Psalm 33, America, and Empire
In a Christian Century article entitled “On a Mission: The Uses of American Power,” Lloyd Steffen reviews a series of recent publications exploring the common themes of America, God, and empire. Steffen opens the article with a window on American history. First he cites Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ 1821 statement that were the United States to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy . . . it would become entangled in all wars of interest and intrigue . . . and usurp the standard of freedom. [While] she might become the dictatress of the world, [s]he would be no longer the ruler of her own soul.” Then Steffen fast-forwards ninety years to President McKinley’s “late-night, down-on-the-knees prayer session in the White House” where the American president gains what he considers divine endorsement for an imperial military incursion with the aim to “take all the islands and—‘by God’s grace’—educate, uplift, civilize and Christianize the Filipinos.”
As dual citizens, we are to remind ourselves and those around us that while a national republic might be able to function as “one nation under God,” an imperial regime by its very nature defies that pledge.
Steffen quotes McKinley: “I went to bed and went to sleep and slept soundly” (Steffen, 33). After reviewing Stephen Webb’s American Providence: A Nation with a Mission, Steffen declares that if Webb and many other Americans are right in asserting “that God is working providentially through American foreign policy to advance an ultimate divine plan that is consonant with the interests of an economic elite—then this is a God who might need to be ushered off the stage” (Steffen, 38). He concludes that America must choose between republic and empire. It must either “eschew domination, violence and militarism and espouse nonviolence and forgiveness . . . or . . . [embrace] the imperial way that leads to perpetual war and indebtedness.” Steffen calls for people of faith who will “see to it that the architects and supporters of imperial policy are denied the sleep of an easy conscience.”
PSALM 33’s “MISSING” SUPERSCRIPTION
The poet who composed Psalm 33 writes to disturb the easy conscience of empire. Scholars are divided on the dating of the psalm, though Ben Ollenburger, among others, argues for the possibility of an early preexilic composition based on form and word pairs (Ollenburger, 94). J. Clinton McCann notes Psalm 33’s distinction within Book One of the Psalter is that it lacks a superscription (in Book One only Psalms 1-2, which serve an introductory function in the Psalter, and Psalm 10, which forms an acrostic as a continuation of Psalm 9, also lack a superscription. All superscriptions in Book One attribute the psalms to David). McCann suggests that the reader is pointed toward Psalm 32 in a search of the introductory information usually associated with the superscription. He substantiates the connection by noting that the language of the “Lord’s unfailing love” for those who trust in him in Psalm 32:10 is matched in Psalm 33:5, 18, 21-22. Further the call for the righteous and the upright to sing praise which concludes Psalm 32 (v. 11) opens Psalm 33 (v. 1). Since Psalm 32 is a Davidic penitential psalm associated with a sin of David, perhaps it is best to read Psalm 33 in that context (McCann, 809).
If these scholarly hypotheses are followed, we might legitimately place Psalm 33 in the context of David’s repentance for sin. The narrative of David’s life in 1-2 Samuel suggests two times when David repented. If reading in light of the Bathsheba affair (2 Sam. 11-12), the audience of Psalm 33 might envision a David chastened by recognition of his own abuse of power in taking Bathsheba’s virtue and Uriah’s life by means of royal edict and military might. Read in light of David’s sinful census for the apparent purpose of building an army through taxation and conscription (2 Sam. 24), Psalm 33 can be heard as the words of a contrite David who has come to understand that “No king is saved by the size of his army” (33:16a).
It seems impossible to argue with certainty for a definitive historical context. We cannot prove Davidic authorship of any of the Psalms, let alone Psalm 33 which bears no superscription. Nonetheless, this essay will show that Psalm 33 is to be read as a statement that contrasts the glory of the divine sovereign with the vain hopes of national or imperial ambition through military might.
