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Psalm 147:12-20

Psalm 147 is the second of five final praise songs that wrap up the Psalter (Pss 146-150) sometimes referred to as the Final Hallel (Heb. Hallel=Praise) or the Hallelujah Psalms. They are roughly similar in structure and content: each begins with the line, “Praise the Lord,” (Heb. Halle-lu-jah), proceeds to list many of Yahweh’s great qualities or deeds as justification for his exaltation, and then ends by repeating the line “Praise the Lord.” 

These Psalms are generally agreed to be of late origin, most likely post-exilic, and possibly written as songs to be used at the dedication of the Second Temple. However, their origins are hotly debated among scholars, especially the issue of whether they were written all together by one author intentionally to be used as a closing to the Psalter, or whether they had individual origins and were later compiled together as a whole. I will not get into the gritty details of this scholarly debate, partly because I am ill-prepared for it not being a Hebrew Testament scholar, and partly because it makes relatively little difference to our discussion here. For our purposes I will concentrate on Psalm 147 in its canonical context.[1]

It has been long noted that as a canonical whole the Psalter moves from lament to praise.[2] So Psalms 146-150 form the canonical climax of the book, since it is the final batch of psalms, and also the thematic climax, because it intentionally and purposefully summarizes all the other praise contained within the Psalter and ends the book with copious praise. These songs of praise are introduced by the last verse of Psalm 145: “My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord. Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever” (v. 21).[3] Psalms 146-150, then, are the words of the speaker’s mouth. Psalm 150 ends with “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (v. 6), forming an inclusio, or a frame, with 145:21. Psalms 146-150 are the artwork being showcased within the frame.

However, though the structure and genre of these psalms are the same, they differ somewhat in content. While they all encourage praise to Yahweh, the identity of the person or people giving praise is different in each: Ps 146 is praise from the mouth of the psalmist himself, Ps 147 urges Jerusalem (Zion) to offer praise, Ps 148 entreats all in heaven and earth including heavenly beings and celestial bodies, Ps 149 calls on the faithful in Zion and all Israel, and Ps 150 exhorts everything that breathes to praise the Lord.

Psalm 147 focuses on both the town and the people of Jerusalem, referred to as “Zion” for its temple mount. The first half of the Psalm (vv. 1-11) begins with a description of how Yahweh gathers the exiles to him and “binds up their wounds” (vv. 2-3). The psalmist urges these same people to join in his praise song, for the Lord “sustains the humble, but casts the wicked to the ground” (v. 6, NIV), undoubtedly a comforting message to those returning after a generation of captivity at the hands of their enemies. Verses 8-9 begin a theme that will continue in the latter half of the psalm, praising Yahweh for his control of nature, particularly of the rain, and his provision for all his creatures. Finally, vv. 10-11 summarize Yahweh’s expectations for his people, “His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (NIV).

Our lectionary passage picks up here, with v. 12 giving a renewed call for Jerusalem to “extol the Lord.” Verses 13-14 give practical reasons that the city should be grateful to Yahweh: He has granted them all safety, peace and prosperity, by strengthening their gates against their enemies, and has provided them with ample food. But people need more than food to survive, so vv. 15-18 also describes how Yahweh provides his people with much needed water.

It may seem odd for the psalmist to reference snow and hail in this passage; Israel is in a warm, desert environment, after all. However, although infrequent, it does occasionally snow in Jerusalem (the most recent time was in 2013), and, of course, there was often snow in the higher mountainous regions around them–especially the country’s highest peak, Mt. Hermon, where it snows so regularly today that it boasts Israel’s only ski resort! So most residents of Jerusalem at the time would have been familiar with the concept of snow, even if they had never or rarely experienced it themselves. More importantly, those living in the arid regions of the country were surely aware that they relied on snowfall in the mountains for much of their water that kept them alive. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee are both at least partially fed by the runoff from melted snow. And this is exactly what the psalmist refers to when he mentions that the Lord not only sends the snow and hail (vv. 16-17), but he then also melts it and causes it to flow as water (v. 18).

This last verse also contains a call back to Yahweh’s creation of the universe when it says that he “stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow” (NIV). The word for “breeze” here is the Hebrew word ruach, which can be translated as wind, air, or breath, or “spirit,” as it is in Gen 1:2, when God’s “spirit” is described as “hovering” over the formless waters of chaos. In v. 18 we get the same image–God’s spirit or breath commanding the waters of the earth. In the creation account his spirit seems to be subduing the waters, controlling them, holding them back. But here, the action is the opposite–Yahweh “stirs” the waters up, unleashes them, and “makes them flow.” Along with the mention of God’s control of the rain in v. 8, the psalmist creates a clear picture of Yahweh’s complete control over the forces and elements of nature and, more importantly, how he uses them for the benefit of his people.

As if it weren’t already clear enough to the readers of the psalm that Yahweh deserves praise for the tender way he cares for his chosen people, Israel, the psalmist ends with a kicker that cements their special place in his plan. Verses 19-20 say, “He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws.” The reference to Israel as “Jacob” calls back to the beginning of Ps 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” This theme of God’s special relationship with Israel is repeated in 148:14 where Israel is referred to as “the people close to his heart”, and in Pss 149:4 which says, “The Lord takes delight in his people.”

Ultimately, this is the whole reason for praise: Yahweh, the one who controls all the forces of nature, who created the entire universe, who can provide comfort, support and prosperity, and who can conquer all enemies, has chosen THEM. Israel is not deserving, but Yahweh chose them anyway–not just so they can sit back on their laurels and brag about how special they are, lording it over every other nation. No, the rest of the Old Testament makes it quite clear that God repudiates such an idea. Instead, Yahweh made them special because they were entrusted with a special mission: to bring Yahweh’s righteousness and salvation to all the people of the earth.

This message is represented by the fact that Psalm 146, the beginning of the Hallel Psalms, begins with reasons that Israel should praise “the God of Jacob,” but Psalm 150, the end of the group, ends with the exhortation, “let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” While God’s plan at first was for Israel to become his grateful and loving people who would obey the law he revealed to only them, his ultimate goal is for their praise, love and admiration to be shared by all creatures of the earth.

[1] There is a strong argument to be made that the first half of Psalm 147 (vv. 1-11) was written separately from the last half (vv.12-20) and the two eventually combined into one. But for our purposes I will read the entire psalm as a canonical whole.

[2] Generally speaking the majority of lament psalms are found between psalms 3 and 90, and the purely praise psalms are found after psalm 90. Of course, this is not a hard and fast distinction as praise and lament psalms are mixed together through most of the Psalter. But there is still a general overall trajectory in the collection that seems intentional.

[3] All scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.