top of page

Psalm 149

This is the second time I am writing on Psalm 149. You can search the A Plain Account website to find that first essay/commentary and compare and contrast it with this one. As I was researching this time around a pastor, author and theologian named Brian Zahnd came to mind. One of his coined phrases is

“God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like— But now we do.”

This is one of those theological statements that will always stick with me. I’m not sure when I first heard it from him, maybe it was at the gathering of the USA/Canada region of the denomination I’m apart of back in 2019? He’s been using it for longer than that, so if you’re familiar with Zahnd, I’m sure you’ve heard it, too.[1]

The context in which he shared it the day I heard him use it, was in reference to how we read the Old Testament. It was how he was able theologically to reconcile some of the more violent aspects we see of God’s character in the Old Testament with the peaceable characteristics we see of Jesus as God’s Son, the One made flesh, in the New Testament. Zahnd goes as far as alluding to the reality that, in their humanity, what the Israelites thought God was like and perhaps even calling them to, was not the correct representation of God’s character.

As I was reading, researching, thinking and praying about this Psalm, that quote from Brian Zahnd stuck out to me. As you journey through Psalm 149, I’d encourage you to keep that quote central to your thinking. If you’re planning to preach this Psalm, I’d encourage you to have that be the lens through which you preach it, too. Additionally, as religion and ministry students are usually taught from the very beginning, remember the genre of Scripture we’re reading and or preaching from. Psalms is a beautiful book of Hebrew poetry. It’s not a prescription you pick up at the pharmacy that gives you step by step instructions on what to do tomorrow, but rather the Psalms open us up to use all of our imagination and feelings to engage the text to see what we might learn about who God is, and thus how we are to live as humanity.

This Psalm is the fourth of five what are called Hallelujah Psalms to end the book of Psalms.[2] Just like the other four, it begins and ends with the cry of “Praise the Lord!”. When you gather with your people in wherever your congregation is located around the world this week, that’s a good model to begin and end your worship with as well. However, some of what’s found between that first Praise the Lord and last Praise the Lord of Psalm 149 is, as Scripture can so often be, a little disturbing.

As the Psalm continues, it does so with the usual declarations of depicting Yahweh as the one true Creator and King. As seen in other Psalms, we then see the relationship between King and people depicted as Israel being the faithful ones of that King. That faithfulness looks like praise, worship and rejoicing in God. This Psalm takes a dramatic shift around verse 6 where it turns to a rallying cry for holy war waged by the people of God against the nations. Of course, that in and of itself is an idea not foreign to the Old Testament. The people of Israel are given a unique purpose to bring about Yahweh’s victory. That purpose takes place as they praise the Lord with one breath, then arm themselves in preparation for combat that serves the Lord’s vengeance on the nations in the next breath.[3]

Praise the Lord and pick up a sword; often times that is the way we’re tempted to go to battle, maybe even how we’re tempted to live our lives in general, right? We, as God’s people are on the winning side, and everyone else is an enemy. Yet, there’s a key ingredient that this Psalm reminds us of. Vengeance is not Israel’s. The vengeance of the Lord is the action the Lord takes to maintain and enforce his reign against his adversaries. It is the Lord’s vengeance against the nations and their rulers that is of chief priority here. The Book of Psalms makes it clear that these nations and rulers stand in contrast to the reign of the Lord. Those systems threaten Yahweh’s rule in the world and seek to destroy and overtake God’s people who are the earthly representatives of Yahweh and were the visible representation of God’s reign.

Given that theological understanding, the people of God are being called to prepare for service when these prophetic words one day come to fruition. In the Old Testament, battle was one key way that God’s reign came about. God’s Kingship would take place as God’s people were victorious against those who were adversarial to God’s reign.

There is an almost eschatological picture taking place here as well, of warriors of God who will carry out God’s judgement on the nations. Some type of warfare where the people of God will settle the conflict between rulers and nations of this world and God’s Kingdom. What is depicted in this Psalm is a Kingdom vision that transcends any one specific scenario. The means to the end is faithfulness to Yahweh wherever that may lead.

Yet even in this Psalm, there are key characteristics of the people of God that stand in contrast to the nations and rulers. The faithful mentioned in verse 1 then are described in victory as humble in verse 4. Even then, that was an upside down Kingdom vision that stood in contrast to those Kings and rulers of nations. God’s Kingdom has always stood in contrast to human Kingdoms.

So what do we do with this call to war? We go back to the Brian Zahnd quote. Too many wars, too many conversations, too many allegiances have begun seeking to use God’s name as a weapon. The peaceable King Jesus says to one of his followers the night he was betrayed “put your sword back where it belongs, for all who use the sword will die by it.”

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection forever changed how we go to battle. From now on, we’re to go into all the nations and make disciples, inaugurating God’s Kingdom through baptism, not by sword. Yes, there will still be a spiritual battle. But our weapons look vastly different than they may have before. Faithfulness as God’s people and the embodiment of justice used to look a lot like a sword being wielded in God’s name. But now the embodiment of justice looks like Jesus, the one who humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross… so that at the name of Jesus every nation and ruler should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

At the time of this essay, the war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022 has lasted well into its 6 month. Tens of thousands of people have died. Also at the time of this essay, Queen Elizabeth II recently passed away. We must remember our peaceable King and what justice looked like for him in regards to any battle that’s waged. We must remember that one day every nation and ruler will bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth at the name of Jesus. All hail King Jesus!