Lecture 7 - Hymns of Praise (part 2)

Course: Book of Psalms

Lecture: Hymns of Praise (Part 2)

This is the 7th lecture in the online series of lectures on Psalms by Dr Bruce Waltke. Recommended Reading includes: The Psalms as Christian Lament, James Houston, Bruce Waltke; The Psalms as Christian Worship: An Historical Commentary, James Houston, Bruce Waltke

REVIEW OF LECTURE 6, HYMNS OF PRAISE (PART 1)

We have been reflecting on the form of the Psalm called the hymn. We have noticed its motifs of an introductory call to praise, and then we have the cause for praise and then we have a renewed call to praise. We have considered the call to praise and the imperative mood where God is telling us to praise him. We have agreed that this imperative is fitting and right and if we don’t we are dead because it is for our good. We considered also the enthusiasm that is involved in praise with music and singing with joy. We said that it is fervent praise that pleases God. We considered who actually does the praising being the people of God, the choirs, etc. We also made the point that God doesn’t want praise from sinners. This is an abomination to him, yet we hear a lot of that today. I don’t intend to be judgmental by saying that. Then we were looking at the cause for praise, that is, the theology of praise and we noted that it was a unique way of learning theology. We are learning it in a doxological context, namely we are learning it from people who are praising God and as they are praising God, they are celebrating his person and his works and their words of God to praise are coming back to us, thus, teaching us theology. Note that we are receiving theology not through Moses or another prophet but from the praise of people themselves and perhaps from the person who wrote the Psalm. These people are pious in their celebration of knowing God, thus their words to God become God’s words to us. So in fact they become the inspired words of God to us in their praise.

1. Introduction, Hymns of Praise (part 2)

a. His Incommunicable Attributes

We started talking about his attributes, those that are incommunicable of which we cannot share with God. These are his eternality, exaltation, all powerful beyond measure and unending knowledge, along with aseity, he is of himself and derives from no-one but everything derives from him and therefore our lives arrive from him. Everything about us is derivative and we are dependent upon him, because of what he has given us, he is thus worthy of our praise. We give thanks to God and glory to him and the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever more. So God is in contrast to the materialists who say that matter is and was from the beginning. But we said that matter was created by God and that matter itself reflects the creator because it is so finely tuned. The creation is full of very precise laws. Interestingly Einstein as an atheist said that the universe is incomprehensible, meaning it doesn’t make sense. His logical brilliant mind couldn’t understand how these laws came to be if there wasn’t an intelligent being. He further says that it is incomprehensible how it can be comprehensible! Paul would say that his creation shows his eternal nature and eternal power. You would have to be blind not to see it. And thus unless you acknowledge that and praise him for it, he will hand you over to your sins. His incommunicable and communicable attributes must be held together. His grace assures us that he is not a despot, and his power assures us that he enacts mercy and justice.

b. His communicable Attributes

We saw in the incident of the Israelites and the making of the golden calf, God wanted to rid himself of these people, but Moses said to him, ‘go with us. I can’t go on without you, show me your glory. These attributes provide the grace of Jesus whose grace is greater than us. Though, whatever we may have done in life, God forgives us and he is with us and even though we are sinners, whoever blesses us will be blessed.

In regards to his love and faithfulness, it is inexhaustible toward his people Israel and toward the pious; this is even more dominant in the hymns (psalms): 33, 34, 20, 22, 68, 97, 100, 103, 117, 135, 147, 148, Jer 14:8, Mic 7 and Nah 1:7, He blesses then with everything good and delivers them from all danger. His compassion is near to all of those who suffer and who are weak because of their distress, but also to the sinners who will turn to him. His compassion is even near to all creation which is completely directed toward him and his grace. Thus, in nature, Yahweh’s moral majesty appears along with the exalted character of Yahweh. Here we have the use of the Hebrew word, hesed which means help to the helpless. This entails a relationship, one of which is in desperate need when they cannot help him or herself. The stronger person who can meet the need meets that need out of love and kindness, not for self-motivation or to get something out of it, but instead, out of love. A good illustration of that is Joseph who felt that he had been abandoned by his family; he had married an Egyptian wife and named his children after Egypt. But when he saw his family again, he saw God’s providence and became fully related to his father. So he says to his brother when he is dying, this is the hesed you will show me. You will carry my bones up the Shalem where you will bury me. He cannot bury himself, he is helpless in this and thus total dependent on someone else.

