< May 26, 2019 >

Commentary on Psalm 67

 

Psalm 67 begins with a prayer for blessing that draws its words from the great priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 (verse 1).

In the Numbers passage God directs Aaron and his descents to bless the Israelites with the words, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.” The psalmist adapts the Aaronic blessing to introduce a prayer for divine favor. In its original context, the blessing was for Israel and the focus was on the priests’ role in speaking the blessing to the people. In Psalm 67, however, the purpose of the blessing is to reveal God’s greatness to the nations (verse 2) and lead the people of the earth to praise God (verse 3) to the “ends of the earth” (verse 7).

As Psalm 67 adapts the Aaronic blessing and expands its purpose, it echoes two great Old Testament theological traditions. The psalm recalls the promise God made to Abraham to bless him and, in turn, to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-4). While the election of Abraham cannot be reduced to its function of universal blessing, that is an unmistakable part of the promise.

Abraham and his descendants were not blessed to the exclusion of others. Rather, all families of the earth were to find their blessing in or through them. This plays out in the Genesis narrative as Abraham sojourns in Canaan. Those who welcome him and see God at work in him receive God’s blessing, and those who did not recognize it were cursed (Genesis 12:10-20; 14:17-24; 20). So Psalm 67 invites the nations to celebrate God’s work among the people of Abraham and to acknowledge God’s guidance of them as well (verse 4).  

Psalm 67 also speaks much like part of Isaiah often called “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55). The prophet declares God is sovereign over all nations and comes as close as any Old Testament author to saying no God exists but Israel’s God (Isaiah 40:1-5; 45:20-25; 49:2-26). In a similar tone, verses 4-5 call the nations to rejoice and praise God because of the way God judges and guides them all.1 God does not just bring equity to Israel, but to “the peoples” as well (verse 4).

The psalm ends with the declaration that God brought an abundant harvest for his people (verse 6). But the whole earth yielded abundantly, to the benefit of all. Therefore, the psalm ends by calling “the ends of the earth” to give praise. God is “our God” and has blessed God’s people (verse 6), but the psalm presents this blessing as occasion for all people to revere the Creator (verse 7).

Some scholars speculate this psalm was a liturgy that Israelites recited during a harvest festival (thus, some label it a song of thanksgiving).2 It is impossible to know if this was indeed the original role the psalm had in worship. The harvest theme appears only in verse 6 and the reference is part of a larger theme of God’s beneficial rule over the nations. Nevertheless, with this theme, Psalm 67 brings together the message of the two preceding psalms.

Like Psalm 66, Psalm 67 recognizes that God has control over and brings justice to the nations (verse 4; Psalm 66:7). Psalm 67 calls all "the peoples" to praise God (verses 3, 5), also like Psalm 66:1, 4, and 8. The final celebration of the earth’s bounty (verse 6) harks back to Psalm 65:9-13. Together, Psalms 65, 66, and 67 give a complete picture of God's sovereign rule -- over the earth, over God's people, over the nations -- and the benefits of that rule for all the earth and all people.

Read in the season of Easter, Psalm 67 has two primary messages for the church. First, the wish for God’s blessing (verse 1) and gratitude for God’s provisions relate to the experience of resurrection for Jesus’ followers.  Like the Israelites of old who thanked God for the earth’s bounty, so also Jesus’ disciples experienced the life-giving force of the Creator God when Jesus was raised from the dead. The wish for blessings, however, also acknowledges that there is a “not-yet” quality to this celebration. The jussive verb in verse 1 (“may God be gracious to us and bless us”) is a kind of petition. It recognizes a need for blessing that is not at present complete or experienced in full.

Second, the psalm anticipates the Gospel’s appeal to the Gentiles. God’s saving power began among the Israelites, but God’s work had an appeal to “the nations,” to those outside the covenant community. Thus, Psalm 67 pairs nicely with Acts 16:9-15 in which Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth in Thyatira, hears Paul’s preaching and commits herself to Christ. As the first Gentile convert in Europe, Lydia exemplifies how the Gospel took hold among “God fearers,” that is, Gentiles associated with the synagogue. Lydia was a prime example of how Israel experienced God’s blessings and “the ends of the earth” erupted in praise (Psalm 67:3, 5).

As the season of Easter moves toward Pentecost the universal themes of Old Testament texts become crucial, and Psalm 67 is one of the most beautiful expressions of those themes. The wish for “your way to be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations” (verse 2) is fulfilled in early Christian preaching. Gentile converts, in turn, give voice to the psalm’s call for “the ends of the earth” to worship the one true God (verse 7).


Notes:

  1. James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 224-225.
  2. Frank Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: Psalms 51-100 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 150-153.