Commentary on Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
God of Power, God of the People
Some of the psalms are among the easiest parts of the Bible to understand. The comforting message of Psalm 23, the expression of wonder at the night sky in Psalm 8, or the confession of sin in Psalm 51 are examples. These psalms speak directly and need no commentary.
Psalm 68, however, is not a part of this group. In fact almost every commentator comments on how difficult this psalm is to understand. For example, the notes in the Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford, 2004) say simply, “many consider it to be the most difficult psalm in the Psalter.”
In reading through the psalm, however, it seems to me that these difficulties have been exaggerated. Parts of the psalm are quite clear and can in fact aid in understanding and bolstering one’s Christian faith. In what follows, we shall concentrate on the two sections listed in the lectionary. But for an introductory access to the psalm note verse 19: This short verse could be at the start of one’s daily prayer:
Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation!
The Face of God (68:1-3)
Psalm 67 begins with a wish, “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us.” The language is reminiscent of the benediction in Numbers 6:24-26. Though not apparent in the NRSV translation, Psalm 68 links up with that “face” imagery from Psalm 67. It
expresses the wish that those who hate God “flee from his face” (verse 1 in Hebrew; NRSV has “before him”). Verse 2 strengthens that wish. Verse 3 expresses the wish that the righteous be joyful “before the face of God” (verse 3 in Hebrew; NRSV has “before God”). The picture at the beginning of this psalm is that of God’s people freed from persecution by enemies, celebrating joyfully in the presence of God.
Sing to the Rider of the Clouds and the Rescuer of the Homeless! (68:4-6)
Now the script for the celebration is supplied. A worship leader calls the people to sing a hymn! This section follows the typical pattern of a hymn as exemplified in Psalm 113, with a call to praise (113:1-3) followed by reasons for praise (113:4-9).
These verses sound a triple call to the congregation to praise God: “sing to God, sing praises to his name, lift up a song to him.” They indicate that there are reasons for praising God: 1) God is mighty, using the clouds as a chariot (see also Psalm 104:3); 2) God is also merciful, concerned about individual persons who need help. God is a Father to orphans and Protector of widows who also cares for the homeless and prisoners (verses 5-6). This short hymnic fragment thus perfectly exhibits the pattern of the hymn. It offers an invitation to praise the Lord, and indicates that such praising makes sense because of what God has done and continues to do.
Drum Major for the People, Provider for the Needy (68:7-10)
The psalm continues to give reasons for praising God. The imagery shifts from God as Cloud Rider to the picture of God as leading a parade of his people as they march through the desert! To use an image that Martin Luther King liked, God is a Drum Major! The whole earth quakes at the magnificence of this event (verse 8). But the merciful dimension of God’s action toward the people is also present: God sends rain on the crops, as a Good Shepherd provides a place for them to live, even the needy among them (verses 9-10).
Power Move (68:32-35)
This closing section again follows the pattern of a hymn. Two imperatives “Sing…sing” call all the kingdoms of the earth to praise God, the Lord (verse 32). This time the reasons for praise are all about power. The Hebrew word for power is ‘oz, occurring here four times. God is once again the Cloud Rider (verse 33; see also verse 4) who calls out with a powerful (Hebrew ‘oz; NRSV “mighty”) voice, probably referring to the roaring thunder. Verse 34 speaks twice about God’s majesty and power in the skies. Finally, the psalm declares that God does not hoard all that power, but passes on power to the people, the people of God (verse 35).
God of Power, God of the People
The God of whom this psalm speaks is a God of power. This is a God who rides on the clouds and whose power is not limited to the earth but extends to the entire universe (68:34, “in the skies”). This God acts with power in history, driving away enemy armies (Psalm 68:1, 11-14, 21-23, 30-31 and in nature, through earthquake, thunder, and rain (Psalm 68:8-10).
This God, however, is not power hungry. God gives power to the people of God (68:35). And God watches over the powerless: the orphans, widows, homeless, and prisoners (68:5).
The preacher on this Sunday may choose to focus on the prayer of Jesus in John 17 or the account of the Ascension in Acts 1, or the comforting words from 1 Peter. The theology of this sturdy psalm fills in something of the background for understanding all three of these accounts. When Jesus was lifted up and taken into heaven he became the “cloud rider,” now seated at the heavenly throne of power. And the God to whom Jesus prays is the Father and Protector not only of the orphan and widow (Psalm 68:5) but of all God’s people (John 17:11). This God is the Holy Father who gives his Son Jesus authority over all people (John 17:1-2,11). Believers who are suffering can let their weight down on the promise that they should “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you,” knowing that “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10-11).
June 5, 2011