As we saw previously, there is an amazing story behind the inspired songs of Psalms 46, 47 and 48. And what a story it was! Listen as Bible teacher John Phillips tells it.
The massive armies of Assyria had deployed themselves around Jerusalem. The watchers on the city walls could see nothing but a vast sea of troops and tents as far as the eye could reach. The imperial standards of the Assyrian emperor flew in the breeze as the battering rams and slings, the scaling ladders, and all the machinery of war was assembled before the gates. Fierce-faced, bearded men were burnishing their shields and sharpening their swords for the onslaught, for the success they were sure would be theirs. The time for talking, parleying, and propaganda was over. Hezekiah had refused to listen; he had ignored all promises of generous treatment, of honourable terms, of peaceful resettlement. So tomorrow the assault would begin: the battering rams would pound away at the gates of Jerusalem, the engines of war would hurl great boulders into the city, the archers would blacken the sky with their arrows, and the sappers would begin to undermine the walls. If the siege was stubborn, rifle Assyrians would call on famine and pestilence to be their allies within the city gates. Then they would sack the city, ravish the women, massacre the men, and seize the spoil.
The evening shadows deepened into dusk and campfires glowed as the confident Assyrian commandos set up their watch posts, placed their sentries, and prepared for a good night’s rest before beginning the morrow’s arduous tasks of war.
From that sleep they never awoke! That night the angel of the Lord visited the Assyrian camp. He smote the sentries where they stood, smote the generals in their tents, smote the officers as they pored over their last-minute plans for assault, and smote rank and file of the army as they slept. Silently he came, silently he went, and behind him he left a wide swath of death. There were some 185,000 stiffening corpses when his work was done. A swift-working pestilence was the weapon he used.
The watchers on the walls had a sleepless night, pacing up and down, their eyes peeled for a surprise attack. Hezekiah and Isaiah doubtless spent the night praying as well as watching. As the dawn broke they made their rounds, encouraged their men, and sought to inspire trust in God, not just in their weapons of war and their massive walls. They looked out over the Assyrian camp as the sun hooded the hills with light. Strange—there was no move, no sound of the trumpet, no call to arms, nothing! They watched as the sun rose higher. Nothing! Then they saw carrion birds circling round the camp of the foe. Those birds sensed death.
Obviously something had happened in the enemy ranks. Then spies brought the word the foe was no more, the camp was full of corpses, the war was over without an arrow being fired. We can imagine that the Hebrews were delirious with delight. History had known nothing like it. It was a defeat to the pride and might of Sennacherib, a defeat from which he would never recover. Never again would Assyrian armies tramp across Judean hills. Hezekiah went quietly to his room, looked over his previous psalm—the psalm in which he had sung of the refuge, the river and the ruler, written when all seemed as black as could be, and he took his pen to write its sequel, Psalm 47.
If Psalm 46 celebrates the truth that Yahweh is King over the church (Mount Zion) then Psalm 47 celebrates that He is King over all the nations. As A. F. Kirkpatrick states it, “It is rightly regarded as a Messianic Psalm, inasmuch as it looks forward to the submission of all the nations of the world to Jehovah as their King.”
Among other things, this psalm teaches just how big the kingdom of God really is: It is universal.
What was prophesied here—the accession of the King to His universal throne—is a reality in our day; in fact, it became a reality at the ascension of Christ and for that reason this psalm has traditionally been used throughout church history on Ascension Day.
But we should note that this psalm is also a prophecy of a still greater day to come; one that is increasingly coming to pass: the full and final victory when the Lord Jesus will be highly exalted by all to the glory of God (see Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Corinthians 15:21ff). It is for this reason that I believe that all (orthodox) eschatological schools will claim this as a “millennial” psalm.
As we study this psalm together may we be encouraged that one day there will be a full final world outreach celebration. In fact, it will be an eternal one! So be encouraged that the gospel will prevail. The church will be built. The decreed kingdom will come but one day the commanded kingdom will be fully here. Don’t be discouraged or dismayed by what appears to be setbacks, for the Lord God reigns. And this will one day be experienced in all of its glory. And so let us be encouraged by the King of the kingdom.
Celebrate the Activity of the King
There are only two major sections to this psalm, but smaller divisions can be made within these sections. The first section is vv. 1-4.
The Conduct to Applaud
The psalmist (whom I believe was either Isaiah or Hezekiah), begins by calling us to an applause of worship: “O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph” (v. 1).
The “clap” means precisely what we think it would mean: to applaud. However, there is a definite context to this. I have sometimes seen church services on television where the preacher has said something and then called for a response from the congregation in the form of “giving the Lord a hand.” The congregation bursts immediately into rapturous applause, as if the Lord needs affirmation from an applauding congregation. That is not the type of applause that is being called for here.
