Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 9, 2022
Psalm 29 Commentary
Psalm 29 is a favorite of the Revised Common Lectionary. Indeed, if you search the Sermon Commentary Library here on CEP, you will find not fewer than ten such commentaries from recent years. Psalm 29 comes up most every year on the Baptism of our Lord Sunday after Epiphany and it pops up here and there at other times of the church year too. If you have not preached on Psalm 29 in a while, then this commentary will be fresh and new to you. If you make a habit of preaching on Psalm 29, some of what follows may feel familiar in case you have consulted the CEP website before on this poem. But perhaps something fresh will pop out at you even so. But if nothing here strikes you as interesting, please do consult our Sermon Commentary Library for Psalm 29 commentaries by also my colleagues Stan Mast and Doug Bratt.
As I noted one other year, my Mom has always had a fear of storms of any kind. We used to joke about the fact that if ever there was a Severe Thunderstorm Warning or a Tornado Watch, you would soon see Mom’s purse on the top step of the stairs leading to the basement in case we had to flee down there for safety. (I was never sure how having her purse would help but maybe she thought that if the house was flattened, she’d still have a credit card or something). In any event, this wariness of storms got instilled in me and I seem to have passed it along to my daughter.
My wife on the other hand revels in big storms. Nothing could thrill her like watching a big storm roll in over an Iowa prairie or coming off Lake Michigan. She is no more a fan of lightning strikes, felled trees onto a house, or other storm damage but short of that, a whopping storm is a spectator sport for my wife.
Psalm 29 is an ode to a thunderstorm. But this poem is not just that. The primary aim here is to move through the storm to the Lord of the storm, to the King of Creation, to the one, only true, sovereign God: Yahweh. As such, Psalm 29, for all its lyrical and poetic beauty, is actually a fairly feisty piece of polemic or argumentation.
This psalm throws down the gauntlet of challenge to some of the other religions of the Ancient Near East–religions that claimed that the forces of nature are gods and goddesses in their own right. Psalm 29 reveals the falseness of those idolatrous claims by saying that the God of Israel is the One who creates all those wonders. More, he’s the one who is greater than them all. So in a way you could read this psalm as a rebuke to those who worshiped the creation instead of the Creator.
As such, Psalm 29 walks a fine line. This is the only Old Testament text that so extensively identifies God directly with what people today might call “natural phenomena.” The thunder simply is the voice of God, the lightning just is the strike of God’s voice, the wind is the effective speech of God that is so stunning, it twists even the mightiest of oaks the way a child might mold Playdoh. This is indeed the treading of a fine line seeing as the Bible is always very careful to distinguish God the Creator from his creation.
But despite its close identification of God with the manifestations of a thunderstorm, Psalm 29 never crosses or blurs the boundary line between Creator and creation. Yahweh can be seen in, through, and by the thunderstorm, but he’s never just the same thing as the storm. The thunder, lightning, wind, and the very power of the storm are the effective presence of Yahweh in the same way that my voice through the loudspeakers here reveals my presence among the congregation whenever I preach somewhere. But I am not just the same thing as the sound from the speaker. So also God is manifest in the storm without being the same thing as the storm.
Because in the end Yahweh is seen as seated in glory on his throne above it all. Though something of his glory and strength can be seen in the storm, all of that is at best but the faintest of hints as to his true grandeur. It is almost as though the psalmist points to the magnificence of the storm and then says, “If you think that’s something, you ought to consider the God who doesn’t even break a sweat in producing such wonders!!”
To keep the ultimate focus on God, this psalm begins and ends with pairs of verses that direct us to think about Yahweh. Verses 1 and 2 open the psalm with a call to render Yahweh alone glory. Then in conclusion verses 10 and 11 redirect us to the heavenly court of Yahweh, where he rules as the supreme King. The problem most people have is they fail to see this God in their everyday lives. And so the middle portion of this psalm, verses 3-9, serves as a kind of illustration. Verse 2 ends with a call to worship Yahweh “in the splendor of his holiness.” That sounds kind of abstract. What exactly is “the splendor of holiness”? Holiness seems to be an invisible quality. You can no more “see” holiness than you can see kindness. You can’t see kindness the same way that you can see blonde hair or a tree. Kindness needs to be embodied by someone for you to see it.
So if I tell you to praise Leanne for the splendor of her kindness, you may respond, “What do you mean? What kindness?” And true enough, just looking at a picture of Leanne won’t reveal kindness to you. So perhaps I would then say, “Well, look over there, for instance. Do you see how Leanne plays so tenderly with the children in the emergency housing shelter? That’s just one example of what she’s like all the time. She’s got kindness all sewn up, and so she deserves to be respected for the splendor of her kindness. That’s what I mean.” Some things need to be illustrated, lived out in concrete ways, if they are to be seen at all.
So also in Psalm 29: the psalmist says that an example of God’s splendid holiness is a thunderstorm. It’s not the only example, but it is one example that can be seen and appreciated. It’s a window through which to glimpse the one true, almighty God of Israel. So the psalmist takes us to the edge of the ocean as a storm approaches. Many of us know this kind of experience. Sound travels exceedingly well over open bodies of water. And so even on a clear day on a beach somewhere, you may suddenly hear a distant rumble. Soon it gets closer, and as you look out over the water, the horizon gets dark.
