Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 5


Psalm 47

There is a familiar ring to this psalm because its expressions are very like the expressions found in other psalms. But you will probably admit that you could not identify the psalm had I simply read it to you. In that sense it belongs to the category of unfamiliar psalms, the psalms we are considering in this evening series.

Text Comment

The structure of the psalm is simple. There is a call to praise in both verse 1 and verse 6. The verses that follow in each case tell us why we ought to praise the Lord and in both cases the reason is because of his reign and rule over all the earth; his sovereignty, his kingship.

v.1       Clapping hands was a gesture of joy. The joy here is for the Lord’s reign as king. In 2 Kings 11:12 we read that at the coronation of Joash, after the young king was anointed, the people “clapped their hands and shouted, ‘Long live the king!’” In our culture clapping hands is not precisely a gesture of joy, but we certainly employ the gesture to express appreciation – the appreciation of some excellent performance or for some person, as, for example, our clapping at the end of Jerid’s service of ordination last Lord’s Day evening. We were congratulating him and expressing our pleasure in his accomplishment. Usually when we clap there is gladness mixed in with the appreciation.

            In the same way we find coronations accompanied by a shout, as in 1 Sam. 10:24, at the coronation of Saul, where again the shout is “Long live the king!” We have been seeing and hearing something of this at the Olympics where when a favored athlete completes a great performance or wins a race there is a great roar from the crowd. It is appreciation, enthusiasm, happiness, and congratulation all rolled into one.

v.4       It is the nations who are being summoned to praise God, even though they are the ones whom God has subdued by his power and made subject to Israel. Some have thought that the psalm was written at an early stage of Israel’s history, perhaps when, under David, the Lord had raised Israel to great power among the other peoples of the world. The same point will be made in vv. 7-9. Yahweh may be Israel’s God, but he is also the ruler of all men, a fact we are never to forget. And, of course, taking the entire Bible together, the day will come when the kings of the earth and all the nations among mankind will do precisely this: bow down in worship before the Lord and proclaim him King of Kings. So much of the Psalter is prophetic in this way: depicting events that anticipate the great consummation to come.

            The reference to heritage or inheritance is a reference to the Promised Land, but, of course, we know that the Land was a type or anticipation of heaven itself and according to Hebrews 11 the believers of the ancient epoch knew that as well.

v.5       The reference to the sounding of trumpets explains why this psalm became part of the Jewish ritual for New Year’s or Rosh Hashanah. For obvious reasons in Christian churches that order the reading of Holy Scripture according to the liturgical calendar, Psalm 47 is appointed to be read on Ascension Day, the remembrance of Christ’s ascension to heaven.

            Obviously, God ascending is a figure of speech, as if Yahweh himself were leading a procession up to Jerusalem to be crowned king while a great multitude shouts his praise. The image is taken from 2 Samuel 6:15 and its account of the ark of the covenant – the visible sign of Yahweh’s presence with his people – being carried up into Jerusalem, David’s new capital. One always went up to Jerusalem because it was perched on a hill. In the words “with a shout…with the sound of a trumpet” 1 Sam. 6:15 is identical to our text here.

v.7       The word “psalm” is here maskil, a word that occurs in several of the psalm titles. It is a kind of psalm and the question is much discussed as to precisely to what kind of psalm it refers.

v.9       Is this a rhetorical statement or are we to envision vassal kings at a ceremony in Jerusalem, now servants of Yahweh because subjected by him to the nation of Israel? Or have we moved to the future here to look at the time when, in the new epoch the Gentiles become part of the Israel of God through faith in Christ, and when in the final consummation, all the peoples of the earth shall acknowledge the Lord?

