Psalms Week 9
The Lord Reigns: Psalms 47, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 47; Psalm 93; Psalm 94; Psalm 95; Psalm 96; Psalm 97; Psalm 98; Psalm 99
These eight psalms all deal with the idea of God’s kingship. Only two of them are titled — Psalms 47 (to the sons of Korah) and 98 (simply “A Psalm”). As we consider this collection, it is instructive to recall the importance of the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven (as it is referred to in Matthew’s Gospel), in the New Testament.
Psalm 47 begins by summoning “all peoples” to clap and shout with songs of joy because the Lord/the Most High is awesome and a great king over the whole earth (Psalm 47:1–2). “All peoples” in this instance likely refers to all Israelites, for in the very next breath the psalmist notes that God’s kingship was manifested by subduing other nations while selecting the loved and chosen pride of Jacob (47:3–4).
In this hymn — with its strong emphasis on praise — God has gone up (presumably to the divine throne) while accompanied with shouts and trumpet blares. This marvelous scene elicits calls to sing praises to the divine king. Indeed, how would praise not be appropriate, given God’s kingship over the whole earth (47:5–7)? This reference to all the earth provides a natural transition to the declaration that, in point of fact, God rules over all nations from the holy throne (47:8).
This is no local divine king. Indeed, the psalmist does not shrink from asserting that the princes of the peoples will (eventually) gather as the people of Abraham’s God. That should not be surprising in light of the fact that even the earth’s shields — a word which in this case probably refers to rulers — also belong to God. No wonder this God is highly exalted (47:8–9). If it is appropriate to praise the kings of great countries, then how much more appropriate is it to praise the divine king of all the earth and all peoples?
Psalm 93 is brief, almost cryptic, but profound in its claim. Here we are told that the Lord is king and outfitted — for a king must dress like a king! — with majesty and strength. Equally, an established and unmovable earth is connected to this kingship, which boasts an everlasting throne (93:1–2). In case there is any doubt about the sort of power this king wields, it is compared to the roaring of mighty rivers — floods, according to most translations. But these are nothing compared to the Lord’s power (93:3–4). The psalm ends by noting that for all time God’s decrees are certain and holiness rests on God’s temple (93:5). This is no run-of-the-mill king.
Neither the noun king nor the verb rule occurs in Psalm 94. Still, the focus is on a God able to avenge wrongdoing as judge of the earth (94:1–2). That is, God is not called king in this instance, but God acts as a king. The world is full of arrogant, wicked folks who make a divine judge necessary (94:3). Unfortunately, the wicked do more than boast about their nefarious ways (94:4). They have it in especially for God’s people (94:5). Specifically, they take the lives of those whom God’s people are supposed to care for: the widow, the sojourner, and the fatherless (94:6). [Author’s Note 1] Such arrogant and callous behavior is explained by the foolish belief that the Lord cannot see what injustices are being committed (94:7).
The psalmist is at pains to expose such foolishness (94:8). What hubris to think that the One who created ears or eyes can neither hear nor see (94:9). How ridiculous to surmise that the One who takes whole nations to task will let egregious behavior go unchecked (94:10). What inanity not to realize that the Lord knows what folks are thinking (94:11). Folks who behave in this manner are not only wicked, but stupid.
The truly blessed are those who have been reprimanded by the Lord and learned their lesson (94:12). Such people have to know that, in time, divine judgment will take its course on the wicked (94:13). Ultimately, the Lord neither forgets Israel nor allows injustice (94:14–15).
In the remainder of the psalm, the psalmist speaks as an individual, perhaps as a personification of Israel. The psalmist wants to know who else will take on the wicked (94:16). Without the Lord to help, the psalmist would have been condemned to the netherworld, that is, the land of silence (94:17). When worried about stumbling, the psalmist knew the Lord would not allow that (94:18). Deep concerns were met with the Lord’s consolation (94:19). Though the wicked do everything possible to discomfit the righteous, the Lord remains a rock (94:21–22). Finally, the wicked will be severely judged (94:23), just as initially promised (94:1). God is not called a king in this psalm, but God is a king who acts as judge.
