Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 4


Psalm 33

There are few psalms in the Psalter that are unique. Most of them trade in themes that are found in other psalms and in many cases in many other psalms. Each psalm is different, of course, arising out of the particular circumstances that led to its composition and out of the individuality of the writer, but the same subject or subjects are treated in many psalms. This is true of our psalm this evening, Psalm 33, a hymn of praise, whose great subjects are creation and providence: the Lord’s making of all things and his ruling over them all. One fine commentator on the Psalms entitles this psalm “Maker and Monarch.”  [Kidner, i, 136] The editors of the ESV take for the title of the psalm the last phrase of verse 5: “the steadfast love of the Lord.” But the point of the psalm is that this divine steadfast love is demonstrated in creation and in providence.

Psalm 33: Text Comment

Psalm 33 is unusual, being one of the very few psalms in Book I of the Psalter not to have a title and not to be identified as a psalm written by David. Psalms 1 and 2 don’t have titles but then they are together the introduction to the entire Psalter. Psalm 10 doesn’t have a title either, but both the LXX and the Latin Vulgate have our Psalm 10 as simply the second half of Psalm 9, so 10’s lack of a title perhaps is due to the fact that it was not originally a separate psalm. That leaves Psalm 33 alone among the first 41 psalms as a psalm without a title. It does have a title in the LXX (“Of David”) and also in a manuscript found at Qumran. So why there is no title in the Hebrew text of the OT is a mystery.

v.2       It is a point of some interest, by the way, that the psalms contain a substantial amount of historical information, in this case reference to musical instruments in use at that time in the ancient world. There is a great deal of archaeological confirmation of such references. Details such as these place the psalms in their historical context. The two instruments mentioned probably stand for the entire array of instruments in the orchestra that would have accompanied the congregation’s singing.

v.3       Throughout the Bible “new” refers not to something chronologically recent but to something that partakes of the new life that God gives to those who are being saved. The fact that “new” appears so often in the “Old” Testament should make us hesitate before thinking that spiritual realities were much different then from now.

            By the way, notice the summons to play skillfully, not simply enthusiastically. We are to offer the Lord our best, however much that “best” may differ from congregation to congregation.

            In any case, we have here obviously a hymn to be sung by the congregation. The perspective of the psalm is corporate and collective and it concludes with statements made by the people of God together. It is a “we” psalm, not an “I” psalm.

v.9       As in Genesis 1 and 2 God creates by the utterance of his mouth: he calls his creation into being just as he calls the new creation into being. His word is his instrument or agent.

v.12     This is not, by the way, and never has been the United States of America. We have here a reference to Israel as the people of God and, by analogy, it is a reference to the church thereafter.

v.15     Note the recurring use of “all” in vv. 11-15. The Lord’s knowledge and control is absolute.

v.17     Voltaire’s famous jibe, “They say that God is always for the big battalions” is here denied. The Lord may or may not favor the outcome desired by the powerful. We’ve seen too many of the mighty fall not to realize this.

v.19     The psalm’s account of the Lord’s knowledge, care, and power, now serve as the basis for the believers’ expression of faith and hope in the last three verses of the psalm.

There is much to reflect upon in this beautiful psalm, but I want this evening to pay attention to the relationship between God’s creation of all things and our confidence in his rule of all things and, by that rule, the manifestation of his steadfast love for his people as they live their lives in the world. You perhaps noticed that the statement that God had created the world in vv. 6-9 is immediately followed by the assertion of his absolute control over what happens in the world for the blessing and benefit of those who trust in him. The fact that “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made and by the breath of his mouth all their host” and the fact that “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” are simply two facets of the same reality. This world, what is in it, what happens in it, this is all the work of a single, almighty, perfectly self-consistent mind. The entire world is, both in its nature and in its history, what Calvin called “the theater of God’s glory.”

Creation – God’s making all things – and providence – God’s ruling over all things, your history and the history of the world – are intimately related at a deep level in the Bible and this psalm. This is demonstrated in another interesting way that would have immediately drawn the attention of a Hebrew reader of this psalm. In v. 7 we read that the Lord “gathers the waters of the sea as a heap…” This language is an echo both of the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 and of the deliverance of Israel by the parting of the waters of the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 15:8). It is the same God, the same power, the same all-consuming divine will at work in both instances. He created the sea and he controls it for the blessing and benefit of his people and the accomplishment of his will. [cf. Craigie, WBC, i, 273]

“God’s dominion in creation and in human history are intimately related.” [Ibid] The one is the continuation of the other. The former is the presupposition of the latter. God rules this world because it is his, he made it. He can rule over all things in the world because the very existence of the world and everything in it is the exercise of God’s will in the first place. God can part the waters of the sea because they are his waters, he made them, and they are in the nature of the case under his control.

