Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

The first line of Psalm 97 marks it as one of several “enthronement psalms” found in the Psalter (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).

Nativity, by Jacques Le Breton and Jean Gaudin from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source: Collection of Anne Richardson Womack.

December 25, 2015

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Commentary on Psalm 97

The first line of Psalm 97 marks it as one of several “enthronement psalms” found in the Psalter (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).

These psalms typically feature the phrase “The Lord is king,” sometimes translated “The Lord reigns” or “The Lord has become king” (93:1; 95:3; 96:10; 98:6; 99:1; cf. 47:7-8).

These different translations reflect alternate views about the original cultic background of these texts. Many scholars think the enthronement psalms belonged to an annual festival that reaffirmed Yahweh’s kingship over the world. Unfortunately, only the psalms remain to provide a witness to such a festival, so the specific liturgical details are difficult to pin down.

Despite their obscure origins, the enthronement psalms bear a rich theological witness as they explore the implications of Yahweh’s ultimate authority. The first half of Psalm 97 describes how nature reacts to God’s power (vv. 1-6a). The second half of the psalm (vv. 6b-12) portrays the human reaction. In sum, the psalm shows how the advent of Yahweh’s kingdom elicits a worldwide response.

Yahweh’s cosmic Kingship

In v. 1 the psalmist calls “the earth” to respond to God’s rule with joy (v. 1a). Hebrew cosmology understood “the earth” to be a body of land bounded by oceans. Thus the call for the “many coastlands” to join in happy praise (v. 1b) reinforces the idea of the vastness of the earth and the full extent of its happiness. God’s rule enlivens all the land, to every shoreline, in every direction.

The psalm then describes the thick clouds that both obscure the divine presence and represent God’s power in the world (v. 2). Though shrouded in clouds and darkness, God’s throne in the celestial realm is nevertheless firmly established on the twin principles of divine rule: righteousness and justice (v. 2).

Such a pairing occurs at numerous points throughout the Psalter (e.g., Psalms 33:5; 72:1, 2; 89:14; 99:4). We might understand righteousness as the state of being in right relationships, while justice is the process by which such relationships are restored and maintained. Together, righteousness and justice characterize God’s nature even as they describe God’s plan for the human community to live together. God’s justice is embodied through the fire (v. 3) and lightning (v. 4), which illuminate the darkness and obliterate those who might challenge God’s rule.

Such an awesome display of divine power actually reshapes the world. Verses 4-5 describe the effects of sudden, dramatic earthquakes (v. 4b) and the slow process of erosion (the mountains melting like wax, v. 5a). In the poetic language of the psalm, all of these earth-changing processes are focused into a single and eternal moment of Yahweh’s self-revelation.

Yahweh as King of Kings

Verse 6 functions as a hinge between the two halves of the poem. The first line summarizes the response of the cosmos to its king, with heaven proclaiming Yahweh’s righteousness. The second part of v. 6 shifts the focus to the human community: “all the peoples” now reflect God’s power.

The advent of the king reveals the truth about the political and religious structures of power. The polemic against idols and other gods found in vv. 7-9 is, at its core, a statement that God’s power is more effective than any other. False powers will fail. God alone reigns as king. Since God has established the cosmic order, only God can bring about order and right relationships within the realm human affairs.

Emphasizing the singularity of divine power creates a sense of solidarity among those who earnestly seek to be faithful to God. As there is one God, those who preserve God’s order in the world are drawn into one community. This community is solidified through corporate praise, which actualizes the power of God. Praise reveals God’s power just as God’s power could be seen in all the mighty forces of nature: earth and clouds, light and darkness (vv. 1-6a).

Yahweh Most High

In the vertical social structure of the ancient world, height means might. Huge temples showed the power of the gods worshipped there. High fortified towers signaled a king’s control over vast territories. Colossal statuary of the king and the gods showed how their power could overwhelm all others. So for the text to claim that God is “most high over all the earth” (v. 9) attests God’s size, power, and position with respect to all others. Nothing surpasses God. In fact, no image created by humans can come close to representing God’s supremacy (cf. v. 7).

Yet this highly exalted divine king is not occupied solely with the affairs of heaven. Instead, the Most High reaches down from the heavenly throne to preserve and protect the community of faithful. The final verses of the psalm relate God’s deep engagement in human lives. God intervenes to bring about salvation and establish justice (v. 10). God gladdens and illuminates (v. 11, cf. v. 4). God brings joy to the world as earth receives her king.

An Enthronement Psalm and the Nativity

Indeed, all affirmations of Yahweh’s kingship take on a new significance in the season of Christmas. In Psalm 97, God’s self-revelation as king prompts the entire world to respond. The human community longs to experience God’s saving power (v. 10). They yearn for the justice and right relationship that provide the very foundation of God’s throne (v. 2).

God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ redefines authority and power. As king, Jesus reveals love as the truest power, a force for justice and righteousness. When Christians hear the psalm’s affirmation that “the Lord is king,” they can draw connections between the kingship of Yahweh and the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalm 97 derives from an ancient enthronement ritual, a celebration the advent of Yahweh’s kingship. For Christians today, the feast of Christmas reframes this ancient liturgy. Psalm 97 can herald the birth of a heavenly king who is the realization of God’s justice and righteousness in the world.