Psalm 29 - His Voice, His Sound, His Thunder
TEXT (For Hebrew, see end)
1. A psalm. Of David.
Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of gods, ascribe to the LORD glory and might.
2. Ascribe to the LORD the glory of His name; bow down to the LORD in the majesty of holiness.
3. The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over multitudinous waters.
4. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic.
5. The voice of the LORD breaks cedars; the LORD breaks apart the cedars of Lebanon.
6. He makes them skip like a calf, Lebanon and Sirion, like a young wild ox.
7. The voice of the LORD forks as flames of fire.
8. The voice of the LORD convulses the wilderness; the LORD convulses the wilderness of Kadesh.
9. The voice of the LORD causes deer to calve and lays bare forests, while in His temple, everything says "Glory!"
10. The LORD sat enthroned at the Flood; the LORD sits enthroned, king forever.
11. May the LORD grant might to His people; may the LORD bless His people with peace.
Poetry often approaches the divine through imagery. Frequently the images reflect interaction between man and God. Psalm 29, however, takes place on an altogether different plain.
Clear imagery does not necessarily bespeak an explicit, unique situation. Psalm 29 overflows with sharp, powerful references, but these lead interpreters to widely different specific applications. Kimche (12th–13th century), for example, suggests three alternative overviews—a thunderstorm, the theophany at Mount Sinai, or the future apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog. All reflect the force and magnitude of the text. Clearly the poem should first be appreciated without regard to any specific reference.
The poet, as we might expect, relies on more than just the imagery. He fully interweaves techniques, which, while best appreciated in combination, might first be more easily understood in isolation. I therefore concentrate, in turn, on the patterns of references to the LORD, on the base imagery (the storm), on word repetition, on the sharp reversal at the end, and on the place of the reader as audience. I try to integrate each pattern with those previously surveyed. In aggregate, they create a psalm unlike any other.
One need not search for the subject of Psalm 29. In the first two verses, “to the LORD” is repeated four times, and in the last two verses, “LORD” is repeated four times as a balance. In between, there are ten uses of “LORD” (ten being a number of some significance), seven of these (a number of even greater significance in the Bible) as part of the phrase “the voice of the LORD.”
The enclosing frame bespeaks movement as the opening approaches the LORD as indirect object, whereas the ending includes Him as subject (enthroned) and addressee (using the third-person, as befits the Enthroned One). The framework, in fact, first invites the “sons of gods” (divine beings—see below) in and at the end, by implication, dismisses them, as God sits alone, asked to act for His people.
The exclusive subject of the middle section is the sevenfold “voice of the LORD.” Even each of the other three uses of “LORD” alone in the middle describe the “voice of the LORD” by further defining it. (The three expansions are, respectively: “over waters – multitudinous waters”; “breaks cedars – of Lebanon”; “convulses the wilderness – of Kadesh”). This voice is deafening and awe-inspiring, towering above seas, mountains, vast stretches of land, the sky, and all animal life. Fire, water, and earth are invoked, only to be dismissed, for the LORD is above all. In other psalms, these elements sometimes bear witness, but here they are simply there, subservient and dependent. There is no letup. Beginning, middle, and end—there is the LORD.
Readers unfamiliar with the weather patterns of Israel should note how accurate this psalm is regarding approaching major storm fronts, which come in from the west, from the Mediterranean Sea and, more often than not, are first felt in the north (i.e., Lebanon), only then stretching south. A storm reaching as far south as Kadesh would indeed be very severe.
Although the imagery is drawn from a storm, one must be careful to note that it is extended well beyond, into hyperbole. The “multitudinous waters,” as we see from the use of the phrase elsewhere, imply not just the sea, but also the primordial waters that God overcame in creating the world. It is one of those few loci of power that can be used as a comparison to illustrate God’s strength. Similarly, mountains skipping like rams is far from literal or even representational; rather, it refers to the force of nature subdued, even cowed. The “convulsing” of the wilderness only adds to the awe-filled picture.
Thus the middle section defines the voice of the LORD, “voice” being the same Hebrew word (kol) as “sound” (and as “thunder”). One “hears” the thundering domination roaring, as it literally rolls across the world. Elsewhere in the Bible the phrase “the voice of the LORD” usually implies a commanding or speaking voice, only once else implying power (Isaiah 30:31), and there in battle. In Psalm 18:14 “His voice” is clearly thunder. Our psalmist, therefore, either creates or fully develops a less common implication for the phrase.
