Saturday, August 17, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 68

Psalm 68 is a long and complex psalm that, according to commentator F.B. Meyer, was probably sung as a processional hymn as the Ark of God was carried into Jerusalem. Let's take a moment to explore this context before we dig into the psalm itself. The story appears in 2 Samuel 6. David had recently become king over all of Israel. He subsequently marched upon Jerusalem (with its stronghold, Mount Zion), occupied it, and claimed it as his capital. He also repulsed a last-ditch attack by the Philistines. Now ready to begin his reign in earnest, David decided to move the Ark of God to his new capital city. The Ark, recall, was the focal point of God's dwelling among the Israelites. It was built by Israelite craftsman, who followed instructions given to Moses by God Himself. The Ark was a box about 4 by 2½ by 2½ feet. It was constructed of acacia wood, covered in gold, and topped by the Kapporet (often called the “mercy seat”) and two golden cherubim with outstretched wings. The Ark was carried on poles that slid through golden rings attached to each corner. Inside the Ark, Moses had placed the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a sample of manna, and Aaron's rod. 

David prepared a grand procession of thirty thousand Israelites to bring the Ark from the house of Abinadab up to Jerusalem. As Uzzah and Ahio, two sons of Abinadab, drove the cart carrying the Ark, David and the others danced and sang before God. Everything went smoothly until they reached the threshing floor of Nacon. Here one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and Uzzah reached out and touched the Ark to steady it. He was immediately struck dead, for he had, perhaps unthinkingly, placed his hand upon the Ark, treating it like any other object and presuming that he could preserve this most sacred piece from destruction. Remember, too, that the Ark was designed to be carried in a specific way, by the poles held by golden rings and also only by Levites, the Israelite priests. Uzzah and Ahio were definitely not Levites, and the Ark was definitely not supposed to be carried in a cart. 

At the sudden death of Uzzah, David recognized that something was very wrong. He was angry at first (perhaps that his grand procession had been disrupted); then he was terribly afraid as he recognized his mistake and the consequences of it. He decided that perhaps he wouldn't take the Ark up to Jerusalem after all, and he left it at the house of Obededom the Gittite. Apparently, Obededom and his family treated the Ark with the reverence it deserved, for the Lord blessed them generously during the three months the Ark resided in their care. David, hearing about their good fortune, changed his mind and decided once again to take the Ark up to Jerusalem.

This time he did it right. Men, presumably Levites, bore the Ark properly by its poles. Every six steps, David offered animal sacrifices. He danced before God with great joy as the Israelites shouted and sounded the trumpet. When the procession arrived in Jerusalem, the Ark was settled inside a tent, and David offered numerous sacrifices, blessed the people, and distributed a portion of food to each Israelite. Peace descended upon Israel.

Psalm 68, then, was probably sung during this second, successful procession. According to The Pulpit Commentary, the psalm can be divided into five sections:

1. An introduction of prayer and praise (verses 1-6)
2. God's actions during Israel's time in the wilderness (verses 7-10)
3. God's actions during the campaign to secure the Promised Land and during David's victories (verses 11-23)
4. The procession of God into the sanctuary (verses 24-27)
5. A prayer for God's favor in the future (verses 28-35)

This psalm covers a lot of territory! Essentially, it is a praise-filled mini-presentation of Israel's history, a song of prayer and adoration to the God Who had done so much for His people, and a plea for God's continued favor and help. Let's take a brief look at each of the five sections.

In the introduction, David calls on God to rise up and scatter His enemies, to blow them away like smoke and melt them like wax. This is the fate of the wicked, who act against God and His people. They perish before God's mighty power (verses 1-2). The righteous, on the other had, must be joyful and exult before God (Hebrew ‛âlats, literally “jump for joy”) (verse 3). They should be exceedingly jubilant, vigorously singing praise to God “Who rides upon the clouds” (verse 4) The Hebrew construction of this descriptive clause is interesting. The word used for clouds is actually ‛ărâbâh, which means desert or plain or wilderness. David is probably referring to Israel's time in the desert after their escape from Egypt. God led them during those forty years, appearing in the shekinah or fiery glory cloud. Riding in that cloud, He guided them through the wilderness to their homeland. Israel, therefore, should rejoice in His presence and in the Name He reveled to Moses and to them. God is with them. They know Him personally. This is certainly a cause for great joy.

