Baptism of Our Lord (Year B)

The Bible speaks often of the effective power of the word of God.

January 8, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 29

The Bible speaks often of the effective power of the word of God.

The word of God is not about things, the word of God does things. We meet that word, that voice, in all its terrible power in Psalm 29.

The voice of the Lord is “heard” in this psalm in its effects on creation itself. The voice is “powerful” and “full of majesty” (verse 4), and that mighty voice is heard or seen in the thunderstorm that gives rise to “mighty waters,” that breaks the largest trees, that “flashes forth” lightning (verse 7), stripping forests of their bark. We meet the voice in the earthquake that causes the greatest mountains to “skip” (verse 6) and the deserts to shake (verse 8). And we say, “Wow!” — or “Glory!” (verse 9).

What else is there to say? We are overwhelmed — as people always are when they see the power of earthquakes and eruptions, hurricanes and hail. Wow! First, this is more a “wow” of wonder and smallness than a wow of joy and celebration. All humans, believers and nonbelievers alike, will bow in awe at the power displayed in nature’s fury. But Israel says, “Glory!” — that is, glory to God in the highest. The voice of awe becomes a doxology of praise.

But why would people praise the God of such unleashed power? Part of the answer lies in the fact that, though retaining its power, God’s creation is brought into a certain measure of control — it is “leashed” in this psalm in several ways. First, the power is taken away from Baal and given to Yahweh. Those conversant with ancient Canannite literature easily see the parallels between Psalm 29 and its earlier counterparts:

Now at last Baal may appoint
a time for his rain…
and for the sounding of his voice in the clouds,
for him to release (his) lightnings on the earth….
Baal uttered his holy voice,
Baal repeated the [issue] of his lips;
(he uttered) his [holy] voice [(and)] the earth did quake,
[(he repeated) the issue of his lips (and)] the rocks (did quake);
people afar off were dismayed [           ]
the peoples of the east;
the high places of the earth shook.1

Now, in Psalm 29, the voice is Yahweh’s, but the power is the same. The name of God matters. Do we trust Baal? Probably not, but Yahweh is the one who brought us out of Egypt, the one who knows our name and loves us (Isaiah 43:1-4). Yahweh is not “raw” power; Yahweh is the power of love and promise. The power remains real, but with Yahweh our ultimate safety is secured.

Second, the power in the psalm is not left to its own devices. “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood” (verse 10). Everything that happens here happens in, with, and under God. It is no longer the random chaos of tohu vavohu (Genesis 1:2), but it is power within God’s creation, power under God’s throne. Again, the power remains — even the terror for those who have seen nature turn against them. But they are never abandoned by the redeeming God of promise, so their lament can finally be turned into praise.

And third, the power in the poem is tempered by the careful structure of the poem. Psalm 29 is oxymoronic: it speaks of power untamed, yet it speaks of power within the taming structure of careful poetic parallelism. The psalm falls into three main parts:

Ascribe to the Lord… (call to praise) (verses 1-2)
The voice of the Lord… (the descriptive praise of this mighty “storm God”) (verses 3-9)
The Lord sits enthroned… (reason for praise and concluding petitions) (verses 10-11)

Numbers matter in this structure. In parts one and three, we find four mentions each of the name Yahweh. In the middle section of the psalm, we have ten more namings of Yahweh, and we hear seven “voices” — four Yahwehs, ten Yahwehs, four Yahwehs, and the middle ten caught up in a cacophony of seven voices. Four, ten, seven — all “complete” numbers in Israel’s symbolic use of numerology. The poem about uncontrolled power (which could be chaos) becomes an artistic creation that holds, describes, limits, and hems in the power. God creates order; so does God’s poem.

In the end, we probably don’t want God’s power to be fully tamed. God is a dragon whose fire can and should never be put out. The psalm tells us without question that God is God and we are not. But the poem ends with the petition that God give God’s strength to God’s people, that God bless us with peace — not wimpy peace, apparently, but peace that passes understanding. The power of God’s word to make things happen — power like that of the rain and the snow — retains its awe, but it all functions to accomplish God’s purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11), and that purpose is always life, always love.

That same power and purpose get taken up in the liturgy for the Baptism of Our Lord. We don’t want Jesus’ baptism or ours to be tamed. Water kills and cleanses, and it must do that in order to give birth to new life. Something big is going on here, something like a fierce storm — the voice of Psalm 29. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, a new voice speaks. The voice of God in Psalm 29 says, “This is my cosmos.” The voice of God at Jesus’ baptism says, “This is my son.”

As James Luther Mays (who makes this comparison) says, “The two go inseparably together. The Christology is not adequate unless its setting in cosmology is maintained. The Old Testament doxology is necessary to the gospel.”2 In other words, what does it look like when God shows up? It looks like a wild uncontrollable storm, and it looks like a Nazarene teacher wading into a river. For the fullness of biblical theology, you can’t have one without the other.

1“The Palace of Baal,”  4.68-71 and 7.29-35, in J. C. L. Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends, 2d ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1978), 60-61, 65.
2James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 138.