In ancient times, kings were saluted at their accession with clapping of hands (2 Kings 11:12) and shouting (1 Samuel 10:24). Thus, the call here is a summons to salute Jehovah as King. Significantly, the summons is issued to “all ye people.” It is not only to “Mount Zion” or to “all Israel,” but to “all ye people.” This is a term the encompasses not only God’s chosen nation but all the nations of the earth. Writes Leupold, “The writer speaks in terms of what the whole world may well think as a result of the news of the event involved. This psalm makes it obvious that the one who displayed such power in one instance is none other than the King of all the earth, and as such He should be praised.”
We should also note that those who clap in obedience to this verse must necessarily have their hands empty. The call to empty hands was sent forth in 46:10 where the writer cried, “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” We saw in our study of that psalm that this is not, as if often thought, an exhortation to contemplation, but a command to lay down our weapons and come in humble submission to the God who will be exalted among the heathen. Thus, we must lay down the sword before we lift up our voice. Submission must precede our shouts of joy; our war shout must become a worshipful song.
Because the summons to applause is sent to “all peoples,” it necessarily follows that this message is to be carried around the globe. And so it is with the good news, the gospel. It is the responsibility of the church to call the nations to be still and know that Yahweh is God. We are called to be heralds of the gospel, going before the King and crying aloud to the nations the good news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.
The Character to Appreciate
The nations have been commanded to applaud the accession of King Yahweh, but now the reason is given that such applause is fitting: “For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth” (v. 2).
Phillips again helps us to understand the historical picture behind this verse: “Rabshakeh, the Assyrian propagandist, had belittled Him. He had stood just beyond the reach of an arrow’s flight and had mocked the Hebrew God in the Hebrew tongue. Rabshakeh’s corpse was now stiffening on the hill, evidence of how truly terrible was the God he had mocked.”
The word “terrible” means “awe-inspiring” or “terrifying.” He is terrifying because He is the Lord Most High. He is awe-inspiring in His power and sovereignty. James Montgomery Boice helps us to understand something of the reason that God is “terrible”:
In 1934 the great British historian Arnold Toynbee began a study of world history that occupied him until 1961 and eventually filled twelve large volumes. In this massive work Toynbee isolated thirty-four distinct civilizations, including thirteen “independent” civilizations, fifteen “satellite” civilizations, and six “abortive” civilizations. Each of these came upon the pages of history for a time and then passed away. Egypt was once a great world power, but it is weak today. Babylon was mighty, but its territory has been divided, and even the discovery of great stores of oil in that area of the world has not restored it or the surrounding nations to a dominant position on the world stage. Greece and Rome, once wonders of mankind, have fallen. The Soviet Union fell apart. Even the United States of America, though now at the very pinnacle of world power, is in decline and will not escape the inexorable law of history, namely, that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Prov. 14:34).
When they are strong and victorious nations fondly suppose that they control their own destinies. Yet it is not they but God who is “King over all the earth.” Moreover, the God who is King requires righteousness. So when the nations depart from his ways and arrogantly exalt themselves, God brings them down.
The book of Daniel records two contrasting approaches to this. King Nebuchadnezzar was a man who believed that he was great, that he was the only sovereign, until God humbled him. He learned his lesson, and came to worship the one true God. His grandson, Belshazzar, was proud of heart just like his grandfather, but when he (quite literally) saw the writing on the wall, he did not humble himself as Nebuchadnezzar had done. We read of these attitudes in the words of Daniel himself, who rebuked Belshazzar for his pride on the very night that he was killed by the Medo-Persian forces:
O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: and for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down. But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: and he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will. And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this; but hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified.
And so we conclude that Yahweh is “awesome indeed! The kingdoms of this world rise and fall, but over them all, determining their course and end, stands the ‘Most High God,’ the God of all history” (Boice). Sennacherib, the besieging king of Assyria whose defeat inspired the psalm we are studying, believed that he was “the great king” (2 Kings 18:19, 28). He found out all too painfully that he was not as great as he in fact believed himself to be. The true great King, the God of Israel, would “tolerate no competition” (Van Gemeren) and Sennacherib soon found this out.
It must be our conviction that God is truly “terrible,” “awe-inspiring.” We must be done with our Sunday school understanding of God; that understanding that sees God as sufficient for our childish problems, but too weak to have an impact in “grown up” life. We must see him as “King over all the earth.” This must be our growing conviction. To the degree that we appreciate God, to that degree we will applaud Him.
The question now comes as to how we practically do this. How, when and where do we make this acclamation of the great God? The answer is simply in everyday circumstances. We must be conscious of God’s greatness in every area of our lives. Even in the seemingly most mundane of circumstances we must talk of his wonderful works and give all glory to Him alone.