GENRE AND STRUCTURE
Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise. It opens in vv. 1-3 with a call to sing praise to Yahweh. Verses 4-19, the body of the psalm, develop reasons for praising God. The body of the psalm can be divided into two sections. Section 1 (33:4-9) calls forth praise based on the greatness of Yahweh. Section 2 (33:10-19) praises Yahweh as the one who watches or oversees all human effort. The psalm concludes in vv. 20-22 with a statement of response and petition, a minor adaptation of the typical hymnic form. Although the psalm is not an acrostic, it is composed of 22 verses, the number equal to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The number reinforces the psalm’s claim for Yahweh’s comprehensive sovereignty (McCann, 809).
Call to Praise (33:1-3). The call to praise (vv. 1-3) introduces the body of the psalm. The call to praise makes three distinct statements. First, praise is fitting for those who are righteous and upright. The şaddîq (“righteous”) are the ones who are in right relationship with Yahweh. They have been declared innocent, having aligned themselves in loyalty and dependence with the way of God (Reimer, 747, 759). The yāšār (“upright”) are the worshipers who have experienced the freedom, reconciliation, and forgiveness of God. They please Yahweh by living a life that is straight and true (Olivier, 565). Praise fits those who are dependent on God.
Second, skillful use of musical instruments fits the worship of Yahweh. This is the first reference to musical instruments in the psalms. Third, worship of Creator is to be characterized by creativity and freshness (Limburg, 107). The “new song” is the song of deliverance (Pss. 40:1-3; 96:1; 98:1). New songs celebrate God’s reign (McCann, 809).
The command to praise reminds readers that praise is not simply a grateful attitude. Praise is the offering of oneself to God as is appropriate to those who are dependent on God (McCann, 810). As an act of sacrifice, praise describes total abandonment of the self to God. The call to praise instructs the righteous to use all within them to praise, including artful skill, fervent emotion, and the fresh, alive salvation song. Nothing is held back in praise.
Thesis (33:4-5). Psalm 33:4-5 states the core reality of Yahweh’s character, around which the psalm’s thesis is developed. Yahweh speaks and acts in a way that is yāšār (“right, true”) and ’ĕmûnâ (“faithful”), that is characterized by şĕdāqāh (“righteousness”), mišpāţ (“justice”), and hesed (“unfailing love”). Psalm 33 celebrates the exaltation of Yahweh as sovereign over the cosmos, including all the nations. The thesis can be summarized as follows:
Because Yahweh rules with righteousness, justice, and unfailing love, we must worship Yahweh with songs and praise and by rejecting all false sources of salvation.
According to Walter Brueggemann, Psalm 33 describes Yahweh as the settled sovereign, securely in control, who need only speak to have his command fulfilled (Brueggemann, 154).
The implications of Yahweh’s sovereign character are elaborated in vv. 6-19. Verse 4 introduces the theme of “the word of the LORD” and describes it as “right and true.” Verses 6-9 develop the theme; it is “by the word of the LORD” that Yahweh has created heaven, earth, and seas. Verse 5 declares that God engages “the earth” with righteousness, justice, and unfailing love. Verses 10-19 elaborate the theme. In the earth Yahweh controls the nations (vv. 10-12). From heaven God watches all who live on the earth (vv. 13-15). Among the nations of the earth Yahweh’s unfailing love, not military might, brings deliverance (vv. 16-19).
Yahweh’s word is yāšār (“right, true,” v. 4). The term is often used to describe a geometric relationship, a straight line without detour or obstacle, a path that is not crooked nor uneven (Olivier, 564-65). The word describes Yahweh’s rule, word, and work. Yahweh’s sovereign word is straightforward and without equivocation.
Yahweh’s action is ’ĕmûnâ (“faithful,” v. 4). The term is the word from which the prayer appellation, “amen,” is derived. The term reveals God’s true nature as the God who renews covenant despite human sin (Exod. 33-34). The faithful response to God’s faithfulness is to trust him to deliver (Exod. 14; 2 Chron. 20:20). Both of these references reveal a confidence to set aside dependence on military violence because of God’s reliability (Moberly, 428-32).
