For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 97. I have four items.
1. Psalm 97 describes a theophany, in which God is accompanied by clouds, darkness, thunder, a fire that consumes God’s enemies, the shaking of the earth, and the melting of the hills. Did the Psalmist believe that this sort of theophany occurred literally? Erhard Gerstenberger refers to the view that this theophany was believed to have occurred at creation, presumably as God defeated chaos, whereas the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary maintains that it will take place in the eschatological future when God redeems Israel and the nations give up their idols. Sigmund Mowinckel seems to regard the language as ritual, not as literal, and he thinks that it is part of a ceremony that concerns the annual renewal of creation. There is good reason to regard the theophanic language as symbolic or figurative rather than literal, for II Samuel 22 uses that sort of language to describe God’s deliverance of David, and yet, in the narrative of I-II Samuel, we do not see natural cataclysms when God delivers David from his enemies. In terms of ritual, Marvin Tate speculates that there could have been ritual ways to simulate a theophany—-shouts, horns, dancing, and silence. But Tate also says that actual thunderstorms could have served as theophanic moments, in the eyes of the ancient Hebrews. Another point to note is that there is at least one narrative in which God does appear in a theophany that is accompanied by natural cataclysms: the Sinai/Horeb revelation. Perhaps the plagues in the Exodus story would count, as well.
One question that I have is this: When ancient Near Easterners told stories about a god defeating chaos—-I think of Baal’s defeat of Yam or Mot—-did they hold that humans could actually see those battles? Or did they think that humans were only privy to the effects of those battles—-fertility replacing barrenness? I don’t know. Perhaps they did believe that the battles were occurring behind the scenes in the realm of the divine, away from human view. Or, on the other hand, maybe they regarded a thunderstorm as a manifestation of the battle, as the god appeared in a thunderstorm, defeating chaos and bringing forth fertility through rain.
In terms of my own view, I guess I’m the sort of person who—-if the text describes God as intensely powerful—-would like for the text to mean that God actually is intensely powerful! In my opinion, it takes away from the power of the imagery to regard it as merely symbolic of a national or political restoration, or even a personal restoration. If Tate is correct, this Psalm comes from Israel’s exilic or post-exilic periods, as Israel sought assurance that God would deliver her. If I were Israel in that time, I would want for God to enter the picture with a lot of fanfare, thereby convincing my oppressors that they are weak in the presence of God and that their gods are nothing. But to regard that sort of theophanic language as symbolic of something like, say, Israel returning from exile under Cyrus? That would be disappointing to me, especially since that event did not convince a lot of people that the God of Israel was the true God. After all, Cyrus had political motives for that move (i.e., to use Israel as a buffer between Persia and Egypt). I’m not saying that anyone argues that Psalm 97 is symbolic of Israel’s restoration under Cyrus, but rather I’m critiquing the notion that its author intended the Psalm to describe an event that was much more low-key than the Psalms’ actual language.
2. Peake’s Commentary makes an interesting statement about Psalm 97:
“The appearance of Yahweh is described in terms of primitive religion, when He was the God of fire and tempest, earthquake and volcano. These traits are retained, but united with that later and far more perfect religion, which recognised Him as the only God…and as a God of absolute righteousness.”
The extent to which this is true would be something to research. I myself am somewhat skeptical of the notion that primitive religion lacked an ethical focus and regarded the divine primarily as powerful and intimidating. But perhaps there’s something to it, even if it’s not completely accurate—-that religions can become more ethically-oriented as they develop. Some would argue the opposite, however, as they contend that there are “primitive” religions that have valuable elements that more “advanced” religions lack (i.e., sensitivity to the natural balance).
Whatever the merits of Peake’s comment, I appreciated the point that Psalm 97 not only presents God as powerful, but also as righteous.
3. Another point to make is that, even though Psalm 97 discusses cataclysms befalling the earth and God’s fire consuming God’s enemies, it still calls for the isles—-the uttermost regions of the earth—-to rejoice. Yes, the Psalm refers to the rejoicing of Zion, but does it also hold out a broader hope that even Gentiles will be blessed by God? Are even the Gentiles being invited to be righteous when verses 10-12 exhort people to hate evil and affirm that God preserves and delivers the righteous ones?
4. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Psalms 51-150 had one jewel in its discussion of Psalm 97. It refers to Jerome’s Letter 22.31, which is in NPNF 2.6:36. In this letter, Jerome talks about a hypothetical woman who cannot work with her hands due to her delicate upbringing, and she fears that nobody would take care of her if she lives to old age and becomes ill. Jerome says that she should trust that God will take care of her. Although this passage relates tangentially to Psalm 97 (as Jerome quotes v 8), it stood out to me because I related to its description of economic vulnerability.