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Politics of Scripture

Giving Strength—Psalm 29

Bookended by the call to ascribe glory and strength to the Lord, and the answering request that the Lord give strength and blessing to his people, Psalm 29 offers us a vision of good rule.

A Psalm of David.
1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
   ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
   worship the Lord in holy splendour. 

3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
   the God of glory thunders,
   the Lord, over mighty waters. 
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
   the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 

5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
   the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. 
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
   and Sirion like a young wild ox. 

7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. 
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
   the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 

9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
   and strips the forest bare;
   and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’ 

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
   the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever. 
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
   May the Lord bless his people with peace!

The psalm opens with an exhortation to the “heavenly beings,” that they should ascribe glory and strength to the Lord. Robert Alter, in his translation of the Psalms, renders the phrase here translated “heavenly beings” as “Sons of God,” and notes that the description carries connotations of heavenly courtiers, the assembly which surrounds God on his throne.

The first two verses culminate in the command to “worship the Lord in holy splendor.” The thrice-repeated command to “ascribe” glory is here made more explicit: what the heavenly courtiers are supposed to do is properly worship God.

Verses three through ten describe the power and majesty of God, fulfilling the command of verses one and two. The two attributes mentioned in the opening are glory and strength: God’s strength is described in images of him as he “breaks the cedars of Lebanon,” “shakes the wilderness,” “causes the oaks to whirl,” and “strips the forest bare.” Thunder, wind, earthquake, and flood are all majestic demonstrations of the Lord’s might in the natural world.

This strength is what leads to the end of verse nine, in which we are told “in his temple all say ‘Glory!’” Here we are brought back to the house of God—Alter translates it as “palace” rather than “temple”—where all his courtiers are praising him and speaking out loud of the glory which manifestly belongs to him.

Most of the descriptions of God that summon praise in the heavenly court begin with the words “The voice of the Lord…,” but in the middle of the psalm there is one verse that breaks the pattern. In the central image, God is described as making “Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.” Lebanon has already been mentioned in connection with cedar, but the name is also used elsewhere in the Old Testament in connection with valleys and low-lying territory (e.g., Joshua 11:17; 12:7). At the same time, Sirion is another name for one of the significant mountains of the region, Mount Hermon (e.g., Deuteronomy 3:19; 4:48).

When valleys and mountains “skip like a calf” and “like a young wild ox,” the image is clearly of an earthquake (later, in verse eight, we see that the voice of the Lord “shakes the wilderness”). The description of mountains shaking and falling, filling the valleys below, recalls the famous passage from Isaiah 40: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (40:4).

There are striking parallels between Psalm 29 and Isaiah 40. They both include an exhortation to speech. In Isaiah, it is a voice that says, “Cry out!” to which the prophet responds, “What shall I cry?” (40:6); the psalm tells us at least one thing that should be cried aloud, which is the glory and strength of God.

Both passages also describe the Lord’s might as it extends to the natural world. In the Isaiah passage, God’s power is described with more reference to his knowledge than to force. He has “measured the waters” and “marked off the heavens” (40:12); he is not taught justice by counselors (40:14); these descriptions emphasize His wisdom more than the raw power evident in thunder, fire, and flood, but the passage as a whole does not ignore God’s power. God’s breath is a “tempest” which carries off rulers like stubble (40:24), he “stretches out the heavens like a curtain” (40:22), he commands the starry host of heaven (40:26).

One of the more important parallels for our purposes is the connection between God’s glory and this display of power. The Isaiah passage, after declaring that the valleys will be exalted and the mountains made low, says that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (40:5). In the same way, Psalm 29 is clear that the display of God’s power draws forth from his courtiers their acclamation of his glory. They are commanded at the beginning to ascribe glory; then in verse nine, having witnessed the power of God in verses three through nine, “in his temple all say ‘Glory!’”

In both of these passages, the power of God is described as kingly power. In Psalm 29, God is “enthroned,” both “over the flood” and “as king forever”; he is attended by heavenly beings; he resides in a kingly house. In Isaiah 40, he “sits above the circle of the earth”; he governs the fates of princes and rulers; his “arm rules.” The mighty power of God is supposed to draw praise from his people. God’s power is in service of his glory.

Both Psalm 29 and Isaiah 40 have another fascinating connection, as they describe the result of God’s rule for his people. It might make us uneasy to say that God rules for his own glory, but we are assured that his rule and glory also overflow to the good of his people.

Isaiah 40 concludes with the famous description of those who wait on the Lord: “they shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint” (verse 31). God’s inexhaustible strength, which brings him glory, is also poured out onto his people.

Psalm 29 makes a similar move. The final verse of the poem asks the Lord to share his power: “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (verse 11). Just as the opening verses exhorted the reader to ascribe strength and glory to God, now God is exhorted to give strength and blessing to his people.

In political terms, this psalm (especially when read alongside Isaiah 40) highlights the way in which people and rulers are both united and distinct. If a ruler is perfect, his strength will be given to his people; whatever praise they give him will not be lost, but will return to them and to their benefit. His good and theirs can be distinguished, but they are not separate.

When a ruler is imperfect, as must be the case in this world, we cannot expect the same sort of harmony to exist. But we can look to it with hope, and pray that earthly regimes will conform more and more to the heavenly pattern we will someday experience for ourselves.

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