According to verse 5a Yahweh loves şĕdāqāh (“righteousness”) and mišpāţ (“justice”). The terms are used so frequently together that they can be read as a hendiadys. Şĕdāqāh denotes doing the right thing by others in light of one’s relationship with them. According to Isaiah 51:6, 8, Israel’s deliverance from exile is an act of şĕdāqāh. Righteousness usually refers to God’s saving action in the Psalms (Toews, 59). Divine righteousness translates into God’s commitment to provide justice to the oppressed (Ps. 103:6; Reimer, 760). Yahweh acts to fulfill an obligation to his people on basis of a long-standing commitment. Psalm 33 demonstrates that righteousness is a principle of world order that God wrote into the world when creating it.
Mišpāţ is a power word describing the decisive acts of Yahweh (Goldingay, 56). Moshe Weinfeld develops the notion that in the Old Testament, “justice” is not limited to jurisdiction but is relevant for political leaders who make and execute laws (Weinfeld, 44). Mišpāţ is variously used to describe royal administrative polity (“the ways of the king” in 1 Sam. 8:8, 10), judicial practice of being evenhanded and fair (Exod. 23:2-3), and concern for the needy (Deut. 24:17). Righteousness and justice associated with his reign underscore Yahweh’s commitment to protect the marginalized. Psalm 9:7-9, 18 explicitly links the throne of Yahweh with righteousness and justice demonstrated in care for the oppressed. Psalm 146 concludes with the affirmation that Yahweh reigns forever (146:10). This is the capstone of praise for the Maker of the cosmos who protects the oppressed, hungry, prisoners, blind, alien, orphan, and widow (146:6-9). Deuteronomy 10:17-18 describes Yahweh as “God of gods and Lord of lords” who not only practices evenhanded justice but also defends orphan, widow, and alien.
Continuing in Psalm 33:5, Yahweh fills the earth with hesed (“unfailing love”; the term is also used in vv. 18 and 22). The word hesed almost defies translation into English and has been rendered “covenant love,” “loving-kindness,” “loyalty,” and “mercy.” It is, according to the title of a book which discusses the term, “faithfulness in action” (Sakenfeld). The term refers to Yahweh’s self-giving commitment made under no obligation (like Rahab’s protection of the Israelite spies in Josh. 2:12), but also a commitment that he continues to make because of an obligation even though it is costly and the partner proves to be unworthy.
Worship is called for, based on the truth of Yahweh’s word, acts, and person. Faithful and upright people worship the God who is upright in word and faithful in the exercise of power. One might ask, Is the earth full of Yahweh’s commitment? Psalm 33 gives a clear response: The making of the world was an expression of uprightness, trustworthiness, decisive faithfulness, and commitment. Although one sees these again in Israel’s history, they are already expressed in the way God made the world.
Praising Yahweh, the Creator (33:6-9). The next stanza (Ps. 33:6-9) elaborates the thesis statement—Yahweh rules with righteousness, justice, and unfailing love—focusing on Yahweh as Creator. The primacy of the creation theology in this text places the election of Israel within the cosmic context. Yahweh is not limited to an exclusive relationship with Israel. The scope of Yahweh’s rule and providential care extends beyond the “chosen people.” According to Bernhard Anderson, the psalmist’s praise leads not to theological confinement within Israel’s history but “to a spacious view that embraces all peoples and the whole cosmos” (Anderson, 144-45).
The use of the term “all” in 13:6, 8, 13, 14, 15 gives witness to Yahweh’s sovereignty over creation (vv. 6-9), the nations and peoples (vv. 10-12), humanity (vv. 13-15), the powers (vv. 16-17), and the faithful (vv. 18-19). This stanza of elaboration (33:6-9) describes “the heavens and all their army as made by the word breathed out of Yahweh’s mouth. It adds that the making of the world was an act of uprightness, trustworthiness, commitment, and decisive faithfulness” (Goldingay, 55).