Appropriately, the individual words in this psalm echo and reverberate. The opening threefold repetition of “attribute to the LORD” (a three-repetition opening is an ancient technique, predating Israel) sets the tone, as subsequently words continually bounce back from mountains and hills. The effect holds throughout, from the previously mentioned appearance of “LORD” (a total of eighteen times), including “attribute to the LORD” (three items) and “voice of the LORD” (seven times), to these other terms (in order of first appearance): “glory,” “might,” “majesty,” “waters,” “breaks,” “cedars,” “Lebanon,” “convulses,” “wilderness,” “sit enthroned,” and “His people.” There are further sound echoes in the Hebrew: “holy” (“kodesh”) and the place, Kadesh; “convulses” (yachil), and “causes to calve” (yecholel); a rhymed phrase, “His temple, everything” (heichalo kulo); and “forever” (li’olam) and “to His people” (li’amo). In five cases, (“glory,” “waters,” “break cedars,” “convulses the wilderness,” “sit enthroned”) the second use of the term includes an enrichment, as if the echo comes back stronger than the original. One is hard put to imagine a more impressive display of ricocheting sound.
There are two enclosing terms apart from “LORD.” “Might” begins and ends the poem. “Glory” appears right before and at the end of the sevenfold description of God’s voice, reemphasizing the middle section. Further, the copious repetition serves to cement the tight structure of an already compact psalm, a poem of “raw, untamed power” (Brueggemann).
The Surprise Ending
One studying Psalms should not be surprised by a radical shift in the last verse or verses, a rather common technique. Whereas earlier scholars often jumped to the conclusion of an added verse in such cases, there are frequently indications that this cannot be so, as in our case, with the opening and closing fourfold repetition (as above) and the framing word “might.” Thus the radical shift away from the storm and the world stage to calm and the people of Israel in the last verse is integral to the psalm and demands close analysis.
The storm disappears. Arriving from the west, extending from north to south, it moves east, toward "His temple" (= Jerusalem), and there it simply dissipates, as calm reigns. (This latter mood is reinforced if "might" in verse 8 is construed alternatively as a form of "glory" – see the end of my comments on Psalm 21.) In the penultimate verse, God's action (twice) is to "sit," a radically more passive act than previous ones.
With this change, the psalm takes on a new context, and the reader is challenged to understand it. Is the interaction with Israel inherently different than the rest of the world? Is the storm "rejected?" To the opposite effect, is the point (as Bar Yosef writes, my translation) that: "The power of the LORD as described in the body of the poem, a power that is capable of changing the natural order, is the historical defensive shield for this small nation, Israel?" Is the same phenomenon understood radically differently by one group or another, or in one circumstance or another? Might several of the above apply? For the Israelite reader, these are, of course, basic questions concerning his religion.
A word, then, is due about the often-proposed Canaanite origin of this psalm. Noting both the use of techniques typical of earlier Canaanite poetry and the theme of the victory of a god over nature, some commentators have seen in Psalm 29 a direct borrowing from a Canaanite original, one even proposing a superior reading if we substitute “Baal” (the leading Canaanite deity) for “LORD.” This requires, of course, excision of the last verses, which, as I noted earlier, destroys the psalm's structure. Further, one notes the radically Israelite worldview in this psalm. There is no power struggle between nature and deity here. This worldview is consistent with the Genesis story as we have it, a God above and in control of all nature (and totally so, as the mountains skip like calves, strong trees are shattered, and the wilderness is convulsed). The Canaanite background, therefore, is vital, not because the psalm duplicates it, but because Psalm 29 evolves radically away from it. Hinted at in the relationship of nature and deity throughout—this change from the Canaanite to the Israelite environment is trumpeted by the final verses, bringing the poem into its proper cultural context.
Psalm 29 is an overheard address, on high. The addressee, “sons of gods,” is a term used differently by Israel and surrounding cultures, though not well defined in the Israelite culture, which was, throughout biblical times, evolving toward a less adulterated monotheism. Even medieval commentators struggle for an exact definition (Rashi – officers on high; Ibn Ezra – stars; Kimche – angels), though a sense of beings below the LORD, but on high, above man, is accepted.
