Tag Archives: praise

Revelation 7 Restraint and Praise

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Angels Restraining the Four Winds (woodcut)

Revelation 7

1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: 5 From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.

9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The previous chapter ends with the mighty of the earth brought low in their fear of the face of the one seated on the throne and the wrath of the lamb and we are left expecting the vengeance of God to be unveiled. What follows in this chapter is another great reversal of expectations: where wrath is expected we find restraint, where the mighty wonder who is able to stand we see a countless multitude standing before the throne, where seals have been broken and the mighty brought low now a lost people is sealed and lifted up. In a pattern that Revelation will repeat, we pause before the last unveiling and we are reoriented to the worship that is ongoing in heaven. We will see the contrast between earth and heaven, but Revelation’s trajectory is that what happens on earth will be the same as what happens in heaven.

Our scene opens with four angels restraining the four winds at the four corners of the earth. After the great earthquake and the signs in the heavens which even the nations can see and respond to we pause. The earth is not to be damaged at this point, although the upcoming series of trumpets will direct much of the damage towards the earth. But here, while the 144,000 are sealed the earth gets a reprieve. As St. Paul can say in Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;” (Romans 8:19) Creation and humanity’s destiny are tied together throughout the Bible beginning with the creation narrative when, after eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is creation that bears the curse that is originally to fall on Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3: 17) Now there is restraint as the servants (literally slaves) of God are to be sealed. The vocation which they have had before was unseen in the world but now they are being marked as servants of the living God. This sealing marks them as honored in this narrative and the slaves of God are higher than the generals and kings of the earth. The mighty are brought down and the humble and humiliated are here lifted up.

The one hundred forty-four thousand from the nation of Israel brings the people of God back into Revelation. As I’ve mentioned multiple times John, the author of Revelation, uses the language of Israel’s vocation in relation to the church but here the tribes of Israel are reassembled and marked for their own vocation. Numbers are symbolically important to Revelation and this twelve groups of twelve thousand symbolically points to a census where the total number of God’s people are sealed. John’s visionary approach may not lead to the type of declaration that Paul would make in his wrestling about the place of Israel in Romans 9-11 where he declares that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) but the azimuth of this vision points in the same direction. God has not forgotten Israel and has sealed them as God’s own.

The close reader will notice that the listing of the tribes has two peculiarities: Ephraim and Dan are not named. The two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are typically listed as half tribes. While Manasseh is named in the list Ephraim is not. Yet, there is a tribe of Joseph which would include Ephraim, but it is peculiar that Manasseh receives note and Ephraim (which becomes a way of talking about the northern tribes in general in some of the prophets) is not. Dan is missing from the list. We do not know the reason for Dan’s omission. Medieval interpreters favored an explanation that the Antichrist was to come from Dan, but these traditions all post-date Revelation by centuries. Yet, symbolically there are twelve tribes even if the names do not line up perfectly with the designation of the tribes elsewhere in scripture.

There has always been a temptation for Christian groups, from the Franciscans of the thirteenth century to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth and twentieth century to see the 144,000 as a special group that needed to be gathered to bring about the end age. Other Christians have seen this group as representing the church which may include Jewish Christians, but they read this in line with other parts of Revelation where the church assumes the vocation of Israel. As pointed out above, I view this as talking about the Jewish people and including them in a place of honor among the multitude among the nations which are gathered around the throne.

The seal of the living God has its opposite in the mark of the beast in Revelation 13. In the vision of Revelation there is no middle group, one either is marked by God or by the forces opposed to God. To be sealed by the 144,000 will provide them with protection, for example the demonic locusts in Revelation 9 will be able to torment those who do not have the seal of God on their forehead. Like in the plagues on Egypt in Exodus the people of God will not be targeted by all the destructive forces that are unleashed in later cycles. However, they will also be a target for those opposed to God and aligned with the forces of the devil. I am reminded of Luther’s advice to parents and churches baptizing young children:

Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy. (Luther, 1978, p. 68)

Those who have been sealed by God are now in opposition to those whose power is opposed to God in the world. Like in Exodus, those whom God has chosen may seem like the lowest of slaves before the kings and generals of the world, but they are those who are able to stand before the face of the one on the throne and the wrath of the lamb.

