To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
1. Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.Psalm 47 (NRSV) – note: English verse numbering is used in this essay.
2. For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.
3. He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet.
4. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah.
5. God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.
8. God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.
9. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.
This year, on May 21, Western Christianity celebrates the Ascension of Jesus Christ (Eastern Christianity celebrates May 28). Jesus’ ascension is interpreted as a kind of royal enthronement, when according to the creed he rose to heaven and sat down at God’s right hand—a seat of ruling authority over all of creation (cf. Matt 28:18). With this feast day in mind, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have recommended Psalm 47 for our edification. It, too, sings of a divine enthronement. It is an effervescent ode to God’s all-encompassing kingship and by extension, when read through a Christian lens, the kingship of Jesus Christ. But how can we as modern peoples understand the political language of this psalm, when its image of divine monarchy feels so distant from our own political realities?
What makes the language of this psalm even more puzzling is that, as far as we know historically, its language does not reflect the political power of either Israel or Judah. Neither polity was ever an empire over multiple nations and princes. Even the fabled united kingdom of David and Solomon was relatively limited in its foreign reach. So the claims of “subdued peoples” in verse 3 and 9 have an aspirational, rather than historical, ring.
Israel and Judah had plenty of experience, however, at the other end of the imperial spear as the vassal subjects of serial empires: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and eventually Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, British, American. This language of empires and their “great kings” is attributed to God in this psalm, who is called a “great king” over all the earth (verse 2). The psalm reenacts God’s own enthronement as emperor. The downward trajectory of subdued peoples (taḥat, verse 3) is juxtaposed with God’s upward mobility (‘alah, verses 2, 5, and 9). You may imagine God ascending a dais, accompanied by the traditional sounds of ancient Near Eastern enthronement: claps, shouts, trumpets (verses 1 and 5). Having reached the pinnacle, the victorious emperor God sits down to rule (verse 8). The princes (better translated “nobility”) of the nations are rounded up and brought as subjects—perhaps even exiled—for their military might (a way to read “shields” in verse 9) is now under God’s sovereign power.
Though we cannot be certain, it seems that this psalm comes from the Persian period of Jewish history (there is no mention of a local king, nor the Davidic dynasty; instead, we read of the “great king,” an Achaemenid moniker). In light of this historical context, perhaps this language of God as emperor is aspirational or eschatological. In either case, it has an “in spite of” quality. In spite of their lack of an autonomous Judahite king, God reigns; in spite of their lack of economic independence, they have an “inheritance” from God (verse 4); in spite of their military impotence, the shields of the earth belong to God (verse 9).
This in-spite-of-ness is a powerful theology for oppressed peoples. The kingship of God deabsolutizes the power of any human authority. In spite of appearances, the most powerful and privileged among us (our nedivei ‘ammim, verse 9) are themselves subject to God’s higher authority, to which we may appeal for help.
At the same time, I am reminded by Sunder John Boopalan, in last week’s Politics of Scripture post, that we must read such texts about divine political power with caution, lest we end up mirroring the oppression we seek to overcome. The poet’s aspirations, expressed in this psalm, that his own suffering people (through their God) might achieve a great reversal are understandable, but still ethically problematic. Are the evil powers of empire overcome by simply flipping which group is on top? Or do the very structures of empire itself need to be dismantled?
When you imagine what it means in our own context that “God is a great king,” what images come to mind? Is God the president of a cosmic superpower, analogous to Russia, China, or the United States? Is God the great capitalist—richer than Bezos; or the great philanthropist—more generous than Gates; or the great lobbyist—more influential than the Koch brothers; or the great genius—brighter than Einstein? If that kind of power is on our side, who can stand in our way?
But this “power over” model is dangerous, as the centuries of Christian colonialism have demonstrated. In his popular book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, the Anibaptist-influenced, Evangelical pastor Greg Boyd reflects on a Christian theology he terms “power under.” In this model, instead of overcoming enemies, God (and those allied with God) redeems enemies, serves them, loves them. Boyd’s central image of such “power under” is the death of Jesus Christ, whereby the forces of evil are defeated through Jesus’ self-sacrificial, nonviolent resistance.
I am drawn to Boyd’s framing of divine power because I grew up in a similar Evangelical context, and I remember how my community perceived itself to be a religious minority in a secularizing and pluralizing America. In our underdog fog, we failed to perceive the immense cultural privilege and political clout we actually held, and so we aspired to transform our nation through political victories, especially high-level judicial appointments of those who would make our values the law of the land. It was a “power over” sort of hope. We never stopped to consider the collateral damage that our pursuit of more and more power would exact upon the most vulnerable in our society. Now, I see that same win-power-at-all-costs approach playing out in the Trump era, on both sides of our American political divide, to our shared detriment. We think that winning power will solve our problems, but we only end up perpetuating the oppressive structures of empire.
So can we read Psalm 47 differently? When we read of God enthroned as the great king, perhaps we can imagine a system of governance where our political rivals are not beaten into submission, but are disarmed by love; where those who are different from us are respected, listened to, learned from; where brute force is neutralized by a refusal to retaliate and is resisted through active non-violence. Toward this end, God is indeed the great leader, the one who models “power under” for all of us. And as a Christian, I see this kind of divine governance modeled in the Jesus Christ I meet in Scripture—the one who encourages us to love our enemies and pray for the good of our persecutors; the one who was killed by empire, but raised by God. So on this Feast of the Ascension, I will join my spiritual ancestor, the psalmist. I’ll clap my hands, shout, sound the trumpet, and sing my song of joy: for God is highly exalted!