Commentary on Psalm 29
If there’s one word to describe this psalm, it might be “loud.”
The God of glory “thunders” (verse 3). That voice breaks the cedars, and not just any cedars, but the mighty ones of Lebanon (verse 5). It’s loud enough to make mountains skip and to shake the wilderness, to cause the oaks to whirl and the people to cry out. This is no quiet, reserved voice. It is a booming, cascading, thundering cry.
Historians trace the psalm’s origins to the north of Israel, with such geographic references as Lebanon, Syria, and Kadesh. It may have had its birth in reference to a Canaanite storm god or a more general religious sense in the Mediterranean that God appears in natural phenomena. These origins are often obscure and debated, but of course biblical texts do not sit still, they move forward and not just back. The god of thunder once had to subdue the gods of rivers and seas—now the Lord simply reigns majestic, without need to conquer his own creation.
The reflections on the “voice” of the Lord are particularly important for Christians, for whom the Word of God is fleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. The stories we have heard over the last few weeks are of a baby born in surprising circumstances to be king of Israel and savior of the world. They include notes of hushed noise, stillness amidst the storm, not even the baby or the animals are crying. Those are appropriate to the ‘loquacious God,’ Luther’s deus loquens, here born without the ability to speak. But before the eternal Word gestated in a Jewish womb, he already was a voice, stripping forests and whirling oaks. This is a powerful word, a crashing voice, temporarily quiet, but soon to preach, to summon forth the dead from their very tombs.
And now a voice thunders over the waters of the Jordan. But that thunder is somewhat ambiguous. In some of the stories of Jesus’ baptism it seems only he hears the voice. In others, everyone seems to. But this voice is subtle, missable, more a mother’s coo than a storm god’s gauntlet splitting the earth’s crest. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” The command is direct and strong, yet most of humanity has done anything but listen to him, in that day or since. The baptism of the Lord is impressive for its trinitarian theophany. All three persons are on the stage of salvation history: the Father (voice), the Son (fleshed), and the Spirit (the dove). Yet the enfleshment of God’s own Son has an unassuming way about it. Most folks don’t ever notice. Those that do notice often misinterpret, while those who linger with him still fail, disobey, deny, or abandon the Son. This theophany is unbearably gentle, suggesting that God is unbearably patient.
But not in Psalm 29. The voice strips forests and makes mountains dance. The cedars of Lebanon were known throughout the Bible’s world as giant, load-bearing behemoths, worthy of building into a temple for God. Where I live in British Columbia, we also have enormous red cedars, some nearly 1,000 years old, still smelling sweet and reaching toward heaven. They evoke awe, passion in their defense, money in their clear-cutting, and love from our poets. Nearby in a botanical garden there is a bona fide cedar of Lebanon, planted by Lebanese-Canadians in gratitude for Canada’s welcome of refugees. It is not a great tree yet, only a few decades old. But it is already mighty, dozens of feet high, with branches like a canopy. It will tower—several human lifetimes from now.
The mountains of Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. It is a delight to human beings to watch animals frolic and play, for no other obvious reason than that they like to. Here the image is of enormous and ancient mountains doing the same. Jesus would later promise that faith the size of a mustard seed could make a mountain skip off into the sea. Interpreters have often wondered what he means—ok, if so, why don’t we ever see it? Psalm 29’s answer is clear: the mountains already do skip and dance at the voice of the Lord. Can’t see it? Look again. In Moses’ day, when he climbed the mountain to speak with God, it shook with noise and fire. The psalmist praises the way mountains continue to smoke (Psalm 104:32). God turns what seems solid to liquid and vice versa.
And now God does the same with the water of the Jordan. God is poised above it, as God once was about the waters of chaos in creation, as God was after the flood that cleansed the world (verse 10). Only the words this time are of belovedness. Listening—to a voice rather more subtle than quaking oaks or skipping mountains. The God of unmistakable theophany thunders … in an underwhelming peasant preacher from nowhere important.
Strength and silence: both aspects of God’s self-manifestation are important. The psalm will remind you of the loudest thing you have ever heard (for me, calving glaciers—the sound still rattles in my skull). And the baptism will surprise you by its modesty. James Mays, the great dean of Psalm scholarship in his generation, ties the pieces together this way:
The liturgical setting connects the psalm’s mighty theophany with the quiet epiphany in the waters of the Jordan. The voice of the Lord in the thunderstorm is paired with the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son.” The storm says “This is my cosmos”; the baptism, “This is my Christ.” The two go inseparably together. The Christology is not adequate unless its setting in cosmology is maintained.1
And, we might add, the setting in cosmology is inadequate unless the Christology is maintained. This is an odd case where the Old Testament cries out fulsomely and the New whispers gently. The tree-smashing, storm-inducing God of thunder is fleshed in an easy-to-reject uneducated itinerant preacher.
One cannot explain these things. One can only marvel at them.
- James Mays. Psalms. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 138.