Douce Apocalypse Bodlein MS180 (1265-70)

Yet, this salvation is not only for Israel. It is inclusive and broad and encompasses a multitude beyond counting of all nations, languages, tribes and peoples. This multitude joins the elders in wearing white. They have come out of the great ordeal and they hold palm branches celebrating the victory of the Lamb and the salvation that God and the Lamb have brought. Revelation operates in the space between Satan’s expulsion from heaven and the time of the Messiah’s return to earth to bring the peace that occupies heaven to earth. The time of the great ordeal is most likely not a reference to a time of future woe and tragedies but rather, like most of Revelation, an understanding that the current brokenness and suffering of the world is due to the influence of Satan and other forces opposed to God’s reign in the world.

The countless multitude cry out that salvation belongs to God and the Lamb. The language of salvation was frequently used in Roman declarations as the role of Caesar, but here the singing multitude attribute it to its proper place, to the Lord and to Jesus. The angels and elders join in with a seven-fold praise of God as symbolically the voices of heaven and earth join in praising God. God and Christ in this vision remain at the center of not only the praise of the people and angels and creatures, but also in the center of reality. Revelation enables John to show us a world that is struggling with the forces opposed to the creating God who desires to dwell among God’s world and people and yet God still reigns and is in control of the things that seem beyond control.

This vision also foreshadows the hope of Revelation which will come to fruition in Revelation 21 and 22 while it also pulls from a rich storehouse of prophetic images of hope. The great multitude are sheltered and then in language resonant of Isaiah 49:10:

They shall not hunger or thirst, neither shall scorching wind strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by the springs of water will guide them.

In another image reversal it is the Lamb at the center of the throne who shepherds the multitude. Instead of a shepherd watching a flock of sheep now the Lamb is the shepherd of the people. As many Christians may recognize the familiar imagery of Psalm 23 in this image, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ but may miss the image of Ezekiel 34 where in protest to the unfaithfulness of the existing shepherd/rulers the LORD sets up a new shepherd:

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. Ezekiel 34: 23-24

And in an allusion to the great banquet that the LORD promises in Isaiah 25 we hear what is for me one of the most powerful images that appears here and in Revelation 21:4. As Isaiah 25: 8 states:

he will swallow up death forever.
Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.

In combining language from several places in the prophets we have a beautiful and peaceful image of God’s consolation and care for those who have undergone suffering in the world. Many people focus only on the images of destruction in Revelation but miss these significant pauses and moments of restraint which point to the reality that amid the suffering God remains the one who has glory and power and honor and might. The Lamb is the place where salvation will come from instead of the kings, generals and the mighty of the world. And that, even with the death and terror in the world, heaven is centered on praising God. Revelation is leading us on a journey to a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Psalm 33 The Earth is Full of the Steadfast Love of God

Psalm 33

 1 Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright.
2 Praise the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
4 For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
5 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
7 He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.
8 Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
10 The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
12 Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.
13 The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind.
14 From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth —
15 he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.
16 A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
18 Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
20 Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield.
21 Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
This psalm is a majestic psalm of praise that takes the fundamental trust throughout the psalms that God will take care of the author and the faithful ones and extends that care to all of creation. If you read Psalm 32 and 33 together then this psalm becomes the shout for joy by the righteous ones (shout for joy in 32 and rejoice in 33 translate the same Hebrew verb). Martin Luther’s well-known explanation of the first commandment that we are to “fear, love and trust God above all things.” could explain the dynamic of many psalms, but we hear in this psalm why God is trustworthy and many of the things that seem to be powerful are not. The faithful one understands that the earth is full of the steadfast love of God and that the poet’s role is to praise this creative love of God which permeates everything.

Structurally the poem is designed to give a sense of completeness. The poem’s 22 lines, mirroring the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet even though the poem is not acrostic, speak a complete message of God’s power and trustworthiness in all of creation. (Actemeir, 1997, p. IV:809) The act of praise is an act of hope and faith, of speaking trust amid a world that trusts in other sources of power. It protests trusting in military might, physical strength, financial resources or political power. The Psalmist can rejoice because at its heart the world is full of the steadfast love of God that nothing can separate the poet from.

The LORD is described as committed to a stance of uprightness, faithfulness, righteousness and justice. The God of the psalmist is not an unmoving or unengaged deity, but one that chooses and defends those who attempt to live in accordance with God’s will for the world. Even though the word shalom (peace, harmony) is not mentioned in this new song the poet lifts before the LORD, it underlies the trust that the one who created and ordered the world protects and guards the one who lives in righteousness and faithfulness. The words of the LORD given through the law and the prophets echo the order that the LORD has spoken into creation itself.

