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Psalm 29

The Big Picture

Many scholars regard Psalm 29 as one of the oldest psalms. On the one hand, some claim it is an Israelite adaptation of an old Canaanite hymn exalting Baal, god of the storm (weather) and fertility. However, the imagery could just as easily be a polemic against Canaanite religion. On the other hand, similarities with the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) could indicate that Psalm 29 was originally a victory song following defeat of a Canaanite army.[1] Not exclusive of either view, the psalm is often classified as an “enthronement psalm” celebrating the reign of Yahweh (and perhaps by extension the coronation of an earthly king who will serve as Yahweh’s regent). Regardless of the hymn’s origin, the message is clear: Yahweh is sovereign of the universe; therefore, all in heaven and on earth are invited to worship King Yahweh!

Giving attention to repetition is a basic rule of interpretation and the rule certainly applies to Psalm 29. The divine name, Yahweh (Lord), appears 18 times in the 11 verses. This may be compared to a memory trigger suggested for those of us who have difficulty remembering the names of persons we meet: following the initial introduction, address the person by name in each volley of conversation. Hopefully, repeating the person’s name a few times at the outset will help us remember their name when we next meet. As simplistic as this might sound, repetition does serve the purpose of reinforcement – if not consciously then subconsciously. Repetition of the divine name in this psalm further highlights the sovereignty of Yahweh.

One other repetition is noteworthy: seven times the psalmist refers to “the voice of the Lord” (vv. 3, 4 [2x], 5, 7, 8, 9). This may be a direct allusion to God speaking the created world into existence (Gen. 1), a view which the first line of v. 3 seems to support: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters.” Or, perhaps the intent was to remind worshippers of the totality and completeness of God’s reign. In light of the psalm’s overall message, choosing one view over the other is unnecessary. Yahweh is Creator and Sovereign over all.

Glory to God in the Highest!

The psalm begins with a call to “heavenly beings”[2] (literally “sons of gods”) to ascribe glory and strength to Yahweh. Several interpretations are possible depending on one’s perspective of the psalm’s background and purpose. These “heavenly beings” could refer to the deposed gods of the Canaanites; defeated, they must acknowledge Yahweh as Sovereign. Alternatively, this could be an allusion to the heavenly council (e.g., Gen. 1:26; 1 Kings 22:19). Or, corresponding to Isaiah 6:1-8, the first reading for Trinity Sunday, these may be the angelic beings who surround God’s throne crying, “Holy, holy, holy!”

Regardless of the precise identity, these heavenly beings are exhorted to give Yahweh “the glory due his name” (v. 2).

Lord over Creation

Verses 3-9 provide the basis for claiming this psalm as a polemic against, or a plundering of, Canaanite poetry. Baal, often depicted as god of the storm with lightning in his hand, was believed to have become king of the gods by defeating Yam, the chaotic god of the waters. But Yahweh “thunders over the mighty waters” (v. 3). God, not Baal, controls the waters, and thunder is no deity but a manifestation (theophany) of Yahweh.

The psalm continues to demonstrate Yahweh’s sovereignty by describing Canaanite – and natural – symbols of stability and strength as completely subject to Yahweh. The cedars (v. 5) and mountains of Lebanon (v. 6) respond to the voice of the Lord in stunning, awe-inspiring ways. Even though translation is uncertain in places (e.g., v. 9 – oaks or deer?), the message is clear: all creation is subject to “the voice of the Lord.”

Peace on Earth

The only fitting response to such a display of Yahweh’s glory, strength and holiness is worship: “And in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” (v. 9c). Given the heavenly audience addressed in v. 1, this could refer to the temple of heaven. However, the closing verse draws in God’s people on earth. Thus, all in heaven and earth are called to worship the God who is eternally sovereign over the universe (v. 10b).

Only in the final verse are people of earth specifically referenced. But the last word of this psalm indicates that the Sovereign of the universe is also personal and caring. Yahweh’s strength is passed on to Yahweh’s people who are blessed with shalom. As such, God’s power, which may be at once awe-inspiring and destructive, seeks the well-being of God’s people.[3]

Preaching from the Text

The text offers a number of options for preaching, including but certainly not limited to the following reflections.

  1. A cursory reading of Israel’s history quickly reveals how they struggled with Canaanite idolatry. They recognized God as Lord of history, but seemed to stumble early and often when it came to recognizing God as Lord of nature. If Psalm 29 originally challenged the Israelites to recognize God as Sovereign over nature, it may challenge today’s hearers/readers to recognize God as Sovereign over science, technology, and human reason. This psalm reminds us “that we inhabit a world that we did not make, that we are unable to control, and that we cannot dispose of as we wish.”[4]

  2. Despite the advances of science and technology, humans still cannot control nature. Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, floods, and other natural phenomena often serve as reminders of human limitations. But, at this point, we must also acknowledge our limited perspective of God’s sovereignty. Perhaps especially for those who have been traumatized by natural phenomenon, this psalm could raise questions regarding God’s sovereignty over nature or God’s goodness.

  3. Without diminishing the previous point, the final word of the psalm is one of comfort and hope. God is for us! God’s strength and power are not “for show.” God’s strength and power do not simply serve the purposes of God in a selfish or self-serving way. Rather, God gives strength and peace (well-being, wholeness) to God’s people. Therefore, we may regard Psalm 29 as an invitation to relationship with the Sovereign Lord of the universe. [1] Peter C Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 19 (Waco, Texas: Word, 1983), 245. [2] NIV (2011) used throughout unless otherwise indicated. [3] Robert Warden Prim, “Psalm 29: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), Kindle. [4] Iwan Russell-Jones, “Psalm 29: Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), Kindle.