Apart from its conclusion, Psalm 95 is a straightforward liturgy praising God as king. It begins by summoning the people to extol God with their voices. Thanksgiving and songs of praise are invoked (95:1–2). The grounds for this are in 95:3: the Lord is a great God and a great king above all gods. Praise is the only appropriate response. The specifics are compelling. All aspects of the created order are in God’s hands and even belong to God, including the earth’s innermost parts, the mountaintops, and the sea (95:4–5).
This call to worship, bow down, and kneel has an intimate dimension. This is because the Lord is our — that is, the summoned worshipers’ — maker. Indeed, we are people who graze in God’s pasture and the actual sheep who belong to God (95:6–7). This evokes the divine shepherd imagery of Psalm 23.
Given these lofty images, the final segment of Psalm 95 seems abrupt. The psalm transitions sharply from the uplifting mood of undiluted praise to a sobering admonition. Its last section reminds the people who are worshipping to attend to God’s voice in contrast to what their ancestors did at Meribah and Massah (95:7d–8). These geographical markers allude to Israel’s famous complaint in the wilderness that they were about to perish for lack of water, even though God had already supplied them with water previously (Exodus 15:22–27; 17:1–7; Numbers 20:1–13). From God’s perspective, the people’s actions amounted to a test of God’s intentions and power. This led to a terrible judgment (Psalm 95:9–11).
Worship is a wondrous activity for God’s people. Indeed, we are at heart a worshipping community. Liturgy is not only our order of service; it is a way of life. But worship is grounded in reality. This means that even our failures are integral to worship. We pray prayers of confession for this reason. And we remember specific past failures of our ancestors in the faith, as well as our own shortcomings. We do this not to wallow, but to be reminded in the context of worship always to be alert to our God and king.
Psalm 96 is a glorious hymn of praise that is replete with commands geared to highlight God’s reign as king (see 96:10). In all, there are 18 imperatives (second-person commands) or jussives (first- or third-person commands), all directed to acknowledge God as one who rules, judges, brings salvation, works in the people’s behalf, and acts with righteousness and truth. Three times we (“all the earth”) are urged to sing to God or bless God’s name (96:1–2). [Author’s Note 2] Twice we are told to tell about the Lord’s salvation daily or declare God’s glory or works among all the people (96:2b–3). Three times we are to ascribe to the Lord: to ascribe glory and strength, and the glory due to God’s name (96:7–8). As well, we are to bring an offering and enter God’s courts as well as worship the Lord outfitted with holiness. The whole earth is even to tremble before God (96:8b–9). Reaching something of a crescendo, we should say among the nations: “The Lord is king” (96:10). Finally, the heavens are to be glad, the earth is to rejoice, the sea and everything in it are to roar, the fields and their contents are to exult, and the trees are to sing for joy before the Lord (96:11–12). God’s people are a worshipping community, and God’s world is a worshipping entity.
The non-imperative parts of this psalm explain why so many commands are needed. This great God deserves worship commensurate with God’s greatness (96:4). All other gods are not gods, but the God deserving of praise made the heavens (here meaning everything; 96:5). In God’s sanctuary are found honor, majesty, strength, and beauty (96:6). How could one not praise that? This Lord, who is king, will judge the peoples with fairness, righteousness, and truth (96:10, 13). Only one command is fitting in light of such a deity, regardless of the precise word used: worship. God is king.
In Psalm 97 the idea of God’s kingship is connected to the idea of God’s universality. To be sure, God’s particular community is still in mind (97:8), but the overall context encompasses the whole earth and all peoples. This note is sounded immediately when the earth is called to rejoice and the coastlands are urged to be glad at the fact that the Lord reigns (97:1). The very manifestations of God are universal in impact. God’s majesty and power are demonstrated by clouds/thick darkness and a throne supported by righteousness and justice (97:2). A fire that consumes God’s enemies emanates from the divine presence (97:3). The whole world is lighted up by divine lightning, which the world, while trembling, sees (97:4). Mountains — which symbolize size, permanence, grandeur — incredibly melt before the Lord (97:5). These are not local phenomena; they extend everywhere and touch everything. Even the skies make known God’s righteousness so that all peoples behold the divine glory (97:6). If one has eyes to see, this should not be missed.