Psalm 33 shares a common vocabulary with Genesis 1, where the creation comes into being and is given form by the word of the LORD. In the beginning when the LORD created the heavens and the earth reverberates as the heavens are created by the word of the LORD and the host are created by the breath of God. The limits for the oceans and sea become playfully like a bottle and the LORD has storehouses that can contain the immeasurable (at least at the time of the psalm’s composition) depths of the oceans. If the world itself is an act of imagination and speaking for the LORD and the seas and the stars find their place due to the word of the LORD, then the promises uttered passed on to the psalmist are a faithful foundation to build the poet’s trust and hope upon. If earth is full of the steadfast love of God, then the psalmist can rest in the comforting embrace of that love.

Philip Melanchthon, one of Martin Luther’s close associates in the reformation, once said, “to know Christ is to know his benefits rather than his natures…” and similarly Rolf Jacobson can parallel:

the Psalter bears witness that to know the Lord is to know the benefits of being in relationship with the Lord, rather than to know the Lord’s natures. In Psalm 33, the emphasis first of all upon the relationship with that the Lord forges with humanity through the act of creation (vv. 6-7, 9, 15) and also upon the special relationship that God forged through Israel through the election of the chosen people. (v.12) (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 319)

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, who trusts in God rather than the military might, financial prosperity or political influence. Faith enables the individual and the faithful ones to see that the benefit of the LORD’s trustworthiness. I’ve said in other forums that I believe that the greatest idol in the United States is security and we are willing to sacrifice almost anything to that idol. We may inhabit a place where great armies and military technology can create incredible damage and vast amounts of death, but ultimately it is the LORD who looks down from heaven who can control the course of humanity. God sees all of humanity, fashions the hearts, observes the deeds, and the eyes of God watches those who trust in the LORD. Nothing can separate them from the seeing eyes and the pervading love of the LORD, not death and not famine nor anything else under the heavens.

The grace of God that can forgive sin and bring about peace and reconciliation is the same steadfast love of God that creates and fills the earth. The word of the LORD, whose utterance brought creation into being continues to shape the hearts of humanity and the course of the nations. Even though might and power may appear to reside in the strength of the military or the wealth contained within the vaults of banks or the political power of various groups these are ultimately illusions. The steadfast love of God fills the earth and faithful ones have learned to rest within this gracious presence of God’s creative might. This praise of the upright and new song of the faithful ones proclaim the trustworthiness of the LORD and stands among the blessed ones chosen for the joyous task of praising the LORD and knowing what the steadfast love of God is creating in their midst.

Psalm 30- The Life of Praise

Mosaic Mural of Pentecost by Manuel Perez Paredes in Nuestro Senor del Veneno Temple, Mexico City

Mosaic Mural of Pentecost by Manuel Perez Paredes in Nuestro Senor del Veneno Temple, Mexico City

Psalm 30

<A Psalm. A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David.>
 1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
 2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
 3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
 4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
 5 For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
 6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
 7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
 8 To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication:
 9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
 10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!”
 11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
 12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

This is a Psalm of praise but as Rolf Jacobson also can state it is a Psalm about praise. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 298) Psalm thirty with its poetic polarities looks at what a life of praise might look like and how one’s experience of God’s deliverance can lead to a life where one’s soul can praise and not be silent. The Psalm also moves beyond the individual Psalmists praise to the community’s experience of the deliverance of God and the attribution of the Psalm as a song at the dedication of the temple can let us wonder how the words originally written by one speaker now gets echoed to the faithful ones through their testimony and becomes reflective of a communal faith at the dedication of a place of worship. Praise leads the person not to remain silent, to proclaim their life before the gathered community and ultimately to dedicate a place where God’s name can be praised.

The superscription which lists the Psalm as being used in the dedication of a temple has two possibilities in ancient Israelite and Jewish writings: the dedication of the second temple in 515 BCE (as described in Ezra 6) or the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE after it had been defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes (which Hanukah and the books of Maccabees talk about). (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 289) In either case the community has come out of a time where the LORD appeared to hide his face and remove the protection from the people and yet ultimately the people stand in the position of being renewed and redeemed from either captivity or persecution. In using these words in the position of praising God with the dedication of a new (or renewed) temple the people take the experience of the Psalmist and the words of praise and relate them to the experience of the Jewish community as they emerge from the shadow of oppression and the threat of death.