I chose this psalm – I might have chosen many others – because of the witness it bears to emotion in the Christian life. You notice I say “Christian life.” I do this on purpose when I speak of Old Testament texts. It is my firm conviction the spiritual world described and the spiritual issues addressed are the same whether we are reading Genesis or Romans, the Psalms or Revelation. That is most certainly the conviction of the New Testament. The writers of the last 27 books of the Bible cite the books of the OT not to describe what used to be the case but what is the case. They refer to the men and women of the ancient church as exemplars for us, as men and women who had faith in Christ and who served him in their lives. Eusebius in the 4th century said it was entirely appropriate to refer to the ancient saints as Christians and I agree completely with him. In general what was true for them is true for us. There may be some differences of situation, but the New Testament virtually never draws our attention to them. So it is of the Christian life we read in the Psalms.

And there is emotion, deep emotion in that life. The psalm begins with clapping and shouting, singing songs of joy and continues with the substance of those songs. And the substance is all about what ought to cause songs of praises to rise in the believing heart, a sense of peace and assurance to overcome all our fears, and the prospect of victory to bringing a sense of pure elation. God is going to defeat all our enemies and make us to share in his victory: ‘placing all nations under our feet!” This is the psalm of the hurrah, the fist-pump, the hands raised over the head in triumph! And, as I said, I could have used any number of psalms, familiar and unfamiliar, to make the same point.

I often debate with myself as to whether to inform you of all the disagreements that are abroad in our Reformed and Presbyterian world. You don’t need to know about every spat and every argument. But it is also true that polemics, theological debates or arguments, often help greatly to clarify the Bible’s teaching in our minds. So, let me tell you that there is nowadays a difference of opinion about emotion in the Christian life among men of our own church and our conservative, theological tradition.

When I was a young man and minister Martyn Lloyd Jones, the great London preacher, was widely regarded as an important authority in the Reformed Church. It was under his influence that Reformed Christians began thinking about revival again, about revivals in church history, especially the Great Awakening. It was under Lloyd-Jones’ influence, together with that of others, that we reconnected with Jonathan Edwards, the greatest of all theologians of revival. But there is a school of thought in our church nowadays that doesn’t think much of Lloyd Jones or, for that matter, Jonathan Edwards, and a primary reason for this is the emphasis on emotion in the teaching and preaching of both men, what they would have called “the enlargement of the heart.” For their critics this is “enthusiasm,” a term that in the history of Christian theology is used pejoratively to describe a misguided, over-heated, and often worked up emotion that typically creates a false, irreal religious life and an unattractive spectacle before the world. In ordinary usage “enthusiasm” is a good thing – we want people to be enthusiastic – but in the language of the history of theology enthusiasm is ordinarily a bad thing. “Enthusiasm” is “a code word for the excesses of revival” and emotion and subjectivism. [R. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 240] Luther had to deal with enthusiasts on the Reformation left, and the Puritans had to deal with them in their day.

I have a book on my shelf by the Roman Catholic scholar Ronald Knox entitled, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. In Knox’s view, both the Anabaptists and the mainstream reformers were enthusiasts, so were the Wesleys. Indeed, as you may remember, the term Methodist was used originally as virtually a synonym for enthusiast, by which was meant an over-heated ultrasupernaturalist who allowed emotion to overwhelm reason and who often claimed a direct, immediate access to the knowledge of God. There were many evangelical Puritans in New England who thought that the revival we call the Great Awakening was little more than such enthusiasm, a false emotionalism that discredited itself by its subjectivity and its dishonesty, people claiming to have a direct pipeline to God, to be filled to overflowing with his Holy Spirit, and to be able to speak for God to others, including correction to the clergy.

Perhaps we should not be at all surprised that there should have arisen in the contemporary church a certain suspicion of emotion in a day when in the church there has been so much silliness disguised as godly emotion, as spiritual joy, or as a sense of being overwhelmed with a sense of the immediate presence of God. I’m thinking, for example, of the so-called laughing revival of a few years ago that got so much attention both in the church and from an amused unbelieving world. Not only uncontrolled laughing, literally rolling in the aisles, but also the making of animal sounds and so on were taken in all seriousness – as they had been at previous times in history – as the demonstration of the filling of the Holy Spirit. We live in an age of feelings, of subjectivity. It used to be thought that reason had escaped the Fall. Today it is more likely to be thought that emotions have escaped the Fall; that emotions and feelings are some sure sign of authenticity. They are not.

