Commentary on Psalm 47
Psalm 47 played a major role in the interpretation of the Psalms in the 20th century. It was the centerpiece of Sigmund Mowinckel’s claim that the enthronement of God was enacted liturgically in ancient Israel/Judah at the beginning of each year. At the center of Psalm 47 is verse 5, which is surrounded by two sets of invitations to praise and accompanying reasons for praise (verses 1-4, 6-9). Verse 5 certainly seems to describe a liturgical event, and Mowinckel concluded that this event was “the royal entry of Yahweh [into the temple], at which he himself is present, symbolized by his holy ‘ark.’”1 What God has “gone up” (verse 5) to is the royal throne (verse 8). Thus, God has been re-enthroned for the coming year.
Although Mowinckel’s description of an annual enthronement festival was very influential, there is no solid evidence for it. It is more likely that God’s sovereignty was celebrated regularly in Israelite/Judean worship, not just once a year. In any case, it is helpful to view Psalm 47 as an enthronement psalm (see also Psalms 29, 93, 95-99). Such a categorization invites us to contemplate what it means to affirm that God is sovereign.
The sovereignty of God
There is no doubt that kingship or sovereignty represents the central concept of Psalm 47. The first set of reasons for praise features the work “king” in verse 2, and the word occurs three more times in the second set of reasons for praise (verses 6, 7, 8). The title “Most High” (verse 2) reinforces the proclamation of God’s sovereignty; and not coincidentally, the Hebrew root underlying this title also occurs in the central verse 5 (“gone up”) and again in verse 9 as the final word of the psalm (“exalted”), thus linking both verses 1-4 and 6-9 to the central verse 5. Furthermore, the adjective “great” in verse 2 is used elsewhere in the context of the affirmation of divine sovereignty (see Psalm 95:3; 96:4; 99:2); and the trumpet elsewhere announces an enthronement event, human (1 Kings 1:34, 39) or divine (Psalm 98:6).
God is sovereign and we are not!
The concept of kingship is looked upon with suspicion these days, due in part to the fact that it is masculine. But even the gender-neutral word “sovereignty” is problematic, because it inevitably connotes hierarchy. There are legitimate concerns about gender-specificity and hierarchy; however, there may be at least one positive aspect to the proclamation that God is sovereign over “all the earth” (verses 2, 7). The potentially positive dimension of this affirmation derives from viewing it as a polemic—in this case, not a polemic against other claims for divinity, as is sometimes the case in the Old Testament (see Psalm 97:7-9), but rather as a polemic against us human beings!
The current generation of humankind rather routinely views ourselves as “masters of the universe.” When we follow this logic, we feel entitled to do whatever it may be within our power to do, with little or no regard for what our actions might mean for “all the earth” (verses 2, 7). The ecological consequences alone are proving to be disastrous, to the point that some scientists are seriously questioning whether humankind will survive past the end of the century.
In a context like this, it might be helpful to hear that “God is the king of all the earth” (verse 7)—in short, God is sovereign, and we are not!
Specificity and universality
As every commentator notes, Psalm 47 juxtaposes specificity and universality, raising the question: Does God exercise divine power exclusively for the benefit of Israel or expansively for the benefit of humankind? Given the reasons for praise in verses 2-4, it would seem that God favors Israel very specifically, subduing other “peoples” and “nations” and favoring God’s people(s) as God’s own.
So, which is it? Perhaps Psalm 47 alone is insufficient to answer this question; but in concert with an array of biblical texts throughout the canon, it certainly appears that God has invested Godself in the well-being of all humanity. As James L. Mays says of Psalm 47: “One way to describe the logic of the hymn is this: The LORD has made a place for his people among the nations so that the nations may be included among his people.”2
The mention of Abraham in verse 9 is especially pertinent. In Genesis 12:1-3, Abraham and his descendants are promised a blessing; but they are also commissioned to be a blessing to nothing short of “all the families of the earth” (verse 3). This trajectory is also evident in a pivotal text like Isaiah 2:2-4, which also brings together specificity and universality. The specific place, Jerusalem, is to be the meeting place for “all the nations” (verse 2). Everyone will have access to and benefit from God’s “instruction” (verse 3; Hebrew torah), and the result will be that God “will establish justice among the nations” (verse 4; my translation). As always, biblically speaking, God’s justice means that everyone will be provided for. The implements of war are converted into farm tools; war is abolished, and everyone will thus be fed (2:4; see Psalm 46:9, which should be read in conversation with Psalm 47, and see also Isaiah 19:23-25; 25:6-10a). In short, Psalm 47 fits into a trajectory that D. Preman Niles describes like this: “The people of God in the midst of all God’s peoples.”3
To use Psalm 47 to celebrate The Ascension of Our Lord is for us Christians to affirm that this trajectory continues in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that is, the Christ event confirms that God lovingly claims “all the earth” and all the world’s peoples as God’s own.
- Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 2 vols., trans. D. R. Ap-Thomas (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 1:171.
- James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 186.
- D. Preman Niles, “Toward the Fullness of Life: Intercontextual Relationship in Mission,” International Review of Mission 91/363 (October 2002):475.