For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 97. I have four items.
97 describes a theophany, in which God is accompanied by clouds,
darkness, thunder, a fire that consumes God's enemies, the shaking of
the earth, and the melting of the hills. Did the Psalmist believe that
this sort of theophany occurred literally? Erhard
Gerstenberger refers to the view that this theophany was believed to
have occurred at creation, presumably as God defeated chaos, whereas the
Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary maintains that it will take place
in the eschatological future when God redeems Israel and the nations
give up their idols. Sigmund Mowinckel seems to regard the language as
ritual, not as literal, and he thinks that it is part of a ceremony that
concerns the annual renewal of creation. There is good reason to regard the theophanic language as symbolic or figurative rather than literal, for II Samuel 22 uses
that sort of language to describe God's deliverance of David, and yet,
in the narrative of I-II Samuel, we do not see natural cataclysms when
God delivers David from his enemies. In terms of ritual,
Marvin Tate speculates that there could have been ritual ways to
simulate a theophany----shouts, horns, dancing, and silence. But Tate
also says that actual thunderstorms could have served as theophanic
moments, in the eyes of the ancient Hebrews. Another point to
note is that there is at least one narrative in which God does appear in
a theophany that is accompanied by natural cataclysms: the Sinai/Horeb
revelation. Perhaps the plagues in the Exodus story would count, as
One question that I have is this: When ancient Near
Easterners told stories about a god defeating chaos----I think of
Baal's defeat of Yam or Mot----did they hold that humans could actually
see those battles? Or did they think that humans were only privy to the effects of those battles----fertility replacing barrenness? I don't know.
Perhaps they did believe that the battles were occurring behind the
scenes in the realm of the divine, away from human view. Or, on the
other hand, maybe they regarded a thunderstorm as a manifestation of the
battle, as the god appeared in a thunderstorm, defeating chaos and
bringing forth fertility through rain.
of my own view, I guess I'm the sort of person who----if the text
describes God as intensely powerful----would like for the text to mean
that God actually is intensely powerful! In my opinion, it takes away
from the power of the imagery to regard it as merely symbolic of a
national or political restoration, or even a personal restoration.
If Tate is correct, this Psalm comes from Israel's exilic or
post-exilic periods, as Israel sought assurance that God would deliver
her. If I were Israel in that time, I would want for God to
enter the picture with a lot of fanfare, thereby convincing my
oppressors that they are weak in the presence of God and that their gods
are nothing. But to regard that sort of theophanic language
as symbolic of something like, say, Israel returning from exile under
Cyrus? That would be disappointing to me, especially since that event
did not convince a lot of people that the God of Israel was the true
God. After all, Cyrus had political motives for that move (i.e., to use
Israel as a buffer between Persia and Egypt). I'm not saying that
anyone argues that Psalm 97 is symbolic of Israel's restoration under
Cyrus, but rather I'm critiquing the notion that its author intended the
Psalm to describe an event that was much more low-key than the Psalms'
2. Peake's Commentary makes an interesting statement about Psalm 97:
appearance of Yahweh is described in terms of primitive religion, when
He was the God of fire and tempest, earthquake and volcano. These
traits are retained, but united with that later and far more perfect
religion, which recognised Him as the only God...and as a God of
The extent to which this is true would be something to research. I
myself am somewhat skeptical of the notion that primitive religion
lacked an ethical focus and regarded the divine primarily as powerful
and intimidating. But perhaps there's something to it, even if it's not completely accurate----that
religions can become more ethically-oriented as they develop. Some
would argue the opposite, however, as they contend that there are
"primitive" religions that have valuable elements that more "advanced"
religions lack (i.e., sensitivity to the natural balance).
the merits of Peake's comment, I appreciated the point that Psalm 97
not only presents God as powerful, but also as righteous.
Another point to make is that, even though Psalm 97 discusses
cataclysms befalling the earth and God's fire consuming God's enemies,
it still calls for the isles----the uttermost regions of the earth----to
rejoice. Yes, the Psalm refers to the rejoicing of Zion, but does it
also hold out a broader hope that even Gentiles will be blessed by God?
Are even the Gentiles being invited to be righteous when verses 10-12
exhort people to hate evil and affirm that God preserves and delivers
the righteous ones?
4. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Psalms 51-150 had one jewel in its discussion of Psalm 97. It refers to Jerome's Letter 22.31, which is in NPNF 2.6:36. In
this letter, Jerome talks about a hypothetical woman who cannot work
with her hands due to her delicate upbringing, and she fears that nobody
would take care of her if she lives to old age and becomes ill. Jerome
says that she should trust that God will take care of her. Although this passage relates tangentially to Psalm 97 (as Jerome quotes v 8), it stood out to me because I related to its description of economic vulnerability.
Was Jesus a pacifist?
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