Commentary on Psalm 97
Imagine Psalm 97 as the psalmist’s Christmas sermon.
It is full of proclamations about the Lord’s identity and deeds and about creation’s response to such identity and deeds. There is even a concluding call for the hearers to join in rejoicing and giving thanks. The hearers of this sermon (you and me) will walk away with nothing less than a powerful vision of who God is and what God can and does do. Hopefully, this vision will stir us to rejoice and give thanks. Your Christmas sermon would do well to create the same for your hearers.
Let us look more closely at the various homiletical genres evident in the psalm. First, the declarations of the Lord’s identity as king (verse 1). Technically speaking, like the psalm for Christmas Eve (Psalm 96), this is one of eight “Yahweh is King” psalms in the psalter (93-100) that were likely composed for use at festivals in order to celebrate the righteous reign of the Lord. We have become so accustomed to hearing about kingship in church that we forget its political overtones. Kings are secular rulers. What does it say that our Lord is a king? Despite the tendency to romanticize the baby Jesus at this time of year, the political nuances are not to be missed; especially in the Lukan narrative. Celebrating the birth of a royal son would not be unheard of in times and places of monarchy, for the people would know the newborn would one day be the king. But what does it mean for this tiny one, Jesus, to be the king, not only in the future, but now? Even more, what does it mean that a great king comes from such a humble beginning? Royalty generally emerges from a certain pedigree which this newborn does not seem to have; that is, until one recognizes in him the presence of the divine. Now that is an unmatchable pedigree.
To be sure, the psalmist did not write with the babe born in Bethlehem in mind; the psalmist knew nothing about the incarnation. But we do, and it is an interesting move to allow scripture to interpret scripture by reading the divine birth through the lens of this psalm. We discover the distinctiveness of this king’s reign. Surely the psalmist intends to show this as blessings of the people who behold his glory are contrasted with those who worship other images. The Lord’s reign is so superior that even other gods bow down before him (verse 7).
Once the Lord’s identity is established in the psalm, his works are affirmed. In verse 10 we find out that the Lord guards the lives of his faithful and rescues them from the hand of the wicked. What a comforting combination. Without having to exhort the hearers directly to hate evil or be faithful, my sense is we have a desire to do and be so given that this one will be present to guard and rescue us. Even more, for the righteous and upright there is joy and light (verse 11). It is worth considering how your sermon’s claims about who God is might push your hearers to respond in such a way, even without you having to say so directly. The psalmist gives us this intriguing homiletical clue.
The psalmist also declares creation’s response to the Lord’s identity and deeds. In fact, the move in the psalm is from the whole of creation to people (contrast this with the psalm for Christmas Eve, Psalm 96, in which the move was from the people to creation). Typical for “Yahweh as King” psalms, there is created a vision of all elements of creation rejoicing in their own way; earth, coastlands, clouds, “lightning,” mountains, and the heavens all have an active role in responding to this great one. (Note that “earth/all the earth” is in no less than four verses: 1, 4, 5, and 9.) Some of the images are reminiscent of theophanies in the Hebrew Scriptures: clouds surrounding him and fire going before him consuming adversaries all around him. One is reminded of the words in Exodus, “And the LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (13:21). The heat from the Lord is so intense even the mountains, the epitome of stability, melt like wax.
Curiously, even the Lord’s judgment produces joy and gladness (verse 8). Of course, this is for those who have utter trust and faith in this one, who know that the Lord is justified and fair in his judging. The Lord’s faithful judgment as king as that which produces not fear but rejoicing is evident in other “Yahweh as King” psalms (see last week’s commentary on Psalm 96).
Note the direct speech toward the Lord in the middle of this psalm. This is no ordinary, extraordinary king for not only is the Lord a powerful and great king, but he is a king to whom we are invited to speak directly. The psalmist models this for us. Might there be a place for such prayerful speech to God in your sermon?
Finally, at the end of the psalm the psalmist turns directly to his hearers and summons them to rejoice. There is certainly enough evidence to justify this call. Take the psalmist’s cue and invite your hearers to rejoice and give thanks to God’s holy name, Immanuel. If members of your congregation were to leave Christmas Day worship with such a clear sense of who God is and what God does as a righteous king, and with the recognition that this affects all creation, and with a deep desire and commitment to rejoice, your homiletical mission will be accomplished.