The voice of the Lord

1       Introduction (verses 1-2)

Psalm 29 is a psalm of David and contains the word for God (Yahweh) no fewer than 18 times. It also uses the phrase ‘voice of the Lord’ seven times.

When Moses met God at the burning bush, he wanted to know how he should refer to God when speaking to the people, he anticipated their question, ‘what is his name?’ ‘What shall I tell them?’ he asked. God replied ‘I am who I am.’ The name Yahweh is the name for God and is associated with this statement. It speaks of God as the one who simply is. He is not in the category of the created, he is beyond the created world, we may say that he is transcendent in that he is beyond the scope of the physical realm.

It is Yahweh who is in focus in Psalm 29.

The Psalm begins with three repeating phrases: ‘ascribe to the Lord.’ There is firstly a call to heavenly beings to ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength, they are to give to him the glory due to his name – the name that places Yahweh as the unique one: the ‘I am.’

David sets out God in these terms. Since much of this Psalm focusses on God’s intervention in creation (The voice of God) and uses a thunderstorm as a poetic expression of God’s voice we must first think about David’s presentation of God that involves natural phenomena. Richard Dawkins contends that Christians believe in a “god of the gaps.” What he means is that in ancient times, gods were used as explanations for natural phenomena; there were gods of thunder (such as Thor, Zeus and Jupiter) gods for the sun, the moon and so on. As mankind progressed in thinking and science, thunder and lightning were adequately explained by atmospheric physics, the course of the sun, moon, and stars by astronomy and so on. These explanations rendered the gods redundant. Richard Dawkins’ view is that it is only a matter of time before all the gods can be consigned by scientific progress to the dustbin of history. Dawkins (he claims) has just written off one more god than Christians. So, is Yahweh just another ‘god of the gaps’ – to be dismissed in the face of scientific advance?

David does not present God as one who is part of nature and who is an explanation for natural phenomena, he rather presents God as outside of nature, as the creator of the physical world and as one who can intervene in the world he has created. As Prof. John Lennox put it, God is not a god of the gaps, he is the God of the whole show. As a matter of fact, many scientists take a polar opposite view to that of Richard Dawkins. They are motivated by their theistic world view to study the creation and as they do so they marvel at the work of the creator. As the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton put it in his Principia Mathematica: This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator,or Universal Ruler. Perhaps with David and the heavenly beings (and Sir Isaac:Newon!) ‘ascribe to the Lord, glory and strength, ascribe to the Lord, the glory due to his name.’

2       The voice of the lord

As mentioned above, verses 3-9 seem to describe the progression of a powerful thunderstorm as it moves (presumably) over the Mediterranean Sea onto land and desert, shaking the ground, destroying trees, and causing devastation. David declares that this is the ‘voice of the Lord.’ David is not seeing God in the same way as the gods of Thor, Zeus and Jupiter, but rather he is seeing a manifestation of the transcendent God in the physical world.

It is notable that David speaks repeatedly of the voice of the Lord. Our natural condition as human beings is to be distant from God because of our sinful and corrupted nature. Adam and Eve heard the voice of the Lord in the garden of Eden and hid from him. God continues to speak through his creation and his word. The question is; will we listen?

Scientists have by and large adopted a reductionist approach to their work. They seek to understand things at their most basic level and build up from there. A fundamental understanding of phenomena at the level of physics and chemistry thus enables an understanding of more complex things. It seems that most biologists and biochemists now believe that the complex biological systems we see around us from viruses to humans can be understood in this way. The discovery of a simple chemical, phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus was thus touted as evidence of possible life on that planet. Physics and chemistry work in any planet, and you just need the right conditions (they say) and life will emerge. This view fails to appreciate the transcendent, and in doing so misses the obvious and essential need for something more than physics and chemistry.

The headline on the Sunday Times last Sunday was ‘Trump gambles on radical new drugs to beat the virus.’ If we cut out the word ‘virus’ from the newspaper and submitted it for analysis by scientist adopting the reductionist approach we’d get back a report that would speak of the type of ink that formed the letters ‘virus’, we would hear of the chemical composition of the ink, the proportion of organic chemicals and inorganic chemicals and so on. They would tell us about the paper, the type of trees from which it came and the cellulose structure of the fibres of which the newsprint paper is composed. What they would not mention, because the reductionist method cannot, is the most obvious thing: the meaning of the word virus. A journalist sitting somewhere near London Bridge wrote the words of the headline and intended to convey a message. The message comes in the form of words which are supported by the semantics of the English language and they convey meaning. We could say that the readers of the Sunday Times heard the voice of the journalist. Likewise, in biology, there is the longest word one could imagine, DNA: a word of 3 billion letters, supported by a translation system to produce biological life. Just as David could hear the voice of the Lord as he observed and heard a thunderstorm, so we too can hear the voice of God in nature.

3       The Lord as king

Having described the voice of God in the thunderstorm and physical nature, David completes Psalm 29 with four further (and important) statements about Yahweh:

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord is enthroned as King for ever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
    the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Why does David speak of Yahweh being enthroned over the flood and as being enthroned as King forever? We tend to forget that although God is king over all, he has delegated his authority to mankind. The mess of the world is the result of mankind’s rejection of God. Despite man’s failure, God remains king overall and will one day come to restore a righteous rule on earth. His kingdom will not be limited by time: it will be for eternity (verse 10b). But why is he enthroned over the flood (verse 10a)? The Hebrew word David uses for ‘flood’ is used here and in two other places in the bible. It is used nine times to describe the global flood that God used to judge mankind and purify the world. It is used once in the book of Job to describe God’s judgment in the form of a destructive flood. David is declaring that Yahweh will be king, and it seems that his kingdom will involve the purifying effects of judgment. This is a sobering and concerning thought, but it need not be. Why? Because the Lord will give strength to his people and bless them with peace (verse 11). Who are God’s people? Those who have heard his voice and placed their confidence in him. Do you count yourself among that people?  If you do, you will know the God of the universe who gives strength and peace.