Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, July 17th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 29

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-11

Psalms 29:1-11

THE core of this psalm is the magnificent description of the thunderstorm rolling over the whole length of the land. That picture is framed by two verses of introduction and two of conclusion, which are connected, inasmuch as the one deals with the "glory to God in the highest" which is the echo of the tempest in angels’ praises, and the other with the "peace on earth" in which its thunders die away.

The invocation in Psalms 29:1-2 is addressed to angels, whatever may be the exact rendering of the remarkable title by which they are summoned in Psalms 29:1. It is all but unique, and the only other instance of its use {Psalms 89:6} establishes its meaning, since "holy ones" is there given as synonymous in the verses preceding and following. The most probable explanation of the peculiar phrase (B’ne Elim) is that of Gesenius, Ewald, Delitzsch, and Riehm in his edition of Hupfeld’s Commentary: that it is a double plural, both members of the compound phrase being inflected. Similarly "mighty men of valour" {1 Chronicles 7:5} has the second noun in the plural. This seems more probable than the rendering "sons of the gods." The psalmist summons these lofty beings to "give" glory and strength to Jehovah; that is, to ascribe to Him the attributes manifested in His acts, or, as Psalms 29:2 puts it, "the glory of His name," i.e., belonging to His character as thus revealed. The worship of earth is regarded as a type of that of heaven, and as here, so there, they who bow before Him are to be clothed in "holy attire." The thought underlying this ringing summons is that even angels learn the character of God from the exhibitions of His power in the Creation, and as they sang together for joy at first, still attend its manifestations with adoration. The contrast of their praise with the tumult and terror on earth, while the thunder growls in the sky, is surely not unintended. It suggests the different aspects of God’s dread deeds as seen by them and by men, and carries a tacit lesson true of all calamities and convulsions. The thundercloud hangs boding in its piled blue blackness to those who from beneath watch the slow crumbling away of its torn edges and the ominous movements in its sullen heart or hear the crashes from its depths, but, seen from above, it is transfigured by the light that falls on its upper surface; and it stretches placid before the throne, like the sea of glass mingled with fire. Whatever may be earth’s terror, heaven’s echo of God’s thunders is praise.

Then the storm bursts. We can hear it rolling in the short periods, mostly uniform in structure and grouped in verses of two clauses each, the second of which echoes the first, like the long-drawn roll that pauses, slackens, and yet persists. Seven times "the voice of Jehovah" is heard, like the apocalyptic "seven thunders before the throne." The poet’s eye travels with the swift tempest, and his picture is full of motion, sweeping from the waters above the firmament to earth and from the northern boundary of the land to the far south. First we hear the mutterings in the sky (Psalms 29:3). If we understood "the waters" as meaning the Mediterranean, we should have the picture of the storm working up from the sea; but it is better to take the expression as referring to the super-terrestrial reservoirs or the rain flood stored in the thunderclouds. Up there the peals roll before their fury shakes the earth. It was not enough in the poet’s mind to call the thunder the voice of Jehovah, but it must be brought into still closer connection with Him by the plain statement that it is He who "thunders" and who rides on the storm clouds as they hurry across the sky. To catch tones of a Divine voice, full of power and majesty’, in a noise so entirely explicable as a thunderclap, is, no doubt, unscientific; but the Hebrew contemplation of nature is occupied with another set of ideas than scientific, and is entirely unaffected by these. The psalmist had no notion of the physical cause of thunder, but there is no reason why a man who can make as much electricity as he wants by the grinding of a dynamo and then use it to carry his trivial messages should not repeat the psalmist’s devout assertion. We can assimilate all that physicists can tell us, and then, passing into another region, can hear Jehovah speaking in thunder. The psalm begins where science leaves off.

