Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20
Let’s go with the snow. It stands out in the text, because it is rare in the Bible, as it is in Palestine.
Like all the psalms, this poetic text contains many more rich images than any one sermon could possibly deal with; so, for now, let’s go with the snow:
[God] gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs — who can stand before his cold? (Psalm 147:16-17)
This sounds like Minnesota in winter, and it certainly fits the season here in the frozen north. But it doesn’t fit so well in the land of the text, and that’s the point. The snow, the frost, the hail — they are wild and uncontrollable; they are unexpected and have huge consequences; they are remarkable and make you take notice. They are divine mysteries (Job 38:22-23), so sometimes in the Bible snow serves as a sign that God is up to something (for example, here and in Psalms 68:4; 148:8). Those of us who are used to snow in this Christmas season need to be reminded that we should not get completely “used to” the work of God in the world — and certainly not the divine word. They are meant to surprise.
Why the snow in Psalm 147? It does not seem accidental. The part of the psalm that comprises our text is quite carefully constructed:
A Praise the Lord v. 12
B God’s unique care for God’s people vv. 12-14
C God sends out the divine word v. 15
D God sends out snow, wind, and hail vv. 16-17
C’ God sends out God’s word of power vv. 18-19
B’ God’s unique care for God’s people v. 20a
A’ Praise the Lord v. 20b
In other words, at the center of this part of the poem we find those strong and unexpected phenomena of weather illustrating the unexpected and effective word of God in the surrounding verses.
In this regard, the psalm parallels those well-known verses of Isaiah:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
God’s word accomplishes God’s purpose. So do snow, wind, and rain. Sometimes, snow, wind, and rain wreak havoc; sometimes they provide the moisture for the earth that is necessary to produce the “finest” wheat (Psalm 147:14). God’s word, too, is meant to bring life and hope; but sometimes, in order to do that, it must challenge and condemn — perhaps doing both at the same time. The word of God is as life-giving and dangerous as snow and wind, and the how and why of this is as mysterious as the how and why of God’s unique choice of Israel and Zion (v. 20a).
Why Israel, why then? As we know from Genesis 12:3, God’s choice of Abraham and Sarah is only for the sake of the world, to be a blessing to all. But it is easy for us latter-day Sarahs and Abrahams to forget that calling, to bask in the glory and forget the mission, to tame the surprise — especially when everything seems as calm and pretty as the “Silent Night” of Christmas Eve.
There are other surprises in the psalm (outside of today’s liturgical text). The same God who names and numbers the stars cares for the downtrodden and the outcasts, heals the brokenhearted, and feeds the young birds (Psalm 147:2-9). Who’d have thought it? Moreover, God does not require icons of culture like the strength of the horse (or the Harley?) or the speed of the Olympic runner (or the Porsche?) — as impressive as those things are — to do God’s work (v. 10). The wounded and the marginalized will do. What builds up and protects is hope in God’s steadfast love, which God freely offers to all (v. 11).
Sometimes, it may be necessary for God to bar the gates of the city (Psalm 147:13) to save God’s people from the “wicked” (v. 6), but only after “all the outs are in free” — the wounded, the outcasts, the strangers, the orphans and widows (Psalm 146:9).1 In God’s city, none are excluded but the excluders.
Psalm 147 so closely unites God’s creative work (stars, wheat, water, snow, wind) and God’s redemptive work (saving, healing, protecting) that they become essentially indistinguishable. God is one, and so, finally, is God’s work. That announcement is made again in today’s Gospel and in the gift of Christmas. The word of creation now becomes the Word made flesh, the word of salvation. With that, the promise to Sarah and Abraham is fulfilled — that “unique” people of God (Psalm 147:20a) is thrown open to “all who received him” (John 1:12). It’s another surprise; everything is blown open, and God treats all nations and all people the same: “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain [and snow!] on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Preachers in northern countries might need to turn the psalm’s imagery around in order to catch people’s attention. God’s word is like the snow? We take that for granted. So maybe God’s word would be like a December tornado, as unexpected and powerful as Job’s whirlwind (Job 38:1). In that tornado, Job found a word of God that challenged everything, especially Job’s own presumption. Job would never comprehend all things, but the fact that God actually showed up was enough to give him new life (Job 42:5-6). We believe and proclaim that in that humble Christmas manger, God actually showed up. How odd. How challenging.
1 The psalms of the Psalter’s final doxology (Psalms 146-150) seem to be deliberately connected in several ways. For example, the widows and orphans of Psalm 146 mirror the outcasts and downtrodden of Psalm 147; the strong snows and winds of Psalm 147 sing God’s praise in Psalm 148 (v. 8).