Nathan Lewis, our pastor in Beaverton, Oregon told me once of his visiting the service of one of these churches that was meeting in rented quarters not far from those used by his own congregation. It was a large room in a business park. Nathan himself remained in the hallway and observed through the windows on each side of the door. Some time after the commencement of the service several people were laughing hysterically, some couples were ballroom dancing, and another man was kneeling near the front of the room and barking like a dog. At one point that man got up, walked to the back, calm and collected, out the main door past Nathan, and down the hall to the men’s room. He returned in a few minutes, passed Nathan again into the room, went up to the front where he had been before, went down to his knees, and began barking again. I mentioned to Nathan at the time that perhaps that is why the Protestant Reformers advised so strongly against placing fire hydrants in the sanctuary!

Take the point. Emotion in and of itself is evidence of nothing. People can be ecstatic over nothing. Think of teenage girls at a rock concert or welcoming a celebrity at an airport. Or they can be ecstatic about genuinely evil things. Think of all the cheering, even tears of joy, that TV cameras picked up in the Middle East when the news spread of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Think of the elation and the desolation regularly experienced in our country over the fortunes of a college or pro football team.

Emotionalism, by which is meant, a false or insincere or unjustified emotion, is absolutely an enemy of true Christianity. It is a corruption, an imitation, and often an out and out lie. The truth cannot be advanced in an individual soul or in the church as a whole or in the world by means of a lie. Indeed, Lloyd-Jones who is by some suspected of placing too much emphasis on emotion or feeling, was very careful to distinguish true gospel emotion from emotionalism. In one sermon he said, “Emotionalism is ever the most real, because the most subtle, enemy of evangelicalism.” And in another said, “Tears are a poor criterion for faith, being carried away in a meeting by eloquence or singing or excitement is not the same as committing oneself to Christ.” He warned against attempting to work up emotion as being the surest way to produce counterfeit Christians. On one occasion he found an enthusiast in one of his services, shouting out loud “amens” again and again as the service proceeded. Lloyd-Jones directed his church secretary, a Mr. Rees to deliver a message to the man sitting in the balcony. “Brother, I am sure you would like to see souls saved?” Rees began. “I would, Hallelujah,” was the exuberant reply. “Well,” said Mr. Rees, “shut up!” [I. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, vol. I, 216-217] Lloyd-Jones did not want a false emotion to distract from the hearing of the Word of God.

And the church’s wisest men have always been careful to warn against an overemphasis on emotion. Philip Doddridge, in his spiritual classic, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, reminds us that “religion consists chiefly in the resolution of the will for God…” [p. 194] That is, no measure of emotion, however impressive, can substitute for a faithful and obedient life, for a faith that works and, as Paul says, demonstrates itself in good deeds. [Acts 26:20]

But, all of that being said, emotionalism is not the same thing as emotion. There is nothing unbiblical about an extraordinarily deep emotion experienced in contrition for sin, in the joy of salvation, in the awe of God, in the love of God, or in the hope of heaven. When David brought the ark into Jerusalem – the very event that may lie behind verse 5 of Psalm 47 – he was leaping and dancing for joy and for gratitude in front of the procession. His wife Michal, you remember, mocked him for it. She thought it undignified, unpresbyterian perhaps. But it is very clear that God approved of David’s emotion and disapproved of Michal’s concern for dignity because the passage ends with this: “And Michal, daughter of Saul, had no children to the day of her death.” [2 Sam. 6:23] When the man in Psalm 73 whose doubts had been removed in a church service, came out of the sanctuary six inches off the ground and proclaimed that the nearness of God was his good, his emotion is clearly not only a good thing but a gift of God for which he was right to be deeply grateful. When Paul writes that the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, when he prays that the God of hope might fill his readers with all joy, when he speaks of some Christians’ overflowing joy, when he commands his readers to “rejoice, again I say rejoice,” when we read of there being joy in heaven over salvation on earth, what are we to think but that emotion, deep feeling, strong affections are part and parcel of real Christian experience. God is, as you know, often represented to us as a being of deep, pure, powerful emotion, and we have been made in his image. It is God-like to feel deeply.