The Conquest to Acknowledge
The psalmist next moves onto the subject of the conquest that we must acknowledge. These verses are translated in different tenses in different translations. The KJV favours the future tense: “He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet. He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob, whom he loved” (vv. 3-4). The NKJV similarly adopts the future tense, whilst the ESV and NIV favour the past tense. The NASB chooses to translate into the present tense. Why does this difference of opinion exist?
I am no Hebrew scholar, but I am told that the Hebrew perfect tense—in which this verse is originally written—is a bit nondescript. That is, there is no straightforward rule by which to determine whether the tense should be past, present or future when translated into English. But the differences of translation in this instance are in fact helpful, for all three tenses capture the essence of the passage: What God had done in the past (Joshua 6-12) and what God had just done in the present (Sennacherib, etc.) was a promise of what God would do in the future (our day and beyond). That is, He will continue to conquer!
God has a history of ruling and conquering the nations. And His conquest through the church is in the end a blessing to the world! “Gentiles everywhere ought to praise the Lord for what He did in behalf of Israel,” notes Leupold. The church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The community around us will most certainly not like us for this all the time; nevertheless, salt and light are good!
Importantly, we should note that it is through His Word that God subdues nations. In fact, the word “subdue” here literally means “to speak to,” and thus emphasises the role of God’s Word in bringing the nations under His rule. The text tells us that God will subdue the nations “under our feet.” Of course, it is because we are under Christ’s feet that the nations will be subdued under ours. The Old Testament text most frequently quoted in the New Testament makes the point: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Psalm 110:1). In light of the certainty of the nations being subdued under Christ, let us be encouraged to proclaim His Kingship.
The text further refers those “whom he loved” (cf. Deuteronomy 4:37; Malachi 1:1-2) and speaks of Israel’s “inheritance” (a word used frequently in the Bible to speak of the Promised Land) as “the excellency [or ‘pride’] of Jacob.” This does not suggest that the land was a stumbling block in some way to Israel; instead, the land was to be her pride and joy, because it was a testimony to God’s grace. As the Israelites reflected on God’s gift of the Promised Land to them, it was to have a humbling effect. The meek would indeed inherit the earth.
As the church of Jesus Christ, we have the privilege of inheriting the promises given to Israel. Our land, however, is not a physical plot of ground. Instead, our “land” is the earth. The earth belongs to Christ and therefore to those who are Christ’s. And it is for this reason—for His glory—that we are called to be ambassadors for the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
In sum, we might say that this first section calls us to applaud Yahweh’s power, to appreciate His person and to appropriate His promises.
Consider the Authority of the King
The second and final section of the psalm is a call to consider the authority of the King. As with the previous section, this one can be divided into several major sections.
Consider His Ascension
We noted above that this psalm has often been used by the church as an ascension psalm. The reason for this is v. 5, which reads, “God is gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.” The term “gone up” is the one that brings to mind the concept of ascension. But the question is, precisely what did the author mean by this. Several suggestions have been set forth.
First, it is possible that the picture here is of the ark of the covenant coming to the temple. Second, it could speak of the Shekinah glory cloud that guided Israel in the wilderness and in the early sojourn in Canaan. Third, it is conceivably a reference to Christ’s ascension after His earthly ministry. Whatever the precise historical or prophetic context, the picture is quite clear: that of an enthroned King, who has been given all authority (cf. Matthew 28:18-20).
If v. 1 celebrates the victory that God came down to win; v. 5 pictures Him returning with the spoils of victory. No doubt the psalmist had in mind an “ascension” that was understandable in his own historical context (see possibilities stated above). But whatever the precisely historical ascension he had in mind, it was but a picture of a greater victory to come. As Leupold puts it, “He who came down to earth in Israel’s day, won a victory, and returned triumphantly to His throne made a similar outstanding and dramatic return on high after a still greater victory.” The New Testament sets forth this greater victory in these terms:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Celebrate with Acclamation
The only rational response from those who consider the ascension of the King is to acclaim His glory. “Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our God, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding” (vv. 6-7).
Notice that these praises are to be sung “with understanding” or “with edification.” We do not sing empty words to rile up our emotions. We sing praises to a God whom we know for the mutual edification of ourselves and others.
Glory! Glory! is what the angels sing,
And I expect to help them make the courts of heaven ring:
But when I sing redemption’s story they must fold their wings,
For angels never knew the joy that our salvation brings.
But can we legitimately proclaim that Yahweh is King of all the earth? After all, look at the rise of false of religion, militant atheism, a muddled and compromising Christianity! Surely He cannot truly be considered King if all these types of rebellion against His authority continue to exist? Or can He?
The answer to this objection is stated beautifully in Psalm 2.
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.
