In ancient Canaan, the god of storms and weather was Ba’al. Ashtoreth, goddess of fertility, was all very well but without the goodwill of Ba’al, your crops could be wiped out in a matter of stormy minutes. Because of this psalm’s focus on stormy weather, and because of the imagery of the opening verse that calls on the heavenly court (the sons of gods) to give YHWH glory, some commentators suggest that this is an old Canaanite hymn that has been translated into Hebrew and ‘Yahwised’. Thus the story of the psalm begins with a call to the gods to give glory to YHWH; YHWH gives a display of power; the gods call out ‘Glory!’ and YHWH is enthroned as supreme deity.
Not all commentators agree with this. Robert Alter, for example, admits that there are some parallels with Canaanite wording (from the library at Ugarit), but feels that it is enough to say that Canaanite poetry was simply the literary tradition out of which Hebrew poetry came. He also points out that the literary device of (if not actual belief in) a heavenly court is not unusual in the bible.
Against the dullness of academic argument, the voice of God flashes forth flames of fire (v.7). Against the idea of domesticated gods who make the weather suit your small plans, the voice of God twists the oaks and strips the forests bare (v.9). Against the calm and stately dignity of the voice of God saying “Let there be…” and it was so in Genesis 1, here the voice of the God thunders over mighty waters and shakes the wilderness in a wild outburst of raw power.
In fact there is little about this psalm that is domestic. There is nothing here about a good harvest; nothing about God providing food for the animals; nothing about the death of your enemies. The (earthly) geographical settings are all wild: mighty seas and floods (vv.3,10), forests (vv.5,9) and the desert (v.8). The land of Israel is not mentioned but it is included in the sweep of the storm from Lebanon in the north (vv.5,6) to the desert of Kadesh in the south (v.8). Human existence and human flourishing, carved out of the wild earth, is always precarious. We make ourselves feel secure. We are protected by money, technology, weapons. We put God in a house and visit for an hour on Sundays (well, some Sundays) and sing mushy religious songs before going home to eat too much. We are as safe as houses.
As I write this, people are still clearing up from an earthquake in Italy and a less-publicized one in Burma. Over a million people recently lost their homes in floods in Assam. Houses are not safe. Our existence is always precarious. To whom should we go for security? To whom should we go for the words of eternal life? The God portrayed in Psalm 29 is a wild God. You wouldn’t read this psalm and then pray for a parking space, or for sunshine for your picnic or for your loved one not to die. This is not a God who is going to mould the world around your plans. What then?
For billions of people in the world, not to mention animals and plants, the world does not fit around their plans or their dreams. The world is shaped in precisely the opposite direction. They are not stupid and they work hard, often harder and longer than rich people work, but they remain poor and their lives are hard and short. The world is against them. So what does that say about God? A domesticated God who gives me a parking space when I am late for church but does nothing to improve the life of my sister in a refugee camp is not the God who made and cares for the universe. I suspect that only a wild God can bring new life to a world where the greatest evil is done by men (and a few women) in suits in boardrooms and around committee tables: proposed, seconded and minuted. Only a wild God can disrupt the power of safe, secure dullness and do something new and unexpected. A wild God could depose the powerful as easily as ripping up a mighty cedar tree, and could raise up the humble poor (see 1 Samuel 2.1-10 and Luke 1.46-55). In a world that needs shaking into a new order, only the wild God who is enthroned over the flood can bring the chaos that leads to new life.
In the story of Jesus as told by Matthew, when Jesus, who had said and done so much to disrupt, challenge and subvert a social order that privileged a few to the cost of many, was executed and hung on a cross, there was darkness over the land between noon and three o’clock. As Jesus died, there was an earthquake and rocks were split. In Gerd Theissen’s telling of the story in ‘The Shadow of the Galilean’, a sympathetic onlooker says, “If the sky could feel as we do it would turn black for grief; if the earth could feel as we do it would quake with anger” – the thunder and the passion of a wild God saving the world. Three days later, Matthew says, there was another earthquake and Jesus was raised to life. How could the earth not shake when a new creation is born of God? Then at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to go into all the world, spreading his message and making more disciples. Within a few years, people were complaining that these Christians had turned the world upside-down (Acts 17.6).
An upside-down world is the only hope we have, because while the world is still this way up, ordered by the laws of money and landed security, far too many people, animals and plants are suffering and their lives are being cut short, while others of us lead privileged lives of plenty. Psalm 29 ends with a request to God for strength and peace (v.11). The language echoes that of vv.1 and 2: “Grant to the LORD glory and strength; grant to the LORD the glory of his name.” In v.11: “May the LORD grant strength …” It may well be that the peace longed for in v.11b and in the hearts of all who suffer can only come when people like me are willing to follow Jesus into chaos and darkness, at the very real risk of losing everything, and trust themselves to the wild and powerful God rather than to money, privilege and conventional good order. That will be giving God the glory of God’s name, reflecting God’s nature of justice, peace and life for all. For that I need the strength of God and it can only be granted and received as grace.
Psalm 29 provides a much-needed counter to the calmer expressions of creation faith found in some other biblical passages. If it is indeed old, it may reflect a rural setting where life really was precarious (rather than the safer mercantile urban culture in which most of the bible was written) and when the temptation to turn to domestic, useful gods would have been very real and sometimes very urgent. Safer options were available, so the psalm’s portrayal of God as wild and chaotic is therefore full of courage. The psalm voices a choice for God against evidence and against common sense – a voice of faith that is worth listening to because, like the voice of God in the psalm, the voice of wild, raw, unrestrained faith tears the world we know apart, and only then can this holy, glorious and powerful God create the new world that all creation needs.