And no wonder! Who would not rejoice to be going to heaven when he or she was going to hell? Who would not feel the power of a great love and a great gratitude when so great a love was given to them and so great a sacrifice was offered for them by the Son of God himself? If Werner Heisenberg should experience “deep alarm” when he came upon the reality of quantum mechanics, if Albert Einstein should find himself overcome by “joyous excitement” for several days after the verification of his general theory of relativity, with what alarm should men and women consider the sin that could send them to hell forever, with what joy should they welcome the grace of God and eternal life, and with what awe should they find themselves face to face with Almighty God? [P. Rhoades, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 152]

The fact of the matter is that emotion and deep emotion – tears of sorrow and tears of joy – are found everywhere in the Bible and are commended everywhere in the Bible. Lord Melbourne, British Prime Minister in the 1830s and certainly a man who would have considered himself a Christian, is famous for saying, “You know, things have come to a pretty pass if religion is going to become personal.” It was all very well for Christianity to be a set of ideas, of moral principles, a philosophy of life, a theory of virtue. But if it is, instead, the Almighty God dealing in grace and love with an individual soul, well that is a different thing altogether. And surely a matter of deep emotion and feeling. All truly personal things are and must be because we are emotional persons.

I read another biography of Julius Caesar over the past few weeks – these days I am teaching Caesar’s Gallic Wars to my Latin IV class at Covenant High School – and I was interested to read that Romans had little or no emotion in their religion or their worship. Indeed they were suspicious of emotional religion. Faith or belief had no role either and in that too it was a deeply impersonal religious life they lived. The principle was do ut des (that is, “I do that you might do”), that is, the Roman was in effect saying to the gods, “I give you gifts so that you will give me gifts.” It was a highly impersonal, commercial arrangement. But if his religion was impersonal and unemotional, Caesar himself was a very emotional man. He was broken-hearted by the early death of his first wife and he loved his daughter Julia deeply. In that he was like so many other Romans, like the Roman man who wrote this epitaph for his wife after her death:

I competed with you, my dear, in devotion, virtue,
            Frugality and love – but I always lost.
                 I wish everyone the same fate.
                        [Freeman, Julius Caesar, 20, 52-53]

The fact is, all men and women are emotional. They can’t help it. They are creatures of strong feeling. They love to rejoice and can’t help doing so when overwhelmed with good news. The tears fall when their hearts are broken and they can’t help that either. They crave love and they are never happier than when it fills their hearts. We do not want a relationship, in marriage, in family, in friendship that is devoid of strong feeling. We instinctively understand that relationships that are merely commercial and distant are unimportant relationships and unlikely to be of any real blessing to us. Love, gratitude, peace, joy: these are things that come unbidden into the human heart. It is only to be expected that, God having made us this way, we should experience him and his grace and our sin and the hope of eternal life with deep emotion.

So there should be nothing surprising about the appeal to emotion, even the summons to emotion – to sorrow, to fear, to gratitude, to love, and to joy – that we find everywhere in the Psalms. But it certainly raises a question. What if we don’t feel as the Psalm commands us to feel? Shout, clap, sing songs of joy, that is all very well, but what if our hearts are sad when they are summoned to rejoice or what if they are simply dull? The fact of the matter is that few of us feel the joy we know we ought to feel over our salvation nearly as much as we know we should. Few of us are as broken-hearted over our sins, as fearful of the judgment of the Lord, as grateful for his mercy to us, as much at peace as Christians have every obligation and every right to be. If the Christian faith and the Christian life are matters of deep feeling, what if our emotions, our affections are not up to scratch?

Here I think the Bible has wonderful wisdom to teach us. The first part of that wisdom is that deep emotion may rise unbidden in the heart, but if it does not, even when it should, it may still be practiced. Here, in a way very typical of the Bible, we are told to clap our hands and to shout, not because we necessarily feel like it, (though we should) but because we should and we can. We are not told to feel happy but to do happiness, to practice it. Indeed, the Bible never tells us to base anything on our feelings or to wait to do anything until we feel like it.

