Psalm 68 — God is Victorious

Defining the Gospel, Pt 2

“God shall arise!” are the opening words of Psalm 68. The psalm ends with the words, “Awesome is God from his sanctuary!”

In between, there is much to unpack about the way God establishes his rule in salvation through judgment. Most importantly, for our present purposes, the word euaggelizoo appears in the middle of the Psalm, and we need to understand the whole psalm to see the content of this good news.

Psalm 68 is located in Book 2 of the Psalms and is related to the throne of David. In particular, this psalm talks about the ascent of God into his sanctuary, the Temple on Mount Zion, after defeating his enemies.

God Establishes His Rule (vv. 1–6)

David begins with a promise of God’s victory. God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered, and his people shall be glad (cf. table 3). God brings salvation through judgment. This is reason to praise God. [1]

Table 3 — The contrasts in vv. 1–6

This is nothing other than God establishing his righteous rule. He is faithful to his covenant and his promises by protecting the weak and defeating the proud.

Although the psalm later speaks about God marching through the desert (see below), verse 4 could also be translated as: “Lift up a song to the one who rides on the clouds.” This is a polemical remark against Baal and presents God as the only true God and King of the world. [2]

The Ascent of God (vv. 7–14)

Then the Psalmist describes the “march” of God through the desert. Just as God, after saving his people from Egypt, ascended to Mount Sinai, so now, after defeating his enemies, he ascends to Mount Zion. [2] The Psalmist uses this analogy not by directly referring to the account in Exodus, but to the song of Deborah found in Judges 5 (cf. table 4).

Table 4 — The song of Deborah and Barak and its citation in the psalm.

The context of the song of Deborah is important to understand. At this time in Israel’s history, the people had no king, and they did what was evil in God’s own sight (Jdg 4:1). Because of their sins, God gave them into the hands of Jabin, the pagan king of Canaan, and his commander Sisera. Deborah was judge in Israel at that time and commanded Barak to take arms against Sisera because God promised to “give [Jabin] into [Barak’s] hand” (4:6; cf. v. 14).

And indeed, God “routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword” (v. 15). Sisera got away but was, famously, killed by Jael with a pin through his head. The writer concludes: “So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel.” Barak and his armies did the fighting, but God the winning. That is where we find the song of Deborah, and it it seems highly influential on Psalm 68 as a whole.

God has established his rule by defeating the (pagan) enemies. He has ascended to the throne, and has settled his majestic presence among his people.

However, there is of course the more profound reference within the reference, namely to the ascent of God to Mt Sinai after the defeat of the pagan Egyptians in the Red Sea. This involved fire, smoke, trembling, and thunder (cf. Exo 19:17–20). Furthermore, God sustained his people in the wilderness with rain (v. 8; cf. Ps 77:17) and brought them to their promised inheritance.

The Psalmist picks up all these themes and uses them to write about the events of his own time. God has established his rule by defeating the (pagan) enemies. He has ascended to the throne, and has settled his majestic presence among his people. Furthermore, God has restored the land and made it fit for his people to dwell in (v. 9–10; cf. Ps 107:33–38).

Then we encounter our ‘gospel’. The message is short but powerful: “The kings of the armies — they flee, they flee!” [3] God the King of Israel has defeated the pagan oppressors, just like he defeated the Egyptians and Pharaoh in Exodus, and like he defeated the Canaanites and Sishera in Judges. He has established his rule, and the enemy kings — they flee.

Bashan and the Forces of Darkness (vv. 15–18)

Then we move to a part of the psalm which is perplexing at first, but which becomes clear when we have some ancient context. Mountains in general were associated in the Ancient Near East with the abode of the gods and the divine council. In these verses, there is a confrontation between Mt Sinai and the ‘mountain of Bashan’. The latter probably refers to Mt Hermon. Bashan literally meant ‘the place of the serpent.’ This could be a conceptual link to the serpent of Genesis 3, the famous rebellious angel who became lord of the dead. Bashan was regarded as the entrance to the realm of the dead. Furthermore, Mt Hermon was regarded in Jewish tradition as the place where the rebellious angels of Genesis 6 descended. All in all, Bashan and Mt Hermon were associated with demonic forces and death. [4]

