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May 12, 2013
Psalm 97

The Lord is King!
Let the earth rejoice!

This sounds like a beautiful, if standard opening to a psalm of praise, extolling the greatness of God. Indeed, this is the theme of the psalm. Psalm 97 is one of the set of three psalms, Psalms 96-98, which were set as alternatives for Christmas Day and for Christmas Eve. See the comments there on all three psalms and their relationship.

Psalm 97 is an enthronement psalm, one of the set of psalms which celebrate the rule of God over all the world. The opening phrase of this psalm, “The LORD has become king!” is quite distinctive to this type of psalm. It celebrates not an ongoing state of affairs, nor an eschatological hope, but a present day reality for Israel, probably as a part of an annual celebration of God’s rule, where each year the LORD is celebrated for becoming King.

However standard this opening is, this psalm proceeds with a set of images which is unusual to us. God is surrounded with clouds and darkness (v. 2), preceded by fire (v. 3), and the cause of lightning which lights up the world. This description is of God’s presence in the midst of a great thunderstorm, with dark clouds and lightning. In the ancient world, this description would also have been used for Baal, the Canaanite fertility God. In the Canaanite religious system, Baal is the God of the storms which bring rain and so fertility to the land. However, in the psalm this imagery is associated with the LORD, the God of Israel, which associates God with these rain bearing storms and thunder, as well as with the righteousness and justice which are the foundation of his throne (v. 2). The imagery is clearly taken over from Canaanite religious practice. Occasionally, this is to make the proclamation that the Lord, not Baal, rules. This could be part of the purpose here, but the main purpose of the imagery seems to be to paint a picture of the awe and majesty of God, appearing as king of all the earth.

The second set of imagery which is unusual to us on closer reflection is in the second stanza, vv. 6–9. The heavens and the earth both proclaim God’s glory and righteousness (v. 6). In v. 7, God’s victory and rule are extended beyond the bounds of Israel as the idolaters and worshippers of images are put to shame. God’s rule extends over those outside the faith, to include all worshippers, and those who worship other gods are seen to be inadequate and shamed. This is so not, as we would expect, because they are worshipping images and idols, things which are not God. This is not the case at all – they are put to shame because “all gods bow down to him” (v. 7). The issue here is of choosing a lesser god, rather than something which is not a god. This idea is reinforced in v. 9, where the Lord is proclaimed to be “exalted far above all gods.” The theological understanding here, probably commonplace early in Israel’s worship, is that there are many gods. The Lord is the greatest of these in Israel’s testimony. By God’s command, Israel is to worship only the Lord – not any of these other gods, who are allocated to be gods of other nations. Here, the greatness of the Lord is proclaimed, the Lord is greater than all other gods. We use and hear the language ‘king of kings and God of Gods’ frequently enough, but the imagery is, in fact, quite strange within our understandings of monotheism today.

The psalm concludes with a statement of God’s choice and protection of people – choosing and guarding the faithful, those who choose good and not evil. This returns to the note of praise and the call to rejoice in God. For all of its unusual imagery, this is a great psalm of praise. It reminds us that God’s rule is over all of creation – all of the lived world from the immensity of storms, to the grandeur of mountains and hills. All of creation is under God’s rule. We do not, in general, believe that there are many gods. It is a stretch to our imaginations to conceive of a council of gods, with God, our God, as the greatest. It does, however, keep the focus on the greatness of God, and finally on God’s protection and care for the faithful, for those who turn from evil.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Psalm 97:1 could be used as a call to worship in the service. Verses 6-9 could also be adapted slightly to form a prayer of adoration.

In the prayers of intercession, vv 1 or 6 could be used to introduce various sections of the prayer.

Finally, verses 11-12 would function as an appropriate introduction to the final blessing on this last week of Easter:

Light dawns for the righteous,
And joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the lord, O you righteous,
And give thanks to his holy name!

And may the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
be with you this joyous day,
and remain with you always.

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