When the Lord Jesus says at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, “Happy are those who mourn…,” he is not saying that he expects his followers to be laughing and crying at the same time. But this mourning and this happiness surely is to be practiced all the time. These emotions may from time to time rise up with great power in our souls, but whether or not they do, no matter how often they do, mourning and happiness are to be practiced in the Christian life. How does one do that? Well, he has a conversation with himself. She reminds herself for what sins she ought to be ashamed and how great God’s mercy and grace has been to her. And then he says what he ought to say to God and, as much as possible, he says it as he knows he ought to say it.

We have that very kind of counsel given us in Nehemiah chapter 8. The exiles, having returned to Jerusalem, heard the Word of God read and preached by Ezra and his assistants. They wept because of the reminder they had been given of their rebellion and its punishment, of the many Israelites who had died in God’s judgment of his people, and of the diminished character of the nation. But Nehemiah sent them home with instructions to

“Go, enjoy choice food and sweet drinks [I suppose that would mean either Coca Cola or Iced Tea!], and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The practice of emotion here trumps the natural experience of it. We are being told that whether or not we feel as we wish we did, we can always practice the proper emotions of the Christian life. It is to be sure, as we all know, much easier when the emotions come unbidden and powerfully, but then, no one said the Christian life was easy! And it is not only here, with regard to our feelings, that it remains true that the secret of our life lies in bringing the force of truth to bear upon our minds and hearts, reminding ourselves of what we have to be ecstatic over when we are inclined to be discouraged or sad, what reason we have to be sad if we are too glibly cheerful, why we should fear if we are complacent, why we ought to have hearts at peace, and why gratitude should rule our inner beings when we find ourselves taking for granted the impossibly great goodness of the Lord to us. We are, in other words, never hostage to our feelings in the Christian life, never prevented from living the Christian life by the fact that we don’t feel as strongly as we should about this or that. How liberating! Because nothing is so unreliable as my emotions!

Perhaps you remember that scene in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress after Mr. Great-heart and the others had fought Giant Despair and killed him and then torn down Doubting Castle. In its dungeon they had found one Mr. Despondency and his daughter Much-afraid and set them free. And rejoicing over the death of Giant Despair and the destruction of his castle in which so many pilgrims had been imprisoned, the whole company began to feast and to dance. Mr. Ready-to-halt danced too with Miss Much-afraid. Bunyan says, “True, he could not dance without one crutch in his hand; but, I promise you, he footed it well.” Mr. Despondency, on the other hand, did not dance. He ate and drank and then only later began to feel happier about things.

That is Bunyan’s charming way of acknowledging that Christians are built differently. Some are cheerful by disposition and some are gloomy in the same way. Some find it easier to rejoice than others; others find it easier to be sad over what ought to make a Christian sad. But such differences are not virtues or graces, says Dr. Packer, but bone-structure. It’s part of our personality. There are happy-go-lucky unbelievers and glass-half-empty unbelievers.

All that means is that we all have our own work to do in practicing the emotions of the Christian life and will find some emotions harder to practice than others. Such is life. This psalm challenges us to ask: how much of the clapping of hands and the shout have there been in our worship of God of late? When we read in Psalm 47:1 to clap our hands and shout to God we are to do it and do it in the form customary in our culture. We are to do it when we are together – the Psalm is clearly a hymn that the church sang – and we are to do it when we are alone. We are to celebrate the Lord our God. We are to sing our songs of praise to God and we are to rejoice over his sovereign rule and we are to remind ourselves what a magnificent privilege it is to be the children of the King of Kings: how little we have to fear and how much we have to look forward to. The joy of the Lord will be our strength because that joy, no matter how much or little it is felt as an emotion in our hearts at any time, is based upon the facts of the matter, the unassailable truth of the sovereignty of the God who is our heavenly Father.