While the psalmist speaks the swift tempest has come down with a roar and a crash on the northern mountains, and Lebanon and "Sirion" (a Sidonian name for Hermon) reel, and the firm-boled, stately cedars are shivered. The structure of the verses already noticed, in which the second clause reduplicates, with some specialising, the thought of the first, makes it probable that in Psalms 29:6 a the mountains, and not the cedars, are meant by "them." The trees are broken; the mountains shake. An emendation has been proposed, by which "Lebanon" should be transferred from Psalms 29:5 to Psalms 29:6 and substituted for "them" so as to bring out this meaning more smoothly, but the roughness of putting the pronoun in the first clause and the nouns to which it refers in the second is not so considerable as to require the change. The image of the mountains "skipping" sounds exaggerated to Western ears, but is not infrequent in Scripture, and in the present instance is simply a strong way of expressing the violence of the storm, which seems even to shake the steadfast mountains that keep guard over the furthest borders of the land. Nor are we to forget that here there may be some hint of a parable in nature. The heights are thunder smitten; the valleys are safe. "The day of the Lord shall be upon all the cedars of Lebanon that are high and lifted up, and upon all the high mountains." {Isaiah 2:13-14} The two-claused verses are interrupted by one of a single clause (Psalms 29:7), the brevity of which vividly suggests the suddenness and speed of the flash: "The voice of Jehovah cleaves [or, hews out] fire flames." The thunder is conceived of as the principal phenomenon and as creating the lightning, as if it hewed out the flash from the dark mass of cloud. A corrected accentuation of this short verse divides it into three parts, per haps representing the triple zigzag; but in any case the one solitary, sudden fork, blazing fiercely for a moment and then swallowed up in the gloom, is marvellously given. It is further to be noted that this single lightning gleam parts the description of the storm into two, the former part painting it as in the north, the latter as in the extreme south. It has swept over the whole length of the land, while we have been watching the flash. Now it is rolling over the wide plain of the southern desert. The precise position of Kadesh is keenly debated, but it was certainly in the eastern part of the desert region on the southern border. It, too, shakes, low lying as it is; and far and wide over its uninhabited levels the tempest rages, its effects there are variously understood. The parallelism of clauses and the fact that nowhere else in the picture is animal life introduced give great probability to the very slight alteration required in Psalms 29:9 a, - in order to yield the rendering "pierces the oaks" (Cheyne), in stead of "makes the hinds calve" which harmonises admirably with the next clause: but, on the other hand, the premature dropping of the young of wild animals from fear is said to be an authentic fact, and gives a defensible trait to the picture, which is perhaps none the less striking for the introduction of one small piece of animated nature. In any case the next clause paints the dishevelled forest trees, with scarred bark, broken boughs, and strewn leaves, after the fierce roar and flash, wind and rain, have swept over them. The southern border must have been very unlike its present self, or the poet’s thoughts must have travelled eastwards, among the oaks on the other side of the Arabah, if the local colouring of Psalms 29:9 is correct.

While tumult of storm and crash of thunder have been raging and rolling below, the singer hears "a deeper voice across the storm," the songs of the "sons of God" in the temple palace above, chanting the praise to which he had summoned them. "In His temple everyone is saying, Glory!" That is the issue of all storms. The clear eyes of the angels see, and their "loud uplifted trumpets" celebrate, the lustrous self-manifestation of Jehovah, who rides upon the storm, and makes the rush of the thunder minister to the fruitfulness of earth.

But what of the effects down here? The concluding strophe (Psalms 29:10-11) tells. Its general sense is clear, though the first clause of Psalms 29:10 is ambiguous. The source of the difficulty in rendering is twofold. The preposition may mean "for"-i.e., in order to bring about-or, according to some, "on," or "above," or "at." The word rendered "flood" is only used elsewhere in reference to the Noachic deluge, and here has the definite article, which is most naturally explained as fixing the reference to that event; but it has been objected that the allusion would be farfetched and out of place, and therefore the rendering "rain storm" has been suggested. In the absence of any instance of the word’s being used for anything but the Deluge, it is safest to retain that meaning here. There must, however, be combined with that rendering an allusion to the torrents of thunder rain, which closed the thunderstorm. These could scarcely be omitted. They remind the singer of the downpour that drowned the world, and his thought is that just as Jehovah "sat"-i.e., solemnly took His place as King and Judge-in order to execute that act of retribution, so, in all subsequent smaller acts of an analogous nature, He "will sit enthroned forever." The supremacy of Jehovah over all transient tempests and the judicial punitive nature of these are the thoughts which the storm has left with him. It has rolled away; God, who sent it, remains throned above nature and floods: they are His ministers.

And all ends with a sweet, calm word, assuring Jehovah’s people of a share in the "strength" which spoke in the thunder, and, better still, of peace. That close is like the brightness of the glistening earth, with freshened air, and birds venturing to sing once more, and a sky of deeper blue, and the spent clouds low and harmless on the horizon. Beethoven has given the same contrast between storm and after calm in the music of the Pastoral Symphony. Faith can listen to the wildest crashing thunder in quiet confidence that angels are saying, "Glory!" as each peal rolls, and that when the last, low mutterings are hushed, earth will smile the brighter, and deeper peace will fall on trusting hearts.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 29". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-29.html.
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