“The Psalm of Battles”
January 20, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
The Psalms we have so far considered in this short series of sermons have largely addressed the life of the individual believer. They embody his or her joy in the Lord, confidence in his promises, struggle with doubt, and so on. But many psalms address a much larger horizon, the church of God, the entire world, its history and its future. These are psalms that put hair on your chest. In them we still find the tender mercies of the Lord, but cheek to jowl with them are the sterner themes of divine sovereignty, God’s justice and judgment, and the destruction of his enemies. Such a psalm is Psalm 68. Such psalms are often longer and from these longer psalms comes the longstanding practice in Protestant psalm-singing of singing just portions of a psalm in worship. There are a number of psalms that, were they to be sung in their entirety, the singing would take fifteen minutes or more. We have sung so far, the first six verses of Psalm 68 and at the conclusion of our worship this morning we will sing the last twelve verses of the psalm in three more metrical verses, that is, verses designed to be sung to the same tune.
This translation of the psalm in meter sung to this tune, composed by the German pastor and gifted musician Matthäus Greiter, who was the organist in Strasbourg, appeared very early in the Reformation. The Psalm to this tune was published for the first time in the Strasbourg Psalter of 1539 and was then taken over from there to the first edition of Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1542. Psalm 68 has been sung to this same tune in the Reformed Church of many nations ever since.
Because the psalm is longer, I’ll limit my comments on the text to a bare minimum. The Psalm presents the Lord as a conquering hero, though one who cares for the needs of his people. Paul, in Ephesians 4:8-11 cites v. 18 as a way of describing Christ’s ascension to heaven. The psalm is divided into four distinct sections. There is a prologue or introduction in verses 1-6 and an epilogue or conclusion in vv. 32-35. The two central sections of the Psalm survey, first, God’s victorious march from Sinai to Jerusalem – that is the history of Israel’s redemption up to David’s time (vv. 7-18) – and, second, “the power and majesty of his regime seen in the ascendancy of his people and the flow of worshippers and vassals to his footstool” (vv. 9-31). It is thus both a history and a prophecy of salvation! [Kidner, i, 238]
v.1 The psalm begins, as it ends, with a fanfare of praise to God. The ancient cry, “Arise O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you” was, as we read in Numbers 10:35, the signal for the procession to begin that carried the ark of the covenant before the nation as it moved from place to place in the wilderness.
v.6 Protection of the helpless and judgment of the wicked are the marks of a true ruler. They are preeminently the mark of God’s reign.
v.8 The rainstorm is the one that destroyed Sisera and his army, as we can tell by the fact that v. 8 is a citation from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:4-5.
v.10 vv. 9-10 refer to the regular blessings of life in the Promised Land.
v.14 In a series of allusions in vv. 11-14, the Lord’s leading Israel in conquest of her enemies is recalled.
v.16 Zion, of course, was a little hillock compared to real mountains. Its summit is even lower than those of the hills around it, such as that of the Mount of Olives. Here the great mountains are boasting of their height and grandeur compared to Zion. God chooses the weak and the despised to overcome the world!
v.18 One commentator refers to Psalm 68 as “this rushing cataract of a psalm – one of the most boisterous and exhilarating in the Psalter,” and wonders if it might have been composed for David’s procession with the ark of the covenant from the house of Obed-Edom to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6). [Kidner, i, 238] If, indeed, this psalm was written to commemorate the installation of the ark of the covenant in the sanctuary in Jerusalem (the temporary sanctuary that would be soon replaced by the temple of Solomon), then it is the celebration of the last stage of a journey begun centuries before at Sinai, where the ark was built, and from where it led the people of God into the Promised Land. Now, at last, it comes to rest on the summit of Mount Zion.
v.24 vv. 24-27 have been titled “The Cavalcade of Israel.” Think of the procession that brought the ark to Jerusalem with David dancing joyfully in front.
v.27 The two northernmost and two southernmost tribes stand for the entire nation.
v.28 vv. 28-31 have been titled “The Homage of the Nations.” You find the same thought in many places in the OT and, in particular, in Isa. 60.
v.30 The “beast among the reeds” is either the crocodile or the hippopotamus and in either case is a symbol of Egypt. The bulls and calves are either the peoples, great and small, or the leaders and the people.
v.31 Cush is what we know today as northern Sudan. It is an example of a remote people who, nevertheless, will submit themselves to the God of Israel. And that submission is represented in the familiar way of a subject people bringing tribute to the capital of the conquering king.
v.32 The closing chorus of praise is explicitly placed on the lips of people everywhere. But the God to be praised, as is confessed by all in v. 35, is the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David’s God and the Father of Jesus Christ.
