Psalm 97 - Fire goes before him

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1) The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
2) Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
3) Fire goes before him,
and consumes his adversaries on every side.
4) His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
5) The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.

6) The heavens proclaim his righteousness;
and all the peoples behold his glory.
7) All worshipers of images are put to shame,
those who make their boast in worthless idols;
all gods bow down before him.
8) Zion hears and is glad,
and the towns of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O God.
9) For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.

10) The Lord loves those who hate evil;
he guards the lives of his faithful;
he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
11) Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
12) Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!
Psalm 98 (NRSV*)
Christmas Day (see also A new song)
7th Sunday of Easter, Year C
Transfiguration, August 6 (Old observance)

We read in the text about these out-sized events. We may remember the Hollywood epic Ten Commandments. Reading or seeing something on a screen paints a picture, but is far from the reality of the events they depict.

This psalm is one of many which highlights God's exalted status, ruling over all other powers on heaven and earth, and expressing God's supreme glory.

How to imagine One who is On High, whose reality is truly beyond imagining? Yet what else can we do?

Here, the image is of God's glory (כָּבֹוד, kevod, "abundance, honor, glory"), which in Temple worship involved the smoke and fire of sacrifice, a cloud of glory. And it probably recalls the pillar of fire and cloud which protected and guided the Hebrew people on their journey out of Egypt.

We want to manage the power of God, protects ourselves (including psyche and ego), yet God's power has a terrifying aspect. A consuming fire, melting mountains like wax, seems much more fearsome than glorious. I have never had to flee a firestorm, but the stories and pictures from Dresden, Tokyo, and Paradise, California are terrifying even from a safe distance.

Unlike the finely-honed firestorm of the text, which "consumes [the Lord's] adversaries on every side," firestorms are indiscriminant, sweeping up whatever is in their path, sparing some by chance, burning unintended victims. The term "holocaust," derives from the Greek, and was fist used to describe a sacrifice that is completely burned to ashes. Fearsome indeed is fire, whether holy or profane.

You may be blessed to find something to salvage from the devastation. Yet even silver linings may be badly damaged. It is difficult indeed to stand in the ashes, even in those cases where the fire has swept away enemies. Ask the occupiers of Hiroshima or Dresden.

The psalm's difficult presentation of God's fearsome power is set in the context of God's righteous majesty, and the protection of his faithful. "Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart." Survivors may justly give thanks to God's holy name.

We cannot emulate God's power. But we certainly can recognize it, and aspire to that righteousness which allows us to reject false gods, and seek only the good, which gives life.

May we be blessed to see the dawning light.

Jean Beaufort, Waldbrand. Public domain (CC BY 1.0).
Staff Sgt. Taylor A. Workman, USAF. A broken mug nestled amongst the remains of the Gowins family home reads: “Look for the silver lining in that cloud. It’s there.” The mug was found while sifting through the wreckage in Paradise, Calif. on Dec. 17, 2018. Public domain. * New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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