Commentary on Psalm 29
While the pen remains mightier than the sword, neither bears quite the same dynamic power as the spoken word.
Psalm 29 affirms the fundamental biblical tenet that, in the entire universe, there is only one before whom all other creatures, forces, and even deities are rendered subordinate — the Lord God of Israel. Likely borrowing from Canaanite hymnody that would have sung praises to the storm-god Baal, the psalmist here attributes all the fearsome power of a thunderstorm to the Lord alone. So complete is God’s control over such forces that acknowledgments of “glory” and “strength” are due even from the “heavenly beings” (verse 1). This is no temporary status attributed to the God of Israel, for “the Lord sits enthroned as king forever” (verse 10).
Yet we neither find God riding triumphantly upon the clouds nor wielding thunderbolts in hand as would be the expected norm for ancient Semitic deities. What do we find deployed, instead, by this Almighty One? What is that which brings thunder (verse 3), breaks cedars (verse 5), flashes forth flames of fire (verse 7), shakes the wilderness (verse 8), and whirls the oaks and strips the forest bare (verse 9)? Only a voice.
But this is hardly any voice. It is the “voice of the Lord”! The psalmist’s seven-fold use of the term points to its importance both here and in the rest of the canon. In the Hebrew mind, words are far more than rapidly dissipating sound waves. The Hebrew term for “word” also has the concreteness of “thing” and the dynamic sense of “event.” Words have substance such that they are able to change the reality into which they enter. Psalm 29 demonstrates the propensity for the voice of the Lord to enter into a reality and, in doing so, to radically change that reality.
Scripture bears witness to the reality-changing power of God’s voice on a number of occasions. For example, God’s creative work begins with words. “And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Speaking later through Moses, God gives words to Aaron and his sons with which they are to bless the Israelites. The words of the Aaronic Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26) are familiar. Less so, however, are those of the following verse (27), which point out that in the bestowing of the aforementioned words, the priests are placing God’s very name upon the Israelites, and in turn God will bless them. Wow, talk about a reality entered and changed!
We should point out that the voice of the Lord need not be loud for a proportionately significant effect. On the run from an angry and bloodthirsty Jezebel, Elijah finds himself at Mount Horeb. Waiting to experience God’s passing, Elijah witnesses great displays of power in wind, earthquake, and fire. Yet, he does not experience God in these. Instead, Elijah’s spirit is uplifted and faith renewed by the “sound of a small whisper” (1 Kings 19:12, my translation). Only a voice.
The Old Testament and Gospel lessons for this Sunday again show God entering our story through spoken words and, in doing so, affecting the character and direction of the story. In a similar way to Numbers 6:27, these texts involve the event of naming by God. While the voice of the Lord here may lack the Hollywood-worthy dramatics of Psalm 29, the impact on reality is no less powerful. “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
The verses that follow this declaration are evidence of the relationship that God’s naming has established. Waters are rendered unable to overwhelm and flames unable to consume those declared to be God’s own (verse 2). Naming affects relationship and a changed relationship changes reality.
Baptism marks just such a changed relationship that shapes the resulting reality. Coincidence has no part in the fact that, in the context of Jesus’ baptism, we again discover a voice from heaven seeking to bestow a name: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The voice of the Lord speaks, a name is bestowed, and both relationships and reality are changed forever.
We live in a time where individuals are more inundated with words, both printed and spoken, than ever before in human history. An increasing array of technological gadgets make words ever more accessible. While there is something to be said for convenience, herein also lies a danger that words become qualitatively cheapened, quantitatively overwhelming, and even outright annoying. Recall, if you dare, this past election season.
However, the liturgies of the Sacraments are living, reality-changing witnesses to how powerful words can be; and texts such as Psalm 29 demonstrate the ultimate power of the words (and the Word) of God. The voice of the Lord, whether in a small whisper or a flame of fire, remains that which enters history and promises to “give strength to his people” and “bless his people with peace” (verse 11).