There is something to be said for singing this text to the same tune by which it has been known for centuries, for this is a psalm with a past! That, of course, can be said about all the psalms. All of them have their place in the history of Christian life and devotion through the ages. But it is particularly true of this psalm. Even before the Reformation, before anyone had begun to translate the Psalms into metrical verses and years before Matthäus Greiter had written his tune, the 68th psalm was chanted by Savonarola and his fellow Dominicans as they marched to the grand piazza of Florence where they were to meet their trial by fire. The year was 1497. The Italian Reformer’s preaching had been more than the corrupt Roman establishment could bear and they condemned the good man to death. And he met his death with the strength that only faith, and faith sustained by such a psalm as the 68th, can supply.
But, a few decades later, when the Reformation broke over the church the same psalm sustained the legions of Christians who were now exposed to suffering and persecution for advocating a return to a biblical faith. And the 68th played its great role in strengthening their faith as well. The psalm was to become known, especially as a result of its use by the French Huguenots, as The Protestant Psalm of Battles. Listen to this from one scholar of the Calvinist Reformation, that is, in particular the Reformation in French and English-speaking Europe.
“The Calvinist Reformers were led by a militant aristocracy and financed by a wealthy bourgeoisie. They put up long and frequently successful battles. Yet the leadership and finance could not have won the day had the individual Calvinists not possessed, to quote Cromwell, ‘a conscience of what they were doing.’ In many cases, they won their battles or retrieved those they had lost, not through generalship nor through greater economic power, but because of superior morale. In building up and maintaining this morale, the battle hymns of the Psalter played a conspicuous part.” [W. Stanford Reid, The Battle Hymns of the Lord: Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century, 36]
One of the Camisards, as the persecuted Protestants of the Cevennes (the hill country of southern France) were called, put it this way:
“We flew when we heard the sound of the psalms, we flew as if with wings. We felt within us an animating ardour, a transporting desire. The feeling cannot be expressed in words. It is a thing that must have been felt to be known. However weary we might be, we thought no more of our fatigue, and grew light as soon as the psalms reached our ear.” [In Ker, 96]
Well chief among the psalms that had that ennobling and nerving effect on the believers of the time was the 68th. I’ve told you before that the story goes that the authorities were so unnerved by the confident singing of Psalm 68 by the Protestant party that they outlawed it. Public singing has often been a means of carrying a message into the streets and stamping it upon the public consciousness (think of the Gloria Patri in 4th century Constantinople or We Shall Overcome in the Civil Rights Movement). And so it was in the Reformation. It was a singing movement and what was sung was the Psalms.
Every ancient Near Eastern religion and deity had a mountain with a temple on it, even if the “mountain” were nothing more than a hillock, a “high place.” In the worldview of the ancient Near East the mountain symbolized the gods’ victory over chaos and their bringing order to the world (the mountain stands above the waters, the sea, which represent chaos). A hill was also, however modestly, a site closer to heaven than others. In Egypt, when the temple gates were opened, the priests would say, “the gates of heaven are opened.” So, the mountain was the appropriate place to represent God’s presence on earth. The Bible, as you know, makes a good deal of this imagery. God accommodated himself to this way of thinking for the purposes of revealing himself to his people in that time and place. So, for example, we read in Psalm 48:1-3:
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise,
in the city of our God, his holy mountain.
It is beautiful in its loftiness,
the joy of the whole earth.
Like the utmost heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion,
the city of the Great King.
God is in her citadels;
he has shown himself to be her fortress.