Psalm 33:7 makes the claim that Yahweh has bottled the waters of the sea. This presents a special problem for the Yahwistic apologist. Given the recent spate of tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes, how can the believer blithely claim that Yahweh is in control? Do natural disasters indicate that God is judging the earth, eliminating the righteous with the wicked (Gen. 18:25)? Or, is nature still in rebellion against God, so that the declaration that the sea monster has been tamed (Ps. 104:26) or destroyed (Ps. 74:14) is simply wishful thinking?
To answer this question from Psalm 33:7, the reader is advised to compare the text under study here with the song in Exodus 15. McCann notes that the language of Psalm 33:7 echoes verse 8 of that hymn. Both texts describe Yahweh confining “the deep” in “jars.” The “fear of Yahweh” (Ps. 33:8) echoes Israel’s reaction to Yahweh’s salvific power (Exod. 14:31; McCann, 810). According to Peter Craigie, the parallel use of terms indicates that the divine creation of nature provides the framework for a new creative act, the creation of God’s holy nation (Craigie, 273). The thrust of Psalm 33:7 is not primarily a statement about God’s management of nature but rather that Yahweh’s sovereignty harnesses the awesome power of the created order to serve his purposes in the historical world of nations and empires.
In Brueggemann’s terms, Psalm 33:4-5 embeds creation faith within covenant theology, in covenant trust. The creation word is not an enactment of sovereign power alone; it also pertains to a covenant quality. The Creator creates out of commitment to faithfulness, righteousness, justice, and steadfast love, assuring Israel of the Creator’s intent for justice. Creation faith is a ground for active, concrete hope in Israel for daily circumstance, possibility, and responsibility (Brueggemann, 154-55).
Psalm 33:6-9 then elaborates the thesis statement’s focus on God’s creative power as a right and true word and a faithful act. Psalm 33:10-19 shifts the focus to the nations, to Yahweh’s sovereign rule in history. Yahweh’s cosmic governance reigns over the recalcitrant nations. Yahweh sees and resists all who counter Yahweh’s plan. Kings, generals, and emperors are not autonomous. Creation faith shapes the psalmist’s view of political reality (Brueggemann, 154).
Praising Yahweh, the Sovereign of History (33:10-19). Psalm 33 places the historical particularity of Israel’s experience with Yahweh as liberator and judge (33:10-19) in the cosmic framework of universal creation (33:6-9). Yahweh is the only king. Yahweh as king and creator is the presupposition of history. Because Yahweh is king and creator/defender, he exercises a monopoly on imperial power. His is the exclusive prerogative to rule. Psalm 33:10-19 warns against attempts to find security in alliances and armaments (Ollenburger, 156).
Verses 10-11 juxtapose the plans of the nations with the purposes of Yahweh. Yahweh thwarts and foils the purposes of the nations, but his purposes stand firm forever. How do the plans of the nations run counter to the purpose of Yahweh?
When Israel asked for a king, Yahweh explained to Samuel that they were rejecting Yahweh’s kingly rule (1 Sam. 8:7). In the Rule of the King (Deut. 17:14-20) Moses had warned the people that they would demand “a king like the nations” (cf. 1 Sam. 8:5). The Rule of the King allowed for a king who would not accumulate weapons, wives, and wealth but would study and obey the law every day (Deut. 17:16-19). Samuel warned Israel that their king would claim as his rights (his mišpāţ) the conscription of the people’s children and servants and the tithe of their produce. In its history Israel had foiled the plans of Yahweh by accepting human rulers with a political agenda shaped by the purpose of empire rather than by Yahwistic justice. Psalm 33:10-11 reassures Israel that Yahweh’s plans would supersede national purposes.
Verse 12 concludes the stanza (vv. 10-12) with a blessing. The blessed nation is identified in two ways. First, they are the nation which worships Yahweh as God. Second, they are a chosen people. While Israel might be included in this description, the previous verses establish the conditionality of such identification. Israel would be the blessed nation only as long as they were faithful to Yahweh’s plans. While Israel was a chosen nation, the psalm does not limit Yahweh’s ability to form and choose nations as he purposes.
