Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

Psalm 97 is one of only seven psalms in the book of Psalms that is classified as an enthronement psalm (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).

December 25, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 97

Psalm 97 is one of only seven psalms in the book of Psalms that is classified as an enthronement psalm (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).

These psalms are distinguished from the royal psalms (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, 144) in that the subject matter of the royal psalms is the human king of Israel while the enthronement psalms celebrate God as sovereign over all. Why an enthronement psalm as the reading for Christmas day? This commentator asked herself that very question. The answer was not long in coming. 

First, some Old Testament background is helpful. Imagine a world in which government by democracy was completely unheard of. In the Ancient Near East, the only government that people knew was kingship. The king of a city or district guaranteed safety and way of life for those who swore allegiance. If you traveled outside your own city or district, you were immediately at the mercy of a different ruler, one who may not look favorably upon you. Such was life for the people of Old Testament times. 

When the Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses and settled in the Promised Land, one of the first issues that surfaced was that of leadership. The book of Judges, which narrates the people’s struggle to occupy the Promised Land, closes with the words, “In that day, there was no king in Israel; everyone person did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

In 1 Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and demand, “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (verse 5). When Samuel prayed to God, God answered with: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (verse 7). Samuel anointed Saul and then David, and we read in the book of Kings about the reigns of the kings of the Davidic dynasty. They were a rather mixed bag of the good and the bad: Solomon, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Josiah. 

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the Hebrew people captive, such a protected and guaranteed life disappeared. The people of Israel no longer had a king — a protector. They were subjects of a foreign king. And even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they were still subjects of foreign rulers — the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. 

The hope for a new king of the line of David was an ever-present issue for the people of postexilic Israel. Zerubbabel presented a short-lived hope in the sixth century (Haggai 2:23; Zechariah 4:9-10); the Hasmoneans established an independent Jewish state in 141 BCE, but it was dismantled by the Roman army in 63 BCE. What now?

Let us back up a bit and consider the words of the Enthronement psalms. The book of Psalms relates the story of ancient Israel from the time of the kingship of David (Books 1 and 2: Psalms 1-72); through the reign of Solomon, the divided kingdom, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon (Book 3: Psalms 73-89); to the exile in Babylon (Book 4: Psalms 90-106); and finally the return from exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Book 5: Psalms 107-150). 

All but one of the enthronement psalms in the Psalter appear in a cluster in the middle of Book 4, whose setting — according to the canonical background outlined above — is the exile in Babylon.  Davidic kingship was no more; a foreign king reigned as sovereign. What did that mean for the exiled Israelites? Would they simply be absorbed into the vast Babylonian empire? Or could they find a way to maintain their identity as the people of Yahweh, their God? In these new circumstances, it seems, the only option was to accept God as king; not a human being. 

Thus, the psalmists devised songs to celebrate God as sovereign over, not just Israel, but all creation. Psalm 97 incorporates virtually all of the themes of the enthronement psalms: God as creator (verses 1-6; see also Psalms 93:1, 3-4; 95:4-5; 98:7-9); God as the god above all other or false gods (verses 7, 9; see also Psalms 95:3; 96:4-5); and God as the holy one who dwells in Zion and protects and judges the people (verses 8, 10-12; see also 96:6-9; 99:2-4).  

And so that brings us back to Christmas. The New Testament gives us two accounts of the birth of Jesus. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is born in the stable of an inn with shepherds in attendance; in the gospel of Matthew, wise men from the east travel to worship him as a king. In both stories, Jesus’ birth is seen as a turning point, a new beginning for, first, the Jewish people, and, then for all humanity. A long-hoped-for king of the line of David, one who could lead the children of Israel into a new Promised Land.

The prophet Isaiah spoke words of encouragement nearly half a millennium before the birth of Jesus — words not initially about Jesus (most likely about Hezekiah), but timeless words that spoke of a future in which the faithful would know victory and find hope in “a child [who] has been born to us, a son [who has] been given to us” (Isaiah 9:7). Isaiah’s words, in the context of seventh-century BCE Jerusalem, were not about the Jesus of the first-century CE. They spoke words of hope to the people of Jerusalem in their own day and time — but, and that is the beauty of the words of the prophets, they also spoke words of hope to the people of first-century Jerusalem. 

And, so, “a child has been born to us,” a child who would rule as king over a people who had, for centuries, sought a king who would be a savior (a messiah). And the role of the king? Jesus, the king, was — according to the ancient Near Eastern standards of kingship — to provide justice, equity, protection, a place to live, care for those less able to care for themselves, and insight into the proper worship of the one true God. I don’t know about you, but I think Jesus did a pretty good job as king . . .