The Psalm itself bursts with praise from the writer’s experience of redemption. From the very beginning the poet show how their LORD saved them from the point of death. The language is full of images reflecting a struggle for life against the possibility of death. Being drawn up, brought up from Sheol, having one’s life restored from among those who have gone down to the Pit: these are all ways of representing the near-death experience that the Psalmist trusts that God has redeemed them from. So, the Psalmist feels compelled not only to tell and praise but to command others to praise and give thanks as well. In sharing their experience and song they begin to teach the community how to sing praises to the LORD and to give thanks to his holy name.

In the center of the psalm is the testimony of a life that has forgotten praise and which became comfortable in its complacency. The Psalmist, like many in our own time, made security their idol and they began to trust in their own strength rather than the LORD who had provided for them. They began to believe that they would never be moved. Yet, this is where the LORD hides the protecting and benevolent face of God. To many people who believe God only brings prosperity and blessing this may indeed feel like what Martin Luther would call ‘the alien work of God’: the actions of condemnation, judgment or punishment. Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer could say in a 1944 letter to Eberhard Bethge,

Thus our coming of age leads us to a truer recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as those who manage their lives without God. The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15: 34!) (DBW 8:479)

The Psalmist describes the descent into the Godforsaken place that leads them to pleading for life. The Psalms come from a time before the Jewish people would even begin thinking of a resurrection and so the ending of life is the ending of praise. Death silences the songs of the faithful but even at the edge of the abyss the faithful can cry out. They know that God’s anger will pass, that joy will come in the morning. That God can and will act to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, turn mourning into dancing and brokenness into healing.

So, the Psalmist and the community that can echo these words learn to praise and not be silent. They participate in a faith in a redeeming God who delivers the faithful ones in their time of trouble. Having participated in the renewal of life after the brush with death, persecution or destruction they learn that it is because of the LORD that they shall never be moved. As St. Paul could echo this idea in a later time, talking to the early followers of Jesus, ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our LORD.” (Romans 8.38f.) And as the faithful gather together in the places dedicated to praising and giving thanks to God forever as the old song says, “How can they keep from singing.”


Psalm 29- The Thundering Voice of God

Supercell Thunderstorm over Chaparral, New Mexico on April 3, 2004

Supercell Thunderstorm over Chaparral, New Mexico on April 3, 2004

Psalm 29

<A Psalm of David.>
 1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
 6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
 7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
 9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
 11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!
What language do we use to praise God and where does it come from? I know for many contemporary Christians there is a fear of using the secular language or language that may come from a mythological or another religion’s background. Yet, here is Psalm 29 which uses the language that the Canaanites used to talk about their god Baal and repurposes that praise in a way to explicitly and repetitively talk about the LORD. In our desire to ascribe to the LORD glory and strength what words, what language and what images shall we use? How do the metaphors capture some piece of what the LORD’s strength and power is? One of the gifts of the Psalms is the way in which it stretches and challenges the ways in which we can poetically allow ourselves to talk about God.

The metaphorical exploration of the power of God’s voice as a thunderstorm is a potent image on its own. The powerful image also takes on a polemical context when paired in a Canaanite environment when their primary god Baal is a storm god who battle the chaotic sea (Yam). In a bold move the poet who puts these words on paper takes the primary image of strength of the god of the surrounding nation and usurps the image to talk about the voice of the LORD. All the other heavenly beings are summoned from the beginning to honor the LORD and to assume their proper subservient positions. The unimaginable power of the mighty storm which can strip the forests are or which can break the mighty cedars of Lebanon is now one attribute of the LORD’s strength.

To use the language of the surrounding world as a part of the language we use to praise God is necessary and yet like all metaphors it has its limits. The Psalms never pretend to be a systematic theology but rather a window into the ways in which God has been experienced. The metaphors can capture our imaginations as ways, as in this Psalm, to give praise to God. In a Psalm where the voice of the LORD is emphasized seven times the only word spoken is reserved for those in the temple. We, like those in the temple, use our own limited words to try to proclaim, “Glory!” The bible wants to use the language it can muster to bring honor and praise to the LORD, and if it means redirecting language which the people of the LORD believed was misused to worship other gods then they would repurpose and recast those words to bring honor and praise to their God. To echo another poet quoted by Paul in Philippians they wanted to see that time when “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2. 10)

Psalm 29 celebrates the power of the LORD with all its destructive might but ultimately that power is wielded so that the people may be at peace. As in Psalm 46 where the bows are broken and spears are shattered and shields burned to make wars cease, so here the incredible powerful voice of the LORD is wielded to bring the people peace. As Rolf Jacobson can state, “God’s strength quells the warring madness of the children of Adam and Eve. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 286) Until the days to come that the prophet Isaiah could dream of when swords are turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2.4) and where the voice of the LORD blesses the people with peace and all the nations stream to the house of the LORD we live in the expectation for the time when the voice of the LORD’s immense power thunders across our world, strengthens the people, blesses us with peace and all can proclaim, “Glory!”

