Commentary on Psalm 33:12-22
Preaching Psalm 33 is likely to be a challenge for any preacher who has an American flag in the sanctuary.
This psalm is a call to worship, a hymn of praise for Yahweh who is the one and only sovereign creator over all nations, all humankind, and all creation. Lynn Jost states the thesis of this psalm:
Because Yahweh rules with righteousness, justice, and unfailing love, we must worship Yahweh with songs of praise and by rejecting all false sources of salvation.1
God sees all
Our lectionary pericope for this Sunday begins in verse 12, at the conclusion of a stanza that began in verse 10. It is a stanza that sets in scale the happiness of “the nation whose God is the Lord.” For this nation is not the only nation God cares for. Verses 1-9 describe the creation story in song, a reminder to Israel and all nations that one God, one Creator, fashioned all of humanity. Only one ruler is sovereign in such a way that by speaking, “it came to be … and stood firm” (verse 9).
So, this is the message in our next stanza (verses 13-15): Yahweh watches over all of the earth from the throne. And what does Yahweh search for? What is the measure Yahweh uses when looking down to observe humanity’s deeds (verse 15)? The measure was mentioned earlier in our psalm, back in verse 5: righteousness and justice. This is the expected behavior for Israel, or any nation that claims to worship and/or be chosen by Yahweh.
Yet in the story of Israel, the cry of the prophets, we know the conditionality of being chosen, and how Yahweh will punish even this chosen people when they no longer reflect Yahweh’s heart for righteousness and justice. If indeed King David wrote this psalm, he himself could speak to what it is to be chosen and anointed by Yahweh but punished for not practicing righteousness and justice (2 Samuel 12).
The danger of vain hope
Scholars debate whether or not this psalm, found in Book One of the collection, is pre or post exilic2; whether it is truly a psalm of David or a song that emerged out of a nation that learned the frailty of placing its hope in kings or military might.3 Does this contrast between Yahweh’s empire and the nation’s empire foreshadow the fall of the United Kingdom or is it a liturgical reminder from a post-exilic time that trust in nationhood was not enough to save Israel from destruction? Is it a call back to Yahweh’s warning to Samuel when the elders of Israel demanded him to ask Yahweh for a king (1 Samuel 8:7)? This history of Israel is a history of undermining the kingly rule of Yahweh with the frail rule of humankind.4
Whatever context in Israel’s history this psalm was composed, we see in these two verses the theological core. In wilderness wandering, in the oppression of slavery, in times of persecution, the psalmist calls on the assembly to remember: no nation, no government will save you and feed you; only Yahweh can deliver, only Yahweh can keep you alive. The psalmist cautions the conflation of Yahweh’s strength with a nation’s military strength. And yet the propensity of humanity to link the two in pursuit of greater power over perceived threats to that power is a myth as old as time.
The promise of hesed hope
Investment in war horses and armies for defensive strategies is the result of a fatal heart condition in a nation — fearfulness. In this condition, the heart that fears (fill in the blank all sources other than God) hopes in defense mechanisms to keep bad out and good in. It’s a losing battle if indeed all of humanity has hearts fashioned by the same creator (verse 15). It’s a losing battle if indeed the measure of goodness according to Yahweh is righteousness and justice (verse 5).
The way to victory begins in a different heart condition — fearfulness, yes, but fear of Yahweh only. In other words, trust in Yahweh, remembering Yahweh’s steadfast, unfailing love throughout our lives and history. Do not put your trust in anyone or anything else. So, we are back to the summons in verse 8 of the psalm “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.” Now our hearts are glad and expectant. Now “the eye of the Lord” is on us, a far more intimate expression of God’s looking than was described in verse 13.
Preaching into your context this week, what do you see? Is your nation proclaiming its divine chosen-ness in words but in every single action placing trust (money, resources, praise) in war horses, a President, or any other “vain hope for victory” that cannot save us from ourselves (verse 17)? Or, is your nation revealing its kinship with Yahweh in its acts of righteousness and justice for those who are most vulnerable in the land? Psalm 33 should humble in nation with its sweeping scale of the cosmos and its reminder that, ultimately, no one nation is the hope of creation.
But I wonder if this psalm has something to say also to any congregation or denomination that boasts in its chosen-ness? While not investing in war horses per se, perhaps its investing in the latest technology or maintaining a crumbling building or using missions money to clean up a parking lot … more common ways in which a church might be paying to cheat death, placing energy in a “vain hope for victory” that cannot save a church. The psalm asks the congregation: in whom do we trust? For whom do we wait for direction?
Lynn Jost, “Psalm 33, America, and Empire,” in Direction 35/1 (2006).73.
Most of the psalms in Book One of the Psalter have superscriptions that attribute the psalm to David. There are exceptions (See Psalms 1-2, 10). According to J. Clinton McCann, Psalm 33 may actually be a continuation of Psalm 32, a penitential psalm associated with David. See J. Clinton McCann, “Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, David L. Peterson, ed. Vol. 4. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 809.