< January 08, 2017 >

Commentary on Psalm 29

 

Psalm 29 is classified as a Community Hymn, but is often considered an Enthronement psalm because of its striking similarities with Psalms 93-99.

Enthronement psalms are those that celebrate God’s sovereign reign over the world, and a cursory reading of Psalm 29 (see especially verse 10) reveals the reasons why such a designation may be appropriate.

Many scholars posit that Psalm 29 is one of the earliest Hebrew psalm compositions, an adaptation and/or incorporation of various elements of hymns to Baal, the Canaanite fertility and weather god. But Psalm 29 borrows those elements and “turns them on their heads.” The message of Psalm 29 is that Yahweh, not Baal, is the God whom the Israelites can rely on to rule over creation and provide peace (better, well-being) for the land and the people. How, then, does the singer of Psalm 29 present the case for Yahweh?

In the first two verses of the Psalm, the word “ascribe” (NRSV) occurs three times. The Hebrew word is yahab and means “give,” suggesting perhaps a better translation of “acknowledge.” The psalmist calls upon hearers to acknowledge the Lord, the Lord’s glory and strength, and the glory of the Lord’s name. The hearers who are called to acknowledge the Lord in verse 1 are “heavenly beings” (NRSV), in Hebrew beney ‘elohim (children of god). The identity of this group is open to question and interpretation.

Some maintain that the words refer to a “divine, heavenly council” (see Job 1:6). Others, and in the context of Psalm 29, very plausibly, assert that the call issued in verse 1 is to Canaanite gods and goddesses to recognize Yahweh as the true god. And yet others suggest that the call is to a “heavenly choir,” who then will lead the “earthly congregation” in praise of the sovereign God.

Verses 3-9 speak seven times of the “voice of the Lord” (qol yhwh) as sovereign over or emanating out of the waters and mighty waters, the lightning and thunder, the cedars of Lebanon, the flames of fire, the earthquake, and the mighty wind, as we see also in the Enthronement Psalms 93-99. All of these natural phenomena are elements of theophany experiences (appearances of the presence of God) in the Old Testament such as we see in Genesis 15, Exodus 3 and 19, 1 Kings 19, and Ezekiel 1.

These passages tell us that God is present in all of the magnificent, awe-inspiring, and sometimes terrifying elements of creation. But as we see in the story of Elijah’s encounter with God in 1 Kings 19, sometimes God is present in “a sheer silence” (NRSV), what some of us have learned as a “still small voice.” The central message of Psalm 29, thus, is that Yahweh God is sovereign and that God’s reign extends to all creation in all its manifestations.

Verse 10 announces, according to the NRSV, that Yahweh “sits enthroned” over the flood, that Yahweh “sits enthroned” as king forever. The word translated “sits enthroned” is yashab in Hebrew and means simply to sit, to dwell, to settle down, to occupy. God sits or dwells over the earth and dwells or settles down in the midst of the people as sovereign. The first and only mention of humankind in Psalm 29 is in verse 11 -- “May the LORD bless his people with peace (shalom).” As with so many of the Enthronement Psalms, humanity is not the focus; rather the focus is on God’s sovereignty.

While Psalm 29 may have been a call to the Canaanite gods and goddesses, particularly Baal, to observe and acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all creation, it is also a sober reminder to humanity of our place within the created order. In Genesis 1, God says to the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply ... subdue the earth ... have dominion ... ” And the ever-enduring, ever-present question is, “Should we interpret these words as permission to do with creation as we like, to use it for the sole good of humanity? Or do the words give humanity a special responsibility to care for creation as God would care for it? Richard Bauckham, in a book titled The Bible and Ecology, writes:

Cosmic humility is a much-needed ecological virtue. We need the humility to recognize that our place in the world is a limited one. We need the humility to ‘walk more lightly upon the Earth, with more regard for the life around us.’ We need the humility to recognize the unforeseeable risks of technology before we ruin the world in pursuit of technological fixes to all our problems. We need the humility to know ourselves as creatures within creation, not gods over creation, the humility of knowing that only God is God (Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 46).

The Enthronement Psalms in general and Psalm 29 in particular ought to make us stop and consider, remind us of God’s sovereignty over God’s good creation, and indeed, invoke in us a little “cosmic humility.” The message of Psalm 29 may best be summed up in the closing words of the Lord’s Prayer. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever. Amen.”