Commentary on Psalm 29
Psalm 29 thunders forth a bold proclamation: God’s power reaches into the world and the whole world takes notice.
This psalm has a long history, perhaps one that goes back to a pre-Yahwistic liturgy of the Canaanite god Baal or a similar ancient Near Eastern “storm deity.” In Ugaritic literature, which predates the Hebrew Bible by several centuries, the god Baal rises to prominence within the pantheon through his victory over the chaotic sea. Baal is known by the epithet “the cloud rider,” since he manifests his presence through thunder, lighting, and rain. As a storm god, Baal plays a pivotal role in the cyclical patterns of the fertility of the land.
But of course, Baal is not the subject of Psalm 29. Instead, Yahweh has the central role as divine king. Whatever the prehistory of this text, the similarities between Yahweh and Baal help us understand the structure of exaltation that appears within Psalm 29.
The structure of Psalm 29
The psalm begins with a call to a community, the bene elohim, which the NRSV translates “heavenly beings.” These are literally the “sons of god” or “sons of gods” (v. 1) who comprise the heavenly council and attend to the high god, Yahweh. The Old Testament has a number of references to this sort of community that supports and participates in Yahweh’s activity (e.g., Genesis 1:26). In the context of Psalm 29, the bene elohim are summoned to give glory to Yahweh (v. 1) and Yahweh’s name (v. 2). Indeed, three times at the outset, the psalm summons the voices of these heavenly beings, compelling them to affirm Yahweh’s power.
In the next section of the psalm (vv. 3-9), the focus shifts from the voices of the sons of god(s) to the voice of Yahweh, the most powerful sound in the whole world. The phrase “voice of Yahweh” appears over the course of the psalm seven times. With seven functioning as a number of perfection in much of the Bible, the voice of God can be understood as both powerful and perfect.
This voice (qol, literally “sound”) is the most immediate and compelling manifestation of the divine presence. In the context of the psalm, thunder represents Yahweh’s voice (v. 3). It was, for the ancients, the loudest sound anyone could experience. You can feel thunder, not just hear it. It shakes your bones. It comes from the sky. It can terrify. It can be a harbinger of destruction and fire (v. 7). And it is also a signal that rain is on the way, refreshing the land and bringing life to the soil. Thus for the psalmist, thunder is the perfect way to describe the complex range of Yahweh’s activity in the world. Yahweh’s tremendous heavenly power can bring forth both salvation and destruction.
The association of thunder and “the waters” in v. 3 also testifies to God’s power. Like the ancient Near Eastern storm gods Baal and Marduk, Yahweh was understood to be the conqueror of the chaotic sea. Yahweh’s power over that primeval force was demonstrated at creation, when Yahweh subdued the sea, bringing order into the midst of chaos. Verse 10 gives yet another picture of God’s triumph over the waters of chaos; Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood. Though the sea roils and threatens to overwhelm the land, the sea witnesses Yahweh’s power and kingship by the very fact that it stays within its borders. These waters also respond to Yahweh in the theophanic storm, becoming agitated and excited when Yahweh’s voice thunders.
“The voice” and all other voices
Yahweh’s voice has an effect on everything, not just the waters. It also booms throughout the countryside (vv. 6-7). It shakes even the biggest living things, the colossal cedars of Lebanon (cf. v. 9). No place is beyond the reach of Yahweh’s voice. Even the wilderness, which like the sea was thought to be a place of chaos and disorder. The thunder of Yahweh echoes through the all wild places, a constant reminder that God is indeed in control.
Verse 9a has posed famously difficulty problems for translators. It might refer to Yahweh’s power over the cycles of fertility in the animal world: “the voice of the Lord causes the deer to calve” (see the footnote in NRSV and the New Jewish Publication Society translation). Or it may continue the idea introduced in v. 5 that even the mightiest trees cannot withstand the storm when Yahweh utters his voice. In either case, the essential point remains the same. The natural world must respond to Yahweh’s power.
The faithful respond too. After the seven-fold description of Yahweh’s voice, the psalm presents the voice of those worshipping Yahweh in the temple. They sound a unison, “Glory!” God’s voice is so overwhelming that it elicits a single human affirmation. The human community in the temple thus mirrors the divine community, the bene elohim (vv. 1-2). All voices glorify Yahweh, whose voice resounds throughout heaven and earth.
The psalm ends with a plea. Verses 1-10 have described the powerful voice of Yahweh, how Yahweh reaches into the world and rules it with unquestioned supremacy. Verse 11 presents the human community making a petition for divine empowerment. Such a plea recognizes that the people exist in great need of God’s power. On their own, they are not powerful. They are not a peace. The community needs the blessing of a powerful God to survive and thrive in this world.
Psalm 29 and the Baptism of the Lord
Psalm 29 relates most obviously to the gospel reading through shared motifs of “water” and “the voice of God.” In Luke 3, the voice of God comes from heaven after Jesus’s baptism, confirming Jesus’ unique revelation of God: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). The psalm is helpful for interpreting the gospel because it reveals the depth and complexity of these motifs. Steeped in the language and imagery of the Old Testament, the reader of Luke’s gospel hears the echoes of God’s thundering voice, the voice that resounds over the waters of chaos, bringing order out of disorder. Indeed, the majestic voice of the Lord reaches throughout the whole world, even the wild, untamed places. And we pray that this powerful voice can even now bring blessing and peace.
January 10, 2016