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27 May 2015

Our God Grants Shalom, Not War (Trinitatis/The Holy Trinity)

Psalm 29

Once upon a time, an angel came to Earth to see human beings and their world, because he had heard so many stories of the planet's splendor. The beauty of the world pleased him: sunlit mountain peaks and and rainbow-colored valleys, dark forests and mighty rivers, animals both fierce and gentle.

Everywhere there was such beauty. But when the angel saw human beings, he was truly awed, for he heard the music of the human heart and the song of the human soul. He deeply fell in love with the human mystery.  Earth and its inhabitants had so moved the angel that he hesitated to leave. But finally it was time for him to go.

Since he felt so enchanted and so enriched by his experience on Earth, he decided that before going back to his own world, he would help some human beings on their way. He looked about, and saw four persons walking together.

He approached them and said, “I have come to grant one wish to each of you.” As luck would have it, they all were spiritual seekers.

The first one spoke up, “I have striven incessantly to pursue divine truth, but it has been nothing but struggle, struggle, struggle. Give me spiritual peace!”

“But struggling is one of the joys of life,” said the angel, not understanding the first seeker’s wish. “Give me peace!” insisted the man.  So the angel shrugged and changed the youth into a cow that chewed the grass of a distant pasture, slowly and contentedly.

A bit disturbed, the angel turned to the next aspirant. “God is pure but I am not,” she said. “Please rid me of all impurities, of passions, emotions, desires.” 

“But they are the very fount of life!” said the angel. “But I don’t want life, I want purity!” insisted the second person. She then closed her eyes and waited. In a split second she disappeared, and in a faraway temple, a marble statue appeared in her likeness.

The third one said, “Make me perfect; anything less will simply not do.” He vanished but did not reappear anywhere, for nothing on earth is perfect or can be perfect.

Just as he thought that human beings were oddly frustrating, the angel turned to the fourth seeker. He said to the woman , “And what is your wish?” “I have no wish,” she said. “No wish at all?” “None except to be human, fully human and alive.”

A near-smothered joy began to stir within the angel. He looked longingly upon this blessed woman. As he embraced her with deep love, the angel said, "A human being fully alive -- that's the Glory of God." The fourth seeker continued on her way singing the glory of life and dancing the joy of the universe.

When the angel reached heaven, God asked him, “What were you doing on Earth? Tinkering with my creation?” The angel said, “I am sorry, but those four people had such deep longings; I simply helped them out.” God said, “That’s right. I was just inquiring.  But talking of longings, do you have any wish for yourself?”

The angel said, “Make me like the fourth seeker. Send me back and make me the way she is. Like her, I want to be fully human and fully alive.  The Glory of God."

The major theme of Psalm 29 is the Glory of God.

Call to praise (VV. 1–2)
1 Acknowledge the Lord, you heavenly beings, / acknowledge the Lord’s majesty and power! 2 Acknowledge the majesty of the Lord’s reputation! / Worship the Lord in holy attire!

God’s glory in the storm (VV. 3–9)
3 The Lord’s shout is heard over the water; / the majestic God thunders, / the Lord appears over the surging water. 4 The Lord’s shout is powerful, / the Lord’s shout is majestic. 5 The Lord’s shout breaks the cedars, / the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf
 / and Sirion like a young ox. 7 The Lord’s shout / strikes with flaming fire. 8 The Lord’s shout shakes the wilderness, / the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9 The Lord’s shout bends the large trees / and strips the leaves from the forests./ Everyone in his temple says, “Majestic!”

God’s reign and promise of blessing (VV. 10–11) 
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the engulfing waters, / the Lord sits enthroned as the eternal king. 11 The Lord gives his people strength; / the Lord grants his people security. (NET)

Scholars seem to agree that Psalm 29 is one of the oldest parts of the Psalter, and that (given the many parallels with the hymns among Israel's neighbors) it is likely that the psalm makes use of a hymn about the Canaanite storm and fertility deity Baal-Hadad.

Clearly, a thunderstorm is being described when we hear this: "Your voice is the voice of the waters / When they thunder as foaming towers. / Those plunging waters, those swelling words / Your voice booms out its power. / It sings with majesty / Breaking the cedars to splinters /And the cedars of Lebanon shiver to hear it." (V. 3-5, as rendered by Norman Fischer)

Baal, the weather god, was said to carry seven arrows of lightning, and when he went to war, thunder would be heard. As if to snub the old Canaanite myth, the phrase ק֥וֹל יְהוָ֗ה (qō·wl Yah·weh = “the voice of the Lord”) rumbles through our psalm exactly seven times.