We tend to forget when we argue about creation as a matter of scientific debate in the early 21st century that what is at stake is the Lord’s rule of history. If God did not make the world, the nexus, the connection between creation and providence is broken. It is hard to believe that God rules a world he did not make and controls a world that is not his. If his dominion did not produce the world, can we believe that it rules the world in which we live and so, can we believe, that our lives and the fortunes of the church of God are entirely under his control.

Unbelievers see this very clearly. Richard Dawkins, a modern champion of Darwinism, has said that Darwinism – effectively the view that the world and everything in it arose by chance – “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In other words, remove God from the creation of the world and you remove him altogether. He may be there – theoretically – but for all practical purposes he might as well not be. The death of divine creation is the death of divine providence. And that is what has happened in our world. Hardly anyone in our elite culture regards what happened in Haiti a few weeks ago as literally “an act of God.” In the same way most people have no sense of relating to God himself in the things that happen to them in their daily lives. They do not think that their lives are supercharged with eternal significance precisely because they are unfolding according to a divine plan and because in one circumstance after another they come face to face with the will and the plan and the choices of the Almighty.

On the other hand, if it is admitted that God made the world, that he made it according to his will and by his almighty power, then the shoe is on the other foot. Now it becomes virtually impossible to believe that God does not rule this world at the same time.

Antony Flew was the Richard Dawkins of the previous generation. Since the year of my birth, 1950, Flew has been not only a widely read philosopher who taught at a number of the world’s most prestigious universities, but was, like Dawkins, something of a pit bull. He had a penchant for publicly challenging religious thinking and sentiment at its most popular: denying the possibility of life after death, the meaningfulness of human life, the existence of right and wrong as realities, and so on, just as Dawkins does nowadays. In a 1950 paper entitled “Theology and Falsification,” Flew argued that theological statements must, in the nature of the case, die the death of a thousand qualifications. When a Christian claims, for example, that God loves us, he must also make almost endless qualifications to accommodate all the evidence to the contrary. So an assertion such as we have in v. 5 that the “earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” has to be explained in the teeth of all the trouble that comes upon people, all the injustice in the world, all the heartbreak, and so on. And, said Flew, when all the explanations are given there can be little left of the original statement. Too many qualifications, Flew argued, and a statement becomes incoherent.

In 1976 Flew published his book The Presumption of Atheism in which he argued that the concept of God was philosophically indefensible and that atheism was the only “reasonable” position for a modern mind to hold. That was Antony Flew for fifty years, for virtually his entire and very distinguished career as a Western, English speaking academic and author. He was a philosopher who did not believe in the existence of God. He would have said that he was an intellectually fulfilled atheist and would certainly have assumed that what he had been taught about the origin of life utterly by happenstance was a fact of science as we are so often nowadays told that it is.

But then in 2007, now an old man but still fully in charge of his intellectual powers, Antony Flew published another book, There is a God. There had been preparation for this in his reading of theistic philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, and George Mavrodes. His hard form of atheism had been softening for some time. But what really broke its back was his study of modern science and the discoveries of the natural laws that control the forces of nature. He found the fact that the world was understandable to the human mind harder to account for than he had previously imagined.  As Einstein once put it: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” Flew found it more and more difficult to believe that conscious, purposeful beings such as human beings could have evolved out of unconscious and non-purposeful matter.

As an aside, let me remind you that we ought to be making this point emphatically and repeatedly. The gap between human beings and other animals is impossibly large and evolutionists should not be allowed to imagine that it is not. I am reminded of David Berlinski’s witty riposte to some scientist who argued that there was no distinction in kind between humans and chimps, only a distinction in degree. Berlinski is not a Christian, he is Jewish, but he is a world class mathematician and a philosopher of science. He wrote this in reply:

“No distinction in kind rather than degree between ourselves and chimps? No distinction? Seriously, folks? Here is a simple operational test. The chimpanzees invariably are the ones behind the bars of their cages. There they sit, solemnly munching bananas, searching for lice, aimlessly loping around, baring the gums, waiting for the experiments to begin. No distinction? Chimpanzees cannot read or write; they do not paint, or compose music, or do mathematics; they form no real communities, only loose-knit wandering tribes; they do not dine and cannot cook; there is no record anywhere of their achievements; beyond the superficial, they show little curiosity; they are born, they live, they suffer, and they die.

No distinction? No species in the animal world organizes itself in the complex, dense, difficult fashion that is typical of human societies. There is no such thing as animal culture; animals do not compromise and cannot count; there is not a trace in the animal world of virtually any of the powerful and poorly understood powers and properties of the human mind; in all of history, no animal has stood staring at the night sky in baffled and respectful amazement. The chimpanzees are static creatures, solemnly poking for grubs with their sticks, inspecting one another for fleas. No doubt, they are peaceable enough, if fed, and looking into the warm brown eyes, one can see signs of a universal biological shriek (a nice maneuver that involves hearing what one sees), but what of it?