Psalm 19- Creation, the Law and a Faithful Life

James Tissot, The Creation (between 1896 and 1902)

James Tissot, The Creation (between 1896 and 1902)

Psalm 19

 <To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
  In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
  and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them;
  and nothing is hid from its heat.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
  the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
  the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
  the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
  sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.
  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
   O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19 as a psalm of praise brings together the wonder and mysterious natural knowledge of God uttered in the unheard speech of creation and the revealed wisdom of the LORD in the gift of the Torah (the law). Like Psalm 8, the other psalm of praise we have encountered at this point in the book of Psalms, it reflects upon the majesty of creation from a sense of wonder and awe. It can look at the heavens above, the earth below and the seas in their vastness and be amazed at the creator God who has done all of these things. Here in the first verse the word for God is the generic El which can be either God, a god, or in plural gods, but it is not a name like will be used beginning in verse seven. Yet, the heavens and day and night and sun are all poetically personified in the psalm, speaking in words that are unheard and voices that human ears cannot perceive. Perhaps the psalmist, just straining, can barely hear the silent resonance of the Creator echoing through the creation. Perhaps they can perceive the God that stands behind the creation where others have taken the created parts of creation and deified them. In verses four and five, it is possible that the Psalmist makes use of an existing Akkadian/Summerian bilingual hymn that refers to the sun as a hero, warrior and bridegroom (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 208) yet instead of leaving the sun as a deity in its right (like the surrounding cultures) now the sun becomes a rejoicing servant reveling in the course that the creator God has set for it.  The first half of the Psalm revels with the song of creation in the artistry and majesty of the creator and the Psalmist lifts up in their own way an audible voice for the unheard creation’s song.

It may seem unusual to bring together creation and the law in a poem, and perhaps these originated in two different places, but bringing these two together makes sense of the broader understanding of how God works with the Hebrew people. Creation is a gift of God for all the world, but the law (the Torah) is the special revealed gift for God’s chosen people. The God referred to initially only with the generic El now receives the revealed name YHWH (frequently pronounced Yahweh, anytime you see LORD in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the proper name of God revealed to Moses is behind that, it is typically pronounced Adonai when read (translates to Lord) to not take the LORD’s name in vain). Together with Psalm 1 and the much longer Psalm 119, Psalm 19 praises the law of the LORD. The revealed will of God in the law becomes the nourishment, which revives the faithful, brings wisdom and purity and clarity and are a rich gift fit for a king. The ideal leader was to have the law always before them and to diligently observe and follow it all the days of their life. (see Deuteronomy 17: 18-20) If the king is the one lifting up this prayer the wonder of the cosmos is combined with the revealed wisdom of the Torah to keep them in obedience to God’s will for their life and God’s people.

The Psalm ends with a petition to be kept in this way revealed by the LORD in the midst of all the temptations that life brings forward. There is a humility in realizing that even though the law may reveal the human may conceal from themselves the faults of their hands and hearts. Even with the wisdom of Solomon one may fail to see the divergence in one’s life from the way of the covenant which coheres with God’s law. The Psalmist petitions their LORD to clear them of hidden faults, to keep them away from the insolent and foolish and to allow them to be blameless. God is their rock and their redeemer, the word for redeemer is go’el the kinsman redeemer who is able to, and is expected to, purchase their enslaved kin from slavery. Here the LORD is the one who is able to set the Psalmist free to live the life they are called to live: a life that can revel in God’s creation and delight in God’s law.

