Howard Wallace's home page

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

Psalm 68 is one of the more difficult psalms in the Book of Psalms. There are translation problems due to some rare vocabulary and problems with the actual text of the psalm. The poem has some points of seeming disjuncture. Scholars of a few decades ago suggested it might have been made up of a number of introductory verses from other psalms and songs. It is clearly one of the oldest poems in the Old Testament.

Whether the individual verses or stanzas have been assembled from other places or not, there is a structure to the present arrangement. Verses 1-3 form an introduction to the poem. Verses 4-18 then constitute the first major section of the psalm. The focus in these verses is on the exodus out of Egypt. God leads his chosen people to the place of his royal residence, “the holy mount” (v. 18). Verses 19-35 then contain a number of prayers and praises of God in his sanctuary. The two main sections of the psalm are enclosed within vv. 4 and 32-33 which call for the people or the kingdoms of the earth to sing to God and sing praises to him or his name. Both passages speak of God as the “rider of the clouds/heavens”. Thus there is a clear sense in which the poem is brought into a unity.

The general theme of the psalm is that God will be victorious over his enemies (vv. 1, 12, 21 etc.) and establish his reign. The exodus out of Egypt (vv. 6b, 7b etc.) is the prime illustration of this theme and in the structure of the psalm becomes the foundation for all future action by God for his people (v. 28). The psalm itself, thereby underlines the central place of the memory of the foundational events for a people of a faith community. This would have been more obvious for ancient Israelites because two of the verses of this psalm (vv. 1, 17) are alluded to in the litany that was traditionally associated with the movement of the ark of the covenant during the wilderness wanderings (Num 10:32-33). It is therefore quite suitable for Psalm 68 to be used on a Sunday in the Easter season when we remember the central event of Christian faith.

The language of theophany is used in the Psalm to describe God’s coming to deliver his people (vv. 7-10). This includes the description of God as a ‘rider on the clouds’ or a ‘rider in the heavens’, of the earth quaking at God’s coming, and of the upheaval of the natural world (cf. Judg 5:4-5). The last also involves fertility returning to a languishing world. This language is both ancient and mythic, not to be understood in any literal way but as an expression of the power of God over the cosmos. It is a power that transcends the normal boundaries and limitations of this world, and indeed is the very source of life.

The image is essentially military as the language of victory over enemies suggests. It may be a challenge to the preacher to address the use of such language in Scripture. However, at least in this instance we should note that the enemies described in this psalm are not only political and military ones (v. 12a) but cosmic forces (v. 22) and even death itself (v. 20). They include all that threatens life in the wild, and those who seek military conquest and war (v. 30). Moreover those he comes to deliver include widows, orphans, the desolate, and prisoners (v. 6). The language of enmity is used in its widest possible sense and does not arise simply from the realm of earthly power and the hubris of military might. If anything it comes from the world of myth and the struggle between God and what oppresses and opposes life in every quarter. That is another reason why the psalm is an appropriate one for the Easter season when we celebrate victory over Death in the resurrection of Jesus.

A final way in which the Psalm is appropriate for the end of the Easter season is that v. 18 has been understood by the writer of Ephesians to apply to Christ. The reference to God ascending the high mount and leading captives (Ps 68:18) is understood as a reference to Christ ascending to heaven leading ‘captivity itself a captive’ (Eph 4:8), a reference to Christ’s victory over death and all that binds and seeks to overcome life. The feast of the Ascension was celebrated a few days ago and this coming week we prepare for Pentecost. The latter notes the gift of the Spirit to all. The writer of Eph 4:8 has misunderstood or construed differently the central part of v. 18 of the psalm which says that as God ascended the high mountain he received gifts from the people. Eph 4:8 says that the ascending Christ ‘gave gifts to his people’. But both are important: the gifts of God to his people, and their gift of praise to God which the psalm encourages.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

The refrain in the psalm (vv. 4 and 32) can be used as part of the call to worship:

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the LORD—
be exultant before him.
Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
sing praises to the Lord.
Verses 5-6 and 19-20 can also be adapted as congregational refrains during the prayers of the people:
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
Father of orphans and protector of widows.
He leads out the prisoners to prosperity.
Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation.
Our God is a God of salvation,
and to GOD, the Lord, belongs escape from death.
Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page