Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 26, 2024

Psalm 29 Commentary

The Revised Common Lectionary assigns Psalm 29 for the Year B Trinity Sunday but it is by no means clear what this ode to the power of God as seen in a thunderstorm has to do with the Triunity of God.  Granted there are actually not a lot of (if any) Old Testament passages that point to the Trinity in any direct way.

Yes, some try to make some Trinitarian hay out of God’s locution in Genesis 1 about “Let us make humankind in our image” but most scholars concluded long ago that this was simply an example of what is called the “royal we.”  Kings and sovereigns when making significant declarations would frequently refer to themselves in this plural manner.  The author and final redactor of Genesis surely was not trying to point to some curious plurality of persons within God, and those who first heard and later read Genesis 1 would also not have puzzled over this in that they were familiar with the “royal we” plural form of address for kings.  And since creating humanity in the image of God is perhaps the most important declaration in the Genesis 1 creation account, it makes sense that a lofty form of royal rhetoric would be employed by God at that juncture.

And then there are those attempts by certain Bible translators to tip a hat in the Trinitarian direction when they capitalize now and again the word for “spirit.”  Nothing in the text of various Bible verses—especially in the Psalms but elsewhere as well—necessitates that move, however.  Take the line from Psalm 51: “Take not your Holy Spirit from me.”  The original Hebrew has no capital or lower-case letters and so it really should just be “your holy spirit.”  Biblical writers used “God” and “spirit” synonymously and interchangeably and so those references to “spirit” are once again not some attempt to parse God out into a plurality of distinct persons.

Yes, perhaps in retrospect we could suggest that under the inspiration of the divine Person of the Holy Spirit biblical writers sometimes conveyed more than they knew or were conscious of but it is still a little dodgy to try to impose a Trinitarian frame overtop of their writing.

Be that as it may, there is not even any of that in Psalm 29!  There is here no “let us” language nor any chance to try to point to the Holy Spirit in that the word “spirit” does not occur in this psalm.  So perhaps the tie in to Trinity Sunday—if there is a tie at all anyway—is the majesty of who God is.  Yes, that majestic God is now understood by Christians as being a Trinity of distinct yet utterly unified Persons but that only enhances this God’s awesomeness and the mysterious sense that God always defies our attempts to encapsulate him.  Notice how Psalm 29 is paired in the First Reading with Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6 and his stunned apprehension of the sheer holiness of God.

For Psalm 29 that fierce sense of the majesty of God is channeled through God’s being seen in a powerful thunderstorm.  Thunder, lightning, wind, and the way the natural world can seem literally to be rocked by the sheer power of a storm: all of these things are said to be manifestations of God and mostly of God’s almighty voice.

Perhaps many of us have had occasion to witness the approach of a storm over a large body of water.  Having lived my whole life near Lake Michigan, I have seen gathering storms over that vast lake (people who come from Europe and see Lake Michigan cannot believe it is called a “lake” since it looks more like an ocean from the shore!).  Such storms begin slowly.  The western horizon out in the direction of Wisconsin begins to darken.  The darkness spreads and you begin to hear the first rumbles of thunder (sound travels remarkably well across water so you hear the thunder out over a lake much earlier than over land).  Then the lightning begins to appear, a chill wind kicks up and before you know it, the full power of the storm is upon you.  (It is a good time to get off the beach too!)  The waves kick up, the thunder is loud and seems to echo forever, bolts of lightning strike the water and the temperature can drop 25 degrees in mere minutes.  Hail sometimes falls.

All in all, a fearsome, even frightening and dangerous spectacle.  But to the psalmist it is all testament to the awesome power of Israel’s God.  And since a lot of psalms have a bit of a polemic embedded within them, so also Psalm 29 suggests that all heavenly beings and everyone else need to ascribe power and majesty to Israel’s God alone.  Yahweh is the King forever sitting upon the cosmic throne and so this Yahweh King is not just a local God but the one and only God to whom all creatures and people should direct their praise and worship.

So perhaps as a Trinity Sunday passage, Psalm 29 can indeed serve a good purpose.

Illustration Idea

Although I have referred to this Fred Craddock sermon before, the reflections here on Psalm 29 warrant revisiting what may have been one of his final sermons as delivered years ago at the Festival of Homiletics.  Craddock was dealing with hyperbole in Scripture and particularly the line from the end of John’s Gospel where John claimed that if everything Jesus had done and said were written down, the world could not contain the books that would be written.  An over the top hyperbolic image if ever there were one but it gave Craddock the occasion to wish that we would have more hyperbole in preaching today instead of the neat, tidy, folded at the corners sermons we too often hear in which the preacher gives the impression he had walked all the way around God and taken pictures.

There is no mystery to such preaching.  The God depicted in such sermons just does not have any size or majesty to him.  Craddock used multiple examples of where we do still employ hyperbole, especially in our songs and hymns:

“O for a thousand tongues to sing!”

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.”

Jesus used hyperbole well.  “When you have an entire tree sticking out of your own eye . . .”

Old-time frontier preachers were skilled at going over the top.  One such preacher tackled the impossible and tried to explain eternity to the congregation.  “Imagine a very large and high granite mountain.  And then imagine that once every 100 years a bird flies by that mountain and nicks the mountain with the tip of its wing.  Well, when that bird has succeeded in leveling that granite mountain to the ground, in eternity that’s before breakfast.”

Perhaps Psalm 29 is also a call to not try to domesticate our wild and fierce Almighty God.  We need to preach a Triune God of profound power and mystery.  We need to be stunned by this God more often than we are, and preaching ought to help enliven the sense for the sheer wonder of the fullness of God.


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