It is the hunch of some scholars (including me) that Psalm 29 is a liturgical script (or an echo of a liturgical script) that served an annual pageant in the Jerusalem temple in ancient Israel. The intent of that pageant was to perform a drama whereby YHWH was designated as King of the gods for the coming year. The pageant featured a contest among the gods to see who best qualified for that designation; but of course the outcome was assured for YHWH by the shape of the drama.
I invite you, dear reader, to entertain (for now) that scholarly hunch in order to see how it may illumine our reading of the Psalm.
The Psalm readily divides into four unequal parts:
...In verses 1-2, YHWH is promoted as a candidate for God for the coming year and is commended by the singers of the Psalm. They bid for praise for YHWH with the opening imperatives. Notice that the name, YHWH, is reiterated four times, not unlike a political nominating speech in which the candidate’s name is mentioned as often as possible. The imperative “ascribe” is addressed to “the sons of gods,” so that the poetry imagines a liturgic contest being conducted in heaven among the gods, as if the gods were to choose a “chief god” for the next year. Notice the double use of “glory” to which we will return.
...In verses 3-9a, the main body of the Psalm, like every other candidate YHWH must perform a feat of power in order to show why and in what way YHWH is eligible to become God for the coming year. It is often noted that the term “voice” occurs seven times, a perfect number to characterize a perfect action. These verses in fact portray a mighty storm; YHWH is portrayed as a storm God, appropriating some of the action and force of the old Canaanite storm God, Baal. The purpose of these verses is to underscore the massive power of YHWH who is thereby commended as the real God. The geography of these verses trace a mighty rainstorm that breaks over the Mediterranean Sea, hits the cedar trees on the coast of Lebanon, and sweeps down into the wilderness of Kadesh to the south; it is all taken as an exhibit of uncommon divine power. This is the God who can ride on the rain clouds, bring the waters, and cause ruin in the wake of the storm (see Deuteronomy 33:26, Psalms 68:4, Psalm 104:3, and Nahum 1:3). We can imagine, within the confines of the drama, that the other gods perform their great feats; none of them can rival the power of YHWH.
...At the end of this mighty performance, in verse 9b, all those who have witnessed this mighty performance are invited to “vote,” to indicate their preference for the “head god” for the coming year. The vote is unanimous! “All cry ‘glory.’” All assert that YHWH is best qualified to be the king-god. All are mightily impressed with the power of YHWH. All conclude that no other god can compete with YHWH. Within the liturgy, the “all” would include “the sons of God” in heaven and all the faithful gathered in the temple. It would also include all the other creatures who gather in awe before their creator, all fire and hail, all snow and frost, stormy wind, mountains, hills, fruit trees, cedars, wild animals, cattle, creeping things, flying birds, kings and princes (see Psalm 148:7-11). All in heaven and earth are agreed: YHWH is God; to him sound glory. Or as we familiarly pray, “Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.”
...Finally, after the mighty performance and the assertion of “all” who witnessed the performance, YHWH is newly enthroned as king (vv. 10-11). Verse 10, in doxological language, imagines that YHWH is now conducted to the throne where sits the confirmed God-king for the coming year. But notice, the throne of God is “over the flood.” In verse 3 the “mighty waters” had been a force of rebellious chaos. But now those same flood waters that surge around and threaten the earth have all been tamed and settled. Those waters are now completely in obedience to the Lord of creation, so still and settled and stable that the divine throne can be situated there. God has fully mastered chaos (see Mark 4:35-41)! And from that newly situated throne, the new Lord of all creation issues a blessing (or benediction). The blessing is for “his people.” The term, twice voiced, may refer to Israel. But since this is the Lord of all creation, it may count all people as “his people.” The new God-king declares a new reign of peace (shalom) that will put an end to the chaos just witnessed.
Thus the liturgy performs the narrative of how the lived experience of chaos (in both history and “nature”) is tamed and made into an obedient subject of YHWH, now destined to do the will of the creator. It may be, indeed, that this liturgy served its reassuring purpose in times of great historical upheaval, so that the liturgy performs a counter-reality, counter to what is known and lived in the life of the world.
