Commentary on Psalm 97
The exposition of Psalm 97 need not be overly complex. The structure of the text defines a clear, three-part structure of which the preacher can make good use.
Part one (1-5): the Lord reigns in unmatched and inconceivable power
The assertion of God’s kingship should ring familiar to even occasional readers of the Psalter. The images that this psalm in particular marshals to depict the sheer power of the Lord’s rule are, however, quite striking. The Lord is so supremely mighty that he wears thunderstorms like human kings might wear fine robes. Where an ordinary king might employ a herald, or possibly some troops to go ahead of him and announce his presence, the Lord sends forth fire that consumes all that might oppose the divine will. God is, in fact, so blazingly, transcendently powerful that the creation itself, the earth and the mountains, cannot stand the force of God’s presence—the earth quakes and trembles, and the mountains dissolve like overheated candles. The preacher can certainly highlight this segment of the text to good rhetorical effect, possibly exploring connections to other texts recounting the dramatic appearances of God in similar storm imagery.
The note in the second part of verse 2 must not be overlooked, however. Amidst all the pyrotechnics surrounding the Lord’s presence, the psalm remarks that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” In other words, the divine kingship that is so graphically illustrated in this passage has its basis in the complete rightness that makes for wholeness, peace, and goodness, and in the actions that are taken in order to pursue and advance such righteousness. Ultimately, then, the first thing that Psalm 97 has to declare is that the Lord is the almighty king whose reign is based on and acts in favor of what is good and right.
Part two (6-9): creation responds to the presence of the Lord
The coming of the Lord in such power irresistibly calls forth a response from both the inanimate creation and the human community. They see and acknowledge both the magnitude of God’s power and the righteousness that defines and directs it. Next, the text focuses on those who are not worshipers of the Lord, and declares that their dependence on and allegiance to their idols is revealed to be ludicrous in light of the Lord’s transcendent glory. Finally, Israel, as God’s particular people, is described as responding to the Lord’s superiority over all other powers with celebration.
The preacher may find here numerous points of connection with the congregation. The church ought to feel the impulse to respond to God’s glorious and powerful works with witness and proclamation. All people need the reminder that dependence on any other power is ultimately futile. The church as a body of God’s covenant people is called to celebrate God’s mighty acts as a central feature of their common life and worship. Psalm 97 makes and illustrates all of these claims.
Part three (10-12): individuals are called to respond
The final segment of the psalm considers the question of how an individual ought to respond to such a God. Verse 10 is the crux of that response, and, unfortunately, the RSV and NRSV make an unnecessary change to the underlying Hebrew text that obscures the point. It is best to read the opening line of this verse, along with most translators, as an imperative: “O you who love the LORD, hate evil!” (ESV). This is, fundamentally, the hallmark of a life lived in proper response to the power, righteousness, and justice of the Lord: the rejection and abhorrence of evil, which is to say, of any thought, word, or deed that runs contrary to righteousness. This done, the worshiper of the Lord is free to enjoy the benefits of his reign: light, joy, and thanksgiving.
Clearly, the preacher’s principal task here is to acknowledge and deal with the fact that human beings are, to put it mildly, not all that good at hating evil and rejecting all unrighteousness. Indeed, when the thorough and consistent unrighteousness of human conduct is considered, the psalm’s presentation of God’s thunderous power and his absolute opposition to evil is unnerving. That point being made, a move to the Lord’s gracious work of overcoming human sin is in order. Depending on the preacher’s particular setting, this can come by way of prophetic passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34 or by moving directly to New Testament texts treating forgiveness of sin and God’s reconciliation with humankind. Either way, the point is to offer the congregation permission and encouragement to strive in good faith to follow the psalmist’s exhortations and to rejoice, give thanks, and await the dawning of light and joy with good confidence.