The Ark of the Covenant was, of course, the sign or representation of the Lord’s presence and so its being placed on the mountain of Zion was full of significance. But what is different is that Israel’s God was no local deity with his own mountain among the mountains of many other gods. What we have in Psalm 68 is what we get in the prophets, Isaiah and Micah, who prophesy that the mountain of Zion will rise above all the other mountains of the world. In other words, all the other nations and their religions will be subdued, and the Lord will reign supreme as the peoples of all nations come to recognize that Israel’s God is the only true and living God and submit themselves to him.
We have seen that happen, of course, over the centuries. In the ancient world when a god lost his mountain – that is, when his nation fell in battle – he was absorbed as an inferior deity into the conquering nation’s pantheon of gods. But that never happened to Yahweh. He could not, as the living God, the true God, the God who made heaven and earth and rules over them, be “syncretized.” And he wasn’t. And it is worth remembering how completely and utterly the nations failed to syncretize, to absorb the worship of Yahweh, to render him one among many other gods. No one worships the gods of the ancient world any longer and no one has for ages. No one still worships Aton or Marduk or Baal even in the geographical locales where they were once worshipped. But hundreds of millions of people or more worship the Lord, the God of Israel, and several billion at least acknowledge him in some fashion as the living and true God.
However, we do not yet see the cavalcade of the nations, or even Israel, in the full measure that is pictured in this psalm. There is here the ubiquitous “now but not yet” of biblical revelation. The fulfillment is in the world, we can see its beginnings, we can even see a great measure of fulfillment, but, at the same time, we are far from the consummation of the biblical prophecy of salvation. As I said, this psalm, like so many texts, is both a history and a prophecy of salvation. It describes salvation as we have so far seen it – in this case, as it had been revealed in the world up to the time of David (and we can, of course, in our own minds, take that story up to our own day) – and salvation as we shall one day see it, at the consummation of all things when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea and all the enemies of the Lord lie before him in the dust.
If in the first part of the psalm David is recounting the history of God’s deliverance of his people and establishing them in the Promised Land, in the latter section he is envisioning what had not yet happened, and, indeed, what has not yet happened in our day either. David is, in that latter part of the psalm, a man of faith who is sure of what he hopes for and certain of what he does not yet see (Heb. 11:1). And, in between the past and the future, is the “daily” in v. 19: “God daily bears us up.” We have burdens and God sustains us under them until the day of consummation comes when there will be no more burdens to bear! In other words, we find ourselves, in this psalm, placed between the great demonstrations of God’s grace and power in the past and the certain victory that is coming. No wonder that it was this psalm that nerved God’s people to withstand the opposition they faced in the days of the Reformation!
But the lessons of this great psalm are as necessary for us as they were for the Huguenots of the 16th and 17th centuries. We too find ourselves in the same place they found themselves, if not in the very same circumstances. For us today as well the consummation of the kingdom has not yet arrived, and the demonstration of God’s future reign is still very much hidden. Other Christians around the world find it easier than we do to acknowledge this and to reckon with it day by day. Theirs is often a more lively faith than ours in the coming of the kingdom of God. We are too comfortable. We don’t ache for the coming of the kingdom in the same way Christians do in parts of the world where the church and individual Christians are oppressed. In our circles we can even talk almost triumphantly about the creation mandate and the transformation of culture, as if we actually had some influence in the culture and as if the culture were actually being transformed in explicitly Christian ways. Nowadays, we need a sense of humor, the ability to laugh at ourselves. When Christians have very little influence in the culture and the culture is rapidly removing from itself every vestige of Christian conviction, our sometimes even heated discussions of various theories of cultural transformation are somewhat like two men clinging to the stern rail, discussing the relative merits of various systems of steam propulsion while the Titanic slips quietly beneath the waves.
There can even appear to be a certain arrogance on display, when people who have little or no influence in the culture argue among themselves about what they would do to transform it. To talk about transforming a culture that is going to hell in a handbasket is, I suppose, a way to compensate for the miserable irrelevance of the evangelical church in Western culture. It is a temptation to which American Christians are particularly susceptible, because it was not so long ago that the culture did pay attention to the viewpoint of evangelical Christianity and because, as Americans, we are not used to getting so thoroughly whipped. But it is for us to remember verse 18, which describes our present reality: God daily bears us up!
