Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ps 29: A Missional Reading

   Psalm 29 announces the eternal reign of the LORD. It portrays the revelation of the LORD's power through the imagery of a thunder storm. By doing so, Ps 29 subverts the claims of the Canaanite god Baal who was the storm god. This psalm models a missional use of culture to teach the truth about reality and God using the language of Israel's religious context.
Psalm 29
Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
    the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
    and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
    the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Psalm 29 is a hymn of praise that serves to declare the eternal kingship of the LORD. This is a psalm of orientation. It reminds us of the power, grandeur and prestige of God. It uses imagery drawn from its ancient Near Eastern context. It uses the imagery of creation and a thunderstorm. This language evoked feelings of awe for its original readers because it touched on core elements of Ancient Near Eastern religious thought. We need to read between the lines to hear its rich message in our 21st century world.

In Israel’s day, all nations worshiped and served different gods and goddesses. One of the key ways of demonstrating the power of a god or goddess was through stories of the gods controlling and shaping creation. If a god had power over creation, this god could claim to be the true King. Another important element to show a God’s strength was the ability to create and sustain life. Rain was central to the well being of ancient people who depended on rainfall for the growing of food. For the ancient Canaanites, one of the most powerful gods was Baal. If you read through the Old Testament, Baal is one of the foreign deities that God’s people often turned to during times of apostasy (e.g., 1 Kings 18:20–40). Baal was the Story god and thus served as a god of fertility. The rain that he sent fertilized the earth and brought forth crops for the ancients.

In Psalm 29, the psalmist draws on language that is similar to the type of images associated with Baal and other similar gods. But there is one major difference. This is a psalm that declares boldly that it is the LORD who is the true king.

As we’ve been reading through the laments of Book 1 of the Psalter (Pss 1–41), we’ve repeatedly read prayers for protection from enemies. As part of these prayers, the psalmists have proclaimed their own integrity, devotion, and commitment to the LORD. We need to read these statements of integrity against the competing religions of the day. If the psalmists had lost their trust in the LORD, it would not mean that they would have become atheists as some do in our day. Instead they would have turned to some other god or goddess—perhaps the god or goddess of the people who were oppressing them.
Psalm 29 works against this by subverting the claims of competing gods. The Scriptures declare that the LORD is incomparable to any other god and in fact by the time of Isaiah the prophets declared of the LORD, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:22). Yet the false worship of idols continued in Israel. Psalm 29 thus uses imagery that others used to worship Baal and shifted the language to make it about the LORD. The psalmist does this to lift up the LORD as our true source of security in the world. He is King. He alone can be trusted with our lives. 

Commentary on Psalm 29

Psalm 29 unfolds in three movements: vv. 1-2 is an invitation to the hosts of heaven to worship the LORD, vv. 3–9 describes the coming of the LORD in a storm, and vv. 10–11 contains God’s blessing on God’s people.

Psalm 29:1–2 exhort the hosts of heaven to give the LORD the honor due his name and worship him in all of his splendor. Psalm 29 begins not with God’s people on the earth but with the beings in the presence of God in his heavenly courtroom. We saw a similar exhortation in Ps 148:1–2. The scope of the worship implied in Ps 29 will be all inclusive: everyone everywhere will grant the LORD the honor and glory due his name.

The imagery for the LORD is majestic and emphasizes his overall awesomeness. The phrase “splendor of his holiness” emphasizes distinctiveness of the LORD as ethically perfect, the one who stands above and beyond creation, and who acts rightly in all circumstances.

Verses 3–9 give the basis for this call to praise. In these verses, the coming of the LORD is portrayed through the imagery of a powerful thunderstorm that is roaring and coming off the sea toward the temple. The thunder is likened to the voice of the LORD. It shatters the silence and echoes out across the waters. In the ancient world, the waters of the sea represented a chaotic and destructive force. Here the LORD’s voice in the thunder demonstrates God’s superiority over all other forces (vv. 3-4).

In verses 6–9a, the voice of the LORD subdues and strikes mighty trees, nations, and deserts. All of the place names in these verses stand outside of Israel proper. The implication is that the LORD is not merely the true King of Israel, but is indeed the King of all Creation. The storm imagery is vivid. Imagine the most severe thunderstorm you’ve experienced and feel the power of the language here as the psalmist helps us to feel coming of the LORD.

Verse 9b gives the only fitting response to the awe-inspiring arrival of the LORD in the storm. All who have gathered cry out, “Glory!” Glory is the perceived awesomeness and weightiness of God’s presence. It is an acknowledgement of God’s greatness and our smallness in his presence. It is the feeling that we get when we stand before a majestic mountain or a huge waterfall or come other wonder of the world.

Verses 10–11 make explicit the message of the storm imagery. The LORD is King of Creation and rules forever. The earth is secure for God’s people. The LORD strengthens them and extends his blessings to them.
This psalm invites us to ground our security in the knowledge and assurance that the God of Creation is alive and well. He sustains our world, but more importantly for us as we seek to live faithfully, he promises to sustain us as we journey through this world on mission.   
© 2016 Brian D. Russell  

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