May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
may his foes flee before him.
May you blow them away like smoke—
as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God.
But may the righteous be glad
and rejoice before God;
may they be happy and joyful.
Psalm 68 celebrates the victory of YHWH over the idols of the nations and his victory procession in Jerusalem. Much of the language may well have been appropriated from the worship of the Canaanite god, Baal. Baal was the fertility god that was worshipped by the locals and was a constant source of temptation enticing the Israelites to abandon the worship of YHWH and ‘go native’. Baal was associated with storms and with rain, so vital for a good harvest, particularly in the Middle East. Baal was feared and praised and lauded by devotees as ‘the Rider of the Clouds,’ though this was challenged in ancient Israel, most dramatically by Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18).
In the Psalm YHWH is portrayed as a storm God (vv. 4, 33f, see also Isaiah 19:1; Deuteronomy 33:26). The language is not only reminiscent of Baal but also of other less local gods like Thor or Zeus. Such gods can be high and mighty, feared rather than loved. But, as verses 5 and 6 make clear, the One who rides on the clouds ‘is not transcendent in remoteness…not splendid in indifference, but is deeply in touch with the reality of the earth where money and power and social leverage and differentiation of gender, race, and class leave some dangerously exposed…[he] rides the clouds not as a joy-rider, but rather to be in a position to see and to know and to care and to intervene and to feed.’ (Walter Brueggemann).
Verse 7 makes it clear that it is not Baal but YHWH, the God of Israel, who brings the rain and brings refreshment. Our problem is not ascribing provision to Baal, but sometimes forgetting that behind all our technological and agricultural prowess, ultimately we are dependent on God our creator.
Most of the rest of the Psalm is taken up with a mesmerising description of a war of liberation fought by God himself. The details of any specific conflict are non-distinct but the Psalmist makes it clear that it is God who is Israel’s strength and security. Again, we are tempted to forget and put our trust in defence budgets, in missile systems and nuclear submarines. The Psalm tells us that true peace is to be found in God’s inexhaustible, tireless care and in his power to save us from threats to our life (v. 20). Both of these themes are taken up in the gospels: Christ invites us to come to him when we are weary and burdened (Matthew 11:28–30), and Christ promises that those who believe in him will live, even though they die (John 11:25).
The defeat of those who threaten Israel’s peace and prosperity leads to jubilation. Verses 24–27 have a carnival atmosphere, full of colour and music. Verses 30 and 31 depict the conquered nations bringing tribute to God and acknowledging his lordship. The description of their homage echoes verse 18, which in turn was picked up by St Paul: reflecting on Christ’s triumph over the powers of death and evil, he applies verse 18 to the spiritual gifts and ministries that the risen ascended Christ has given to the church by his Spirit (Ephesians 4:1–13). Later in that letter Paul writes, ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world…’
Our struggle is not against human foes, but the spiritual enemies within us and among us that fracture community and prevent our lives from witnessing to the victory that Christ has won – breaking down the barriers between us, and between us and God.
The Psalm climaxes in verses 32–35 with not just Israel, but all the peoples of earth called to praise YHWH. So, we too are called to worship the God who rides the clouds but who has come among us and revealed his glory in the human flesh of his son, Jesus Christ.