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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.