Although I am something of a technophobe, I have to confess that the twenty-first century has at least made it possible for retired, sedentary men like myself, who will never now venture beyond their own limited circle, to "put a girdle round about the earth" – to quote Shakespeare's mischievous Robin Goodfellow. But what took him "forty minutes" is for us, broadband connections permitting, a virtually instant experience. With the aid of Skype I can make regular audio-visual contact with friends in far flung exotic locations like Dunedin (New Zealand), Chennai (India), Arlington (USA), Huddersfield…Huddersfield? And it can be spiritually exhilarating.
My American Skype friend Steven is currently encouraging me to work through the Psalms with him, a stimulating exercise because they are full of such enthralling variety. They have the further advantage of being a collection of free-standing lyric poems into which one may dip at will, without being compelled to bear in mind the kind of over-arching structure which controls most of the other books of the Bible. You can enjoy an individual psalm in isolation from the other 149, whereas you cannot hope to make sense of any chapter of Romans without some grasp of the entire letter.
Let's take an example. Psalm 29 is so short that it can be quoted in full. You will notice that I have divided it into three sections. They concentrate, respectively, on praise (vv.1-2), power (vv.3-9), and peace (vv.10-11). Further, they all employ one of the most basic and effective figures of speech, verbal repetition. The key reiterated words are emphasised below in bold.
Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord the glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the Lord is upon many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars; yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn. The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness; the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests: and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.
The Lord sitteth upon the flood; yea, the Lord sitteth King for ever. The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.
The first section is David's summary call to praise. Three times he exhorts the "mighty" to "give unto the Lord". Two questions immediately arise. Who are these mighty ones that David addresses, and how ever can they, obviously being mere creatures, give anything to a God whose name is announced 18 times in this Psalm as Jehovah, testifying loudly to His eternal self-existence, self-sufficiency and immutability? In answer to the first question we find help by consulting other translations or Newberry's always useful margin. The phrase is literally "sons of the mighty". This will direct us to Psalm 89 where the same expression appears in v.6: "For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord?" Clearly, then, as the parallelism indicates, we are dealing with exalted beings among the heavenly host whose delight it is to offer constant worship and perform God's will. Now here's a marvel: David on earth is telling angels what to do! But there's nothing improper about this: he is simply expressing his own joy in God by encouraging others to do what is in any case both their duty and their pleasure. The writer of Psalm 148 does the same. But how can they "give unto the Lord"? Well, the idea is not that they increase the sum of God's glories (a total impossibility) but that that they vocally ascribe to Him what is already eternally His. It's like the seraphic exercise of Isaiah 6 in proclaiming divine holiness. And this is our responsibility too: that is to say, in worship we make mention of God's excellences. We can add nothing to His splendour, but in speaking well of Him we gladly affirm His majesty.
The second section is a breath-taking survey of divine power, not the kind of strenuous muscular energy we associate with creatures but the efficacy of the sevenfold "voice of the Lord". In the simplest and most sublime of language Genesis chapter one demonstrates the energy of that spoken word bringing into existence the entire universe in all its diversity, beauty, vastness and complexity. The same voice is then heard in Genesis 3.8, testifying to God's gracious condescension in communicating with Adam and Eve. In the graphic picture language of his poem, however, David's eye is attracted by a colossal storm sweeping in from the Mediterranean Sea (v.3), a tempest which shakes the great cedars of Lebanon to their very roots (vv.5-6) before moving southwards, accompanied by terrifying flashes of lightning (v.7), down to Kadesh in the desert (v.8). Because of its ferocity, animals are startled into giving premature birth and trees are denuded of leaves (v.9). And this is the effect simply of Jehovah's voice! We can hardly be surprised, then, when God manifest in flesh was able – at a word – to still a storm, raise the dead, and bring a cohort of Roman soldiers tumbling to the ground. But, in contrast with the bracing open-air language which precedes, the section concludes "in his temple", where everything continues to announce His glory. David was writing before Israel's temple had been constructed (although there are occasions, such as 1 Samuel 1.9 and 3.3, where the tabernacle is so described), but is probably thinking of a heavenly scene, for "the Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord's throne is in heaven" (Ps 11.4). If God was praised in Israel's earthly sanctuary and in heaven itself, it is only right that He should be honoured in the gatherings of the local assembly, His dwelling place today (1 Cor 3.16).
As if by way of deliberate contrast with the thunderous clamour of the storm, the third section ushers us into peace. The repeating word here is "sitteth", emphasising how secure and undisturbed is Jehovah's authority over His creation. The language looks back to the global cataclysm in the days of Noah. David's word "flood" in v.10 appears 13 times in the Old Testament, of which the other 12 are found in the Genesis deluge account. In saying that "the Lord sitteth upon the flood", he is therefore alluding to that historical divine intervention, which destroyed "the old world" (2 Pet 2.5). Jehovah's past displays of power guarantee that all the predictions of a coming reign of righteousness will be fulfilled without fail, for if He sat presiding over the flood He can certainly sit enthroned in Zion. But perhaps the most encouraging feature here is the blessing He bestows on those who belong to Him. The psalm comes full circle: it starts by ascribing strength to God, but ends with God granting strength to His people. And how much we need it! The God of infinite majesty and power provides for His feeble, fearful saints both strength and peace. David is doubtless looking ahead to future kingdom blessing for Israel, but the Christian cannot help but think of the present benefits of Calvary. Through Christ's finished work we are right now brought into "peace with God" (Rom 5.1), enjoy the "peace of God" (Phil 4.7), and even in our infirmities can know "the power of Christ" resting upon us (2 Cor 12.9). Aren't those excellent reasons for lifting our voices in praise?
To be continued.