Monthly Archives: December 2021

Psalm 68 God as Warrior and Protector of the Powerless

Fredrick Arthur Bridgman, Pharaoh’s Army Engulfed by the Red Sea (1900) oil on canvas

Psalm 68

<To the leader. Of David. A Psalm. A Song.>
1 Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him.
2 As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.
3 But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy.
4 Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds — his name is the LORD — be exultant before him.
5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
6 God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land.
7 O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, Selah
8 the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
9 Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad; you restored your heritage when it languished;
10 your flock found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.
11 The Lord gives the command; great is the company of those who bore the tidings:
12 “The kings of the armies, they flee, they flee!” The women at home divide the spoil,
13 though they stay among the sheepfolds — the wings of a dove covered with silver, its pinions with green gold.
14 When the Almighty scattered kings there, snow fell on Zalmon.
15 O mighty mountain, mountain of Bashan; O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan!
16 Why do you look with envy, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that God desired for his abode, where the LORD will reside forever?
17 With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place.
18 You ascended the high mount, leading captives in your train and receiving gifts from people, even from those who rebel against the LORD God’s abiding there.
19 Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Selah
20 Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belongs escape from death.
21 But God will shatter the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways.
22 The Lord said, “I will bring them back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
23 so that you may bathe your feet in blood, so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share from the foe.”
24 Your solemn processions are seen, O God, the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary —
25 the singers in front, the musicians last, between them girls playing tambourines:
26 “Bless God in the great congregation, the LORD, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!”
27 There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead, the princes of Judah in a body, the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.
28 Summon your might, O God; show your strength, O God, as you have done for us before.
29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings bear gifts to you.
30 Rebuke the wild animals that live among the reeds, the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples. Trample under foot those who lust after tribute; scatter the peoples who delight in war.
31 Let bronze be brought from Egypt; let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God.
32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; sing praises to the Lord, Selah
33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens; listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel; and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel; he gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!

The rigorous scholarship of the 20th century which was intent on setting the individual psalms (along with the rest of scripture) within its historical context would argue that the Hebrew language used and the theology of this psalm are similar to Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, and Judges 5: which are thought to be some of the most ancient pieces of the Bible. This Psalm does have fifteen words which occur nowhere else in the Hebrew scriptures and numerous other rare words (NIB IV: 944) and even in the English translations you can sense a more primal way of thinking about enemies in language that would seem bloodthirsty and non-religious (or perhaps some more primal form of religion). Yet, perhaps much of the discomfort with this psalm comes from those who, like me, are relatively privileged since this psalm was one of the favorites of the African American church tradition.

The picture of God throughout this psalm is of God the divine warrior who triumphs over the enemies of God’s people. Those who oppose God are no more substantial to this divine warrior that smoke or wax before a fire. ‘God who rides upon the clouds’ is a description used by the Canaanites for their deity Baal, but here the psalmist adopts this language multiple times to refer to the God of Israel. The LORD God as a divine warrior has apparently stripped the surrounding deities of their titles and has assumed lordship over them. Yet, in all the power and might of this divine warrior, the God of Israel is also the father of the fatherless and the defender of the widows and vulnerable. God’s might is directed at providing a future for the powerless and a land toward those who had once been desolate and imprisoned.

The action of God going out before the people and marching through the wilderness recalls both the Exodus and the long process of the people of Israel claiming the promised land through conflict with the numerous kings of the nations in Numbers through Judges. The earth and the heavens react to the movement of God in both destructive (earthquakes, heavens pouring down rain) and renewing (showering rain to renew the languishing ground). The LORD God of Israel is a force of nature but also the leader of a great host which routes the armies which oppose Israel. The women are able to divide the spoil of these once mighty armies in safety and wealth seems to be flowing down as if it were coming from the feathers of a dove falling to the ground.

The LORD God has not chosen the higher and larger mountains of Zalmon or Bashan to be God’s dwelling place. Instead the LORD has descended in power on Jerusalem with an immense army of chariots (the strongest military unit of the time) that could overwhelm any king’s military might. Here the language turns primal, with the LORD shattering the heads of his enemies and allowing his followers to bathe their feet in blood. Just as the psalmist coopted language previously used for Baal to talk about the God of Israel, now the images of a bloodthirsty victory which, “clearly reflects the traditions of the greater ancient Near East” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 550) is used to graphically illustrate God’s complete victory over the nations opposed to Israel.

Yet, almost immediately after this primal language about wading in blood and dogs having their share of the foe is a procession to worship. Singers and musicians, men and women, the entire congregation of Israel moves toward the temple. The implication is that the other nations also join in this procession to present their offerings to the conquering God of Israel. The tributes come from as far away as Egypt and Ethiopia as the divine warrior lays down the weapons of conquest and initiates a time of peace where God reigns over Israel, over the heavens and over all the earth.