Another illustration would be that of Ruth, a tremendous story of hesed. She was totally loyal to her deceased who died in Moab, without children. She comes back by faith and eventually Boaz married her. He says to her at the bed scene, it was her hesed that she returned with Naomi. You remained loyal to your husband’s family. Her second hesed to her deceased was greater than her first. It was Boaz’s name that got into the list of the messianic Christ. God’s hesed to us is the fact that we are here! God made a commitment to Isaac, Jacob and Abraham. This is a guarantee that he will remain loyal to us, even in death.

c. God is Incomparable

Another aspect of God that is worthy of praise is that he is incomparable. There are none among the gods who are similar in holiness, power, wisdom, and grace. Is this teaching there are other gods? He is king of kings, Lord of Lords, God of gods which seems to imply that there are other gods. The very first commandment is that they are not to have any other god before them, assumes that there can be another god. What happens in comparative religion is that they say that people started out with many gods of nature and animals and trees. Then there were more abstract gods, those of the winds, rain and underwater and the storm god. Thus you end of up polytheism, a mixture of nature and a person being behind that. The next step is henotheism where you recognize there are other gods but you worship only one god. And finally you end up where you dismiss all other gods and you end up in monotheism. These statements by David in the Psalms represent that stage of religion where Moses was of henotheism according to some. I don’t really accept this. I don’t accept that it is recognized that there were other gods. We have to understand between a theological statement and a religious command. The theological statement of Deuteronomy 4:39 says that there is no other god. The religious reality is that people worship what are not gods. So they create Baals and other things to worship that takes away from God. So we do worship other gods but they don’t really exist. So the clear teaching of Scripture as a theological statement, there are no other gods. Paul says, we who have knowledge know there are no other gods, but those without knowledge worship things that don’t exist. So we have to distinguish theological statement from religious command. So God is incomparable to everything that people can imagine.

d. Understanding God through Figurative Language

God is the Most High who dwells in heaven on his throne that he established and thus his majesty reigns over everything (Ps 103:19). Note that anything we say about God is figurative because God is Spirit. It is a dimension that we have never experienced. We can only talk about it in our experience as we have known it. It is like describing light to someone who has been blind all their life; you would have to use a metaphor of something which the blind could have experienced. Whenever we talk about God, there is always an as if. Those who talk about God talk within their understanding of the universe; they have the heaven above and the earth and the water under the earth. They describe God in terms of the world they were seeing in their day. In order to understand his otherness and his rule over everything, and his omniscience over everything that was represented in their cosmology as God, thus God is sitting on a throne in heaven. But it is an as if because you can’t push that because you can’t see God in outer space. There is a lot of Christians who can get very stumbled by this because they are unaware of the figurative nature of this description. The figures of speech in the Bible teaches us about God so we must not push this too literally because we are talking about Spirit. He rules and is in charge of everything. In regards to his omniscience, he looks down on the earth from his heavenly throne, from which the whole world lies at his feet. He sees everything that happens below with his peering eyes.

e. Creator and Preservation of Nature

He not only created everything, he sustains everything and if he withdrew his hand, it would cease to exist. In the New Testament, it is Christ who sustains all things (Col 1). In Psalm 104, we have:

27 These all look to you, to give them their food in due season.
28 When you give it to them, they gather it up;
When you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
And you renew the face of the ground.

When a new life comes into the world, it is God’s creation. Every new event appears as a new creation. Again, Gunkel says and I think he right here. ‘It generally makes no difference in antiquity's observation of the world whether the events belong to our concept of "preservation" or to the actual "creation." Every new event appears as a new creation. YHWH changes darkness into morning, and darkens the day to night (Amos 5:8). He arranges the stars at daybreak (Job 9:7,9), and he calls the stars by name (Isa 40:26; Ps 147:4). Snow and ice, and especially the rain, come from him (Pss 147:8, 16f; 65: 10-12). He causes the earth to quake (Ps 104:32He pours the water down on the earth (Amos 5:8; 9:6) and stills the roaring of the rushing flood (Pss 65:8; 89: 10). In summary, he does great things that are not required and miracles that cannot be counted’ (Ibid., 51). So everything is a manifestation of his whole creation.

Light is YHWH'S coat; the clouds his chariot; wind and flames his messengers (Ps 104:2-4). He marches over the high places of the earth (Amos 4: 13). If the earth quakes, it is because YHWH looked at it. If the mountains smoke, it is because YHWH touched them (Ps 104:32). …. When the change of seasons causes life and death to enter the world, the reason is that YHWH has inhaled and exhaled his life-protecting breath (Ps 104:29f). The Hebrew poet signifies the "harmony of the spheres" as the song that the heavens sing to honor YHWH. (Ibid).

f. Dominion over Humanity

Divine omnipotence is seen in everything so that it can overthrow or exalt according to its pleasure. The hymn loves to describe both sides of the divine act in sharp contrast: "YHWH kills and brings to life, he takes down to Sheol and leads up; YHWH makes the poor and the rich; he humbles and exalts (1 Sam 2:6f; cf. also 4f; Pss 75:8; 107:33ff; 113:7f; 146:9; 147:6). He is not despotic but sovereignty operated and ruled with both grace and favor and with righteous retribution.

