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Psalm 29

August 26, 2010

I’ve been listening to a new song with a bit of an Irish feel to it, “Now Unto Jehovah – Psalm 29”, by Gregory D. Wilbur © 2009. It’s on his new CD, “My Cry Ascends”, and you can download the MP3 for free. Gregory Wilbur is the Chief Musician and liturgist at Parish Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Franklin, Tennessee.

Now Unto Jehovah

Chorus
Now unto Jehovah, ye sons of the mighty, all glory and strength and dominion accord;
Ascribe to Him glory, and render Him honor. In beauty of holiness, worship the Lord.

The voice of Jehovah comes down on the water; In thunder the God of the glory draws nigh;
lo, over the waves of the wide flowing waters, Jehovah as King is enthroned on high!

Chorus

The voice of Jehovah is mighty, is mighty; the voice of Jehovah in majesty speaks.
The voice of Jehovah the cedars is breaking. Jehovah the cedars of Lebanon breaks.

Chorus

Each on in His temple His glory proclaimeth. He sat on the flood; He is King on His throne.
Jehovah all strength to His people imparteth; Jehovah with peace ever blesseth His own.

Chorus

The song is based on Psalm 29 – one of my favorite passages. It’s a very cool Psalm and there’s more to it than meets the modern western eye. To fully understand scripture, it’s important to read it through the eyes of the original readers by seeing it in the light of the context of its original culture, and to understand its genre.

Polemic

Psalm 29 is a polemic type of Psalm. The word “polemic” means  to aggressive attack, refuting  the opinions or principles of another. To see the attack that’s woven throughout Psalm 29 requires knowing a little about the enemies of Israel – the Cannonites and their gods, specifically the god Ba’al.

The Cannonite Pantheon

Israel’s monotheism was unique in the ancient near east. The Cannonites worshiped a polytheistic pantheon of at least 23 gods. They believed their gods lived in the mountains of Lebanon, similar to how Israel believed the Lord dwelt in the Mountain of Zion.

The head of the Cannonite pantheon was El Elyon (literally god most high). El Elyon’s wife was Athirat (or Atirat)  which means “walker of the seas” or “she who treads on the seas”  To the Hebrews she was known as Asherah, with the title of  “Queen of Heaven”.  Athirat may be the same goddess as the Egyptian goddess Hathor and referred to in Jeremiah 7:44 when the Lord is angry with the women for baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven.  

Ba’al Hadad was the storm and rain god in the pantheon and known for lightning and thunder. He is called the “cloud rider” The Cannonites depended on Ba’al Hadad for their crops. Ba’al is literally the title master or Lord and could be used to refer to any of the Cannonite Gods. Only the priests were allowed to say his divine name “Hadad” so the people would refer to him as simply Ba’al.

The Cannonites feared Ba’al because he was the god of the storms. When the annual storms came they sacrificed to Ba’al. When the subsequent floods came the again sacrificed to appease Ba’al. The sacrifices included boiling goat kids in their mother’s milk which is why the Lord commanded Israel to not boil goats milk in (Exodus 23:19). Archaeological evidence also shows that the Cannonites sacrificed children.

Yam (or Yw, Yaw), also known as Judge Nahar, the god of the sea and rivers, and the god of chaos, is Ba’al’s enemy. Yam is sometimes pictured as a multi-headed dragon or Leviathan. Some think that the serpent in Genesis 3:16 and dragon in Revelation 12:9 is Yam.

Mot is the Cannonite god of death.

The Ba’al Epic

Papyrus in the Mediterranean doesn’t survive as well so many of the Cannonite myths have been lost, but some clay tablets found in the 1920s in the Tell of Ras Shamra near the modern city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria. On the tables are fragments of the Epic of Ba’al. El makes Yam the king of the gods, but Yam is an evil king. Athirat tries to trick Ba’al regarding the secret of lightning. Ba’al is angry with Yam, rallies the other gods and defeats Yam. El then battles Mot and goes to Mot’s underground  and defeats death. In the end Ba’al builds a victory palace made out of ceders from Mt. Lebanon and Sirion.

Psalm 29 (NIV)

The Hebrews knew all about the Cannonites and Ba’al worship. They know about lightning and thunder and what that meant to their enemies. They knew where the Cannonites thought Ba’al lived.  

 1 Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,
       ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Literally, the mighty ones is “sons of God”. New Living Translation renders it as “heavenly beings”.  To the Cannonites, the mighty ones were the lesser gods under El

 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
       worship the LORD in the splendor of his
holiness.

The Ba’al myth opens ascribing glory to Yam.

 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
       the God of glory thunders,
       the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.

This is a rebuttal of Ba’al. It isn’t Ba’al who controls the storms, but the Lord.

 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;
       the voice of the LORD is majestic.

 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
       the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

The Lord’s voice will destroy the victory palace that Ba’al built.

 6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
       Sirion
like a young wild ox.

Ba’al’s palace (Mt. Lebanon and Sirion) represents Ba’al. The Lord is so powerful their Ba’al will run away as weak as a calf or an easily frightened young wild ox. This also gives more background to Jesus’ statement that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.

 7 The voice of the LORD strikes
       with flashes of lightning.

Lightning doesn’t come from Ba’al, it comes from the Lord.

 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert;
       the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.

The desert of Kadesh is literally “Holy Desert”, it’s location is unknown.

 9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks
       and strips the forests bare.
       And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
       the LORD is enthroned as King forever.

The floods aren’t controlled by Yam or Ba’al but by the Lord.

 11 The LORD gives strength to his people;
       the LORD blesses his people with peace.

Sacrifice children to Ba’al won’t kep the Cannonites safe. The Lord’s people are strong because the Lord blesses them.

This song of praise elevates Yahweh above Ba’al and proclaims Yahweh’s glory.

Some commentaries claim that Psalm 29 is a parody of an Ugaritic (Cannonite) song. While Psalm 29 is definitely a polemic Psalm attacking Ba’al, it’s doubtful that Psalm 29 is that dependent on a Cannonite song and some scholars have made a strong case against a direct dependency on a Ugaritic song. While I found attributes of Ba’al that are ascribed the Lord in Psalm 29, I could not find any Ugaritic song that has exact parallels with Psalm 29.

It’s possible that Psalm 29 was song sung for battle against the Cannonites, or as a victory song. Maybe this is a song intended to win back Israelites who had left the worship of the Lord and were worshipping Ba’al. In any case, it’s a song about the power of the Lord over a Ba’al.

Application

Psalm 29 is more than an historical oddity.  Its polemic nature speaks boldly of the Lord’s ability to conquer a culture’s false gods and idols. In the face of storms and floods we are assured that it’s not the culture that’s in control, but the Lord. Our peace doesn’t come from what the culture says is the source of stability;  our strength and peace comes from the Lord.

 Bibliography

Dr. Dick Belcher, Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte, OT 512 Poets

NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Zondervan, 2003)

Walton, Matthews & Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Intervarsity Press, 2000)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 22, 2011 8:33 pm

    I was just in a Bible study where we went over this passage and the song, but we had a slightly different take on it and didn’t go into Ba’al. Very cool and interesting.

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