The psalm deals polemically with the gods of the surrounding peoples. The people who oppose the God of Israel are conquered and the titles of their gods now are lifted up in tribute to the LORD God. Beth Tanner says truthfully, “This is dangerous theology in the wrong hands.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 551) In the hands of the powerful it could be used as an authorization for a bloody extermination of one’s enemies and the eradication of their culture and beliefs. There are bellicose voices today that adopt bloodthirsty language to excite their followers and to baptize their bloody beliefs in the approving smile of their gods of power and might. Yet, one must always remember in the use of this psalm that the divine warrior is the father of the fatherless and the protector of the widows and the vulnerable. As Cheryl Townsend Gilkes notes: within the African American tradition Psalm 68 “connects a personal God who cares about the individual’s circumstances with a powerful liberating God.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 552) For people who have never known a life that needs liberation from a powerful oppressor often backed up by both formal and informal networks of power these words may seem primal and bloodthirsty, but for those who long for liberation the only God who can be a father to the fatherless and protector of the vulnerable is a divine warrior who has enough power to displace those who prey upon the weak.

Review of American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 3: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

American Pastoral is a moving novel which follows the destruction of the world of Seymour (Swede) Levov in the aftermath of his daughter’s bombing of the Rimrock post office and general store in protest of the Vietnam War. Swede Levov is the good-looking high school multi-sport star who eventually joins the U.S. Marines at the end of World War II and then returns home, marries Miss New Jersey, takes over the family glove business and builds a successful life. Although the beautiful couple come from different backgrounds (Swede’s family is Jewish while his wife Dawn is Irish Catholic) the manage to construct a seemingly perfect environment to raise their one daughter, Merry. Yet, their daughter rejects everything about their family life and eventually becomes a part of a violent anti-American group which opposes the actions of the United States in Vietnam and the American capitalistic worldview. Merry plants a bomb and disappears leaving behind a wrecked family.

Swede Levov loved his work, his house, his family, and his life. He attempts to encounter life with an ‘expansive blessing of openness and vigor conferred by his hyperoptimism.’ He is a statuesque protagonist whose experience on the sports field, the Marine Corp, and business have shaped him to continually bear the burdens of others. When his daughter’s actions plunge his wife into a deep depression and shakes his community he attempts to maintain a firm foundation for his wife, his parents, his business, and his missing daughter. When he finally encounters his daughter years later and sees the wreckage of her life that he cannot save her from, he also begins to see the places where his own life and values have come undone. He stands powerless as the foundations of the life he so carefully tended are torn asunder to the delight of some of the more nihilistic characters in the book.

This is another book that is well written, and I can see why it is a part of the Time Magazine top 100 list. Many of these books tend towards a nihilistic and fatalistic perspective on society and humanity (also not surprising based on Lev Grossman’s writing) and seem to rail against the hyperoptimism of characters like Swede Levov. I really like the character of Swede and could identify with him in many ways. Even though I knew that the book was a story of the fall of the ‘golden child’ I wanted him to succeed. I may have read this book at some point in the past because some of the scenes were familiar. Philip Roth does a good job of character development even if he sometimes goes off on rambling almost stream of consciousness tangents that can make the work difficult to follow at times.

Psalm 67 A Blessing For The Earth

Psalm 67

<To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.>

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
 2 that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
       3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
                4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the       nations upon earth. Selah
       5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
 6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
7 May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The Jewish[1] sense of being chosen by God involves a paradox between the universalism of God’s bounty over all the earth and the particularism of their specific role and responsibility within God’s greater action on behalf of the world and the nations. They are to be a ‘treasured possession, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation,’ (Exodus 19: 5-6) but like their ancestor Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12: 3) Central to the theology of the psalms, and the entire scriptures, is the audacious claim that the particular God they worship is the God of all creation. This small nation, which are descendants of slaves in Egypt, and never emerges as major player on the world stage somehow trusts that the covenantal life they live will be a witness for all the nations to see and it will testify to the universal reign of the God they worship.

The psalm is structured as a chiasm[2] with verse four as the center. This central point focuses on the universal reign and worship of their God. This universal reign is to be demonstrated by the praise of all the peoples. This idea is echoed in several other places in scripture either in relation to the God of Israel (Exodus 9:16, Psalm 22: 27-28, Isaiah 2: 2-4; 19: 23-34; 49: 5-7) or Jesus. (Matthew 28:18, Philippians 2: 10-11) The petition at the beginning of the psalm that God may bless us (echoing the priestly blessing of Numbers 6: 24-26 but now placing it in the voice of the people rather than the priest) is paired with the hope that through this blessing God’s way make be known upon the earth and God’s saving power among the nations. The Psalm mirrors this request by announcing that God has blessed and the earth yields its harvest (increase) and in God’s continued action of blessing the people of Israel the ends of the earth will revere God.