g. God is Glorified in Creation using Ancient Myths

Creation is described in terms of the pagan myths. One such myth has to do with Marduk’s chaoskampt with Tiamat and of Baal’s chaoskamp with Yam (sea), Mot (Death), Rahab and Leviathan (Serpent). Rahab and Leviathan are the gods of chaos in these myths. Of this mythological creation story there was a monster that was represented by water. Marduk was the great hero who killed the monster and out of that monster, he created the earth. The chaos was the battle between the heroic god and this monster represented chaos with the heroic god that created the Cosmos afterward out of the chaos. The Hebrew word for it is Tiamat, but this is totally demon theologized. Through light, God overcame the chaos of darkness. But the poets used these pagan myths as a way of showing the greatness of God, that he is the one who overcame the chaotic monster as such. This is sort of like Milton in Paradise Lost. He would refer to the Greek Mythologies. We all know that he doesn’t believe this but he talks about Zeus, Thor and Jupiter, etc. It is a way in which poets use figurative language to communicate their ideas. And the Hebrew poets feel secure in using those pagan myths in order to show the greatness of God is creation. It was polemic in that God was the one that overcame the chaos and transformed it. We need to understand that they are using it simply as poetry to describe the greatness of God. It is also used in the Ugaritic text and also found throughout the ancient Near East. In the Ugaritic text, the created god is Baal; the god of storm and lightening and he battles against Yam which is the sea. So you have the god of lightening, rain and life who is battling against the sea which is the symbol of chaos. The sea will destroy your crops whereas you need Baal with the rain for those same crops.

So these mythological illusions occur only in poetry and add vividness and color to the poem. They also function polemically against the pagan gods and the sublimities attributed to the pagan gods belong in fact to God. Read the following Psalm 74:12-17

But God is my King from long ago;
He brings salvation on the earth.
It was you who split open the sea by your power;
You broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
And gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
It was you who opened up springs and streams;
You dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
The day is yours, and yours also the night;
You established the sun and moon.
It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
You made both summer and winter.

So it is all put into a living language which is only poetry. You can’t say that these references are literal. Another psalm from Psalm 89:8-11:

Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?
You, LORD, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule over the surging sea;
When its waves mount up, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
With your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
You founded the world and all that is in it.

The sea here is a symbol of chaos again. This wasn’t a romantic artistic description of a beautiful sea as such. They had no romantic notions about the sea. It was chaos and they dreaded the sea because of that chaos. It represents what is opposed to life. In Isaiah 27:1 speaks of the crooked dragon. ‘On that day God will visit with his sword the mighty and great and powerful, Leviathan the evil serpent, even Leviathan the crooked serpent, and slay the monster that is in the sea.’ The sea was the great enemy of order to both Mesopotamia and Canaan. Its defeat was the essential element in creation and won the victorious god kingship and the right to a palace or temple. Creation, kingship, and temple thus form an indissoluble triad; the containment of the sea is the continuing proof of their eternal validity. It uses this kind of language where the Hebrew poets refer to pagan mythology in order to illustrate that God is greater. This temple was built to secure the order. Look at the following Psalm, Psalm 93:1-5, of which you would not be able to fully understand without this previous background.

The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and
Armed with strength; indeed, the world is established, firm and secure.
Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.
The seas have lifted up, LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas
Have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers
Of the sea – the LORD on high is mighty.
Your statues, LORD, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days’.

The Lord is all powerful and with his strength, the world is established. The enemy, the sea, has lifted up their voice with their pounding waves. Thus everything stands firm with holiness for endless days. We have creation, kingship and temple again and it is God who did it all. Interestingly the next psalm, Psalm 29 adopts and adapts a hymn to Baal! It is a psalm of David.

1 Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.
3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.
4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic.
5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning.
8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, "Glory!"
10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
11 The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.

Here the psalm is talking about a storm going over the country of Lebanon, the center of Baal worship. He sees the storm coming off the Mediterranean and as the mighty power of God along with the clashing thunder and the flashing lightening, all of this is representing the great power of God as he moves across the land and over the mountains through the mighty cedars of Lebanon. The cedars represent what is mighty and majesty and God just smashes them and shatters it entirely. But now the storm is dying out as it approaches Kadesh on the east side of the mountains and then slowly moves out into the desert. This occurs in the very heart of Baal’s land that is to assure us of the power of the God who is with us.

Gunkel comments that this idea of history of God’s cohabitation of himself and his people has no counterpart in Babylonian and Egyptian literature nor does it have any counterpart in Ugaritic. There is no idea or reference in pagan literature of history going anywhere. Their whole idea is to recreate the earth annually. In pagan literature, there is no beginning and no end, there is no climax, no victory of righteousness and no metaphysical point; no reality behind it. This is where the Bible distinguishes itself and thus celebrates its history looking to its final day when the Lord will reign universally and righteousness will prevail. There is nothing like that in the ancient near east.