David continues in verses 5-6. God has done great things for His people. He is a Father to orphans and a Protector to widows. He cares tenderly for the least fortunate. He “gives the desolate a home to live in” (verse 6). The Hebrew here literally means something like “He settles the solitary ones in families/households.” God creates families! He brings His people into relationships with Himself and with other people. He makes them His own children and provides them with the human love and care they need. People are not designed to live lonely lives, and if they turn to God, they never will. 

Finally in verse 6, David asserts that God will lead prisoners out of their captivity and into prosperity, but those who are rebellious and stubborn will live in a parched land where nothing can grow. These lines carry the potential for a rich spiritual interpretation. All people are captive to sin, but God leads the willing out of their sin and into peace and joy. They will prosper under God's care. Those who remain rebellious, on the other hand, are dry and brittle spiritually. They do not allow God to lead them to refreshment, so they do not grow. Instead, they wither.

In the next section, verses 7-10, David reminds his hearers about God's actions on behalf of His people when Israel was in captivity and traveling through the wilderness. God brought them out of Egypt. He went before them as they marched through the wilderness (verse 7), leading them in a pillar of cloud and fire and crushing any enemy who threatened them. He showed them His great power at Sinai with “thunder and lightening,” a “thick cloud on the mountain,” a trumpet blast so loud that the people trembled, an earthquake, and a great fire indicating God's presence (see Exodus 19:16-19). God also gave His needy people water and food for their travels, and He restored to them the heritage He had promised, the land of Canaan. 

Of course, there were already people living in this land, and the Israelites needed to conquer them before they could settle there. In verses 11-23, David outlines this process, which has also been completely directed by God. Under God's command, the kings of Canaan had been scattered and the Israelites were dividing up the spoils of their victories (verses 11-14). He had crushed Israel's enemies and brought His people into their new homeland (verses 21-23). God is now establishing His dwelling on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, for His Ark is traveling up the mountain while the Israelites accompany Him with gifts of joy and the other mountains look on in envy (verses 15-18). 

David cries out in exultation, “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” (verses 19-20). God has delivered His people from slavery. He has fed them in the desert and led them through the wilderness. He has saved their lives countless times. He has brought them into their promised homeland and cleared the way before them. If we look closely at the Hebrew of these two verses, we can better understand the intensity of this cry of praise. David is literally saying that the God of salvation has borne their burdens for them each day. The word for salvation in verse 19 is yeshû‛âh, which should be familiar by now as the Hebrew root of Jesus' Hebrew name, Joshua. Without realizing it, David is looking ahead to a time when the God of salvation, Jesus, will bear His people's burdens all the way to the cross.

The next section, verses 24-27, describes the procession of the Ark into Jerusalem. The singers come first, then girls playing tambourines, and finally the musicians. All of Israel, a “great congregation” has turned out for this event. The princes of the various tribes are on hand, with the tribe of Benjamin, the youngest brother, and therefore the least in esteem, taking the lead. Once again, God has chosen the weakest to lead the strong. 

The psalm ends with a lengthy prayer for God's continued favor toward Israel and for the extension of that favor to the whole world (verses 28-35). “Summon Your might, O God,” David calls out,” show Your strength, O God, as You have done before us” (verse 28). Rebuke Israel's enemies. Trample them down (verse 30). Then David changes his perspective. He asks God to bring other nations to Him that they, too, may worship Him and offer Him tribute. “Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;” he pleads, “sing praises to the Lord” (verse 32). Israel is the oldest brother of the nations, the one who has the task of leading its younger siblings to God. Listen to God, David tells the nations. Look at His majesty in Israel. Notice His power. See what He can do. “Awesome is God in His sanctuary,” David proclaims, “the God of Israel; He gives power and strength to His people” (verse 35). He will do so, David implies, for the whole world if only the nations turn to Him. 

David ends on a note of praise. “Blessed be God!” he exclaims, probably dancing with abandon before the Ark.

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