Boice explains the point wonderfully: “Psalm 2 reminds us that there are two kinds of compliance with the just reign of Jesus Christ. There is a willing, joyful compliance on the one hand, but there is also an unwilling, forced compliance on the other. Of course at the present time the world’s peoples may not all acknowledge God’s rule, but he is their ruler nonetheless. He sets up kings and he dethrones them. This is one thing that is meant whenever the Bible talks about God’s Kingdom.”
This is a truth that the church needs to grasp. God’s rule, through Christ, is real! Let us be careful of criticising it. Yet at the same time, let us be careful to continue to pray that His commanded will be done on earth so that the kingdom of heaven will be realised in all of its fullness. As the hymnist wrote, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations that will turn their hearts to the right!” May our evangelism be used to usher in the fullness of the glorious kingdom!
Continue with Assurance
In light of the above, let us be transparent: It often seems like things aren’t going too well! It seems as if God’s plan is falling to pieces. Even if we acknowledge His rule de facto, the reality is that rebellion is rife. But be calm; it is all according to plan! There are at least two assurances here.
The Character of the Throne of God
God is transcendently different and thus He rules differently. And He rules according to His perfect character. “God reigneth over the heathen: God sitteth upon the throne of His holiness” (v. 8).
The ways of God often perplex us. Consider the rampant criticism of Christianity because of the blood that has been shed in the name of God. And let’s not even speak of that which is unfairly claimed to be done in God’s name. Let us think for a moment of the bloodshed that God commanded in the Old Testament. In Egypt God slew hundreds of firstborn children whose parents would not submit to His Word. Think of the later command for the Jews to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan. Or consider, in the immediate context of this psalm, the 185,000 whom God destroyed in a single night. The United Nations would be beside themselves with criticism of such acts! How do we respond?
Let us realise first that it is not our job to defend God. Let us further trust Him, even when we cannot trace Him. How often does God work in ways that we cannot understand!
I can think of the time when a missionary from our church prepared for months to enter a hostile land with the gospel. Things went so well for so long. He met all the right people who pulled all the right strings. Money was raised for him to build a house. But at the last minute, just when he and his family had finally made the initial move, God closed the door and brought them back to South Africa. Why did He work in such a way? I do not know, but I have learned to trust Him even when I cannot necessarily understand Him.
Doubtless, you can point to similar perplexing providences in your life. They may not be as “dramatic” as the illustration above, but no doubt there are things that God has allowed (or not allowed) that you have found confusing. What is your response in such times? Do you throw your hands up in despair and renounce your faith, or do you quietly trust God and continue faithfully serving Him, knowing that He knows what is best?
The simple truth is that God is holy, and that is all we need to know! Nothing He ever does—regardless of how perplexing we find it—will ever contradict His holiness, and therein we find our encouragement.
The Covenant of the Triune God
Finally, the psalmist reminds us that God is faithful to His covenant: “The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham: for the shields of the earth belong unto God: he is greatly exalted” (v. 9).
The KJV does not offer the best translation of this verse. The word “even” is perhaps bettered rendered in this context as “as.” Thus, “the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham.” This is wonderful because, as we saw above, “the people” is a reference to the nations of the world. Thus, the promise is that the nations of the world, which so often seem to stand in opposition to Yahweh, will in fact be gathered as the very people of Yahweh! This, of course, is a promise in perfect keeping with that made to Abraham: that he (and his seed) would be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3).
For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Though it is not always easy to see, the church is in good shape! The Lord is building her! And He is doing so from amongst the nations; yes, amongst those who even at this moment are His enemies. But be encouraged by the extent of His reach (“the princes of the people” and “the shields of the earth” are His!) for He is being, and will be, exalted. Now that is a story to tell to the nations!
There is no better way to conclude this study than with the words of James Montgomery Boice:
A number of years ago someone asked me whether the kingdom of God is past, present, or future. The questioner had in mind the debate that once raged in scholarly circles among such people as C. H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, and Albert Schweitzer. I replied that the answer is far bigger than the question.
It is impossible to describe the kingdom of God as being merely past, merely present, or merely future. It is all of those and more, for it is also internal and external. It involves willing compliance as well as forced compliance. This is because the kingdom of God is God’s rule, and God rules everywhere and all things. The only meaningful question is, Are you a member of that kingdom? Are you a part of it? Am I?
There is only one way to become a willing part of God’s kingdom, and that is by personal surrender to the claims of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God and Savior of his people. It is to bow before him, for he is the only true “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).
In this age God is building his kingdom by calling out a people to himself. They are from every imaginable people, nation, condition in life, and race—Americans and Africans and African Americans; tribal people, street people, and sophisticated urban dwellers; working men and men without work; judges and those who have been judged; all types of people. And he is turning them into men and women in whom the kingdom of Jesus Christ is present and in whom his loving, winsome, and upright character can be seen. There is nothing in life more important or more wonderful than belonging to that kingdom.