Even though we detect echoes of the old Baal mythology in our psalm, the Psalmist affirms that instead of believing in a pantheon (which among others included the weather god) Israel believed in just one God, the God of Creation. For the Psalmist, the thunder was simply the voice of majestic and glorious Yahweh, who rules over all things.

V. 1
הָב֣וּ לַֽ֭יהוָה בְּנֵ֣י אֵלִ֑ים
hā·bū lə·Yah·weh bə·nê ’e·lîm;
Acknowledge the Lord, you heavenly beings,

הָב֥וּ לַ֝יהוָ֗ה כָּב֥וֹד וָעֹֽז
hā·bū lə·Yah·weh kā·bō·wd wā'oz
acknowledge the Lord’s majesty and power!

In VV. 3-9 Yahweh is shown to be so powerful that he can twist the immense cedars of Lebanon. The powerful "voice" of Yahweh in various natural phenomena is a display of what V. 1 calls Yahweh's "majesty and power" (כָּב֥וֹד וָעֹֽז).

The word translated here as “majesty”, but more often with "glory", is כָּב֥וֹד (kabod) in Hebrew, a word derived from a root with the basic meaning of “heavy.”

In its literal sense, the word is used to describe the weight of many every-day things; one example is the weight of Absalom's big head of hair (you might remember from Sunday School that Absalom was David's third son!).

Beyond the literal, kabod took on extended meanings.  Thus a rich person could be said to be “heavy in wealth” -- much as we might say someone is "loaded". Thus people could be said to be loaded with great power or honor -- and it is this extended use of kabod that leads to the sense of God's kabod, as in majesty and glory.

There isn't much talking going on in our psalm: while Yahweh speaks only in the mighty voices of nature, the people gathered in the temple exclaim but one word, כָּב֥וֹד (kabod): Everyone in his temple says, “Majestic!"

When in Isaiah 6 the cherubim are crying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts", they don't continue, "the whole earth is full of his holiness”; instead they exclaim, "the whole earth is full of his glory (כָּב֥וֹד)".

While those believing in Baal might well respond to the voice of their god by shouting  "Danger Ahead!" or "Watch Out!”, those believing in Yahweh only cry kabod -- "majesty" or “glory”.

Even though the Psalmist states that her God is kabod, "loaded" with majesty and glory, and conveys that he is to be respected, she doesn't continue by demanding submission. Rolf Bouma writes, "There is no mention of spoils of war or conquering armies or triumphant parades".

While a god of war only grants war to his subjects, the last word of the whole psalm shows that Yahweh cares for and loves his people. The God of Israel, majestic and glorious as he is, grants שָׁלוֹם (shalom):

V. 11
יְֽהוָ֗ה עֹ֭ז לְעַמּ֣וֹ יִתֵּ֑ן
Yah·weh ‘ōz lə·‘am·mōw yit·tên;
The Lord gives his people strength;

יְהוָ֓ה יְבָרֵ֖ךְ אֶת עַמּ֣וֹ בַשָּׁלֽוֹם
Yah·weh yə·bā·rêk ’et-‘am·mōw
the Lord grants his people security.

Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, explains just what sort of security shalom brings:

"The biblical vision of shalom functions always as a firm rejection of values and life-styles that seek security and well-being in manipulative ways at the expense of another part of creation, another part of the community, or a brother or sister. The vision of the biblical way affirms that communal well-being comes by living God’s dream and not by idolatrous self-aggrandizement."

One more thing.  The exclamation "Majestic" by the People of God gathered in the temple (V. 9b) is immediately followed by Yahweh's enthronement (V. 10).

Having tamed the chaos of the ancient floods, he has firmly established his throne atop the flood, symbolizing that the conquest is final.

As Matthias Jorissen (in his metric version of our psalm) celebrates Yahweh's enthronement, it becomes clear once more just how little Israel's Yahweh has in common with Canaan's Baal.

Herrlich ist der HERR!, ruft aus
jede Stimm in seinem Haus. 
Auf der Urzeit Fluten wohnt 
Dort der HERR, der ewig thront. 
Er ist König aller Zeiten, 
herrscht bis in die Ewigkeiten. 
Er wird seinem Volke geben 
Heil und Frieden, Kraft und Leben.

(Glorious is the Lord!, proclaims
every voice that's in his house.
There atop the ancient floods
lives the Lord enthroned forever.
He is King of every time,
reigning in eternity.
He will grant to all his people
peace, salvation, strength and life)

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