Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 4, 2018
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c Commentary
Psalm 147 is the second Psalm in the so-called Hallelujah chorus that ends the book of Psalms. It is part of the final triumphant response of God’s people to their difficult experience with God in a hostile world. Gone now are all the “why’s” and “how long’s,” the threats of enemies and the crises of faith. All of Israel’s attempts to worship God properly in the light of his grace now come together in pure praise. The final word to all of God’s people is, “Praise the Lord.” When it’s all said and done, we can (and should) praise the Lord because of his cosmic lordship and his covenant care. That interweaving of cosmos and covenant in Psalm 147 is an echo of Isaiah 40-66, Psalms 33 and 104, and Job 37-39.
Not surprisingly, this post-Exilic Psalm opens and closes with praise to Yahweh for his special care for Israel. He has brought them back from exile and he has given them his word (Torah) which marked them as unique in all the earth. Many scholars think that Psalm 147 was composed for the Levitical choirs on the joyous occasion of the dedication of the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27-43). During that time of rebuilding after Exile, the rediscovery and public reading of Torah had been a crucial part of recovering Israel’s national identity. So, it’s not surprising that in its final words of praise, Israel should focus on Yahweh’s special mercies to Israel.
What is surprising is the counterpoint of Yahweh’s cosmic lordship. Words about God’s grace to the exiles who are brokenhearted and wounded (verses 2 and 3) are followed unexpectedly with the stunning claim that this tender God “determines the number of the stars and [even] calls them by name (verse 4).” Even though the ancient poet had only a rudimentary grasp of the immensity of the universe, he knew that this claim was literally incomprehensible; “his understanding has no limit (verse 5).” That soaring affirmation is followed by another assertion about God’s care for the humble of the earth (Israel), a care that will finally cast down their wicked enemies.
The second stanza of Psalm 147 opens (verse 7) with a call to worship that echoes verse 1, but here the focus is not first of all on God’s special care for Israel. Verses 8-9 praise God for his general provision for life on planet earth. “He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills.” In this way he provides food for dumb beasts and helpless baby birds.
Then in verses 10-11 the Psalmist turns back to Israel, with an implicit warning and an explicit promise. Before the Exile, Israel engaged in all kinds of political intrigue and military maneuvering to stave off the threats of the invaders from the north. But it didn’t work and, says God to his people, it won’t now. Your only hope is in Yahweh, who does not take “pleasure in the strength of the horse (the ancient battle tank or stealth bomber) or in the legs of a man (a reference to the foot soldier, the infantry).” Rather “Yahweh delights in those who fear him [and] put their hope in his unfailing love (the Hebrew there is hesed, the ubiquitous word for covenant faithfulness).” Only God’s special care will assure you of a blessed future.
That pattern of nature alternating with grace continues in the third and last stanza of Psalm 147, which the Lectionary ignores. In verses 12-20 the order is grace (Jerusalem’s gates are strengthened by Yahweh and Israel enjoys peace and prosperity), nature (God sends the snow and ice of winter, followed by the soft melting breezes of spring), and ends with grace (God gives Torah to his chosen people, thus distinguishing them from all other nations). Surely Israel has abundant reason to praise the Lord, even if they have had a difficult history with him.
What is the purpose of this interweaving of nature and grace, of God’s cosmic immensity and God’s covenant intimacy? At first read this juxtaposition is jarring, but on closer scrutiny it is positively joyful. Thus, the Psalm opens with the joyful exclamation, “How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!” This interweaving of themes is designed to gives us a unified theology of divine sovereignty by placing God’s concern for his people and his control of the world side by side.
James Luther Mays puts it eloquently. After pointing out how the Psalm combines the cosmos with the covenant people to create a unified view of all reality, Mays writes as follows. ”The history of the community is a small part of reality, but the power that moves its course is the same that governs the stars. On the other hand, the processes of the world are vast, impersonal and uncaring, but the sovereignty at work in the world is the saving, caring God whom Israel had come to know in its history.”
All of this becomes relevant for the church today if we simply insert “church” for Israel and Jerusalem in the text. Even as God restored Israel and rebuilt Jerusalem, he will restore and rebuild a currently troubled and perhaps failing church. Even the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church that confesses “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The God who cares for the church is the God who counts and names the stars. He is willing in his covenant hesed and able by his cosmic power to save the church today as he spared Israel then.
Further, the emphasis on the word of the Lord at the end of the Psalm is a precursor to the Word made flesh in the New Testament. The Word of God puts the stars in place and names them all. The Word of God commands the seasons on earth. The Word of God gives clear direction and identity to those who fear the Lord and keep his commandments. And, best of all, the Word of God came down to earth from beyond the stars, became part of the earth by taking on a human body, and died for the sins of those who did not live by Torah and even for those who never knew it.
In words that expand on Psalm 147, Colossians 1 gives a stunning description of the Word made flesh, a picture of both cosmic lordship and covenant care. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him…. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross… to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation….”
The immensity of the universe is not an argument against the existence of God, as some claim. Rather it is an argument for his ability to do what he promises for his people. In Psalm 147 God’s immensity and his intimacy are inter-woven in a way that anticipates the wonder of the Incarnation.
I wrote that last paragraph as an introduction to an idea that might help you highlight the theme of Psalm 147. For the last several decades one of the most popular arguments against the existence of God has been a theory proposed by Nicholas Everitt in his book, The Non-Existence of God. In what has been called “the argument from scale,” Everitt claims that the sheer size of the universe is evidence against God’s existence. Here’s the formal argument:
- If the God of classical theism existed, with the purpose traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale, i.e., one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporaly and spatially.
- The world does not display a human scale.
- Therefore, there is evidence against the hypothesis that the God of classical theism exists with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him.
In other words, if God really cared about humans as the Bible says he does, he would have created a universe more suited to human thriving. The sheer size of the universe proves that a God who cares about humans does not, in fact, exist.
Now, of course, this argument presumes that this huge universe is not good for human life, and that is far from proven. Indeed, some scientists argue that the sheer size is exactly what was needed to create the conditions on earth upon which human life depends. And the argument assumes that the world was created purely for human flourishing, an assertion that the Bible never makes. Yes, we are the image of God on earth and, thus, assigned with ruling it in his place. But that biblical teaching does not mean that “it’s all about us.” In fact, it’s all about God.
We could argue more on logical and theological grounds with the argument from scale, but I mention it here not to disprove it. Rather it is a stark reminder of how life looks to people who reject the interweaving of cosmos and covenant that runs through Psalm 147. For those who trust Yahweh and his incarnate Son, the immensity of the universe is an argument in favor of trusting God. Not only is he willing to restore and rebuild our crumbling lives, but he is fully able to do that because the stars and the seasons, the ruins of Jerusalem and the baby ravens are in his hands. The argument from scale points to the cross where the Almighty God spread out his arms and embraced the cosmos, so that he might “reconcile to himself all things… on earth and in heaven…. (Col. 1:20).
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