The Apostle Paul had to deal with this attitude – a failure to reckon with our life between the times — already in his day. Speaking to the Corinthian Christians he wrote,
“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings – and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong!” [1 Cor. 4:8-10]
These Christians did not seem to realize that Christ’s eventual triumph in the world did not mean that Christians in the meantime did not have to travel the way of the cross. Eventual victory does not mean that faithfulness to the Lord now is not likely to mean suffering and marginalization rather than influence and success.
However, on the other side, there are Christians who are dispirited and overcome by a sense of defeat. They observe the world around them and they weigh their own burdens and the situation seems hopeless to them. Once again, they have for the moment forgotten that Jesus is coming again, that his kingdom will triumph in the world, and that God is abroad in the world with his tremendous power. The living power of that prospect is no longer felt in the heart. And there are a great many Christians in the world today who suffer from this failure of historical perspective. His victory seems to them so far away that it does them no good to remember that it is coming? Far from being triumphalistic, there is no triumph whatsoever in their lives.
You remember the famous illustration that the Swiss Reformed scholar Oscar Cullman first published in his book Christ and Time. The successful invasion of France by the allied forces in June of 1944 could well be said to have settled the issue of the War in Western Europe. The certainty of victory was clear from that point and the defeat of Germany was inevitable. But there was still bitter fighting ahead. Indeed, far more casualties would be suffered by the allies after D-Day than before it. During the battle of the bulge, some months later, the young infantryman who huddled, freezing in a foxhole, with his dead comrades round about him, could be forgiven for wondering where the victory was that the successful invasion of Normandy had rendered certain. On the other hand, events were to prove those right who heaved a sigh of relief when the invasion army was safely ashore in June. By the next April it was all over.
It is just in these ways that Psalm 68 should help us, as it has helped generations of Christians before us. It points us to the past – to what God has already done. In David’s day he had the exodus, the wilderness, the conquest, and the establishment of Israel under God’s chosen king to remember and not only to remember but to rejoice in and to take courage from. We Christians today have still much more to remember: the incarnation, the ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; Pentecost the promise of the second coming; and the spread of the gospel throughout the world, Christians now in immense numbers and to be found in every part of the world. The psalm points us to the triumphant past; the years of the right hand of the Most High. The great work has been accomplished; the outworking of the future is now settled. So, the psalm also points us to the future, to the coming triumph, what will someday be wonderfully the case: the entire world at God’s feet and the gospel of the kingdom confessed on the lips of untold multitudes who will fill the earth on that day.
We live, as all Christians have lived, between those times. We can remember what God has done in the past and we can look forward to what he will someday bring to pass, but we live between the past and the future. And we must remember that fact, remember our place between the times! To do so is to have a Christian mind.
We have our enemies; the psalm admits it. We have our burdens. But, meantime, we have our gracious and merciful God, a father of the fatherless and defender of widows to help us and, after all, our enemies are his! What God has already done confirms that what he has promised will certainly come to pass. We will win the day! So, let’s fight bravely in the meantime, believing in what God has already done and what he will certainly do in time to come. After all, no soldier who is under attack, sticks his head above the rim of the trench and asks in a whine: “Why are they firing at me? What is something I said?” He understands that he is in the thick of the fight because of the side he is on and the cause he is fighting for. Well, so with every Christian, no matter where he or she is fighting at that moment: in the culture, in the church, in one’s workplace, in one’s family, in one’s marriage, in one’s own heart. No matter your enemies, “You will strike your feet in the blood of your foes, that the tongues of your dogs will have their share.”
And, on the day, two things will make that victory sweeter: the knowledge that you fought the Lord’s battles faithfully while the war was still raging and your recollection of the Lord bearing you up all the while! We should not, you and I, act like the war is over. But neither should we act as if we don’t know that certain victory awaits!
So, think of Savonarola in the piazza of Florence, the Camisards in the Cevennes, the brave men and women who changed the world and think of this great Psalm 68 that sustained their faith, and remember Lord Macaulay’s verse about the Roman hero who, with two comrades, denied a bridge to the enemy:
Then outspake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.’
And if the heathen could say that concerning his miserable and empty imitations of the living God, how much more we who know the living God and his redeeming love and have seen and will see his sovereign power bring the whole world to his feet.