One may insist, of course, that all this represents a difference merely of degree. Very well. Only a difference of degree separates man from the Canadian goose. Individuals of both species are capable of entering the air unaided and landing some distance from where they started.

It is this sort of claim – that there is only a difference in kind between human beings and other living things – that began to appear to Flew as less and less reasonable and more and more a desperate evasion of the obvious. He insists that his pilgrimage to belief in God has been one of reason and not of faith. Nevertheless the laws of the universe, he now believes, manifest the mind of God. Flew, who spent almost the entirety of his professional life denying the existence of God, now calls himself a deist, a believer in God and in a personal God. The scientific evidence, he argues, points to an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent intelligence, Aristotle’s first cause.

He does not, however, yet conceive of God as the personal, loving, just, and holy being of the Bible. On the other hand he does not rule out the possibility that God should be such as he is described in Holy Scripture. The final sentence of the book is: “Someday I might hear a Voice that says, ‘Can you hear me now?’”

Now Christians were rightly delighted to see Flew not only prove himself a turncoat to atheism but to abandon his atheism on scientific grounds. We take an understandable pleasure in watching an insider skewer the Darwinian establishment all the more given the fact that Antony Flew’s philosophical sophistication exceeds that of Richard Dawkins by several orders of magnitude. Here is an enemy admitting what so many Christian scientists have said: that the steady advances in the understanding of nature and its virtually indescribable complexity have almost completely worn away the foundations upon which Darwinism has so confidently rested these last hundred years or so. He has, so to speak, hoisted the scientific establishment on its own petard!

But, may I say, however glad we may be for Professor Flew’s change of mind, deism is hardly an acceptable resting point. Professor Flew claims to believe that there is an omnipotent God, omniscient and omnipresent. That only such a God can account for the universe as we know it and for human life as we observe it. But how is it possible to believe that the God who created this world and this human life has no interest in what happens to this world or in how this human life is lived in it?

If you admit that human life itself is a phenomenon naturalistic science cannot explain,  you are admitting that man is himself the direct creation of a personal God. Personhood has come and can only come from personhood, consciousness from consciousness. You are admitting that the love of beauty, the thirst for meaning, the demand for justice, the moral measurement of life, the virtually inconceivable mental power, the power of speech and song, the bent for relationship, the hunger for eternity, all that marks, defines and characterizes human life, that all of this comes from God! Are we then to believe that the God who gave us the capacity to behold and love beauty does not care for the beautiful, that the one who made us to thirst for meaning has no meaning to show us, that the one who made us to be inescapably moral creatures cares nothing for morality, that the one who made love the greatest power and experience of human life cares nothing for love? Aristotle’s first mover is inadequate to account for precisely those things that must be explained about human life and the very things that Professor Flew says cannot be explained without recourse to the infinite, personal God.

The argument of Psalm 33 is, in this respect, not only the assertion of the Word of God, but altogether the more rational way of thinking about life. If God made the heavens and the earth, if he produced the wonders of nature and the astonishing powers of human life; if he gave human existence its intellectual, moral, spiritual, aesthetic, and personal form, then surely he takes a deep and abiding interest in those very aspects of human life and history. Believe me, it is precisely because of the inevitability of this connection between creation and providence that unbelievers in the elite culture are so rabidly determined to defend the theory of evolution at all costs and to allow no breach anywhere in the dam. They are not unmindful, they are quite clearly aware in fact of the implications of admitting that God created the world. This would be then his world, not ours; our lives his lives, not our own; his law our rule, like it or not; his judgment the ultimate issue of our lives; his eternity perhaps ours as well.

I am of a mind to think, knowing the history of science at least to some degree, that the theory of evolution will collapse at some point perhaps in the not so distant future. The pressure behind the dam is becoming too great and too many insiders have admitted too many problems. I agree with Malcolm Muggeridge, who once wrote,

“I myself am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially the extent to which it’s been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books in the future. Posterity will marvel that so very flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the incredible credulity that it has.” [The End of Christendom, 59]

But I don’t think that the end of evolution would necessarily mean that the scientific naturalism of the present day in our elite culture will be replaced by Christian faith. It may be just as well replaced by some form of spirituality whose nature is designed like all other religions precisely to avoid the connection drawn between Creation and Providence in Psalm 33.

I read this week that the United States Air Force Academy has provided a double circle of stones atop a hill for cadets and other service personnel in the area to practice earth-centered faiths. That would be the practitioners of Wicca, Druidism and the like. Human beings – history has demonstrated this time without number – will believe anything in order not to have to believe that in every aspect of their lives is under God’s control and that in every aspect of their lives they have to do with him.