Given this universal outlook, those who either fail to recognize God or relish images and idols ought to be ashamed (97:8). In contrast, Zion/the daughters of Judah — standing here for Israel in general — are aware of God and God’s judgments, and they are pleased (97:8). How could they not be, since their deity, the Lord, is the Most High over all the earth and exalted above any other gods (if there be such!) (97:9)?
This psalm concludes by noting that those who love the Lord also hate evil. In turn, the Lord preserves the lives of the holy ones (i.e., saints), keeping them from the wicked (97:10). Light and joy are sown for these saints, now referred to as the righteous/upright in heart (97:11). Thus, the final word is to call on such folk to rejoice in the Lord and give thanks to God’s holy name (97:12). That is what both individuals and the community do in the presence of the divine king.
Psalm 98 continues the divine king motif. In this psalm, God’s actions in behalf of God’s elect people — experienced by Israel but seen by everyone else — prompt praise. Israel is to sing a new song in response to the Lord’s marvelous deeds, which include securing victory, revealing victory/vindication (of Israel) to the nations, and remembering divine commitments made to Israel (98:1–3). But, as noted, the praise called for is not confined to Israel: “all the earth” should break forth in song (98:4). In a wonderful ambiguity, people (Israel and not-Israel) are to take up musical instruments to extol the Lord, the king (98:5–6). Not only people, but the sea, the world, rivers, and hills are to get into the act (98:7–8). If those outside Israel wonder why they should be part of this praise-fest, an answer is provided by noting that the Lord — the king — will eventually judge all with righteousness and equity (98:9).
Psalm 99 is the last hymn in this series celebrating the Lord’s kingship over Israel and the whole earth. The proper response to the fact that the Lord reigns and is enthroned on the cherubim is the people’s trembling and the earth’s quaking (99:1). The psalmist declares unabashedly that the Lord is great in Zion — where the great temple is found — and therefore exalted over all the peoples (99:2). Clearly, God’s kingship cannot go unnoticed.
This divine kingship is coupled with God’s holiness. Twice in the next three verses we find the statement: “Holy is he” (99:3, 5). This proclamation of God’s holiness is related to worship. In both verses the call is to worship, either by praising the Lord’s name or by extolling at God’s footstool. In between is a verse (99:4) that seems to emphasize the divine king as a lover of justice, One who establishes equity and executes justice and righteousness among God’s people, but the translation Mighty King is problematic (the Hebrew literally reads: “the power of the king”). Still, given the context these features almost surely are attributable to the deity.
In a slightly different twist, the psalm continues by singling out Moses, Aaron, and Samuel as among the Lord’s priests and those who called on the divine name. God was responsive to their ministrations (99:6). This king attends to those who speak in behalf of the people. It is unclear whether them in 99:7 refers to the three stalwarts of 99:6 or to Israel in general. Perhaps it does not matter. What is clear is that God spoke (to them) and the result was obedience. Again, obedience is the appropriate response to a divine king.
This wonderful psalm ends by acknowledging God’s response — again, to them — in answering, forgiving, and taking their side (99:8). The sense in this case appears to be that all the people are in mind. Finally, returning to the theme of holiness noted above, there is an admonition to extol and worship God at God’s holy mountain because, after all, the Lord is a holy God.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Our psalms for this week emphasize the kingship of God. What does this designation communicate in terms of God’s character, actions, or role in the world? How would you relate the idea of God’s kingship in the psalms to the concept of the kingdom of God in the Gospels?
- In a modern period where there are fewer and fewer monarchies, is the metaphor of God as king still appropriate? If yes, why? If not, how would you update the metaphor?
- As we reflect on God as our king, these psalms remind us that the appropriate human response is worship. Psalm 95 mentions a number of different activities and postures involved in worship. Re-read the psalm in order to highlight them. What does the variety teach us about worship?
- Dr. Spina notes, “Liturgy is not only our order of service; it is a way of life.” How do you react to this statement? What does it mean to live a life of worship that encompasses everything from our shortcomings to God’s majesty?
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