Saturday, August 31, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 76

Psalm 76 is all about God's almighty power. In the first verse, the psalmist, Asaph, identifies God's special regard for Israel: “In Judah God is known, His Name is great in Israel.” God has revealed Himself to the Israelites. The Israelites, in turn, hold His Name as great. God's Name is not merely a word of identification; it reveals His character, His honor, and His authority. It tells Who He is in Himself. He has revealed this Name to Israel, and the Israelites recognize it as something great and wonderful. This revelation and recognition point to relationship. God and Israel have a relationship. 

In fact, God has chosen to establish an “abode” in Jerusalem, a “dwelling place in Zion” (verse 2). This is the Temple, where God has decided to concentrate His presence and receive worship from His people. 

From Jerusalem, God protects Israel and displays His almighty power. “There He broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war” (verse 3). The verb used in this verse is shâbar. It is in the Piel verb-form, which means that it is intensified. God does just break the weapons of war. He smashes them, shatters them, and breaks them into a thousand little pieces. Human might is no match for God. He is the almighty One. When He fights for His people, their enemies have no chance for victory. 

In verse 4, the psalmist sings praise: “Glorious are You, more majestic than the everlasting mountains.” The Hebrew text actually reads something like, “Resplendent are You, more majestic than the mountains of prey.” Let's break down the verse in order to capture the psalmist's meaning. The word for glorious or resplendent is 'ôr. In its Niphal verb-form, as it is used here, it means to be lighted up or illuminated. God shines out before His people. His is a light in Himself and a light for them. The word for majestic is 'addı̂yr, which can also be translated as mighty, noble, famous, gallant, glorious, lordly, excellent, worthy, or powerful. Each possibility suggests different nuances of the word, but they all apply to God. He is more majestic than the mountains of prey, those strongholds of power in the world. These mountains, these worldly rulers, devour their subjects and the principalities around them. They eat them up as surely and totally as a wild beast destroys its prey. But God is stronger than even these earthly terrors. 

The next two verses, 5-6, describe what God does to such “mountains of prey”: “The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep; none of the troops was able to lift a hand. At Your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned.” God has vanquished the worldly rulers, taking their prey from them. Even though they were strong, God plundered them, and they sank into sleep. According to the Hebrew, they “slept the sleep.” They died. Their troops, all their powerful warriors, could do nothing to help. They were rendered powerless by the rebuke of the all-powerful God. The Hebrew word for stunned, râdam, can also refer to death. God took control. His enemies fell.

The psalmist again breaks into praise: “But You indeed are awesome! Who can stand before You when once Your anger is roused?” The Hebrew word for awesome is yârê', which suggests fear and reverence. When we recognize God for Who He is, we feel very, very small. We bow. We kneel. We even fall on our faces. God loves us very much, but He is still the almighty God, and He deserves the highest reverence. When God breathes out His anger, no one can stand before Him. The God-fearing fall in worship; everyone else falls in terror. 

The psalmist continues: “From the heavens You uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth.” God caused His judgment (Hebrew dûn) to ring out through the heavens. The whole earth was still in fear (yârê'). God rose up to give His verdict (Hebrew mishpâṭ, judgment but also verdict or sentence). He will save all the oppressed of the earth. He will deliver those who had been the prey of the powerful. He will give victory to those who are humble and poor, to those who are weak and afflicted. With no power of their own, these are the ones who have learned to turn to God as their power. God will rescue them and set them free. 

The next verse seems confusing at first: “Human wrath serves only to praise You, when You bind the last bit of Your wrath around You.” How can human wrath praise God? Wouldn't it offend Him? Commentator Albert Barnes explains, “The wicked conduct of a child is an 'occasion' for the display of the just character and the wise administration of a parent; the act of a pirate, a rebel, a murderer, furnishes an 'occasion' for the display of the just principles of law, and the stability and power of a government. In like manner, the sins of the wicked are made an occasion for the display of the divine perfections in maintaining law; in the administering of justice; in preserving order.” God brings good out of evil. When humans rebel, God corrects them, and we see His great justice. When humans make messes, God cleans them up, and we see His great power. When humans sin and repent, God forgives them, and we see His great love. 

The psalm ends with an instruction and one more reminder of God's almighty power. “Make vows to the Lord Your God,” the psalmist advises, “and perform them; let all who are around Him bring gifts... (verse 11). When people make vows to God, they bind themselves to Him in a covenant relationship. They become God's family, with all the benefits and responsibilities that entails. They must fulfill their vows and act according to their new position as God's people. The verb for perform is shâlam, which means to make good, to complete, to finish, and to make safe. It is used in its intensive form in this verse; this is serious business. The verb also has connotations of the covenant and of peace. If God's people keep the covenant, they will have peace. The psalmist further instructs his listeners to bring gifts to God. The verb for bring, yâbal, has a ring of formality to it. It suggests liturgy, procession, and pomp. These gifts, then, probably refer to the sacrifices of Jewish worship. God's people must worship Him properly, bringing Him their gifts but most of all bringing Him themselves.

Why must the people make vows to God and bring Him gifts? He is “the One Who is awesome” (verse 11). He deserves our reverence. He deserves our love. He is the almighty One, who has the power to cut off “the spirit of princes,” and inspire “fear in the kings of the earth” (verse 12). He is the One Who defeats the enemies of the people, those “mountains of prey” who misuse their power. His power is infinitely greater than theirs. He has the whole universe under His control. 

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