The following stanza, vv. 13-15, offers a new image. In Yahweh’s sovereignty, he is the God who sees all. The language allows for a reading with a more individualistic emphasis—“all humankind” and “the hearts of all.” The focus, however, is not so much on humans as it is on Yahweh’s all-seeing sovereignty. Yahweh can exercise right and true justice because nothing escapes his notice. In vv. 18-19 the image of God’s sovereign vision is repeated with the phrase “the eyes of the LORD.” In vv. 18-19 the psalm offers the comfort that the divine vision assures deliverance for those who hope in Yahweh and fear him.
The repeated reference to Yahweh’s sovereign vision brackets Psalm 33:16-17, which offers the clearest contrast between Yahweh’s rule and the rule of the empire. Yahweh has exclusive claim to the power that provides security, the prerogative of the king in a monarchy. Verses 16-17 confess that no king has power to provide that security, no king but Yahweh. The human power of king and warrior is futile for its intended purpose, salvation and security (Ollenburger, 95).
It is obvious to contemporary readers that the terms king, army, and warrior refer to military power. The word horse is also a term which most often appears in military contexts. During the second millennium B.C.E. horse-drawn chariots became an essential part of Near Eastern armies and were greatly valued by kings. The horse was known as a symbol of military might (Jer. 8:16; Hab. 1:8). Horses were viewed as a guarantee of security (Isa. 30:16) and an object of trust (Ps. 20:7a). Moses discouraged fear of horses and encouraged trust of God (Deut. 20:1). As noted above, Deuteronomy 17:16 prohibited accumulation of horses and trust in them. In the prophets the powerful word of Yahweh replaces horses and chariots (2 Kings 2:11-12). Hamstringing horses as part of the ban gives public testimony of trust in Yahweh (Josh. 11:4-11; Chisholm, 234-36).
Verses 16-17 employ three verbs to describe the vain hope of imperial salvation: yāša‘ (“save”), nāşal (“escape”), and mālaţ (“save”). Yāša‘ is the characteristic word used to describe Yahweh’s salvation of Israel. Exodus is the great act of Yahweh’s deliverance. The prophets declare that only Yahweh saves. Forty percent of the uses of the term are found in the book of Psalms, with about half the psalms using the term. The Hebrew Bible confesses that Yahweh is the only Savior—human or military help cannot bring Israel victory (Hubbard, “yš‘,” 556-62).
Nāşal is most commonly used with God as the subject as well. Yahweh is the model rescuer who snatches Israel from many dangerous grips (Josh. 24:10; 1 Sam. 10:18; 17:37). Yahweh delivers the needy (Ps. 72:2, 4, 12-14). Jeremiah warns kings to rescue victims from injustice (Jer. 21:12; 22:3). In Esther 4:14 Mordecai affirms that if Esther fails to obtain deliverance for the Jews from Xerxes, deliverance will come from another quarter. Psalm 33:19 declares that it is Yahweh who will deliver (nāşal; Hubbard, “nşl,” 141-45).
Mālaţ is commonly used to describe escape from enemies in warfare, to avoid capture. David escapes from Saul (1 Sam. 19:11; 20:29; 22:1). Mordecai warns Esther that she will not escape (Esther 4:13). Psalm 33 contrasts Yahweh’s ability to save militarily with the futile trust in horses to do so (Hubbard, “mlţ,” 951-52).
Each of the terms is most commonly employed positively with Yahweh as the subject. However, the three words of salvation are used negatively in vv. 16-17. Military power cannot save. The psalmist is declaring that Yahweh, not imperial armies, delivers from death and gives life. Redemption (nāşal) is accomplished by Yahweh (Ps. 33:19).
Yahweh’s exclusive prerogative to provide security is the practical conclusion of Yahweh’s exclusive sovereignty. In this declaration, Psalm 33 is close to Psalm 20:7 which reads, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (TNIV). Likewise Psalm 44:4-8 celebrates God as king “who decrees victories for Jacob.” The psalmist declares that he will not trust in bow or sword because God gives victory over their enemies.
