One of my long-term research projects is a book on the divine attributes. The operating methodological thesis of the project is that learning to speak rightly of God (theology) requires learning to read the Bible rightly (hermeneutics). Related to that project, below are some notes, summarized under six headings, that I’ve put together on how Book IV of the Psalter (Psalms 90-106) ascribes praise to God (Ps 96:7-8). I hope you find these observations instructive and helpful. (FYI: I’m scheduled to teach at DMin course on the divine attributes next summer at RTS Orlando. These notes are a preview of what we’ll be working on in the course.)
1. Human suffering and divine eternity: One fairly typical move in modern theology has been to take human suffering as an occasion for “historicizing” God, attempting to bring God down to our level by suggesting that he too suffers the travails of history on the path to realizing his sovereign purpose. Scripture typically takes a different approach. In various texts across the Old and New Testaments, biblical writers pair accounts of profound human suffering and lament with accounts of God’s unchanging eternity. Consider a couple of examples. Exodus 2 concludes with Israel crying out to the Lord as they suffer under Pharaoh’s oppression. Exodus 3 begins with the sign of the burning bush and proceeds to reveal the meaning of the divine name, “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14). Similarly, James 1 begins with instructions about how to respond to the various trials that befall us in this vale of tears. It then proceeds to ground those instructions in the immutable, impassible goodness of the Father of lights, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17-18). Book IV of the Psalter is one of the most extended examples of this pattern in all of Scripture. Following on the heels of Psalm 89, one of the most raw laments in the Psalms, Psalms 90-106 shift the readers’ gaze to God’s eternity to provide instruction, encouragement, and hope.
2. Divine eternity: Divine eternity is perhaps the most prominent theme of Psalms 90-106. Book IV begins with a declaration of divine eternity (90:2) and concludes with a call to eternal praise (106:48). According to these psalms, God’s eternity means that God has no beginning (90:2; 93:2) and no end (102:24, 26-27) and that he is unchanging (102:27: “you are the same”). Far from implying God’s distance from his frail and temporal creatures, the eternal God is the “dwelling place” of his people “in all generations” (90:1; 91:1). Moreover, as the Lord is “from everlasting to everlasting” (90:2) so the Lord’s goodness is “from everlasting to everlasting” (103:17; ): “his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (100:5). According to Book IV, God in his eternal, unchangeable being and goodness is the sure and certain anchor of Israel’s hope in the face of inscrutable suffering.
3. Creaturely, especially human, transience: In contrast to God’s eternal and unchanging being, Psalms 90-106 repeatedly portray creatures, especially human beings, as transient. The creatures which seem to us to possess the greatest stability and endurance are, relative to the eternal God, changeable, transient, ephemeral. The stable heavens (Prov 3:19; 8:27) “will wear out like a garment” and “pass away” (102:26). The mighty mountains, begotten by God in creation (90:2), “melt like wax before the Lord” (97:5). Before the eternal gaze of God, a thousand years “are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (90:4). What is true of God’s most stable and enduring creatures is even more true of human beings. Book IV repeatedly compares human beings to the most fragile features of creation. The lives of human beings are compared to “dust” (90:3; 103:14), “a dream” (90:5), and “grass” that “flourishes” in the morning and “fades and withers” in the evening (90:5-6; 92:7; 103:15-16). The lifespan of human beings expires “like a sigh” (90:9). The thoughts of the wicked are “but a breath” (94:11). The primary reason for human transience, according to these psalms, is God’s wrath and judgment in response to human sin and disobedience (90:7, 11; 95:7-11), a theme pondered at length in Psalm 106. According to Book IV of the Psalter, it is only because God’s goodness is eternal that his people and their children may hope to enjoy enduring satisfaction and eternal flourishing (90:14-17; 92:12-14; 102:28; 103:6-19; 105:8-11).
4. The Lord reigns: Another prominent theme in Psalms 90-106 is the evangelical announcement of divine kingship: “The Lord reigns” (93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). The Lord “established” his throne “of old” (93:2) “in the heavens” (103:19; 99:1); but he is worshiped “at his footstool” (99:5), i.e., in his holy temple “at his holy mountain” (99:9; 100:4). Thus, whatever may befall the earthly throne of David (see Psalm 89), these psalms assure us that God’s eternal kingdom will prevail. Book IV praises the Lord’s sovereign dominion over all creation in general (95:3-5) and over his covenant people in particular (95:6-7) and celebrates his sovereign acts of salvation and judgment (96:1-3, 10, 13; 97:2-5, 7-11; 98:1-3, 9). God’s sovereign acts of salvation and judgment are public, performed and proclaimed before all eyes and ears on the stage of history (96:1-3, 10; 97:6-8; 98:2-3); and they are cause for universal rejoicing (96:4, 11-12; 97:1, 11-12; 98:1, 4-8; 99:3, 5, 9; 100:1-2, 4; 103:1-5, 20-22; 104:1, 31-35; 105:1-4; 106:1, 48): “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (97:1). Because God’s sovereign acts of salvation and judgment carry an eschatological weight, they awaken praise by means of a “new song” (96:1; 98:1).
5. Remembrance, divine and human: “Remembrance,” another important theme in Book IV of the Psalter, is connected to several of the themes discussed above. Israel’s sin is rooted in her failure to remember the “wondrous works” of God and “the abundance of [his] steadfast love” that he displayed in the exodus (106:7). In spite of his people’s sin, God remembers their frailty and he remembers the covenant he made to the fathers (103:14; 105:8). In Psalm 106:4, the psalmist asks the Lord to remember him when he shows favor to his people. Psalm 105:5 calls God’s people to remember “the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered” (105:5). This call seems to summarize the purpose of Psalm 103-106 (103:2: “forget not all his benefits”), which recount God’s past faithfulness in creation and covenant history in order to inspire hope for the future revelation of God’s universal kingship and worship, a hope punctuated by the concluding doxology of Book IV: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the Lord!” (106:48).
6. Divine names: Psalms 90-106 ascribe to YHWH, the divine king, praise for his being, agency, virtues, and works. If Book IV of the Psalms is our guide in learning to think and speak rightly about God, then discourse on the divine attributes should be understood as axiological discourse: it is the praise of which God is supremely worthy, the praise that is “due” his name (96:8). Two lessons stand out in this regard. (1) According to these psalms, praise that is worthy of God acknowledges the simple and unmixed character of his virtues: “to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (92:15). The Lord is righteous and nothing but righteous (cf. 1 John 1:5). (2) Conversely, according to these psalms, speech that is unworthy of God can falter in a number of ways. For example, (i) it can fail to acknowledge that creaturely powers (e.g., knowledge) preexist preeminently in God since he is the cause of those creaturely powers (94:7-11). Or (ii) it can fail by representing God’s transcendent glory in creaturely form (106:20). It is interesting to note that Paul borrows the language of Psalms 94 and 106 in describing Gentile idolatry in Romans 1. (NB: There is something also to be said here about the way Augustine’s understanding of divine kingship as a “relative attribute” helps us appreciate Sigmund Mowinckel’s translation of “YHWH mlk” in Book IV of the Psalms, but that may be saved for another day…)