Commentary on Psalm 66:1-9
Someone, or several someones, stood in front of a throng of Israelites gathered for worship and said or sang or chanted a summons to worship: “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth.” We may hear an echo of the more familiar Psalm 100. It’s not noisy, but surely with more volume than is generally heard in our churches nowadays. John Wesley’s directions for how to sing a hymn make us chuckle: “Sing lustily … Beware of singing as if you were half asleep… Do not bawl.” Does God ever yawn while we’re wading through offering up our noise to God, which isn’t all that joyful after all?
What’s more startling in that summons is to whom it is addressed. Not just “you guys in this room,” but “all the earth.” Here’s the miracle of worship, and good cause for a joyful noise. We are not alone. We dare to envision that people who don’t know or believe in our God are unwittingly joining us, or at least included even if they didn’t show up. And those who used to worship, or still do on another shore: “Sing, choirs of angels … Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above.” And we urge the earth, all the dazzling wonders of creation, to join us. Of course, the trees, birds, mountains, rivers and clouds are already praising God simply by being. “All the earth worships you” (verse 4).
Creation is the grand theater for Israel’s and our praise. Notice some of the specifics of praise beyond the earth itself. “Sing the glory of his name.” For Israel, the divine name was unutterable, eliciting a hush, that name that could so easily be taken in vain. We know a bit about the name, revealed through a bush on fire. Lots of mystique shrouding yet unveiling that name, meaning something like I am, I will be, I cause things to be. As Christians ponder “the glory of his name,” we recall that Jesus, yeshua, means “Lord, help!” And he not only joined us in our cries, but is himself that help. His nickname is solid too: Emmanuel. “God with us.” That’s the heart of our reality with God. God is not the fixer, the wish-granter, the personal assistant or titanic warrior. God is with us. Sing the glory of that.
When God revealed the unutterable name, it was stage one in God’s strategy to liberate the enslaved Israelites from Egyptian bondage. We praise God for creation, for who God simply is, and for all God has done. And particularly, what God did in God’s most spectacular, defining moment: “He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot” (verse 6). Dry, but not parched. As they walked, it had to be muddy, and walking in God’s way always has that muddiness about it, doesn’t it? That path was invisible just a few minutes before the waters withdrew. We cannot see the steps to come. But we move forward. Elie Wiesel imagined the story like this: to the panicked people, rushing from Pharaoh in terror, Moses called an abrupt halt: “Wait a moment. Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives, but as free men.”1
Preachers might invite their people into a dual exercise. First, widen the scope of your place in God’s dispensation. It’s not just you, it’s all of creation, all of history. We are part of something so much larger than ourselves, which is our greatest yearning anyway. And then, take some time to “Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! …’ Come and see what God has done,” that is, remember what God has done in your life. Seems like just a few things, until you reflect, reminisce, rummage through the albums of memory, and you notice so much.
The lectionary fails us in a way by hacking off the latter sections of this lovely Psalm, especially the dramatic turn beginning in verse 13. The preacher has good license to continue beyond verse 9! At 13, the wide angle lens praising God for creation and history unexpectedly zooms in tightly on just one individual, who speaks quite personally of his or her own praise and reasons to extol the wonder of God. It’s sort of a testimony. In Israel, if you were healed or rescued or just survived against the odds, you brought your sacrifice of thanksgiving to the temple, and as you offered the valuable creature to God, you told your story, also an offering to God, and an encouragement to those who listened. We learn God is good and can help when we hear what God has done for others.
Praise and thanksgiving begin by looking back, by recalling what has been, but then looks with confidence into a future that is hopeful, not because we will be smarter or stronger, but because God will clearly continue to be God. Today’s troubles and circumstances are just that: they are today’s, not tomorrow’s. Derek Kidner, commenting on the opening phrases of our Psalm, wryly suggests that “the future does more justice to the facts than the present.”2 This eschatological vision is the only way to make sense of the Bible’s constant refrain, repeated here: God “rules by his might forever” (verse 7). God doesn’t seem to be ruling so well, if the facts as we experience them are the whole story. All of Scripture invites us to live into the hidden plot of things, the other story unfolding, God’s story, known to the eyes and ears of faith, the one true story that will come to its most magnificent conclusion, and is already tracking that way in subtle but marvelous ways. This is why we most assuredly should and can reply to that summons to “Make a joyful noise to God.”
- Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends (NY: Summit, 1976), 193.
- Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 1973), 252.