The Revised Common Lectionary chooses this Psalm for this first Sunday after the Epiphany of Christ in all three years of its reading cycle. Clearly the Lectionary sees Psalm 29 as a parallel to the baptism of Jesus, because in both the voice of God rings out over the waters. Psalm 29 shows us an epiphany of God’s glory in a passing thunderstorm, while the baptism of Jesus is an epiphany of Christ’s glory as he begins his passion that will end in the darkness of Calvary.
Further, the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism helps us deal with the problem Psalm 29 raises, namely, the role of God in natural disasters. Is the voice of God to be heard in, say, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria? This problem of theodicy is answered by the voice of God that thundered over the waters of Jesus’ baptism.
Even as the baptism of Jesus should have caused everyone present to fall down in worship, Psalm 29 is essentially a call to worship God for his glory revealed in a natural event. Picturing a thunderstorm brewing off the coast of Lebanon to the north and west of Israel, the Psalmist calls on those observing the storm to “ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.”
It is fascinating that the call to worship goes out to the “mighty ones,” which is loose translation of the Hebrew which is literally “the sons of God.” Scholars differ in their interpretation of that phrase. Does it refer to angels, to what the New Testament calls “the principalities and powers?” Or does it refer to the gods of the nations around Israel? On their best days the people of Israel knew that those gods were nothing but emptiness, but the nations surely thought they were real and alive. Often Israel joined them in their worship of those false gods. So, is the Psalmist commanding those so called gods to give all the glory to the real God, Yahweh the King of Israel? The latter interpretation is probably the right one.
That interpretation gains credence when we notice what these gods are commanded to give to Yahweh—glory, kabod in the Hebrew, which has the sense of weightiness, heaviness, as well as splendor and majesty. The gods are nothing, vanity, emptiness; there is nothing to them. Yahweh, on the other hand, is weighty, heavy, substantial in his magnificence. There’s something to the true God, and those false gods are commanded to confess that by giving him his proper weight, important, splendor.
Note the overwhelming use of the proper name of God in this Psalm. It is Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh—4 times in the call to worship in verses 1-2, 4 more times in the conclusion in verses 10-11. In the account of the storm, the phrase “the voice of Yahweh” is heard 7 times, like rolling thunder. Indeed, the word “voice” is the Hebrew qol, which is an example of onomatopoeia. Its repetition creates the effect of repeated, rolling thunder (cf. the seven thunders of God in Revelation 10:1-4). The thunderous use of “Yahweh” identifies this as a specifically covenantal Psalm, urging the gods of the nations to give glory to the God of Israel.
After that majestic call to worship, we hear the storm roll off the Mediterranean, “the mighty waters.” It rumbles over the mountains of Lebanon, where it creates havoc in the legendary cedar and oak forests. The power of the thunder makes the mountains move like frightened animals. And that earthshaking power continues as the storm moves south over Israel as far as the desert of Kadesh. The power of the “voice of Yahweh” in the storm moves “all in his temple [to] cry ‘Glory!’”
Scholars have noted that this Psalm bears a striking resemblance to ancient Canaanite hymns of praise to Baal, the god of thunder, rain, and, thus, fertility. Some opine that Israel has simply borrowed one of those pagan hymns to praise their God. But given the Old Testament’s universal antipathy toward Baal, it is more likely that Psalm 29 is a polemical piece against Baal. “So you think Baal is the god of thunder? Well, listen to the storm carefully and you will hear Yahweh, not Baal. And Baal must join the rest of the gods and all of creation in Yahweh’s temple, crying ‘Glory!’”
But Psalm 29 is not only a polemical poem; it is also, and primarily, a pastoral poem, as we hear in verses 10-11. Here the storm is over. It is the calm after the storm and, rather than surveying the damages produced by it, Israel basks in the blessed reminder that their powerful God is the King who “gives strength to his people and blesses them with peace.” When all is said and done, when the storms of life have done their worst, “Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood; Yahweh is enthroned as King forever.” Whether “the flood” is the primeval waters of Genesis 1 or the cataclysm (that is the actual word in the Greek translation of verse 10) of Genesis 6-8 or the local flooding caused by the storm that has just passed, Israel is assured that their covenant God is King even of the storm. What a comfort!
And what a problem for us in a world awash in storms and floods and earthquakes and fires! In Psalm 29 the storm causes all creation to cry “Glory!” In our world today, all the cataclysms cause us to cry “Mercy!” The idea of God being in the storms that have devastated so many lives is problematic to say the least. I recall Pat Robertson’s ill-advised comment a while back that a certain hurricane was God’s punishment on the United States for its immorality. I doubt many preachers would go that far in their interpretation of natural events. But how shall we preach Psalm 29 today?
Shall we say that the voice of God is heard in the storms? I can’t think of a better way to turn people away from God. Even if we carefully distinguish between the natural causes of such events and say that God uses them to speak to us, we will run the risk of making God seem like a celestial bully. It is hard to talk about these things; arguing is mostly fruitless.
The best response to the theodicy question is theophany, as God did with Job. God didn’t so much explain himself to Job when Job challenged God to answer for the sufferings of Job. Instead, God simply showed up in all his power and glory. No reasons were given; the revelation of God was enough to still Job’s questions.
That, of course, is exactly what we have in the story of Jesus’s baptism– a revelation, a theophany, God showing up, not merely in a voice echoing over the waters or a dove gliding down from heaven, but mostly in a man who was the beloved Son of God. God speaks to our cries for mercy in the storms by becoming one of us and entering the storm himself. To people who wonder what kind of God could send/allow such terrible storms as have hit the US, the story of Jesus’ baptism answers that it is the God who suffered in the person of Jesus Christ.
From the darkness of the storm over Calvary, God said, “I have not left the world to suffer. I have come into the world precisely to suffer for the world.” The baptism of Jesus was the public beginning of the journey to the cross. The voice of God called over the waters that this humble Jew was in fact the Lord of glory come into this world to reign in strength and peace.
It is not accidental that this Psalm ends with the word, Shalom. That is what the voice of God finally says over the troubled waters of life. Shalom, peace, be still.
Though it is a bit dicey to pursue the role of God in natural disasters, C.S. Lewis gives us a little help in his famous quotation about how God speaks to us. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain; it is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (The Problem of Pain)
In the classic film, “Forest Gump,” Lt. Dan Taylor is a Vietnam veteran who has lost both legs in battle. He wanted to die on the battlefield, but Forest saved his life, a good deed that made Lt. Dan furious. After a long separation, Lt. Dan shows up at Forest’s shrimp boat and offers to become first mate. Out to sea they go with Lt. Dan still furious. In one scene he is perched on the highest part of the boat, screaming at God, daring God to come and get him. As we see the horizon getting darker and darker, Forest says, “Just then, God showed up.” It was Hurricane Carmen. Lt. Dan was never the same after meeting God in that storm.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 7, 2018
Psalm 29 Commentary