“The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice; let the multitudes of the isles be glad.”
When we say Psalm 97, the words pass through our brains ever so briefly and then are launched into the air from our tongues, and we do not even pause to think about them. But if we did pause, we might be astonished by them. We might even be somewhat reluctant to say them. For Psalm 97 makes several staggering claims.
The first claim is that the LORD is king. The Psalmist is not making the unexceptional and not especially interesting claim that a Supreme Being rules the universe. This was a claim that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Locke, and other Deists would have been comfortable making. The Deists believed it was self-evident that the world was created by a wise and rational Almighty Lawgiver. But this is not a claim that is as easy for us to make as it was for them.
At the beginning of the 21st century we have learned that the universe is far more mysterious and far less rational than Jefferson, Franklin, and Locke believed. Darwin taught us that creation took place over millions of years, not seven days, and in some sense is still taking place. According to Darwin the creation of a single species required the extinction of millions of earlier versions of that species that could not compete successfully in the struggle for food and reproduction. Astronomers have taught us that the universe is not a cozy little group of planets and satellites with our sun burning brightly in the center but rather it is a dizzying array of galaxies that exploded from the Big Bang and are speeding off into the void and will one day either slow and cool down to absolute zero or will fall backwards into a mass so dense that light itself will not be able to escape from it. Marx and Freud taught us that we are not even the masters of our own motives and minds but rather are swayed unconsciously by our economic needs and by irrational impulses.
So I am glad that when the Psalmist said “the LORD is king”, he was not saying what the Deists said. Rather, the Psalmist said, “Yahweh is king”, Israel’s very own covenant God was king. And this was an astonishing claim. It was astonishing because Israel was one of the smallest kingdoms in the ancient near east. Israel’s neighbors all had their own gods and goddesses and they generally believed that their own gods exercised their powers within their countries’ borders. The people of the ancient world believed in tribal gods, not cosmic gods. Even the mighty Persians and Egyptians believed that their gods’ powers were confined to the lands that their people ruled.
But this is not the only remarkable thing that the Psalmist said. The Psalmist went on to say that “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Yahweh’s throne”. To get a sense of why this is an amazing claim, think of what the Psalmist might have written. He could have said, Strength and power are the foundation of Yahweh’s throne. He could said that Yahweh’s kingdom is based on domination and force. But instead he said “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Yahweh’s throne.”
It was not an easy claim to make in the ancient world and it is not an easy claim to make today. To the ancient Jews righteousness and justice meant far more than simply adhering to an arbitrary collection of rules. To be righteous and just was to live in harmony with one’s neighbors. A just community was one in which the elderly and orphans were cared for; it was one in which even the stranger from another land was treated with kindness and respect. The righteous person was one who cared not only for her family but also for the neighbor she did not know and who had no claim on her kindness. And the Psalmist makes the startling claim that we are to order our lives in this way because these are the very foundations of the world: “Yahweh is king… righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.”
Israel’s God was not a God to approach lightly. Yahweh is a God shrouded in mystery (“clouds and darkness are round about him”); the earth fears the lightning bolts that he hurls from the heavens; and even the mountains “melt like wax” at his presence. Righteousness and justice may be the foundations of his throne but Yahweh “burns up” his enemies.
But Israel is called to rejoice in this fearsome Deity. “Zion hears and his glad and the cities of Judah rejoice” but they are invited to rejoice precisely because Yahweh is a God of righteousness and justice. It is those who are just for whom light springs up and those who are “truehearted” who are joyful and glad.
We need to hear the good news of Psalm 97 because we live in a world which seems to be anything but righteous and just.
Not only have we learned that the physical world is not the orderly Deist universe that Franklin and Jefferson believed in, we have also learned that the moral universe is also chaotic.
The international banking crisis showed us that some bankers were gambling with the money entrusted with them as though they were members of an Elks’ lodge on a junket to Las Vegas.
The oil spewing into the Gulf shows us that the company entrusted with bringing the oil safely to shore and preserving the integrity of the environment lobbied heavily against putting safeguards into place that might have prevented the spill.
The debt crisis in Greece makes it seem as though the government of that country was paying its bills with high interest credit cards and giving no thought to how they would pay back the credit card companies. Now their irresponsibility threatens to shake the already shaky international banking system.
All three of these crises show us a failure to exercise oversight by those charged with the responsibility of regulating and warning.
They also show us our own failings: Our belief that property prices would always go up and never go down; that the stock market would go up for ever; that we could overconsume oil and other limited resources and never have to face the consequences.
We failed to remember that the foundations of Yahweh’s world are righteousness and justice. We forgot that God expects us to exercise wise stewardship of his world, that we are called to be prudent and frugal in using the resources, including financial resources that God has given us. And in many cases we forgot that success and wealth also impose great responsibility, the responsibility to be as righteous and just as Yahweh is – to care for those who have less, who have been pass by and passed over, who are weak and vulnerable.
We have worshiped the false gods of riches and power and (as the Psalmist says) we have been confounded.
It is time for us to turn back to the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah; to turn back to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is time for us to listen and watch for the coming of Israel’s God and to sign and rejoice, to hear and be glad for the coming of this God who judges rightly.
And it is time for us to pray that God will once again establish the world upon righteousness and justice.