Psalm 18 Royal Thanks at the End of the Journey

Matteo Rosseli, Triunfo de David (1620)

Matteo Rosseli, Triunfo de David (1620)

Psalm 18

<To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said:>
1 I love you, O LORD, my strength.
2 The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies.
4 The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me;
5 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.
7 Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry.
8 Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
9 He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet.
10 He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water.
12 Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire.
13 The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice.
14 And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them.
15 Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.
17 He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the LORD was my support.
19 He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
20 The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all his ordinances were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23 I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.
24 Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
25 With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
26 with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
27 For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
28 It is you who light my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness.
29 By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.
30 This God– his way is perfect; the promise of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.
31 For who is God except the LORD? And who is a rock besides our God?–
32 the God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe.
33 He made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights.
34 He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35 You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great.
36 You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.
37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them; and did not turn back until they were consumed.
38 I struck them down, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet.
39 For you girded me with strength for the battle; you made my assailants sink under me.
40 You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed.
41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them; they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them.
42 I beat them fine, like dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.
43 You delivered me from strife with the peoples; you made me head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me.
44 As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me.
45 Foreigners lost heart, and came trembling out of their strongholds.
46 The LORD lives! Blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation,
47 the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me;
48 who delivered me from my enemies; indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries; you delivered me from the violent.
49 For this I will extol you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name.
50 Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.

Psalm 18 is nearly identical to 2 Samuel 22 and both probably share a common source. The narrative superscription of Psalm 18 also makes sense when linked to the ending of the story of David (1 Samuel 22 is directly before the last words of David in the books of Samuel). It is a Psalm that looks backwards at the ways in which the LORD has been present in the midst of a life of faith and now at the end of the journey the Psalmist is thankful. Even though the great commandment of Deuteronomy states that a person is to love the LORD their God with all their heart, soul and strength it is unusual for the Psalms to speak of a person loving God and Psalm 18 unique to use loving the LORD as an opening for the words of praise. Most often, throughout the Psalms it is the LORD’s love that is lifted up but now in response to all of the actions reflected upon throughout the Psalm, the singer gushes about the way that the LORD, having protected and cared for them, having rescued them from death and hearing their distress, is now the object of the Psalmist’s love. Like St. Augustine could state in Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rest in Thee.” If David is the author of this Psalm then perhaps this is an illustration of what it means to consider David ‘a man after God’s own heart.’

In several of the preceding Psalms the petitioner has asked God to see and to hear, and now looking backwards they reflect upon the ways that God saw, heard and acted. In that time of crisis, the place where it seems like God may not be listening, it is often hard to perceive the ways in which God may already be at work. Yet, in hindsight the poet can see the movements of God as earth shatteringly powerful. The poet takes up the colorful language of mountains trembling and pulling the rescued one from the cords of Sheol (not hell but the place of the dead-concepts of heaven and hell as dwelling places for the dead are not a part of the early Hebrew expectations).  God is the rock, deliverer, fortress, shield, horn of salvation, the warrior who comes with smoking nostrils and devouring fire, who bends the heavens and brings darkness to the earth, and who can ride upon the cherubs (not the chubby little baby angels we imagine, but creatures that are both terrifying and whose few mentions in the scriptures seem to defy easy definition but they are definitely not human and are used for example to guard the tree of life in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3).

I have written about the image of God as the Divine Warrior in other places (here, here, and here). And while this is an image which can be abused and twisted to any number of negative expressions of religion (especially when that religion is linked to the power of the state and the state becomes enforcer of Orthodoxy) it can also become a potent image for liberation. If we were to look at the story of David, the period where his life is threatened by King Saul or the numerous points in his reign where he was under threat from external or internal forces, the belief that God sustained and watched over him and was able to act in ways against his enemies was a powerful one. This imagery has often been used in positive ways by the righteous in times of persecution. In a world where many people assume God is benign or unconcerned (the opposite view of the Psalmist) the belief that God sees, hears and can act powerfully is a beacon of hope for the faithful.

Much of the language of the Psalms is hyperbolic (exaggerated language which is common in poetry- the mountains, for example, didn’t literally have to shake) and that language can also extend to the Psalmists own righteousness. If we take the story of David, even though he did seek after the LORD, he was far from perfect and his reign was far from always righteous. Yet, the language does echo the desire for what a king should be in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20. The Psalms will wrestle with the language of righteousness and unrighteousness and here the Psalmist feels they are in a state of peace with God. God has watched over their estate and prospered them. Perhaps it is an idealization of the difficult past but the trust is that God has viewed the writer as one who is worth saving and worth lifting up.

