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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Let God Arise – Psalm 68

Psalm 68 is fascinating. I’m dubious of those people who say that they love the psalms because they are soooo comforting or soooo uplifting. I’m never quite sure which psalms those people are reading. The psalms are gritty, earthy, and dark; the psalms, even the ‘nice’ ones are often unpolished and unrefined. But, as I said, Psalm 68 is fascinating to me because it remains almost completely unintelligible.

Now this isn’t something that we’re supposed to say – especially from the pulpit. But if we read Psalm 68 carefully and honestly, without a filter of pious sentimentality, we will have to admit that it is difficult. Go ahead and read it in a couple of different translations and compare them. Most translations present their finished work without any indication of the difficulty, ambiguity, and oddity that rests just beneath the surface of their words.

But Psalm 68, as refined and polished as we might like it to be, resists our attempts to understand it. It is an “anarchic poem” (Dahood 133). It is “textually and exegetically, the most difficult and obscure of all the psalms” (Dahood 133). There is little agreement among scholars about the author, source, date of composition, or purpose of this melody (Poteat 354). Or perhaps of this medley. It is sometimes suggested that Psalm 68 should not be read a single unified work, but as a collection of songs and fragments of songs from various periods and authors arranged for us now as a haphazard hymnal (Taylor 353).

The meter of the stanzas of Psalm 68 shifts almost as frequently as the imagery, which is to say constantly. The psalm is a long sequence of non-sequiturs. Take for example verses 12 – 14: the kings of enemy armies flee from the presence of God, the women at home divide the spoil and booty of war – while they sit in the sheep pen. Then there’s something about doves with wings of silver and pinions of green-gold, and snow falling on Mount Zalmon - which might be something clever about white snow on a black mountain as “Zalmon” means “Dark One.” (Dahood 142).

But what does that mean? What’s going on here?

There are images of God in psalm 68 that will seem cruel and strange in our modern ears. In verses 21 – 22 he is seen smashing the skulls of his enemies, crushing their “hairy crowns.” The people of God are comforted and told that they will bathe their feet in the blood of their enemies and that their dogs will lap up the blood of their foes (23). And yet this violent, vindictive, warrior God is balanced in verse 31 where God is called upon to “scatter the peoples who delight in wars!” (JPS)

Now - as strange as Psalm 68 is (and it must be maintained that it is strange – at least to us so far removed from its composition) we can make some sense of it, at least a little. There are a few themes that reappear again and again amongst its ever shifting panoply of non-sequiturs and mixed metaphors.

The Psalm, over and over again, remembers the dramatic events of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt.  The Egyptians are the stubborn rebels forever entombed in the barren wastelands (6). They are the “Beasts of the Reeds” (30) – think of them as vicious crocodiles lurking in the marshlands of Egypt waiting to snap at the passing Israelites.  And from Egypt (and her southern allies in Ethiopia) will come nobles stretching out their hands full of tribute for God (31).

As unwieldy and foreign as Psalm 68 is to us, we can understand it (somewhat) as a melodic celebration of the way God rescued the people of Israel from the hands and chains of their Egyptian oppressors. It is a jubilant expression of praise for a powerful and frightening God. (A God who is so frightening, by the way, that the sky itself breaks out in nervous sweat at the sight of him (8).)

It is a celebration of a God who is concerned for the poor and the lowly, a God who looks after the prisoners and gives the lonely a home (6), a God who is a father to the orphan and a defender of the widow (5). This is not a God of rich and powerful. This is not the God of the great and mighty. Those were gods of Egypt. The Egyptians were the people with wealth and power and prestige and honor. But the God celebrated in this psalm is not impressed or threatened by the greatness of Egypt or the strength of the Egyptian army or the number of Egyptian chariots. The Rider of the Heavens (32), the Rider of the Clouds (4) celebrated in Psalm 68 concerns himself with the poor and downtrodden; he is the God of losers and rejects, the God of the forgotten and the overlooked. 

Psalm 68 is fascinating - not because it is a polished piece of poetry to be read by the pious and sentimental, but because it is an outrageous, over the top, wild and exuberant expression of praise for a powerful and extravagant God. If Psalm 68 remains somewhat incomprehensible to us, perhaps that should be a reminder to us that the God of our faith is not one to be completely reduced, systematized, pragmatized; the God we follow is shocking, dangerous, untamed. Perhaps we should never become comfortable in our faith.

Let God arise. Let God lead us out of oppression. Let God lead us through deserts and wild places. Let the enemies of God (who may not be our enemies…) flee before him. Let them melt like wax, drift like smoke. Let the kingdoms of the earth bring their praise and their tribute to him. He is awesome in his holy place. He gives strength to his people. He gives victory and valor to his people (Dahood 132). Let God arise, and though we don't completely understand it, let us arise and say, “Blessed be God.”

Dahood, Mitchell. Psalm II 51 – 100.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1968. Print.

Hebrew – English Tanakh. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society. 1999. Print.

Poteat, Edwin McNeil “Psalms: Exposition” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume IV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1955. Print.

Taylor, William R “Psalms: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume IV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1955. Print. 

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