Commentary on Psalm 29
The 29th Psalm is notorious for being an originally Canaanite psalm, adapted by the Israelites.
Who can know such things? Elements of the Psalm’s content, and also its poetic structure and style, are reminiscent of poems we have found from Ugarit and other Canaanite sources. If Israel borrowed solid, admired styles of poetry from their neighbors, then good!
And it is theologically profound to think of the average Israelite in a small farming village, with neighbors who were worshippers of Baal, the god of thunder and rain, singing a Psalm that suggests that the true God of thunder and rain is not Baal at all, but Yahweh, the Lord of the Israelites!
It is not difficult to sympathize with the average Israelite, who was sorely tempted to worship not only Israel’s Yahweh, the unique, only true God, and also Baal, the Canaanite deity of the rain. Your fields are lying parched, desperate for a shower or two. You hear about Baal, the god who brings storms and thus rain and vitality to your crops, but you desist. Then one night, when no one is looking, you slink off, dabble in a simple worship service to Baal, and then the next day, behold, the clouds gather, and it rains! Green peeps up from the ground, and you are hooked.
Israel’s God did provide rain but was more than a machine to do the bidding of farmers. The hard lesson, which proves to be the only hope we have as mortals, is that Yahweh is God even when it doesn’t rain, through drought, war (win or lose), illness, and death.
Psalm 29 conceives of a God of glory, and yet one who also delivers. Water was scarce in ancient Israel, and so rain was desperately needed. The Psalm imagines Israel’s God as the true Baal, the one who brings rain as needed. Is thunder truly “the voice of the Lord”? It is not that we vainly fantasize that our Lord controls the weather? God does not hurl a vicious storm at the ungodly, but before the power of wind and water, we are humbled. We ineluctably come to the realization that we cannot manage the universe to suit us. Wind and water overwhelm the strongest levies and the best laid plans.
The Psalm depicts God as “above the flood,” that unseen but believed cosmic body of water that functioned like a moat, a kind of reflecting pool around the heavenly throne. The “voice of the Lord” is above the mightiest water phenomenon: flood, torrential downpour, thunderstorm, raging stream. This voice “splits the cedars of Lebanon” — those impressively tall trees, proverbial as lofty, high, downright haughty. God brings to naught all that is arrogant or overly lifted up. Only God is God.
Psalm 29 invites us to listen to all the sounds out there in the world, not the manufactured sounds of the media or on your iPod, but the chirping of crickets, the whirr of the wind, the clap of thunder, the rush of a stream, the lowing of cattle, and the din of a village celebration. All these sounds, together, can be summarized in a single word. That word is “Glory!” How hard it is to find music nowadays about the Glory of God! Many popular Christian songs suggest that we may glorify the Lord! But the glory of God? Perhaps we are more obsessed with our glorifying God than the actual, lovely, wonderful glory of God?
We take a functional view of religion. We do this or that, and God responds as we hope God will. But to contemplate the glory of the Lord? The sheer grandeur, wonder, unbeheld, incomprehensible, and yet revealed greatness of God — what might we do but join with that chorus of angels and saints in Psalm 29:9 who, overwhelmed by the unutterable magnificence of the Lord, cry out a single word: “Glory!”
Of course, we know God’s voice is not in the thunder or in any meteorological phenomenon. Elijah pointed the way at Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19) when, virtually annihilated by earthquake, thunder and storm, he discerned God was not in the frightening weather, but in the “still small voice” (or perhaps better translated as the “sound of utter silence”). At the Jordan, when Jesus was baptized, a voice was heard from the heavens — or was it? Who heard the divine voice from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son”? Surely Jesus heard, perhaps John, but for the onlookers it is unclear.
We read Psalm 29 on January 13, the calendared “Baptism of our Lord.” Jesus came to the Jordan “to fulfill all righteousness.” Why was he baptized? Karl Barth (in the little slim volume of Church Dogmatics, volume IV, part 4, published not long before Barth died) said Jesus was not being theatrical, but that he was baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
When Jesus was baptized, he needed to be washed of sin — not his sin, but our sin: “When faced by the sins of all others, he did not let these sins be theirs, but as the Son of His Father, ordained form all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.”1
Having borne our sins into those baptismal waters, Jesus heard a voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son.” Enough said. Did others hear the voice over the water? Did Jesus hear other voices from the heavens, such as those of angels and saints gathered around the throne singing Hallelujahs and choruses like “Amen! Blessing and glory and honor and power be to our God forever and ever!” (Revelation 7:12), or “Salvation and glory belong to our God… the Lord our God the Almighty reigns, so let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come” (Revelation 19:6)?
1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4 (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1969), 59.