With the Psalms harkening back to David we need to remember that the poet is not a person who is distanced from the conflicts that were a part of the life of ancient Israel, but rather David and the other Psalmists were likely warrior poets. David was a warrior king, from early in his life he was not only the boy who slew Goliath of Gath but quickly became the leader of King Saul’s army and his exploits earned him both praise and the envy of his king at that point. In 1 Samuel 18: 7 the women can sing as they meet King Saul:
Saul has killed his thousands; and David his ten thousands.
Or as Deuteronomy 20 can discuss the expectation is that the people will be going forth to war and that God will act on their behalf. Psalms like Psalm 144 and Psalm 149 exult in the language of the warrior whose military prowess has been enhance by God. The triumphal language may make us uncomfortable in a context where we thankfully have known peace at home for several generations but this was not the ancient world.

The Psalmist’s faith is a faith that has endured in the midst of trial, conflict and hardship. In the midst of all of the challenges that their life has faced their belief and trust is that God has watched over and preserved them in the midst of all their challenges. Sometimes God has provided them the strength to conquer their enemies and enact vengeance (again even the vengeance is proclaimed in hyperbolic language- beating them fine as dust for example). Sometimes God rescues them in a condition of mortal peril. In all these things their experience is that the LORD is faithful. As St. Paul could say a millennium later:

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 31-39



Psalm 8- The Soul Searcher’s Psalm

Picture of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon

Picture of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon

 Psalm 8
 <To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.>
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

When Apollo 11 made its trip to the moon in 1969 the leaders of various nations and important voices from the earth were invited to send messages that were included on a small disk that included these greeting. Pope Paul VI included Psalm 8 as a part of his greeting and in light of the magnitude of the journey and the fragility of the men and machines that made the journey this psalm was an excellent choice. This is the first Psalm of praise and wonder in the Psalter and it wonders at the writer’s place in the cosmos and the place of humanity in the cosmos. It, like the language of the creation narratives in Genesis, is an expression of awe and praise, of reflecting on the majesty of the world and the universe that wondered encounters.  Where Psalms 3-7 have found the psalmist finding their world compressed by fear, by weakness or sickness, by oppression or opposition in Psalm 8 we find the world expanded beyond the immediate moment as the poet gazes into the sky and enters into a state of wonder and awe.

Perhaps the place of wonder, praise and amazement arises out of the experience of being delivered. Where before there was wonder about the present moment because of one’s enemies, now the enemies have been silenced from the weakest of place-from the mouth of babes. The world is no longer compressed and the promise in previous Psalms to praise the LORD can now be fulfilled. This is as Rolf Jacobson calls it appropriately the Psalm for ‘soul searchers’ (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 120) For those who look out at the heavens and the earth and all of flora, fauna and features and marvel. In our modern age as we look further out into the night sky at galaxies and universes or deeper into the subatomic world we can still respond from a place of awe at the complexity and beauty of the cosmos we inhabit. Yet for many people the world has lost the sense of wonder it may have once had. The skies become illumined by electric lights blotting out the stars and constellations, the beauty of the world becomes reduced to cold and analytical resources to be exploited. We lose the mystery and magic of the world and the romance between the question of ourselves as a part of the creation and yet somehow entrusted with it as well. As Charles Taylor states memorably speaking of our disenchanted reality, “We might say that we moved from living in a cosmos to be included in a universe.” (Taylor, 2007, p. 59) What Charles Taylor is referring to is the sense of loss that many people feel about the difference between the enchanted cosmos of our ancestors full of mystery, magic and danger and our more analyzed and scientific universe where we have lost the sense of mystery and magic.

Psalms are poetry and in their words they wonder about the place in the world of the writer and the writer’s relationship with their Creator. What are human beings that you are mindful of them? These fragile and fickle beings that live for only a short time and then must pass the torch to the next generation. Yet in the midst of the marvel of the cosmos which the poet stands within is the contrast between the miniscule and the majestic. The finite is valued by the infinite, for the Creator has endowed the creation, these men and women, with the ability to reign. Perhaps reflecting back to the Genesis 1 creation narrative Psalm 8 talks of humans being crowned with the glory of God, perhaps a way of referring to the Hebrew thought that humans are created in the image of God. And echoing the creation narratives humanity rules over “the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1. 26) and yet the place of the Psalmist is not due to the Psalmist own power or majesty but instead is bestowed upon them by the Creator whose name is magnificent in all the earth. It is praise and awe and wonder, and as Martin Luther reflected on creation almost 500 years ago the response was simply:

“For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.” (Luther, 1994, p. 25)