20 Aug 2018

Psalm 93: Yahweh is King, Friday’s Psalm

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Exegesis, Faith, Hebrew Bible, Mission, Psalms, Septuagint, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship

Approaching Friday’s Psalm

Continuing our series on the Psalms of the Week, we arrive at the psalm “for the day before the Sabbath when the earth was [first] inhabited” (LXX).  Both the Septuagint (LXX) and Mishnah inform us that Psalm 93 held a special place in the Temple’s liturgy every Friday.  And as we have seen, pious Jews in the Second Temple Period (and to this day) followed this Spiritual rhythm in their life. This cluster of psalms, 92-94, was inculcated into the world of the faithful every week.

There are also significant connections between Psalm 93 and Psalm 24, the psalm for the first day of the week (see my Psalm 24: Palm for the First Day of the Week).  Psalm 24 speaks of God in creation and Psalm 93 speaks of Yahweh’s reign over creation. Both psalms speak of the waters/seas of chaos. Both psalms testify to Yahweh’s power in the face of the waters. Both psalms take us to the Temple and the sanctity of the house of God. Thus first day (Sunday) and the day before the Sabbath (Friday, last day of actual creation) are theologically connected in the worship of the Temple and the life of the Jews of Jesus’s day.

Psalm 93 on Friday, Psalm 92 on the Sabbath, Psalm 94 on Wednesday.  Psalm 93 may be outlined as follows: v.1a; vv.1b-2; vv.3-4; v.5. We can translate the psalm as follows.

Yahweh is King,

He is robed in grandeur/majesty
Yahweh is robed, 
He is girded/belted with strength.
The world stands firm;
it cannot be shaken.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
from everlasting You have been.

The seas roar, O Yahweh,
the sea roars its thunder,
the sea roars with pounding. 
Above the thunder of the mighty waters,
more powerful/majestic than the waves of the sea
is Yahweh on high.

Your decrees are utterly sure,
holiness beautifies your house,
O Yahweh, for all times.

Yahweh is King (93.1a)

The kingship of Yahweh is a central theme in the Psalter (see my The Psalms, the Reign of God, and Jesus the Messiah). When the Gospels report that Jesus proclaimed “the good news of  the kingdom of God” (Mk 1.14) no one ever stopped him and asked, “what is the kingdom of God?” Jesus did not invent something new. Every Jew was intimately familiar with God’s reign (the phrase “kingdom of God” is better translated into English as “reign of God.”)  They knew the kingship of God from the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms especially.

Yahweh is King is the essential declaration of Psalm 93, everything else in the Psalm is explaining what that means to the Israelite.  In Psalm 93.5, Israelites sang “the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” In Psalm 96.10, Jesus and pious Jews would sing, “Say among the nations, “Yahweh is King!” In Psalm 99, there rose from the Temple the acclamation “The LORD is King, let the nations tremble,” Why? because he is a “Mighty King, lover of justice” (99.4).

It was while worshiping in the Temple, around 742 BC, that Isaiah, encountered the Great King. There he saw what Psalm 93 confesses. He saw Israel’s true King in majestic glory, attended to by the seraphs as they praised the God of Israel, “holy, holy, holy … the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6.3). Without a word uttered from the King, without a sentence from the seraphs, all it took was a glimpse of Majesty and Isaiah was crushed with the knowledge of his uncleanness. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I am among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the KING, the LORD of hosts.”

Yahweh is King.  But what is the significance of this according to Psalm 93.  That is what the rest of the psalm has the pious Jew confessing to this day … we Christians too.

God’s Clothing (93.1b-2)

The Hebrew Bible is remarkably reticent to offer a “description” of the God of Israel. Interestingly we do not find any description of Jesus either.  The psalm says that Yahweh is robed, or clothed, in majesty and girded in strength. In Psalm 104.1, the Creator God’s majesty is said to consist of Yahweh’s being “wrapped in light.” In Psalm 27, worshipers gather in the Temple with only one request of God, “to behold the beauty of the LORD and to meditate” (v.4). Perhaps it was in such meditation when Isaiah was granted by God such a gracious vision. The apostle Paul, student of the Psalter he was, says the same that God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6.16).

Majesty, glory, beauty are all words that are struggling to convey the experience of seeing the King. But words cannot convey an experience that even angel eyes cannot behold. The King is glory majesty itself.

But the King is “belted” or “girded” in strength. As Psalm 24.8 notes (the Sunday psalm) God is “strong and mighty … mighty in battle.” To say that the King is girded in strength is to confess that the God of Israel is all powerful.  As we shall see this is directly connected to the sea/waters motif in verses 3-4.  But God, the King, is a Warrior on behalf of the creation established by his throne.

It is precisely because the King has strength that the world is held firm. The language of “the world stands firm” (or as the NRSV renders it, ‘He has established the world‘) is not so much about the initial creation of the world as the ongoing working of the world. It is because of language like this (and from other places like Wisdom of Solomon) that Hebrews can say that Jesus “sustains” the universe (1.3). God is King indeed because he created the world (Ps 24) but the King did not create and then abandon it as if Yahweh was a deist (see Psalm 104 where God’s intimate hands on approach to creation is gratefully sang).  There are cosmic forces that are enemies of the King. But the King is not only majestic but powerful enough to handle the threats to God’s kingdom.

