Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 13, 2018
Psalm 47 Commentary
This is the last Sunday of the Easter season, but I want to focus on Christ’s Ascension, which some parts of the church celebrated last Thursday. If your church did that, you can skip what follows. But if your church is among the many churches that had no special service in celebration of that Ascension, I urge you to consider preaching on Psalm 47. (Yes, I know that the Lectionary reading for today is Psalm 1, but it makes more liturgical sense to deal with Psalm 47 which was the reading for Ascension Day.) Psalm 47 makes claims about the Ascended Lord that every Christian needs to hear, especially given the shape of the world today.
I want to focus on the Ascension of Christ because it is not a footnote in the Story; it is the climax of that Story. As one scholar said, it is the conclusion of the Christ event in Christian theology, because the Incarnate Son of God has been resurrected and glorified and has now taken his proper place at the right hand of God as the Lord of Creation. How can we treat such an event lightly?
The church has chosen Psalm 47 for its Ascension Day reading for an obvious reason—the occurrence of the word “ascended” in verse 5 of many translations. Even the alternate reading of “gone up” fits the day well. Purists will correctly maintain that the Psalmist had no idea that the Messiah would one day ascend into heaven after dying on a cross and rising from the dead. I can hear my Old Testament professor friend shouting, “Pay attention to the original meaning of the text.” To which I say, “Amen!” And I’m convinced that when we do that, we’ll see the Ascension of Jesus in an even brighter light.
Verse 5 alerts us to the fact that something has just happened, something that moves all Israel and, indeed, all the world to clap their hands, shout for joy, and sing God’s praise. “God has ascended.” But to what event is that referring? Many scholars think Psalm 47 was part of a liturgy at a New Year’s festival. Some go to elaborate lengths to describe that festival. They envision the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence, being carried up the Temple steps into the Holy of Holies, an enactment of God’s enthronement after his victory over his enemies. Think of David dancing with all his might before the Ark as it returned to Israel after a season in Philistine territory (II Samuel 6:15-19) as an example of such jubilation before the Temple was ever built. Other scholars are less specific in identifying the event that is alluded to in Psalm 47:5.
Whatever precipitated this Psalm, it led to an outpouring of praise, because it reminded Israel of what God had done for them in the distant past. Verses 3 and 4 remember the conquest and possession of the Promised Land; “he subdued nations under us… [and] chose our inheritance for us….” Israel was the special object of Yahweh’s love, “the pride of Jacob, whom he loved.”
But Yahweh’s kingship was not limited to little Israel. Indeed, the real point of all the praise in Psalm 47 is that Israel’s God is “the great King over all the earth,” a phrase that is repeated twice. God has gone up to his throne, not only in the Temple where he dwells symbolically over all Israel, but also to his throne in heaven where he rules over all the nations. “God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne (verse 8).” Indeed, “the nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God…(verse 9). ”
There are a couple of interesting textual points in that last verse. For one thing, the little word “as” is not found in the Hebrew. If it were, it would suggest that the pagan nations will become part of the people of Israel. Not only will they be part of the praising assembly, but they will completely identify with Israel, having become part of God’s covenant people. Certainly, that is part of the Messianic hope as outlined in the latter part of Isaiah and spelled out in the New Testament (cf. Galatians 3 and Revelations 5 and 7). But here in Psalm 47, the lack of that word “as” gives a slightly less glorious vision. The nations will stand side by side with Israel in praising the Ascended One.
The other textual note on verse 9 has more potential homiletical punch to it. The word translated “kings” can also be read as “shields.” That suggests that all the weapons and symbols of power belong to God. Echoing the claim heard frequently in the Psalter, this reading urges us not to put our trust in princes or horses or the legs of man, that is, in military and political power. This reading of Psalm 47 will enable you to speak the Word to the powers that be, who seem bent on an arms buildup as our only hope for safety and security.
The memory of God’s favor to Israel and the certainty that their God is the great King over all the earth leads to one thing in Psalm 47—praise, loud, raucous praise. “Clap your hands, all your nations, shout to God with cries of joy.” That sounds like the kind of open throated, full bodied cheering we see at major sporting events around the world.
But it’s not just wildly enthusiastic adulation (though uptight Calvinists like me need to hear a word like this); it’s also singing, beautiful singing with full orchestral accompaniment (at least the brass). Four times in verse 6 and another time in verse 7, we are called to sing praises to God, to our King, the King of all the earth. This anticipates the mass choir of Revelation 5 and 7 praising the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb. Clap, shout, sing—what fun!
But the fun really begins when we focus on the Lamb of Revelation 5 and 7, that is, when we connect this Psalm to Jesus’ Ascension. The nations around Israel would have scoffed at the claim of Psalm 47 and its call to praise Yahweh as the great King of all the earth. At certain times in Israel’s history, many Israelites would have struggled with that claim and call as well. In the same way, many in our world laugh at the idea that Jesus is the great King. Even some Christians struggle to utter the kind of praise voiced in Psalm 47.
Where is the evidence that Jesus is the great King over all the earth? It is in his Ascension. In the lectionary reading from Acts 1, Jesus’ disciples asked the newly Risen Christ about his Kingdom. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” You said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, and we have seen your victory over the forces of sin, Satan, and death. Show us the kingdom here on earth in action, in visible, political ways in Israel, among the nations.”
But Jesus gave them a surprising answer. “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” Then you will see my Kingdom come. You will see that I am the great King over all the earth. And then he demonstrated his Kingship before their very eyes. “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” “God has ascended….”
That was, in fact, exactly what the early Christians confessed and what the church has continued to believe through the ages. The Yahweh of Psalm 47 descended into human history and became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. And now, after finishing his saving work, he has gone back to the throne from which he came.
The Ascension of Jesus points to the deep meaning of the events of Jesus’ life. This solitary Jew, rising into the sky like some modern-day fictional superhero, was literally God returning to the throne at the center of the universe. His ascension shows the world-wide, history-changing significance of that man named Jesus. Which is about as outlandish as the citizens of Sierra Leon or Nicaragua or the United States claiming that their ruler is the Great King over all the earth.
No wonder so many don’t believe the Gospel. The greater wonder is that so many do. We do, because, as Acts 1 says, they saw him go up with their own eyes. The Risen Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This Sunday, call your congregation to a renewed faith in the Ascended Jesus, the great King over all the earth. Encourage them to clap and shout and sing his praise. Urge them to be his witnesses to the ends of earth, so that the nations can join their praise. And in this frightening world, comfort them with Paul’s soaring expansion of this Psalm in Ephesians 1:20-23. God’s power has “raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
Scholars have tried to reconstruct the event that led to the writing and reciting of Psalm 47. They envision some sort of procession, a religious parade with Yahweh at its center. That made me think of President Trump’s proposal that the United States needs a military parade like the one he saw in France and the ones we all see on TV from North Korea. Some applauded the idea as a fitting tribute to our military. Others blasted it as an extravagantly wasteful exercise in self-congratulation. Whatever we may think of Trump’s parade, it is surely optional. The U.S. will be just fine without it. The same cannot be said of the parade envisioned in Psalm 47 and fulfilled in Christ’s Ascension. His ascent before the eyes of his apostles was an essential part of the Gospel. We should stand at attention, clap and shout and sing, and acclaim him as King, at least once a year.
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