Psalm 47 – Ascent
TEXT (for Hebrew, see end)
For the leader. Of the Korahites. A psalm.1
2. All peoples, clap hands, shout to God with the sound of joyous praise.
3. For the LORD is Most High, awesome, a great king above2 all the earth.
4. He subjects peoples beneath us, setting nations beneath our feet.
5. He chooses for us our heritage, the Splendor-of-Jacob,3 whom He loved. Selah.
6. God has risen high, amidst shouting4; the LORD, amidst the blasts of the horn.
7. Sing, 5-to God,-5 sing; sing, to our king, sing;
8. for the king of all the earth is God; sing a hymn.
9. God has become king above2 the nations; God has sat upon His holy throne. over
10. The princes of the peoples have gathered, the people of Abraham’s God; for God’s are the guardians of the earth. 6-He has been raised very high.-6
1. This translation is literal, to allow readers to appreciate repeated metaphors.
2. "Above" here also indicates "of."
3. Implies the land of the people of Jacob – see Amos 6:8.
4. Same term as used in verse 2, but can also imply trumpet blast.
5. Or “divine beings” (i.e., without “to”)
6. Others, “He is greatly exalted.” Same root as “risen high” in verse 6.
Psalm 47 is a call for celebration that in itself becomes the celebration. It pictures the crowning of God as king over all the earth and, in doing so, opens a window onto an inherent tension in biblical monotheism.
The Language of Ascent
The framing term of Psalm 47, and the leitmotif thereof, is “ascent” (reflected in in the English by the use of “high” with each appearance of the root, ‘lh) In the beginning, God is the Most High (either an adjective or a title, taken from the name of an early Canaanite god), and in the end, He is raised “very high” (verse 11), having “risen high” [meaning “ascended” (verse 6), which I have translated literally to catch the echo]. The three uses of the Hebrew term 'al ("above" and “upon,” verses 3and 9) are from the same root as “high.” Moreover, twice the enemy is placed “beneath” (verse 4), and “Splendor” of Jacob (verse 5) is derived from another root meaning “high, exalted.” (Hacham thinks that the implication is not “splendor,” but simply a reference to the “heights of Jacob” as a metonym for the land.) Nine terms in ten verses refer, then, to heights and/or to being above.
Psalm 47 is rife with references to other parts of the Bible. Several of these are descriptions of the crowning of a human king, the model on which the poem is based. Whereas hand clapping can be a sign of general happiness, it also occurred during coronations (II Kings 11:12). Shouts of enthusiasm greeted the newly crowned king (I Samuel 10:24), as did the blast of the ram’s horn (II Sam 15:10; II Kings 9:13). The throne was set above the floor level (I Kings 10:15), requiring that one go up to it.
One may presume that other elements within the psalm were also drawn from such ceremonies, even if we have no records (e.g., use of trumpets, singing), since there are verses connecting them to other aspects of divine worship and events. The ram’s horn was sounded at the great revelation at Sinai and together with the blasting of trumpets is often referred to in festive celebrations in late biblical literature (Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah). “Sing” (verse 7) is the same root (zmr) as the word “psalm.” The term “joyous praise” (rina – verse 2) appears frequently as praise for the LORD.
Two references recall Abraham. On being given a blessing by the king of Salem in the name of his deity, “God-Most-High” (Elyon, the same term as in verse 3), Abram accepts, but identifies the LORD as the proper bearer of that title—“LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22). The phrase “People of Abraham’s God” may recall God’s promise to Abraham that he would father many nations, or that the nations would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3, 22:18, although the term “peoples” in not used in either case).
Repetitions and Terminology
Other terms, particularly those that are repeated, cement the connection to coronation. The root “king” is repeated four times, apart from the mention of the throne (the only place in the Bible where the word throne is used together with the term “holy”). Weiser even suggests that the “guests” are in fact other kings, called here “princes,” owing to the nature of the event. “Sing” is repeated five times; “people(s),” four; “earth,” three; and “shout,” twice. “God,” the subject of it all, is mentioned seven times.
Further, there is a unique construct in verse 5, “He chooses for us.” Elsewhere in the Bible “Choose for…” is always for oneself. (Again, the prerogative of the ruler may be emphasized, in that only the ruler can choose for others.)
Certainly the concept of sound dominates through verse 8.
The Odd Couple
Psalm 47 is most unusual, striking, and challenging, not because it pictures the coronation of God, but rather owing to its choice of the identity of His subjects.
Biblical monotheism faced a difficulty from its earliest narratives. The first eleven chapters of Genesis seem to detail God’s failed attempts to relate to all of humankind, and Chapter 12 tells of His choice to relate to the world through Abraham and his descendants. Hence, all nations would be blessed through Abraham and his progeny. Thereafter, biblical theology had to deal with the one God of all, who nevertheless has a special relationship to one people. (Most often, this is understood as a time line, the acceptance of God by all as promised, but not yet achieved.)
The LORD’s relationship, on the one hand, to Israel and, on the other, to all the nations are the two axes on which the Bible writes its chart of history. All stand before the one God. The author of Psalm 47 chooses to add to, rather than diminish, the complexity.
