A psalm of awe at the power of God's voice
"A Psalm of David." (verse 1)
At church, you will notice that there are two types of worship songs, generally speaking. Songs about God and songs about us. The former are filled with praise for Who God is and the latter are filled with prayers and praise for what God can do and has done. Both are good, and David was no stranger to either subject. If you recall, the last four Psalms, (25, 26, 27, and 28), were all prayers for deliverance, coupled with praise (for that deliverance) offered in faith towards a merciful and loving God.
Here David writes an entirely different style of song; this song is all about the power of God's voice. It is majestic and spectacular, designed to instil awe and reverence in the heart that reflects upon its meaning and upon the great God of whom it speaks.
"Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness." (verses 1- 2)
David begins this psalm with a command to worship. There is no gentle lead-in, dimming of the lights, strumming, or intro. One can picture the music that perhaps once accompanied this psalm: a loud trumpet blast breaks the silence, demanding the attention of all worshippers. The director of the Levite choir then shouts these words in a melodious chant, like the heralds of old who proclaimed the edicts of the king.
He addresses the "mighty ones," which I believe is a reference to the angelic host of the LORD. The literal interpretation of this phrase is "sons of the mighty", in Hebrew ben-el. It is used in Psalm 89:6 in reference to angels: "For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?" However, some commentators have believed it to be a reference simply to all those born to nobility, the sons of the "mighty" men of the earth who would be inclined to be proud in their position and power.
It matters little which interpretation you take, because the application remains the same: "You who take pride in your might and strength, be you a man or an angel, give glory to God, who alone deserves it."
Note that wonderful phrase "worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness." There is much we deem beautiful in this life, but that beauty is but a reflection of the Creator of it. God is the most beautiful Being of all; eternally self-existent and all powerful, He is the One who defines beauty, as the very image of it. Is it any wonder that when we, or any other created being, worship the one true God of heaven, it is describes as beautiful? Holiness is essentially "set-apartness", meaning that when we worship the LORD, we are "set apart" from the common and banal things of this life, and enter in spiritually to the beauty of the presence of God.
"The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders; the LORD is over many waters." (verse 3)
The next seven verses are all about the "voice of the LORD," and each one gives a different aspect of it. Verse three tells us first that the voice of LORD is "over the waters" and over "many waters," and that He "thunders." The waters referenced here are storm clouds. Consider Jeremiah 10:13: "When He uttereth His voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens, and He causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; He maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasures."
God's voice is revealed in the thunderstorm.
"The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty." (verse 4)
The voice of the LORD is described as powerful and full of majesty. There is actual power in God's words, for by them He created the universe. Hear the words of Genesis 1:2-3, 6: "The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”"
When God speaks, things happen.
Majesty is defined as "impressive stateliness, dignity, or beauty." Not only is our worship of God beautiful, but His own voice is beautiful, fiercely beautiful! His voice alone compels us to worship Him.
"The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars, yes, the LORD splinters the cedars of Lebanon. He makes them also skip like a calf, Lebanon and Sirion like a young wild ox." (verses 5-6)
David is creating a picture with his words. We saw in verse three that God has spoken a tempest into being. There are storm clouds and thunder. Often wind accompanies a storm, and where there is thunder, there is lightning. Verse five and six now continue the dramatic scene.
The voice of the LORD breaks apart the mighty trees of the forests of Lebanon and Mount Hermon (Sirion was the Sidonian name for it). Lebanon was once a vast forest, containing gigantic cedar trees, of which many buildings of splendour were built in time of old. Cedars are not scraggly little trees that blow with the winds, but are magnificent, straight, and tall, with thick, strong trunks.
When God speaks, they crash to the ground in splinters, scattering wildly in all directions. This does not seem like an average tree felling; what David describes seems more akin to an explosion. Like a fast, wild young cow when frightened, the bits and pieces of these mighty trees go skipping along the ground like debris.
What could cause such a disaster? Remember the storm? Whether it is a hurricane that rips off the tops of the trees, hurling them around like toothpicks, or fierce bolts of lightning that splinter them, setting them on fire as they crash to ground, the voice of the Lord is sovereign over all.
It is interesting to note that the vision God gave the proud King Nebuchanezzar when he exalted himself was of a mighty tree that was felled to the ground, symbolizing the humbling that was to come upon him. As this psalm is specifically addressed to the "mighty" ones of heaven or earth, the imagery of the destroyed forests of mighty cedars lends weight to the initial command to give God all the glory.
"The voice of the LORD divides the flames of fire." (verse 7)
The word for divide used here means to carve out, or dig through, as in stones. The word for flames is also used for point of a spear or sword; it is sharp and deadly. The voice of the LORD cuts through the deadly flames of fire, dividing them as it passes through.
It would appear that David is describing a lightning storm. With swordlike bolts shredding through the air, one after the other, in a fearful display of power, who could doubt the majesty of the LORD? The forest is ravaged by the storm.
"The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the Wilderness of Kadesh." (verse 8)
God's voice brings forth thunder and lighting and, according to verse eight, causes earthquakes. David now moves to another scene where God's awful glory and power are shown... the vast wilderness of Kadesh. Kadesh was a town in the extreme south of Judea, a desert area. It is plausible that in David's time, and perhaps shortly before the writing of this psalm, there was a great lightning storm in Lebanon to the north, and likewise, a great earthquake in the desert of Kadesh to the south. They may have been the subject of much conversation, much as natural disasters reported in the news today still elicit a sort of awe and terror in our hearts.
Inspired by the natural forces at work all around him and compelled to give glory to the great God who reigns sovereign over all these terrifying wonders, David may have penned this psalm.
"The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth, and strips the forests bare; and in His temple everyone says, 'Glory!'" (verse 9)
Earthquakes and lightning storms, falling trees, fire, and thunder... it is a little wonder that the timid deer would go into labour prematurely. The aftermath of the storm is utterly devastating. The once tall and majestic forrest lies a ruinous mass of fallen trees. One night, one storm. God has shown in one act of His power that even the mightiest cannot stand before His glory. The people, hearing of this destruction, go to the temple to worship the great God who rules over all terrors.
It is interesting that David is emphasizing the awful power of God in this psalm- God's power to destroy. In the vast majority of his psalms, Davids extolls the LORD's mercy, gentleness, and faithfulness. He speaks often of God's power in creation. Why then the focus on destruction?
We must return to the first verse to see to whom it is written: the mighty ones, the ones inclined towards pride, the ones symbolized in the mighty trees. To these he writes of the terrible power of God, that they might rightly fear Him and remember that He alone is worthy of glory and honour.
"The LORD sat enthroned at the Flood, and the LORD sits as King forever." (verse 10)
The Flood was the greatest disaster of all time. Never has there been anything to match it. It literally reshaped the entire planet. Mountains sinking into the seas, tectonic plates heaving over and under each other, streams of magma erupting under water, the sky dumping torrents of rain... it was catastrophic. No one on earth survived. Only eight people in a carefully designed boat lived to tell about it. When the flood waters receded due to extreme tectonic activity, the earth they now stepped onto was unrecognizable from the one they knew. Not a single landmark remained. The destruction was total.
During all this, God was still reigning from His throne in heaven. It did not catch Him by surprise. He did not lose a battle with the forces of nature or another deity. No. He was in charge and it all happened according to His will.
David brings up the flood to complete his point. The voice of the LORD is capable of anything, and those who set themselves up as mighty in heaven or on earth, must give glory where it is due. As Solomon wrote: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." (Proverbs 9:10)
"The LORD will give strength to His people; the LORD will bless His people with peace." (verse 11)
David concludes with a comforting verse. He tells the children of Israel, "The terrible and awesome God who does all these things is our God, and He loves us. He will give us strength as we are weak; unlike the proud "mighty ones", we know we are weak. He will give us peace when our enemies desire war, and we know how able He is to fight for us!" As the forest was stripped bare, so will any army be that comes against the people of this great and awesome God.
For the proud, the voice of the LORD is a terror. For the humble, it is a comfort.
When Jesus came for the first time, a humble baby born in a stable, He invited men to trust in Him as their Lord and Saviour. In meekness, He accomplished our salvation on the cross. In a quiet display of His power, He rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven, promising to return.
But when He does return, it will not be as the first time. Clothed in glory and majesty, His eyes like flames of fire, and His feet like brass, Jesus our Saviour will reveal His awesome might as He pours out His wrath on the world who rejected His loving gift of salvation and abused those who received it. As it says, "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6)
Where are you today? Are you walking in pride, believing that your own goodness is sufficient before God? Let the terror of a fierce and awesome God work wisdom into your heart, and repent. Trust in Jesus for salvation and submit to Him as your Lord. He will guard you, protect you, and uphold you your whole life. He will give you eternal life, free from sin and pain, and you will live with Him as your Friend, no longer your Enemy, all your forever life. It really is the best offer you could ever receive, and the alternative is utterly terrifying to contemplate. And it is your choice.
Are you afraid? Weak? Discouraged? Take heart. God is your strength. God is your defence. He will guard you and preserve you through all the trials you face. Trust in Him. He will bring peace to your heart and joy to your soul.
The God of love is also the God of terror. Which do you want to know Him as for eternity?