< January 10, 2010 >

Commentary on Psalm 29

 

There are a number of directions that the interpreter of psalm 29 could take.

For example, it is generally a matter of consensus among scholars that this Psalm was originally a Canaanite text celebrating Ba'al or a similar storm god. At one point, it was then brought into Israel's use by replacing Ba'al's name with Yahweh's. Presumably, one could launch from this point into an examination of Israelite religion in its context or the polemical "replacement" of Canaanite deities by Israel's God.

Similarly, much ink has been spilled in controversy over the meaning and implications of the title of those addressed by the Psalm. The variety of translations offered of bny elohim -- "heavenly beings" in the NRSV and RSV, "ye mighty" in the KJV, "mighty ones" in the NIV, etc. -- attests to the potential for a discussion of the nature and character of the denizens of heaven who are here called to worship the Lord. Are these angels? Other gods? Something else entirely?

But, while such approaches to Psalm 29 do have a certain interest of their own, they clearly do not address the main concern of the Psalm itself.

By dint of sheer repetition (not to say brute rhetorical force), the Psalmist focuses the attention of the reader squarely on what matters most here: the voice of the Lord. Six times in the eleven verses of the Psalm, the divine voice and its effects are the center of attention. So it seems that faithful exposition of this text ought to focus there as well.

What does Psalm 29 have to say about this voice and, by extension, about the Lord whose voice it is?

The voice thunders over the waters. The voice shatters trees and lays forests bare. It causes earthquakes and shoots forth flame (likely intended to be lightning). This is not, to say the least, the "still, small voice" of 1 Kings 19:12. There is nothing evidently comforting or comfortable about this voice. Here, instead, is a God whose very voice is laced with all the terrifying, numinous power of the thunderstorm, the earthquake, and the flood.

This is a voice able to rip creation apart, just as it brought creation into being. The particular objects of this vocal assault are also of interest.

The voice does not break just any little, scrubby tree but rather the cedars of Lebanon -- the largest, strongest, and most famous trees in Israel's experience.

The voice does not cause just any old piece of land to shudder and shake but rather Sirion, also known as Mt. Hermon, the largest, tallest mountain in all the Levant, and the wilderness of Kadesh, the anvil on which Israel was forged.

The Psalm, with its repetition of "The voice of the Lord...the voice of the Lord...the voice of the Lord," is relentless in driving home the awesome power and terrible majesty of that voice and of its owner. There is nothing else that compares.

In the wake of the storm, as the echoes of the voice still ring from the heavens, the focus of the Psalm suddenly turns to the hearers, to those who worship in the Lord's temple. Whether these worshipers are the "heavenly beings" of verse one, the people assembled in Tabernacle or Temple, or the members of a contemporary congregation; there is only one possible response to what has just been experienced: doxology.

Doxology literally means "speaking about glory," and Psalm 29 claims that in the face of what has come before, there is nothing else to do.

The voice that strips the cedars and the forests also strips away all human pretensions of power, control, and agency. The voice that flashes fire and lightning erases any notion of our own insight and understanding. The voice that shakes Lebanon, Sirion, and Kadesh shakes all human sureties, assumptions, and plans. Before this revelation of even a tiny fraction of the full reality of the Lord, we are undone.

We are left with no possible defense, no possible rejoinder, and no possible response, except one. All we can do is say "Glory." And mean it. This is not an empty cheer, not an antiphon or rote liturgical response. Our doxology, our saying "glory" after hearing the voice of the Lord, is simply a fact; the only fact left standing.

It is only when we are thus utterly reduced, when all that remains is doxology, only then can we utter the prayer with which the Psalm ends.

It is not the strong, the confident, or the self-assured who can, with hope and propriety, ask the Lord for strength and peace. It is, rather, the weak, the helpless, and the chastened, those who have truly heard the voice, and have been brought to realize their utter dependence on the one who utters it.

This is the message at the heart of Psalm 29: humble doxology, followed by trusting prayer, is the first, best, and only response to who God is and what God has done.