Psalm 97: The Lord Reigns

The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad;
    let the distant shores rejoice.
Clouds and thick darkness surround him;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him
    and consumes his foes on every side.
His lightning lights up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
    and all peoples see his glory.

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Psalm 97

‘The Lord [YHWH] reigns.’ At the time of writing there are perhaps more than a few who would question that. We are in the foothills of the coronavirus pandemic. People are self-isolating, social distancing and the country seems slowly to be shutting down. Unfortunately, the peak of the pandemic still seems some weeks away and it is predicted that things will get worse.

None of this is new however. The church has lived through times like this before, and while we might struggle to comprehend why God allows this to happen, we can be assured that he is sovereign.

‘YHWH reigns’ would have seemed a strange thing to say on Good Friday. There was little evidence of the existence of the loving God whom Jesus referred to as his heavenly Father and yet God was there in the darkness and three days later that darkness was saturated and overwhelmed by the light of the risen Christ.

The Psalm presents us with a stunning picture of God on his way to deal with all that is wrong in his fallen creation (vv. 1–5). ‘Aslan is on the move.’ And, as is often the case in the Psalms, this isn’t just about us and our personal salvation, but it is about the coming of God’s reign. He is the one who is ‘the Lord of all the earth’ (v. 5).

It is this coming of God in triumph that exposes the futility of those who trust in humanity or man-made objects or ideologies (v. 7).

One thing the present coronavirus crisis has shown us, starkly, is how fragile our lives really are. Great advances in medicine, technology and scientific understanding (for which we should all be grateful) have cocooned us from our own mortality, but the truth is none of us get out of here alive. We are biodegradable creatures with an expiry date. Back in the seventeenth century, John Donne wrote:

‘We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats and drink and air and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building – and so our health is a long and a regular work, but in a minute a cannon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all. A sickness unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiosity…summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant.’

The truth is that we have no control about coming into the world and most of us don’t have any control about leaving it. Our idols cannot help us. But God can.

The opening lines of this Psalm portray the awesome majesty of God, but amidst the fire and lightning is the reminder that he is the God of righteousness and justice, and that is the cause for celebration. The living God is not some human projection of sheer naked power but he is passionately concerned with human life and its flourishing, as where there is no justice there is just misery.

It is this conviction that YHWH will set things right that leads to rejoicing among those who are experiencing life as being all wrong (v. 8). In the final verses of the Psalm the celebration of YHWH’s advent translates into concrete actions: those who love YHWH hate evil, whether that is the active evil of wrongdoing or the evil of indifference to our neighbour’s needs. To those, God promises to guard their lives, but it is a promise of God’s constant care, not a guarantee against casualties.

The Psalm concludes with the promise that light and joy will dawn upon the righteous and they are summoned to rejoice because YHWH is on his way (vv. 11–12).