YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between June 5 and June 11)
In Psalm 33 the community gives praise to Yahweh. The twenty two verses of the psalm equal the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, although the verses do not begin with successive letters as in acrostic psalms. The hint at an acrostic structure may imply completeness and be intended to reinforce the message of the psalm about God’s creation. In common with some acrostics there is a teaching element to the psalm.
The psalm divides into four sections: a call to rejoice in vv. 1-5; vv. 6-12 on the word of Yahweh; vv. 13-19 on what Yahweh sees from heaven; and vv. 20-22 with the community’s response. Today’s reading only focuses on the first half of the psalm but the whole needs to be read to capture its meaning. The notions of Yahweh’s creation by word and seeing what is made recall the creation account of Genesis 1.
Psalm 33 picks up the tenor of Ps 32:11 as the psalmist calls the community, referred to as the ‘righteous’ and ‘upright’, to praise Yahweh. Five separate imperatives call the people to praise: ‘rejoice’, ‘praise’ (‘give thanks’), ‘make melody’, ‘sing’ and ‘play skilfully’ (vv. 1-3). Their praise is to be exuberant and a ‘new song’, although what that means is not yet clear. It is praise in word and music. The reason for praise is introduced immediately. Five qualities of Yahweh match the five imperatives. Yahweh is ‘upright’, his work is done in ‘faithfulness’, he loves ‘righteousness and justice’, and his hesed, ‘steadfast love’, fills the earth (vv. 4-5). Although it is not yet clear, in these two verses the psalmist anticipates the foci of the praise to follow: the creative word of Yahweh (vv. 6-12, cf. v. 4) and human affairs emphasising those who hope in Yahweh’s hesed (v. 18; cf. v. 5). The occurrence of the words ‘upright’ and ‘righteousness’ among Yahweh’s qualities recalls the titles given to the congregation in v. 1. Those who fear Yahweh and who are called to rejoice in him reflect the qualities of Yahweh.
In vv. 6 and 9 the psalmist picks up the theme of v. 4 and describes the role of Yahweh’s word in creation. The reference brings to mind the creation story in Genesis 1. In the ancient Near East the words of deities were praised as powerful and effective. The psalmist also alludes to the old creation myth of conflict between the creator god and the sea/deeps representative of chaos (v. 7), colourfully describing the defeat of the sea/deeps as putting them in storehouses (v. 7b) or damming/heaping them up (so the Hebrew in v. 7a). The NRSV phrase ‘in a bottle’ comes from the Septuagint (LXX) of Greek translation of the Old Testament. In any case the emphasis here is clearly on the power of Yahweh’s word over any other means of creation. So the psalmist calls for ‘all the earth’ and ‘all the inhabitants of the world’ to fear Yahweh, or to ‘stand in awe’ of him.
In this context vv. 10-12 might seem to introduce a new issue with Yahweh frustrating the plans of the people and the counsel of the nations (v. 10). By way of contrast the counsel and plans of Yahweh’s heart are eternal. They ‘stand’ forever just as the earth ‘stood firm’ in v. 9. The subject may seem to have changed but both the counsel of the nations (v. 10) and that of Yahweh (v. 11) involve words thus picking up the theme begun in v. 6. The two counsels stand in opposition (v. 10), suggesting that the human counsel described is consistent with the chaos symbolized by the sea/deeps. In both the act of creation and in human planning, that which contests Yahweh’s word will not stand. Nothing opposes Yahweh’s word in either the heavenly realm (v. 7) or the realm of human affairs (vv. 10-11). The sense of opposition in these verses contrasts with the correspondence between Yahweh and his people stressed earlier in vv. 1-5. There is an echo of Psalm 2 here. Moreover, v. 12 opens up the possibility that other nations beside Israel may well be included in those who fear Yahweh.
A further shift takes place in vv. 13-18 as the psalmist focuses on the ‘eye of Yahweh’. The language of kingship is also emphasized. As in the earlier part of the psalm, five terms are used to speak of Yahweh’s seeing: ‘look down’, ‘see’, ‘watch’, ‘observe’ (vv. 13-14) and in v. 18, ‘eye’ itself. Heaven and earth are separated at this point as Yahweh looks down. Three parallel statements introduce Yahweh’s activity in vv. 13-15. The description of Yahweh increases over these verses to one where the creator fashions the hearts of humans. His activity increases from simply looking down and seeing humankind in v. 13 to observing all human deeds in v. 15, implying judgment by one intimately concerned with human affairs. The references to human hearts and deeds in v. 15 recalls those of Yahweh’s heart and work in vv. 11 and 4 respectively, and sets up a basis for comparison. On the negative side, vv. 16-17 express the futility of human power to save. The positive conclusion in v. 18 to all this ‘seeing’ by Yahweh is that Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him and hope in his steadfast love. This draws us back to the beginning of the psalm, especially v. 5, which concludes a positive comparison of the righteous and upright with Yahweh. Thus, the heavenly king, Yahweh, who delivers those who fear and hope in him, stands in contrast to earthly kings who cannot even depend on their own great armies to save them. Verse 18 clearly states the confidence that stands behind v. 12. All this underlines the comparison, at the same time as it raises the question whether there is indeed continuity of purpose between Yahweh and his people.
The one who fears Yahweh is also one who hopes in Yahweh. Praise is not simply seen in an overt expression of joy and gladness of heart. It is that, but it is also trusting and waiting, with the implication of stillness and silence. The vocabulary of vv. 20-22 recalls the thoughts of vv. 6-19 bringing the psalm to a conclusion: ‘waiting’ from v. 18, ‘heart’ from vv. 11 and 15, and steadfast love from vv. 5 and 18. The motif of hope, treated in a positive way in vv. 19-22, stands in contrast to the vain hope for victory in v. 17. The psalmist now joins voices with the righteous to praise the Lord, pledging to wait for Yahweh with their ‘soul’ or, more properly, ‘life’.
The psalmist uses the language of creation and of Yahweh as creator to engender faith and hope in the community and to get them singing a ‘new song’. Creation is clearly an ongoing process in the psalm, or at least continues to bestow its benefits. To sing praise in the context of creation is to continue the whole process of responding to the ongoing work of the creator. What we say or do in our praise may not be new in the sense of being different or novel. It is new, however, in the sense of celebrating something which has happened, continues to do so and will go on into the future. It is new in the sense of being our present response to the creative acts of Yahweh in our own time and place. That response includes not just having ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ (Ps 24:3-6) but also a constant hope and waiting in Yahweh. It is hope that must be maintained in the face of opposition and false hopes. Yahweh does not promise to remove the psalmist or the community from the threat of death or the hardship of famine, but rather to deliver them and keep them alive (v. 19). It is a matter of in whom one ultimately places trust. There could be an eschatological aspect to this new song, a foreshadowing of an ultimate hope in which the whole earth participates. But if it is that, it is not just a hope to be realized at some distant time. It is a hope that opens out toward the future from present experience.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
The psalm offers much material for use in worship. Verses 1-3 would make a good call to worship.
Verses 4-9 would also make a useful litany to be said after the first reading or elsewhere in the section of the service devoted to the word. The leader and congregation could alternate verses or two readers could respond to each other.
Verses 18-19 can become an introduction to the declaration of forgiveness.
Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,Finally vv. 20-22 can be adapted for a blessing at the end of worship:
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death,
and to keep them alive in famine.
In Jesus Christ, the Lord gazes on us and declares:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God.
Wait for the LORD; he is our help and shield.Old Testament reading: Genesis 12:1-9
Be glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.
The steadfast love of the LORD is upon us, even as we hope in him.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Spirit, be upon you
and remain with you now and forever.
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