Often it is astonishing how quickly the conditions can change. A chill wind kicks up as the thunderstorm begins its pumping effort to move the warm surface air up and the colder air down. Then flashes of lightning become visible, the thunder gets louder. The waves kick up and start to wash over the pier. Hail begins to bounce off the beach like popcorn. Trees may fall, lightning may split the taller trees unlucky enough to become the equalizing point for the storm’s electrical currents. And if you’ve ever been dangerously close to a lightning strike, then you know that Psalm 29’s description of the ground shaking is no exaggeration.
It’s an awesome, often even a frightening, spectacle (again: I do the “frightening” part of storms and my wife keys in on the “awesome” part!). But the real punch of this middle portion of Psalm 29 is not the tumultuous waves, the high-voltage lightning strikes, or the split oaks. More powerful than all of that is the conclusion of verse 9 when all who are in Yahweh’s temple cry, “Glory!” It is an amazing feat of faith to be able to see a display like this one but even so not be distracted from the Creator God whose glory the storm reveals. The response of this psalmist to this powerful storm is not, “Wow!” or “Awesome!” or “Cool!” or even “Yikes! Let’s take shelter!” No, the response of the faithful is simply, “Glory to God in the highest! A sliver of God’s nature just got paraded before our eyes!”
In verse 11 we are told that Yahweh gives strength to his people and this, then, leads to peace. A psalm that shook the foundations of the earth, a psalm that rattled the panes of our stained glass windows, a psalm that split oaks and caused us to plug our ears and cover our eyes from the noise and brightness of it all–this very psalm ends in peace. But this is not just the calm after the storm. This is not a depiction of that moment when suddenly the sun peeks back out, and the only sound you can hear is the dripping of water from leaves.
No, the last Hebrew word of Psalm 29 is shalom. This is not “peace and quiet” but rather the peace that passes all understanding. This is the inner peace you get when you know that all is right with the world. This is the kind of peace that descends on your soul after a beautiful evening out with your family to celebrate a 50th anniversary–a peace that produces a deep sigh of satisfaction as you reflect on how much you love your children and grandchildren, how much they, blessedly enough, love you, and so how good it is to be alive in this particular moment. That’s shalom. That’s the sense that all is well.
Shalom is the sense that things are as they ought to be. In this case, it’s the sense that things between you and the Almighty One of the cosmos are all right. And how do you get this peace, this sense that everything is in plumb and in proper alignment? You get it, verse 11 says, because Yahweh gives strength to his people. And after all that we’ve seen in this psalm, that little line ought to deliver quite a few gigawatts of juice to your soul!
Because in this psalm the strength of God is what we’ve seen laying waste to forests, boiling up oceans, cracking the air with sound, frying the atmosphere with heat hotter than even the sun itself. And this, this is what gets hard-wired into your soul! It’s a wonder we don’t disintegrate like a lightning-struck oak! It’s a wonder we’re not fried! But that was the fundamental mystery of Israel’s existence in the Old Testament: God dwelled in the midst of her and yet she was not consumed.
As has so often been noted in history, everybody tends to worship somebody or something. Psalm 29, like the rest of Scripture, suggests that we look to the grandeur of creation for our first, primary source of awe-inspiring experiences. But on a deeper, vastly more profound level, Psalm 29 calls us to bring those experiences into conversation with the Bible’s revelation that God loves us enough to want to save us by turning his strength loose in our souls. And it is that revelation that wrings from us the cry “Glory!”
Thunderstorms. incredible meteorological phenomena. Even as you read this sermon commentary, there are likely upwards of 2,000 thunderstorms going on across the earth. On average, each day 45,000 such storms occur. They are among the most powerful forces we know. In the simplest sense, but also in perhaps the most boring sense, a thunderstorm is little more than an atmosphere stabilizer. Acting like a giant heat machine, a thunderstorm forms when there is a lot of cold air sitting on top of a lot of warm air. In order to re-balance the atmosphere, a thunderstorm pumps the warm air upward and the cold air downward until the atmosphere evens out. Once that happens, the thunderstorm has achieved its stabilizing purpose and it dies out. In that sense thunderstorms exist only to destroy themselves.
But along the way these storms can and do produce some of this planet’s most stunning marvels because that shifting around of cold and warm air can produce incredible winds. Here and there an outflow produces a microburst that can puff down toward the ground at 100 mph–we’ve all seen those grim pictures of what such wind shear can do to airplanes. In addition to wind, thunderstorms also produce rain and even ice. The storm’s strong currents can supercool water particles to well below freezing, and if enough of this ice builds up, it falls to the ground as hail–though usually no larger than pebbles, some strong storms have produced so much ice that it falls in chunks as large as a grapefruit.
But there’s more: the forces within thunderstorm clouds are so great that particles of energy smash into one another with enough wallop to exchange electrical charges. So some particles get stripped of electrons while others add electrons, thus producing both positively charged particles and negatively charged particles. Typically the positive particles zoom to the top of the cloud and the negative ones sink to the bottom, creating a high-voltage chasm that equalizes itself through a fiery flash of lightning. Lasting only 30 microseconds, a bolt of lightning peaks out at 1,000,000,000,000 watts (one trillion) with a surface temperature of 20,000 degrees centigrade: that is three times hotter than the surface of the sun!
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