The Sea, Threatening Enemy of God’s Kingdom (93.3-4) 

Psalm 93.3-4 are apt to be confusing to we moderns precisely because there is a considerable historical gulf between the social world of the text and ourselves.  The seas/waters in the ancient world of Israel were more than mere water that quenches thirst. They were the symbols of the unpredictable, and extremely destructive, forces of chaos that could wipe out life as we know it.  Even in our modern scientific world the power of the sea/water can bring terror upon us.  Witnessing the unpredictable flood that comes through a wash in Arizona can shake one to the core of her being. Watch the sea coming in as a tsunami is horrifying. Rain after the forest fire can (and does) produce “flash floods” of terrifyingly destructive power.

In the world that Israel lived, these forces had a name, Yamm. Yamm was a malevolent god. It is not without significance that the very word used for seas/waters in the Hebrew Bible, including here in Psalm 93, is the word yam.  Thanks to the discovery of the Baal Cycle tablets at Ugarit in 1929 and following years, we have insight into what people thought of Yamm.  The story of Baal and the war with Yamm was told every year and was an integral part of Canaanite mythology (we must recall that they did not believe it was mythology).  According to the story, Baal has taken refuge upon the mountain of god. Yamm dares to attack the mountain of god to get him.

Yamm the Sea

Yamm the Sea sends messengers to the divine assembly,
Nahar the River dispatches envoys to the Holy Ones … 
They depart at once,
They do not delay.
They head straight to the Mountain of El (God),
They go directly to the divine assembly …
Baal stands beside El … 

The “holy ones” that form the court of the high god El are in sheer terror of the coming of Yamm.  They react like humans to this day do in the face of the rushing wall of water that forms a tsunami. They panic! So the story says they “bury their heads on their knees” and “hide their faces in the cushions” on their couches.

Yamm demands that El “must stop protecting Baal … Surrender Baal and his followers.

El, the high god, is himself powerless to stop Yamm.  High god or not, the power of the chaotic water was more powerful than El. El decides to hand Baal over to Yamm else his holy mountain suffer from the mighty waters.

There follows a great war between Baal (who will not give himself up without a fight) and Yamm the Sea.  He is given a great battle-ax. But “Yamm is too strong … He does not waver.” But the battle is not over.  Baal has another battle-ax with the name “Expeller” that is mighty. And Baal overcomes the Sea and “expels” the threatening flood from the mountain of god. (Quotations from Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamen, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, 3rd Edition, pp. 267-269).

Yamm is the name the ancient inhabitants at Ugarit and Canaan gave to the cosmic force that threatened continuing existence of life in the world.  The biblical authors are fully aware that there are powers in this universe that refuse to submit to the King.  They attack the King by attacking the creation … his kingdom!

But Psalm 93 says that Yahweh is belted with strength! What El was not able to do (he surrendered Baal and his followers), Yahweh the King does not surrender us to the forces of cosmic rebellion. El cannot protect, but Yahweh can and does.  And the biblical claim is that it is not Baal that ultimately turns the Tide back, it is the King, Yahweh, who is seated on the throne in the Temple.

Yahweh is “more majestic/powerful than the waves of Yam is Yahweh on high!” Because Yahweh the King is majestic and strong the world is not threatened even by Yamm. Psalm 93 is the ancient version of the commercial, “Creation in good hands because Yahweh is King.” The world is stable. Life can flourish. The floods are in fact frightening but Yahweh draws a line in the sand (so to speak) that waters cannot pass.  Yahweh is invulnerable.

The King’s Decrees Keep the Kingdom (93.5)

The Temple is the place where God’s space and human space interlock. It is like a button that is sowed on one piece of material and slips through another piece of material to be on top of the joined material. The Temple is the button of God’s space within the created order.  It is the palace of Yahweh the King (the word “palace” and “temple” are the same in Hebrew). It is the “Oval Office” where the universe is run. This is why the Hebrew Bible quite literally sees the Temple/Zion/Jerusalem as the center of the world.  What follows in v.5 is debated among scholars some even thinking it is a much later attachment to the psalm itself because they do not see how the sudden references to “testimonies/decrees” connects.

But I think v.5 flows quite naturally from the psalm.  A weak king cannot govern his kingdom.  El’s decrees were not sure, there was no safety, no refuge, in them. Even the very presence of El did not ensure the safety of even Baal! But a decree of a powerful king is an extension of the power of the King himself. They are as powerful and effective as the One on the throne.  Sovereignty intrinsically assures the stability and welfare of the realm. Unlike some limited potentate whose decrees may die with him, Yahweh’s decrees are sure … which we can translate as “enduring.” The glorious King has provided direction for the citizens of the kingdom to thrive.  Through the decrees we experience the King’s reign, stability and full life.

God’s house, the Temple, is the place where we come to be beautified in holiness. It is as if some of God’s own beauty “rubs off” on those seeking audience with the King of Glory.

Wrapping Up

Psalm 93 reminded Jews in Jesus day, and Christians today, that Yahweh is Sovereign. On the “day before the Sabbath” in which God “rested,” we are reminded that the Creator does not simply create but sustains, protects, and battles the forces that would threaten God’s creation.  The universe is safe, it is in good hands, because Yahweh is on the Throne in the Temple. We trust in the King and remain faithful to the King by organizing our lives in accordance with the testimonies of the realm.  On this day we say in the face of Yamm, in the face of the forces of evil, in the face of those who would rip our worlds apart: We are more than conquerors because …

YHWH MALAK … Yahweh is King

Pray Psalm 93 every Friday

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