Poetry catapults ordinary words into servants of imagery. The words of Psalm 97 are no exception. When the Psalmist invites worship in the opening verses, he summons the whole earth, then narrows to the isles (which some commentators have said invokes awareness of those peoples who were distant from God) and finally, to those whose inheritance was the story of deliverance in the desert. Their laws and lifestyle were born in the clouds and thick darkness of Sinai. The singers of this song would have snapped to attention with allusions to mountains and fire faster than we respond today to the words, “In the beginning…” The people of God would have recognized in these words a personal and community bond to the God of their mothers and fathers.
In verse two we see the uncompromising power of the God in the desert who could not be looked upon face to face. But terrifying as this enshrouded God seemed, our God is neither terrorist nor despot. God’s power is firmly seated upon the immutable foundation of justice and righteousness, not unleashed ferociously and indiscriminately as seen in the hands of the pagan gods. God’s unlimited power is therefore ultimately and imminently trustworthy and mobilizes for good and not harm.
In verses three through six, the psalmist shows God’s power over the elements and inhabitants of this earth and the heavens that surround it. This power stands in contrast to the seeming randomness of the environment itself. Then and now, earth feels unpredictable. We see the fragility of our natural world in the headlines of each natural disaster and in the imbalance of our biosphere brought to pass through both intentional and misguided husbandry of our home. People feel unpredictable. Trust is violated by the wounds meted out by those who are wounded, and self-serving choices break relationships we believed were sacred. Life itself feels unpredictable. Disease comes as the result of inseparable and yet-to-be explained complexities, and calamity befalls due to forces set into action at a level often far beyond our personal reach. Rarely can our dark spaces be explained by simple cause and effect and rarer still can our dark spaces be lit by a simple action. Only a God whose power is greater than these foes, these storms and these figurative mountains merits worship or devotion.
When these challenges land on our doorsteps, we are forced to wrestle with whether we have been serving an image of God that fits our purposes or the true God whose power transcends and transforms our pain. In a worthy battle against “pie in the sky by and by” we are at risk of forgetting that the God who allows freewill has not surrendered ultimate triumph over point-in-time catastrophe. This psalm reminds us that God is indeed greater than the forces that threaten justice and righteousness—which should be readily apparent in God’s self-revelation and in contrast to the lack of efficacy of pseudo-gods! Verse 9 proclaims God’s supremacy over everything we may allow to deceive us or rule over us today, just as it dominates the regional idols of the lands known by the original lyricist. This verse might well have provided the crescendo-conclusion of the psalm, but instead it serves as the pivot point for how we should live in response to such a powerful God.
In verse 10, God’s people are called to hate evil. Literally, we are to treat it as our enemy, with due resistance and offensive valor. It’s notable that the passionate connotation of the word hate has a remarkably stable history over time. While hate is condemned as an attitude toward people in the Gospels, it is commanded as a position toward injustice and unrighteousness in this psalm. Seeking justice becomes a defining characteristic of God’s people across history— we are passionately engaged in opposing evil’s impact on the integrity of life as God created it and intends it. Structurally, the partner of this command to hate is that those who hate evil will be guarded and delivered from the hand of the wicked. This is not a promise that we will escape the experience of impact of wickedness nor is it a magic formula or get out of jail free card for us in an individualistic sense—though we experience the poetry as deeply personal. Instead, “guarded” and “delivered” are words of close companionship within the experience of danger. We cannot be possessed by the hand of the wicked when we are companioned by our all-powerful God. Amidst passionate struggles opposing injustice, the “upright of heart” are given light and joy (v.11). This does not emanate from the nature of the hater. It is the companion—Godself—who is light and joy that engulfs and emboldens those who hate evil.
Bookending the command to hate evil is the command to rejoice (v. 12). In contrast to the stability of the meaning of the word hate is the relative insipidness taken on by the word rejoice in the English language. It is now relegated mostly to greeting cards at Christmas and Easter—and there we see the word again and again, as though confined to safe space. But the Old French use of the element re meant “expressing intensive force” and not simply to do something again. To embody the word rejoice is to experience passionate and force-filled joy. This isn’t positive attitude on steroids, imposing itself on those who suffer from injustice. It is a profound and intense sense of delight predicated on that same companionship with the God of light and joy in verse 11, and it is a powerful counterpoint to the passionate hatred of evil in this musical calling of the people of God to conquer injustice.
When Psalm 97 is read as proclamation of God’s power and a call to join in God’s purposes, it offers vision, direction, and passion for holiness of heart and life in a world that is often difficult and even unjust. We are never alone, and we are never powerless, despite feelings or even objective evidence to the contrary. We carry the poetic images of God’s omnipotence as part of our faith lexicon, and because of this deep truth we can choose praise (v.12) even as we acknowledge the reality of pain and struggle against sin, death, and the distortion of God’s intentions toward those God loves.