, the one just before the final resounding symphony of praise that is Psalm 150, ends with these militaristic words of verses 6-9.  A sermon on this Psalm could be entitled “Praise in their Throats and a Sword in Their Hands.”  We move from praise to punishment in the blink of an eye.

Or we could entitle a sermon on Psalm 149, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The word “saints” is found in verses 1, 5 and 9.  The Hebrew is hasidim, which became the name of a particularly strict Jewish sect in the 18th century.  Here it means the faithful, the ones who truly love Yahweh (indeed, one scholar sees a connection between hasidim and that ubiquitous covenant word chesed).  Here they sing with joy in the assembly over their salvation, and here they wield the sword among the nations for the sake of vengeance.  Both their salvation and their swords are a source of glory and honor (verses 5 and 9) for them.  We can almost hear the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing softly in the background.

All of this is so unexpected at the end of the Psalter, in the Hallelujah Chorus for goodness’ sake.  What do we do with this?  It is hard for contemporary Christians to celebrate the way Psalm 149 calls us to do.  It sounds so militaristic, so radical, so, well, jihadist.  It sounds like a call to holy war.  In fact, if we’re honest, that’s exactly what it is.  But in a world awash in the blood of an Islamist jihad, how can we Christians possibly preach on such a Psalm.

Before we run away from it, let’s think a bit more deeply.  It will helps us if we locate Psalm 149 in salvation history.  It is almost surely post-Exilic.  Israel has suffered abject defeat, losing everything they held dear, including, they thought, their God.  After two generations of humiliating imprisonment in pagan Babylon, they are back in the Promised Land.  They have been saved (verse 4), but all is not right yet.

They are small, poor, diminished in every way (the “humble” of verse 4), still awaiting God’s judgment on the nations who have persecuted God’s people for centuries.  In Psalm 149, at the end of the Psalter that has sung the experiences of God’s people over those centuries, Israel celebrates in advance two great things—their complete salvation and God’s final judgment on the nations who have dared to attack the Kingdom of God on earth.  Who can blame them?

Psalm 149 participates in the eschatological “already but not yet” that fills the Bible.  They have already experienced God’s salvation, so they praise Yahweh with “a new song” for the new thing he has done in bringing them back from Exile.  They are invited to rejoice in song and dance, “for the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns them with salvation.”  The word “crowns” there has a royal tone to it.  The monarchy is gone, destroyed by the pagan Babylon.  Now the humble people themselves are crowned as God’s royal ones, the recipients of God’s promise that David will always have an heir on the throne of Israel.  The Maker of Israel, their heavenly King, has replaced their earthly King with the people as a whole.  “Let the saints rejoice in this honor,” and keep singing even into the night, even away from the public gathering of God’s people in the Temple, even “on their beds.”  They are already saved, so “may the praise of God be in their mouth.”

But they aren’t saved completely yet, because those nations are still out there taunting, threatening God’s Kingdom on this earth.  So, in addition to having “a song in their throat,” let Israel also have “a double-edged sword in their hands.”  The Psalmist leaves no doubt about the purpose of these swords.  They are to be used “to inflict vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.”  For centuries, there has been systemic opposition to God’s Kingdom on earth.  Humanity has gathered together and conspired to destroy God’s efforts to save the world (cf. Psalm 2, which parallels Psalm 149 in many ways).  As James Luther Mays puts it, there have been “systems of rule in history that threaten to dissolve and overwhelm the story of God’s people.”  Those of us who rail against the danger of systemic and systematic evil should understand the threat Israel faced for all of its history.

So God puts the sword in their hands to finally bring vengeance and punishment on the nations and their leaders.  But this is not to be some wild, revenge driven bloodlust; it is the carrying out of the Divine Decree, “the sentence written against them.”  “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.”  But here in Psalm 149 he puts the sword in Israel’s hand.