In Isaiah 40 we have another statement like this one in Psalm 33 connecting creation to providence.

“Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

But the next verse indicates that the proper inference from the majesty and order of the heavens is not God’s remoteness but his eye for detail.

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’?”

God planned no empty and meaningless universe. He cares for his creatures! As we read in Isa. 45:18, “he planned [the earth] to be inhabited.” He made it as the place where mankind would live, serve him, and commune with him. And so it is here. God’s mighty power and wisdom, displayed in the creation is taken as the proof positive that the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, that the people who fear him will be blessed, and that the purposes of those who rebel against him must come to nothing.

It is this very conclusion – inevitable as it is once the divine creation of the universe, of the world, and of mankind is admitted – the very conclusion the world recoils from, that we are to rejoice in with all our hearts.

It is what anyone wants to know if he loves and trusts God: that God rules over the world that he has made and that he does so with the interests of his people in mind. This life is dark in many ways. It presents us with disappointment and sorrow so often that the Bible itself describes our world as a vale of tears. More than a few times believers are tempted to feel that “the heavens are as brass above them,” that God is not attending to their cries and seems not to care for their suffering. How then can we know that “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord”?

Well there are two reasons, two proofs, two demonstrations. The first and foremost reason is the cross, the historical demonstration that God’s love for his people is so great he would scruple at nothing to save them and to deliver them at last to his own love and fellowship in heaven. If God did not spare his own son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not, together with him, graciously give us all things? Of course all things must work together for our good – even the darkest things – if God did not hesitate to send his beloved son to death to secure our eternal happiness.

But the other reason is the one we have in Psalm 33 and it is a powerful reason also. We know God is at work in the world in love and justice, in faithfulness and goodness, because he made this world, because it is his, and because his purposes in making it must be fulfilled in its history because he is God.

A world bereft of purpose and meaning is not the world that God made. A world bursting to the seams with purpose and meaning is that world that God has made by the utterance of his word. And a world that he has made, that a God sufficient to account for this world has made, is a world in which those who love and serve this God, those who trust his Son, must be the objects of his special affection, consideration, and care; it couldn’t be otherwise. He is, of course, as this world demonstrates, a God far, far beyond us in wisdom and power and so a God whose ways must be past finding out by people whose sight and understanding are as limited as ours. Hence all the questions we have about what is happening or not happening in our lives. But such a God as made this world is a God who, in the nature of the case, must be a God who loves his people and cares for them.

What our world lacks in this hour of his history, especially in the West, is a great story, what is called a meta-narrative, an account of the whole thing that gives it meaning and places our lives in their larger context. Postmodernism, the reigning philosophy in our universities nowadays, denies the possibility of such a meta-narrative which is why the hard scientists, on the one hand, and the philosophers and social scientists, on the other, are at such odds today in the university world. Edna St. Vincent Millay has a poem [Huntsman, What Quarry?] in which she describes, in a very prescient way I think because it was written years ago, the very situation in which we find ourselves as an American culture today. We live in a world of facts, of information, but what does any of it mean? How is it to be understood? And what does any of it mean for me?

            Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts… They lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.

Darwinism is such a loom, such a fabric: a narrative of this world’s life. In Darwinism our world is an accident, these phenomenal qualities and powers of nature and human nature are accidental developments that mean nothing and lead inexorably only to extinction. Not much meaning, none in fact, and no hope, but surely an account of reality.

But once the creating act of Almighty God is admitted, Darwinism must disappear. And now there is left another story in which your life and mine, representing a small part of this larger story, find their meaning. Creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, a plot in four acts that absolutely stuffs human life and every human life with meaning, significance, even infinite importance.

Secularism with its denial of God’s creation inevitably marginalizes God in the human mind and heart. And when creation is marginalized, soon providence must be as well and it becomes hard to believe that this world and this life – with all the sorrow and pain that are churned up in it – are, in fact, the plan and purpose of a God of love and justice. The world is wrenched away from God and sent to seek its own life and explanation within itself. [Wells, God in the Wasteland, 38] But there is no explanation to be found within the world itself.

But God’s creation invests the world and human life in the world with terrible and wonderful meaning. And it assures the believer, you and me, that God cares for us and that he has not put love and longing in our hearts and moral judgment in our consciences to mock us, but rather to provide us with an understanding of himself and the confidence to turn to him in hope. And that is just what these believers do at the end of the psalm that begins with Creation and continues with the absolute rule of God over all of history. What does it mean to know that God has made the world by the utterance of his word?

It means that we should wait upon him, our help and our shield, rejoice in him, and trust his holy name and steadfast love. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them!