This idea of election or calling of the people of God for the sake of the rest of the earth makes a more gracious view of those who believe and act differently available for the chosen people. God’s blessing on the earth and the nations does not depend upon the conversion or subjugation of those nations. Even if these Gentiles or unbelievers do not ‘know’ that it is God at work, the covenant people know and celebrate this. This is a part of the mystery of God’s strange and gracious way upon the earth. God can act through a foreigner like Cyrus in Isaiah 45: 1-5 to bring about a blessing for the covenant people. As Jesus can state in Matthew’s gospel, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5: 44-45) These followers of God are to live in gratitude for the blessings that God sends both to them and the unrighteous, to those who are a part of the covenant people and the ones beyond the boundaries of their faith or nation. They continue to pray for God’s blessings not only on themselves but also for the whole world. God’s special consideration of the covenant people somehow, in the mystery of God’s steadfast love, is a part of God’s establishing justice for all the people and a way in which God provides guidance for all the earth.


[1] This also applies to the Christian sense of being chosen or calling.

[2] A Chiasm is a poetic and literary structure where ideas and often vocabulary is mirrored around a central point. I have indented the psalm to show this structure where vs. 1-2 are mirrored by 6-7, vs. 3 and 5 are identical copies and verse four stands as the focal point.

Psalm 66 Formed by Steadfast Love

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Psalm 66

<To the leader. A Song. A Psalm.>

1 Make a joyful[1] noise to God, all the earth;
2 sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise.
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.
4 All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.” Selah
5 Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.
6 He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him,
7 who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations — let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah
8 Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,
9 who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah
16 Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue.
18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
19 But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.
20 Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

For the Hebrew people the Exodus is the defining narrative that informs their life as the people of God. Without God’s action to bring them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land they are not a people of their own, merely slaves of the great Egyptian empire. Central to their faith is the trust that God acted in mighty ways to deliver their ancestors in the past and that God continues to act in ways to protect, preserve, purify, and refine so that they might be a treasured possession, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19: 5-6) The people of God participate with the rest of creation in bearing witness to not only the mighty deeds of God but the careful formation of this people into something precious.

The previous psalm ended with the valleys and meadows shouting for joy and singing and now Psalm 66 begins with the imperative for all the earth to shout to God. God’s name and God’s power are lifted up as reasons for that praise and both friend and foe recognize the power of God. The initial stanza of this psalm joins together the voices of humanity with the voices of the creation in an exultant praise of God’s glory and strength while the second stanza invites the hearer to learn the specific actions that the psalmist views as praiseworthy. The invitation to come and see God’s awesome deeds takes the listener to the exodus narrative where God turned the Red Sea into dry land for Israel to cross and, before their entry into the promised land, God does the same with the Jordan river. These actions to bring the people out of Egypt and into the promised land demonstrate for the speaker God’s rule over the nations and God’s ability to execute justice throughout the world. The rebellious ones find themselves overwhelmed by God’s judgment like Korah and the leaders he assembled to confront Moses. (Numbers 16)

The work of God is not completed with the rescue of the people but it continues with the formation of this people to become the holy nation they are set aside to be. The other nations are invited to observe the way that the God of Israel is at work testing and refining the people, training them as one would train an athlete or soldier by giving them additional burdens to bear, and passing them through fire and water that they might be who they were created to be. As Beth Tanner can observe, “The world is eavesdropping on Israel’s formation as God’s people.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 535) The speaker does not resent this formation but rather praises God because of it. God has shaped and formed them to be something special and they respond with an abundant thanksgiving offering of fatlings, rams, bulls, and goats are offered. Presumably this type of offering would take place within a great communal feast celebrating God’s provision and telling again the story of God’s mighty deeds through the Exodus.

The psalm concludes with a move from a highlighting of what God has done for the people to centering on God’s answering of the prayer of the speaker. God has formed the speaker to be pure of heart and God also hears the prayers of this treasured one. God’s promised steadfast love has been there when the psalmist needed it and God has demonstrated that God is trustworthy in God’s relation to the individual as well as the people. Living in the covenant with this God has brought the psalmist to the point where they shout out joyfully with all creation for the mighty work of their God.

This is a psalm that speaks to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would many years later call ‘costly grace.’ The grace (or steadfast love) in this psalm chooses the people without any worthiness of their own, but it also tests and tries the recipient so that they may become something precious. This steadfast love is at work in the work of creation, redemption, and sanctification-forming from slaves and sinners a holy people, a treasured possession, and a priestly kingdom. It is a faith which allows the faithful one to understand the struggles they pass through as a part of their formation to be who they were intended by God to be. It is a faith that can point to God’s mighty deeds in the past but also acknowledges the way that God has given heed to the words of the faithful one’s prayer. Perhaps one of the gifts in this psalm is the way that the steadfast love of God is seen at the conclusion, after the mighty deeds and the passing through fire and water. As Bonhoeffer stated in Discipleship, “Grace as presupposition is grace at its cheapest; grace as a conclusion is costly grace.” (DBWE 4:51) Perhaps it is only looking back through the struggles that one can appreciate the manner in which both the struggles and the mighty works together have been a part of God’s patient formation of the people and the individual through the ever-present steadfast love of God.

[1] This is the Hebrew verb rua (shout) which appears at the end of the last verst of Psalm 65