Bashan/Hermon is called the “mountain of God” (v. 15), but it might be better to understand it as the “mountain of the gods” (Heb.: elohim) because it is firmly opposed to the mountain of God, Sinai: Bashan hates Sinai because God chose Sinai as his dwelling place (this reference might also include Mt Zion). The Psalmist then describes how God takes up his arms against Bashan with his thousands of angels. As Heiser says, “Yahweh desired ‘Mount Bashan’ as his own — that is, he wanted to defeat the forces of darkness and claim their customary abode as his own.” [5]

This is spiritual warfare, and God is clearly victorious. He conquers demons, he conquers death, and ascends to his throne. According to Michael Heiser, “in the ancient world the conqueror would parade the captives and demand tribute for himself. (…) [B]ooty was also distributed after a conquest.” [6] This is what is happening in verse 18.

Defeat of Enemies (vv. 19–23)

Our analysis of Bashan and God’s victory over pagan enemies, demons and death is confirmed in the next section. God delivers his people from death. Furthermore, his enemies cannot escape him, even if they have died. He will get them back from the realm of the dead (here referred to as Bashan and the depths of the sea) and let his people humiliate them.

The Procession of God (vv. 24–31)

Then we come to the “procession” of God “into the sanctuary” (v. 24). The people sing, they make music, and all the princes of the tribes join the throng. Kings are bringing gifts to him, even from Cush and Egypt. God’s rule is recognized from over all the earth.

Final Call to Praise (vv. 32–35)

Moreover, God receives praise from all the nations of the earth. He is the only true God, the Creator of all the earth, and he is the God of Israel. He has established his royal presence in the Temple at Jerusalem, and he gives power and strength to his people.

Conclusion

This Psalm is strongly monotheistic. YHWH is the only God, the Creator, the King of the whole world. Everyone will bow his knee before him, recognize his rule and bring tribute to him. He is faithful to his promises, saving his people and establishing his Kingdom. He defeats the enemies, political and spiritual, and delivers his people from death. That constitutes the Psalmist’s royal message of victory. And the kings? They flee.

Endnotes

[1] This is similar to Isaiah 40, which we will come back to later in another article: ‘Behold, YHWH God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him’ (Isa 40:10). For this theme in general, see Jim Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.

[2] For the theme of Temple/sanctuary connected to Mt Sinai and Mt Zion, see G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Mission of God.

[3] Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm, 211 (e-book version): “In the Ugaritic texts, the god Baal is called ‘the one who rides the clouds.’ The description became an official title of Baal, whom the entire ancient Near Eastern world considered a deity of rank. (…) Old Testament writers were quite familiar with Baal. Baal was the main source of consternation about Israesl’s propensity toward idolatry. In an effort to make the point that Yahweh, the God of Israel, deserved worship instead of Baal, the biblical writers occasionally pilfered this stock description of Baal as ‘cloud rider’ and assigned it to Yahweh. (…) The literary tactic made a theological statement. The effect was to ‘displace’ or snub Baal and hold up Yahweh as the deity who legitimately rode through the heavens surverying and governing the world.”

[3] The LXX has: “The king of the hosts of the beloved, of the beloved.” This most likely refers to the Davidic king, who is called ‘beloved’ in Ps. 38:20; 45:1; 60:5; 108:6. Note also that Solomon was called ‘Jedidiah’, meaning ‘beloved of YHWH’, by God in 2 Sam. 12:25.

The meaning of the ‘gospel’ does not change essentially. Now it is more an announcement of the arrival of God at the battle scene, similar to Isa. 40:9–10.

[4] Heiser, Unseen Realm, 309.

[5] Idem, 170: “In the Ugaritic language, the location (…) was pronounced and spelled Bathan. The linguistic note is intriguing since Bashan/Bathan both also mean ‘serpent,’ so that the region of Bashan was ‘the place of the serpent.’”

243: “[Bashan] was the Old Testament version of the gates of hell, the gateway to the underworld realm of the dead. It was known as ‘the place of the serpent’ outside the Bible. It’s associated with Mount Hermon, the place where Jews believed the rebellious sons of God from Genesis 6:1–4 descended. Simply put, if you wanted to conjure up images of the demonic and death, you’d refer to Bashan.”

[6] Idem, 246.

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