Statement of Response (33:20-22). Psalm 33 concludes with a statement of response or expression of trust in vv. 20-22 (Anderson, 146). In this recapitulation the faithful community commits itself to wait, to hope, to trust in Yahweh. These terms are parallel to the term used in apposition with hope in verse 18: the word fear. Fear of Yahweh describes the faithful response that brings people into the orbit of Yahweh’s protection. In the fear of Yahweh there is confidence, trust, refuge, and a fountain of life to escape death (Prov. 14:26-27). “Whoever fears Yahweh need have no fear, but whoever does not fear Yahweh must have fear” (Zimmerli as quoted by Ollenburger, 96).
SUMMARY OF PSALM 33
Psalm 33 argues that royal or imperial power is a vain hope for deliverance. Imperial military might cannot provide security. This position is grounded in the confession that Yahweh is king. Yahweh’s power is juxtaposed to the power of the king, who is unable to save even himself. Psalm 33 establishes the connection between Yahweh’s character and the creation which ensues by his word. Yahweh’s word is the active agent. The Creator God is sovereign lord of history. Yahweh’s kingship is tied to his dual role of creator/defender. Israel is blessed because Yahweh has chosen this nation as his possession, under protection of his plan, rooted in the character expressed in creation and the conquest of powers of chaos, cosmic and historical, that threaten. Because Yahweh who created heaven is king and reigns in heaven, the nations’ plans are thwarted and kings are not powerful (Ollenburger, 95-99).
IMPLICATIONS FOR CONTEMPORARY BELIEVERS
The U.S. Mennonite Brethren church struggles to articulate a consistent, unified, and distinctive theological identity. We are quite comfortable to identify ourselves as Evangelicals. As we read Psalm 33, we do not hesitate to read the call to worship as a mandate for relevant, contemporary, artful corporate worship. We say a hearty “Amen!” to the line, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD” (v. 12), perhaps failing to recognize that it was not penned to refer to our own historical happenstance.
A biblical faith calls for a more critical analysis of theological identity. Psalm 33 warns not only against an ancient royal military machine but also against allegiance to imperial security plans and purposes in our nation. If Psalm 33 is our model, a faithful response begins with fresh recognition that confessing God as Creator and Sovereign has political implications. If we join the community of the psalmist to wait in hope, in fearing, in trusting in the holy name of Yahweh, we will be a distinct people.
The psalm invites a reexamination of our confidence. Yahweh is characterized by a love for righteousness and justice which translates into a policy of giving advantage to orphans, widows, and aliens. If Yahweh rules, the earth is full of his hesed—a more important reality than being part of a world that is full of American power, threats, and bluster.
The psalm calls for a people who will follow their Sovereign in speaking a word that is straight-as-an-arrow right and true. The psalm calls us to include in our evangelistic witness the truth that imperial economic, social, and military might is a vain hope for deliverance. As dual citizens, we are to remind ourselves and those around us that while a national republic might be able to function as “one nation under God,” an imperial regime by its very nature defies that pledge.
As the national foreign policy debate heats up in regard to a war on terrorism and the military adventure in Iraq, we must learn from theologians and commentators as they seek to assess administration plans and purposes. Gary Dorrien, for example, seems to be consistent with the message of Psalm 33 when he writes that American militarism is not the solution to rising anti-Americanism, but rather “ ‘a perfectly self-fulfilling prescription for perpetual war.’ The hope for world democracy lies not in imperialism but in anti-imperialism.” We must heed the voice of Robert Bellah who expresses the fear that “the drive toward hegemonic military control [in Iraq] will turn the world against America” because of this “latest expression of American pride and the arrogance of power.” We must join Wes Avram in asking “why a nation’s power should be equated with military power” (Steffen, 35-36).
In the quest for theological identity, MBs choose to be known as biblical Evangelicals. Let us again be people who allow the biblical text (like Ps. 33) to bring us into submission to the Sovereign Creator Lord. Let us follow that Lord wherever he leads. For truly, deliverance comes as we put our hope in the unfailing love of Yahweh.
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