We should not be surprised at this theme of Divine Judgment.  It’s a deep dark theme running throughout the Old Testament, and it’s still there in the New.  What is surprising and alarming about Psalm 149 is that God puts the sword into the hands of his holy people.  This does sound for all the world like holy war, jihad.  The Psalmist even calls it “the glory of the saints.”  That is even better than 70 virgins.  Even if we grant the justice of God’s case and cause, how can we preach this to a Christian congregation in this bloody 21st Century?

After all, this business of “the assembly of the saints” has actually been used throughout history to rally God’s people to war: the Maccabean War, the Thirty Years War, and the War of the Peasants.  So, we must remember Jesus words, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52).”

Thus, more than one scholar says we simply must take these militaristic words metaphorically.  But is that legitimate?  Isn’t that an easy way out of Scripture that offends our contemporary sensibilities?  Isn’t it a dangerous thing to let the mores of our culture dictate the meaning of the Scripture?

Well, there is a hint right in the text that might help us.  Some scholars point out that the “and” in verse 6 is a “comparative and.”  That means that the second clause is a comparison that illuminates the first clause.  Praising God is like wielding a sword.  That is, the weapon that Israel will use to bring God’s justice to the nations is praise.  “Israel’s faithfulness to Yahweh and proclamation of his sovereignty furthers Yahweh’s reign as a military campaign furthers a King’s reign.”  (Richard Clifford)

This interpretation fits the New Testament emphasis on “the sword of the Lord.”  From Jesus prohibition of sword wielding in the Garden of Gethsemane to the sword proceeding from the mouth of the Rider on the White Horse in Revelation 19, the sword in these Gospel times is the Word of God.  God’s people defeat the principalities and powers, the Beasts and the Kings of the earth, by the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God (Ephesians 6).  That passage in Ephesians warns us not to think of battling the forces of evil as a military campaign in a worldly sense.  We promote the Kingdom and bring God’s justice to this world, “not with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums.  With deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”  (from the hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal”)  Or as Paul put it in II Cor. 10:14 in the RSV, “the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds.”

It might be helpful to think of The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 as the New Testament equivalent of Psalm 149.  The Risen Jesus, who has just done a new thing to save his people, now claims that he is the King of the Universe.  As King, he sends his people out to conquer the world by teaching the nations to observe all he has commanded.  Bring them into the Kingdom by making them disciples—not by force of arms, but by the power of the Word of God.

Interestingly, that Word is compared to a “double-edged sword” in Hebrews 4:12.  But unlike a physical sword that can stab and slash someone to death, the word of God penetrates soul and spirit to bring life.  And in language that echoes Psalm 149, this double-edged sword of the Lord “judges the thought and attitudes of the heart.”  It is, in other words, the instrument of judgment, as well as of salvation.

In spite of the troubling issues raised by the language of the latter part of Psalm 149, it is worth wrestling with these issues in a sermon, because they remind us that even the gentlest Christian is in a war.  Though our warfare is not against flesh and blood, the principalities and powers are always trying to defeat the Kingdom of God.  And though we should not identify any one nation or political philosophy as the enemy of the church, there is a great deal of systemic and systematic opposition to the cause of Christ.  So we must be militant in our obedience to the Great Commission, even as we are faithful in our obedience to the Great Commandments (to love, even our enemy).  If we are such faithful, loving hasidim, then we will join the throng around the throne in heaven “from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9).”

Illustration Idea

Even though many Christians shrink in horror from this old hymn because of its connections to imperialism and triumphalism, it echoes both Psalm 149 and Matthew 28.

“Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see his banners go!

Onward then, O people, join our happy throng; blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.  Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ the King, we through countless ages with the angels sing.”

For a powerful illustration of systemic and systematic opposition to the people of God, read the Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece, Silence.  Or better, see the movie.  The brutal persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century will give you a visceral sense of Israel’s desperation in Psalm 149.  We don’t need to pick up physical weapons in response, but Endo helps us realize in a fresh way the reality of the war against the cause of Christ.


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