This places both the speaker and the reader in odd positions. The speaker is a total mystery. He presumably is knowledgeable enough to inform or instruct these divine beings. Who could such a creature be? Given this unclear identity, the reader is puzzled as to the conversation he or she is overhearing.
Thus, in an odd twist, the psalm itself, wherein a “voice” calls out, is itself the calling out of a “voice.” We may hear this voice as a roaring thunder (parallel to the rest of the psalm) or as something much calmer, but the content is crystal clear. Addressed to those who, being semi-divine, might think themselves a challenge to the LORD, the message is pointed: the LORD is the All Powerful. It is He Who is invoked to grant Israel might (or glory) and peace.
Given the end of the poem, it is a psalm of great optimism, for a LORD so powerful can surely provide the people of Israel with the requested gifts. Given the polytheistic cultural environment around Israel, the psalm is theologically a profound affirmation of monotheism, and the reader is left only with the guess that the speaker, somehow, is “Truth” as the poet understood it. The end hammers the message home by the prominent absence of the original addressee, those “sons of gods.” Instead, from the end of verse 9, the message of glory to God is delivered in His Temple, and is a message of strength but also, as per the final word, a message of peace. The colossal hyperbole finds resolution in quiet, optimistic hope.
It should be clear from the above that the attribution of this psalm to any one historical situation only weakens it. The psalm is a-historical, and that is its power.
* * * * * * * * *
“LORD” appears eighteen times. I am not aware of any attribution of special import to eighteen-fold repetition in the Bible. However, I note that in my book The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Gefen, 2009), I found that the three most basic terms of the Song (the root sh-l-m, as in Solomon and Jerusalem; the root ‘-h-v, love; and the related terms ro’eh and re’a, "shepherd" and "beloved") all appear eighteen times. I suspect that further scholarly research will find other instances of the significance of eighteen repetitions.
Uses in the Jewish prayer service: (a) On the basis of these eighteen repetitions, the Talmud states that this psalm is the model for the daily central Jewish prayer of eighteen benedictions, and the Midrash on Psalms traces similarities between the benedictions and the psalm. (After the prayer first became normative, a nineteenth blessing was added, but the official name “Eighteen” remained.) The same basic prayer when recited on the Sabbath has only seven benedictions, this said to be based on the seven uses of “voice of the LORD.” (b) It is also widely accepted that the recitation of this psalm (twice) on the Sabbath is due to the sevenfold repetition, the Sabbath celebrating the seventh day. In Second Temple times, it was recited on the festival of Tabernacles, a seven-day holiday. (c) In any case, the psalm befits group prayer, being a statement of belief and hope, divorced from any individual concerns. It bespeaks congregational worship.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reactions and queries may be sent to the same address, and comments of interest will be included in the web site
א מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד הָבוּ לַיהוָה בְּנֵי אֵלִים הָבוּ לַיהוָה כָּבוֹד וָעֹז
ב הָבוּ לַיהוָה כְּבוֹד שְׁמוֹ הִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַיהוָה בְּהַדְרַת-קֹדֶשׁ
ג קוֹל יְהוָה עַל-הַמָּיִם אֵל-הַכָּבוֹד הִרְעִים יְהוָה עַל-מַיִם רַבִּים
ד קוֹל-יְהוָה בַּכֹּחַ קוֹל יְהוָה בֶּהָדָר
ה קוֹל יְהוָה שֹׁבֵר אֲרָזִים וַיְשַׁבֵּר יְהוָה אֶת-אַרְזֵי הַלְּבָנוֹן
ו וַיַּרְקִידֵם כְּמוֹ-עֵגֶל לְבָנוֹן וְשִׂרְיֹן כְּמוֹ בֶן-רְאֵמִים
ז קוֹל-יְהוָה חֹצֵב לַהֲבוֹת אֵשׁ
ח קוֹל יְהוָה יָחִיל מִדְבָּר יָחִיל יְהוָה מִדְבַּר קָדֵשׁ
ט קוֹל יְהוָה יְחוֹלֵל אַיָּלוֹת וַיֶּחֱשֹׂף יְעָרוֹת
וּבְהֵיכָלוֹ כֻּלּוֹ אֹמֵר כָּבוֹד
י יְהוָה לַמַּבּוּל יָשָׁב וַיֵּשֶׁב יְהוָה מֶלֶךְ לְעוֹלָם
יא יְהוָה עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן יְהוָה יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם