Psalm 97 and Political Theology–Pekka Pitkänen

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Psalm 97 starts by extolling Yahweh’s supremacy over the world (vv. 1-7, 9), and this leads to an acknowledgement of his special role for Israel, with Zion/Jerusalem at its centre as his dwelling place (v. 8; note that the word ‘daughters’ is often used for villages, e.g. Josh. 15:45; 17:11, 16; Num 32:42; note also that Yahweh is present in the temple in the holy of holies at the ark between the cherubim, 1 Kings 8:1-13; cf. Ex 25:10-22) and for the righteous (vv.10-11), and to an exhortation for ethical and joyous living (vv. 10-12). A description of a theophany (vv. 2-5) is central for the declaration of Yahweh’s supremacy over the world. This description incorporates ancient Near Eastern theophanic motifs and calls to mind the ancient Near Eastern storm god, often called Baal in the area (esp. Late Bronze Ugarit). That Yahweh is being “contextualised” in terms of the storm god here but is at the same time taking his place and superseding him is reinforced by vv. 7, 9.

At the same time, the theophany reminds one of the Sinai theophany as described in Ex 19-20, Dt 5. There also, Yahweh can arguably be seen as replacing the storm god and other gods and setting himself above them (Ex 20:3; Dt 5:7), and Yahweh’s role in delivering Israel from Egypt is part of his supremacy over the gods (Ex 20:2; Dt 5:6; cf. Ex 12:12). Acknowledgement of Yahweh’s supremacy then naturally leads to an abandonment of idols (Ps 97:7; cf. Ex 20:4; Dt 5:8). The righteous in vv. 10-11 also seem to be linked with the Decalogue, in that they are said to keep Yahweh’s commandments, just as the second part of the Decalogue in particular concentrates on ethical-practical commands (Ex 13-15; Dt 5:17-21). Of course, the righteous serve as a common motif in the Psalms and in Old Testament wisdom literature as a whole. It is also typical that the righteous are pitted against the wicked, even when what exactly the wicked means is not always explicitly elaborated. Perhaps then a look at the decalogue can help towards clarifying this, along with looking at the rest of the torah. And, we may keep in mind here that the Decalogue has been included twice in the Old Testament (Ex 20, Dt 5) and is seen as direct revelation from Yahweh to the people at Sinai, a foundational place for Israel’s history and origins, and is thus of fundamental legal and ethical significance for the Old Testament.

In Christian usage, the related general principles of service of and devotion to Yahweh and associated ethical principles seem to transfer over from Psalm 97 in a rather straightforward manner. Assuming a link between the psalm and the Decalogue, at least from a reader’s perspective, most of what is in the Decalogue seems to transfer over similarly, at least at the level of principle. There is however one aspect where a bit of adaptation is needed when transferring over from these Old Testament texts. In the Old Testament, idols were statues of divine beings that could be made “alive” by an ‘opening of the mouth’ ritual. The statue then became a god for all practical purposes. The presence of gods was seen as a blessing (cf. Jdg 17), the departure of gods and their absence, including from the land in a national context a curse (cf. 1 Sam 4:11, 21-22; Ps 78:56-64). Trusting idols then meant putting one’s trust on something else than Yahweh and looking for a blessing outside the Yahwistic framework. From a New Testament perspective, an interesting point here is that greed is seen in the New Testament as one of the vices that pertain to idolatry (Eph 5:5; Col 5:5). All items in these two lists do fairly closely relate to desiring certain things that are not appropriate in the now new Christian framework that interprets things from the perspective of the Christ event and for the new Israel, that is, for all nations instead of for the “old” Israel alone. So, the idolatry command has now in many ways been transformed into an avoidance of greed, and the other points in the list can be seen to broadly emphasise adherence to the ethical and moral framework of the law at large that is itself in many ways summarised in the decalogue. In other words, the Decalogue can be seen to live on, but in a transformed fashion.

Focusing on greed as an issue, we can at least broadly think that it is desiring something extra outside the newly interpreted Yahwistic framework. Here the idolatry versus power issue described above still resonates. At a personal level, one may desire to get or achieve something, and not all such desire is bad by any means. However, that something one may desire may be inappropriate, or one may desire to achieve it by unfair means. And, one may actually be able to fulfil their unfair desire in practical terms. Or, comparably, at a societal and thus often also political level, it is possible for those in power to set rules where the powerful get better access or larger share of resources than the weak by unfair means. At an international and inter-societal level, it may be possible for a nation or community, even one with which one may identify oneself, to think of oppressing or invading another nation or people group in order to maintain its position, or to achieve something in that country that it might otherwise be able to. In a broad sense, then, from a biblical perspective, such actions can be seen as constituting idolatry. In order to prevent and remedy such problems, based on Yahwistic framework, individuals, societies and nations should instead seek to act in an ethical way that is not based on greed in their dealings with the other. Here we should also specifically remember that one of the characteristics of Christianity is that the message of salvation and Yahweh’s election and covenant that were previously largely confined to the nation of Israel have been extended by the New Testament to encompass all nations. Thus, the message of the Old Testament, and within it the avoidance of idolatry that previously could be seen to apply to the Jewish nation only can now be seen to apply to all peoples in the form of avoidance of greed. Consequently, the principle of avoidance of greed can be applied as a guiding framework for intergroup, inter-societal and international affairs also, instead of merely confining it to inner-societal affairs.

Thus, the Old Testament texts do call individuals and communities to trust that Yahweh is all-powerful and will stand behind those who abide by the ethical framework set by him. So, again, there is arguably a strong interplay between Yahwism and idolatry and personal, societal and international justice. One can see that Psalm 97, interpreted from a Yahwistic-Christian perspective, can thus be read as exhortation to meditate on how one can avoid idolatry by identifying their thoughts and actions along an ethical line of thinking that is based on justice and rejection of greed at all levels. Such an approach is also very much in line with many recent secular postcolonial approaches to politics, and therefore Christian groups in today’s postcolonial and post-Christendom world should be able to comfortably ally themselves with groups advocating such approaches in search of justice at all levels. As one practical example, as the United States and the world currently contemplate how to deal with such nations and situations as attested in North Korea, Iran or Syria, the ones in positions of power should meditate on whose interests are being promoted, those of humanity at large or merely those of one powerful interest group within it, also keeping in mind the many arguably justified criticisms about what has recently happened in Afghanistan and Iraq for example.

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Pekka Pitkänen is a Senior Lecturer in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, UK. He is the author of Central Sanctuary and Centralization of Worship In Ancient Israel (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2004) and Joshua in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series (Leicester: IVP, 2010). His current research focuses on Pentateuch-Joshua and the early history of Israel.

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