It may be that it will strike you as odd to think that anyone in the orbit of biblical faith could, concerning such serious matters, engage in such playful imagination. If you think that, I want you to consider, in light of the foregoing, what happens in and through the liturgy in the two great inflection points of the Christian liturgical year.
Consider Christmas. Of course we know that Jesus as a historical figure was born in Bethlehem of Judea long ago. In our Christmas pageants, however, we telescope the years from then until now and intend to make that ancient birth real life, present tense. Thus we are able to sing, even when we know better:
Give ye heed to what we say: News, news!
Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before him bow,
and he is in the manger now.
Christ is born today, Christ is born today!
(“Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” United Methodist Hymnal, 224)
On *this day** earth shall ring*
with the song children sing to the Lord, Christ our King,
born on earth to save us;
him the Father gave us.
Ideooo, ideooo, ideo gloria in excelsis Deo.
(“On this Day Earth shall Ring,” ibid, 248)
Even when we do not sing “today” or “this day,” we still sing present tense as if the birth were now. We sing “today” or “this day” because the liturgical performance has a quality of reality of its own, not unlike, I suggest, the pageant of kingship for YHWH in ancient Israel.
Joy the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing.
(“Joy to the World,” ibid, 246)
Now is the time of birth and coming. Now is the time for joy. Now is the time of the “wonder of his love.”
Or consider Easter: We confess that Jesus was executed by the Roman governor and raised three days later; nonetheless in our singing the accent is upon “today” as the day of resurrected life:
Christ the Lord is risen *today*, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus sing, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens and earth rely, Alleluia!
(“Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” ibid, 302)
In our singing we are able telescope the times and let it be “today,” as the day of new life. For that glorious day we muster our best music, our best flowers, and our best preaching in order to re-perform that wonder of new life.
Thus we are able to see that both Christmas and Easter are pageants of wonder whereby the church, in its liturgical imagination, brings these ancient memories to present tense as doxological reality. It is not much of a strain, after such considerations, to think that ancient Israel, in its own doxological imaginative dialect in the Psalm, could employ the same transport of wonder concerning the rule of YHWH from then to now, from there to here.
When we consider the mighty performance of YHWH as certification to be qualified to be king of the gods, we can transfer that performance in the Psalm to King Jesus. We may do so when we reiterate the mighty powers of the storm God to the transformative ways of King Jesus. The mighty performance of Jesus, however, is not to wreak havoc as does that ancient storm toward the sea, cedars, and the desert. When the church recites the mighty deeds of Jesus that exhibit his rule they are of a very different ilk from that of the ancient storm god:
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22)
These specific transformations are markers of the Lordship of Jesus. This is the one who commands the demons and the powers of death. Indeed, we may imagine that every time the church gathers to sing its doxologies to Jesus, it is re-performing the liturgy whereby Jesus is made king yet again. Jesus is “king of kings” and “Lord of Lords,” and that reality cannot be re-performed too often. He is, as we sing, Lord of all our history. But he is, as we also sing, Lord of heaven and earth, of nature as well as history:
Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature,
O thou of God and man the Son,
thee will I cherish, thee will I honor,
thou my soul’s glory, joy and crown.
Jesus is fairer … Jesus is purer … Jesus shines purer…
(“Fairest Lord Jesus,” ibid, 189)
Thus on all counts, we can let Psalm 29 serve, in Christian imagination, for our Christmas, for our Easter, for our Epiphany, for our every worship and our every doxology. All can exclaim “Glory” as did the angels over Bethlehem. And when we hear the opening glory of the Psalm, we can listen for the concluding “peace” of the Psalm, the peace sung at Bethlehem:
“Glory* to God in the highest,*
and on earth *peace** among those whom he favors.”* (Luke 2:14)
It is no wonder that the wise men appear in Epiphany:
Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
King indeed! It is no wonder that “heaven and nature sing”!
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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