There are two parallel structures in Psalm 47. Each begins with a call to others to sing or shout out to God (verses 2, 7), followed by a phrase explaining the call (“For…), an expression of God’s kingship (not what He does, but who He is) (verses 3, 8). The next two lines in each section describe God’s related actions (verses 4–5, 9–10a). All this is followed by a recollection of God’s being on the heights (verses 6, 10b).
Of prime concern to us here is that the first cycle relates to Israel’s domination and choice (verses 4–5, with possible inclusion of Sinai in verse 6), whereas the second cycle relates to God-and-the nations (verse 9–10a, with the possible inclusion of verse 10b if the “guardians of the earth” are foreign rulers).
There are at least two striking sets of differences. First, the Israelite-based first section is much louder than the nations-based second section. Not only is the music quieter for the nations (song as opposed to blasting instruments and shouting)―the sound actually quickly disappears and the end seems to take place in relative quiet. Second, and more surprising, is the choice of tenses: imperfect (the biblical tense that spans present into the future) for Israel; perfect (spanning past through present) for the nations! Although some translators opt for present tense throughout (e.g., Alter and NJPS, with one exception each), this hardly does justice to the psalmist’s apparently careful choice. I have translated the first section in the present and the second section in the past. Particularly surprising is the poet's choice of tenses itself. Logic might have dictated the opposite, since the Israelite acceptance of God’s kingship had long since been accomplished, whereas the acknowledgment by the nations should be seen as the innovation.
The speaker of Psalm 47 evidently chose to express a fairly radical and immediate integration of the nations into God’s people, so much so that he is willing to title them “the people of Abraham’s God,” and to root this relationship in an earlier time. This time could, in fact, be the speaker’s own recent past, but in any case there is here a confirmation that others, not just Israelites, are the people of God. (One might find value in a comparison of this psalm to Zachariah 8:20–24, which foresees this integration of other peoples with Israel in the far future.) The reader, of course, must also note that this acceptance still implies a special relationship with Israel. In fact, the nations are encouraged to celebrate Israel’s domination (see verses 3–4), which will continue.
The linkage of Israel and the nations here is neither smooth nor equal. Still, it reflects an approach to the grand vision of biblical monotheism on a more intense level than “Some day…,” with no small degree of enthusiasm and celebration. The reader has much to consider.
* * * * * * * * *
Two lines of interpretation that have dominated the approach to Psalm 47 over the last century should be mentioned.
Since Mowinckel, nearly a century ago, Psalm 47 has been grouped with several other psalms (principally, 93, 96–99) not only as divine-royal, since they concentrate on the king image, but also as part of an annual ceremony of enthronement of the LORD as King, modeled on a Babylonian celebration and thought to have been held every autumn. Refinements of the theory across the century (the two most prominent of these associated with Kraus and Weiser) still assume the celebration of coronation each year. The theory struck a responsive chord, and it has become widely accepted. However, I would point out, as do many scholars, that “the existence of an actual ritual of this sort is mere conjecture, and the psalm could simply be a symbolic celebration through song of the idea that God reigns supreme over all” (Alter―and I would have reservations only about the word “simply”).
Similarly, some commentators (since the suggestion of the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann) have connected this psalm to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish "New Year," independent of any enthronement festival. Indeed in our time, this psalm is recited in one Jewish worship rite (“Ashkenazic” or occidental) seven times before the sounding of the ram’s horn on that holiday. Again, however, there is no early evidence for this. The use of the psalm on the holiday is a relatively late liturgical addition, and there are enough elements in the poem (such as emphasis on kingship and the mention of the ram’s horn) to explain its later integration without presuming that it was originally written for the holiday.
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.
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ לִבְנֵי קֹרַח מִזְמוֹר:
(ב) כָּל הָעַמִּים תִּקְעוּ כָף הָרִיעוּ לֵאלֹהִים בְּקוֹל רִנָּה:
(ג) כִּי יְהֹוָה עֶלְיוֹן נוֹרָא מֶלֶךְ גָּדוֹל עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ:
(ד) יַדְבֵּר עַמִּים תַּחְתֵּינוּ וּלְאֻמִּים תַּחַת רַגְלֵינוּ:
(ה) יִבְחַר לָנוּ אֶת נַחֲלָתֵנוּ אֶת גְּאוֹן יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר אָהֵב סֶלָה:
(ו) עָלָה אֱלֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה יְהֹוָה בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר:
(ז) זַמְּרוּ אֱלֹהִים זַמֵּרוּ זַמְּרוּ לְמַלְכֵּנוּ זַמֵּרוּ:
(ח) כִּי מֶלֶךְ כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֱלֹהִים זַמְּרוּ מַשְׂכִּיל:
(ט) מָלַךְ אֱלֹהִים עַל גּוֹיִם אֱלֹהִים יָשַׁב עַל כִּסֵּא קָדְשׁוֹ:
(י) נְדִיבֵי עַמִּים נֶאֱסָפוּ עַם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם כִּי לֵאלֹהִים מָגִנֵּי אֶרֶץ מְאֹד נַעֲלָה: