< July 10, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13

 

When one surveys Psalm 65 as a whole, what is most striking is the breadth of the psalm's subject matter.

It begins with praise to God in Zion (verse 1), a setting which continues through verse 4. Even here the topics of praise are varied, including prayer being answered (verse 2), sins being forgiven (verse 3), and the blessedness of dwelling with God (verse 4). Verse 5 turns briefly to God's mighty acts of deliverance but then quickly moves to "the ends of the earth" and "the farthest seas." This global setting stays in view through verse 8, asserting God's might with references to the mountains (verse 6), the seas and the "tumult of peoples" (verse 7), and the farthest points east and west (verse 8).

Verses 9-13 maintain the focus on the earth, but the emphasis moves from God's might to God's bounty in the harvest, which is described in lavishly descriptive language. This lavishness might well be said to be the unifying force throughout the psalm. The descriptions of the earth are almost mythical sounding throughout. This mythical quality, combined with the exclusively beneficent description of God's dealings with humankind that pervade the psalm, gives the attentive reader or hearer an overwhelming sense of the life-giving presence of God.

The psalm begins by asserting the praise due to God in Zion (verse 1). In its literal sense, Zion refers to the Jerusalem temple mount, and then by extension to the temple itself. Given the references to God's house and temple in verse 4, it may well be that the psalmist had in mind God's special presence in the Jerusalem temple. On the other hand, the beginning of verse 4 might suggest a less literal meaning: "Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts." That sounds more like the heavenly dwelling of God than the earthly temple.

Verse 2 also includes the statement, "To you all flesh shall come." Given the difficulty of associating this expansive hope with the Jerusalem temple today, it makes sense for Christians reading this psalm to think of the heavenly Zion/temple when engaging the psalm in worship. After all, this move is made in the New Testament itself (see Hebrews 12:22), and there is a long tradition in Christian worship of associating Zion with heaven and the eschaton (as in the line from the spiritual, "Children of God, we are marching to Zion").

Whichever Zion one thinks of, the relations of God to humans expressed in these verses are gracious and merciful. God is identified as the one who answers prayer (verse 2) and forgives transgressions even when they are overwhelming (verse 3). To live in God's presence is to experience blessedness and goodness (verse 4, translating the Hebrew 'ashrey as "blessed," preferable to the NRSV's "happy"). God is the God of salvation and deliverance (verse 5). God is the "hope of all the ends of the earth" (verse 5), which is no doubt the reason for all flesh coming to God (verse 2).

It is the reference to the ends of the earth in verse 5 that commences the broadening of the locus of God's presence in the psalm. God is the hope not only of the ends of the earth, but also of "the farthest seas." Verse 6 then asserts God's establishment of the mountains, and verse 7 tells of God's silencing of "the roaring of the seas" and "the tumult of the peoples." The combination of using the verb "roaring" with the seas and the juxtaposition of the seas with the peoples gives the seas a personified animation. Commentators frequently note the echo here of the common ancient near-eastern theme of the victory of the gods over the chaotic seas. The chief difference here, as in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1:6-10), is that God's control over the seas is total; there is not even a will to resist on the part of the seas.

Just as the seas are personified in verse 7, so are the "gateways of the morning and the evening" in verse 8b. This is a reference to the farthest eastern and western points on the earth, hence a poetic expression for the ends of the earth already referred to in verse 5 and verse 8a. Whereas the roaring seas are silenced in verse 7, here the "gateways" are made to "shout for joy." This continues the theme of God's beneficence established at the beginning of the psalm, and it is this beneficence combined with the animated personification of nature that depicts God's presence as powerful, gracious, and life-giving in the psalm. The dangerous features of nature are pacified, and the rest of nature comes to life with joyful exuberance.

The animated richness of nature provided by the divine presence dominates the psalm in verses 9-13. Verses 9-10 celebrate the gift of water, which provides people with grain, shapes the earth, and causes life to grow. For an ancient agrarian people living in a dry land, this blessing was no doubt better understood and more appreciated than it is for most Christians today. The personification trend continues in verse 11a, as the year is "crowned" with God's bounty.

Verse 11b will strike many readers as curious: "your wagon tracks overflow with richness." The exact nature of the symbolism here is debated--it perhaps pictures God riding across the earth in a chariot--but, whatever the case, the point is that where God goes, richness abounds. God's presence is life and abundance. Verses 12-13 close the psalm with a series of further personifications: The pastures, hills, meadows, and valleys all clothe themselves with appropriate bounty, and they all "shout and sing together for joy."

Psalm 65 thus depicts a world alive with the bounty and glory of God. While many scholars believe that its original use was for thanksgiving celebrations at harvest time, its possible applications today are many. With its wide-ranging portrayal of an undefiled, joyful creation, along with peoples delivered, at peace, and praising God, it provides a vision counter to what we tend to see in the world today.