Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

God Watches. We Wait.

The Lamp
Ranil Amarasuriya, "The Lamp." Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.

August 11, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 33:12-22

God Watches. We Wait.

I’m showing my age by saying that I grew up listening to Paul’s Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story,” short radio talks wherein he informed hearers of what happened, sometimes long after more well-known events transpired. With this Sunday’s psalm reading we only get “the rest of the psalm” and worshipers may find themselves wondering about the first part of the story. I probably shouldn’t have complained about last Sunday’s lectionary decision to provide only the first half of Psalm 49! Here, again, it is incumbent upon the preacher who wishes to stick with the limits of the lectionary to provide enough sense of the whole poem without having to expound all of it.

Since the first eleven verses were not read the Sunday before, one should provide the gist of the psalm’s first half. The poet calls upon Israel to praise (verses 1-3) “the word of God” (verse 4), particularly in the way that word functions in creation (verses 6-9) and history (verses 10-11). The thematic coherence of these first eleven verses is striking insofar as verses 12-22 seem to go in a different direction, perhaps several of them!

Commentaries and other psalm studies offer helpful ways to outline the material in verses 12-22, and these can aid the preacher in bringing some order to exposition. Richard Clifford’s remark captures the overarching theme of the psalm’s second half, as it “concentrates on one tier of the three-tiered universe – earth — in order to explore how its inhabitants respond to the God who brought it into existence.”[1] That being said, there are several concepts and concerns that preachers and worship leaders can address as they focus on the human response to God’s all-seeing eye that incessantly gazes upon his creation.[2]

First, we should be struck by Psalm 33’s location as one of the few classic praise psalms in Book I of the Psalter (Psalms 1-41), which is dominated by lament forms. While many of us have been taught to think about the Psalter’s movement as being from lament to praise, that road is by no means perfectly demarcated. As one of Walter Brueggemann’s “psalms of orientation,” Psalm 33 reminds us that lament, confession, and declarations of innocence can and should be punctuated by praise.[3]

In the midst of losses and sorrows, biblical hymns of praise remind believers of divine reality around and beyond our circumstances. Communities of faith need to integrate praise and lament with sensitivity, never wishing to trample on people’s grief or rain on their parade. But the fact is that Paul’s adage to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) makes so much sense because at any given time it reflects the circumstances of the body of Christ as a whole.[4]

Second, focusing on the actual shaping of Psalm 33 enables us to bring our “big picture” theology home and enliven our faith. The high theology of the Word in creation and human history found in verses 1-11 is linked to our perception of life by verse 12: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.” In their worship, ancient Israelites were forced to connect what they had been taught about God’s creative and redemptive work in the world with their life as a nation and people, to reflect on what difference all of that made to them.[5]

In this regard, we should not overlook the psalm’s organization into 22 verses, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. To be sure, this is not a classic alphabetic acrostic (each verse beginning with a successive Hebrew letter) but a case can be made that the versification is deliberately intended to show the coherence of the psalm’s message.[6] Its very existence is meant to guide the worshiper toward an integrated view of faith and practice.

Third, the poet used repetition to impress upon the faithful both the exhaustive reach of God’s involvement among humankind but also the utter futility of human effort to provide ultimate deliverance from trouble. The three-fold “all” in verses 13-15 — “all humankind,” “all the inhabitants of the earth,” and “all their deeds” — leaves no location where the “eye of the Lord” does not perceive. The three-fold “great” in verses 16-17 — “great army,” “great strength,” and “great might” — rejects an exclusively human solution to the world’s ills.

In addition to these explicit repetitions, the cluster of certain semantic fields (e.g., God “looks,” “sees,” “watches,” and “observes”) seeks to motivate believers to trust that God’s knowledge of them is complete. That the God to whom we belong watches us so completely that we can therefore confidently “wait” for the Lord (verse 20). The other lectionary passages for this Sunday provide vivid illustrations of patient faith in action: Abraham’s faith in God’s promise (Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16) and Jesus’ description of the watchfulness of those disciples who wait for God (Luke 12:32–40). Plenty of spiritual food for thought from just half a psalm!

[1] Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 169.

[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary (London: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 137.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 33-36.

[4]The intrepid pastor-scholar can wrestle with this psalm’s lack of title or superscription, a rare occurrence in Books I-III (Psalms 1-89). It’s possible that some Hebrew manuscript traditions considered these 22 verses as a continuation of Psalm 32. SeeGerald H Wilson, “The Use of ‘Untitled’ Psalms in the Hebrew Bible,” ZAW 97 (1985): 404-413.

[5] I appreciate Patrick Miller’s discussion that draws a parallel to the high Christological thought of Colossians 1:15-20, wherein the person and work of Jesus Christ is linked immediately to “you who were once estranged . . .” (verse 21). See his Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 76.

[6] For more on this matter, see David Noel Freedman, “Acrostic Poems in the Hebrew Bible: Alphabetic and Otherwise,” CBQ 48 (1986): 408-431.