May 8, 2005
The Lord Reigns Over Us
Psalm 47

Our calendars are full of designated days that help us honor certain people and events. There are days set aside to remember important people of the past—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. Other days encourage us to pay particular attention to special people in our own lives—National Secretary’s Day, Nurse’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, and, of course, Mother’s Day. And there are still other days on which we celebrate noteworthy events—Memorial Day and Independence Day, for example. The Church calendar likewise includes various special days on which we remember and honor certain people and events, including such well-known days as Christmas and Easter as well as lesser known days—at least for some of us—like All Saints Day and Pentecost Sunday. Today, according to the Church Calendar, is Ascension Sunday. On this day, Christians all over the world join together to celebrate this transforming fact: Jesus Christ, who took on flesh and died on our behalf, not only rose again from the dead, but has ascended into heaven where he now rules and reigns over all the world!

It is, as I’ve said, a transforming—indeed liberating—thought. But it is not a new one! At least not entirely. Hundreds of years before the ascension of our Lord to his heavenly throne, the people in the Old Testament increasingly described God using royal or kingly language. In fact, there is at least a good possibility, although I admittedly can not prove it for certain, that the Israelites designated a day each year for the primary purpose of honoring God as their king. During this annual “enthronement” festival, the people sang songs, recited prayers, and reenacted various dramas, including one in which God ascended to his heavenly throne. On such a moving occasion, Psalm 47 surely played a major role in the liturgy.

Picture, first of all, the scene. People everywhere. Ushers carrying in chairs to accommodate the overflow crowds at the Temple. Worship leaders orchestrating the events. You can almost feel the energy in the air. “Clap your hands,” the Psalm begins. “Shout to God with loud—loud!—songs of joy.” And then, just a few lines later, the second stanza of the Psalm picks up precisely the same theme. Four times in rapid succession, the congregation is encouraged to let loose with praise: “Sing praises, sing praises, sing praises, sing praises.” Whatever words we might use to describe the mood of Psalm 47, sedate, mundane, reserved, and casual do not come to mind! Or were we to make a painting of the scene here, we would have little use for brown, gray, or black. Psalm 47, we immediately notice, envisions a festive and celebratory experience.

Worship, as I’ve said many times before, involves far more than emotional outbursts. Worship also engages the mind, ushers us into the mysterious and often reduces us to a reverent and overwhelming silence. But Psalm 47 reminds us that there is a place—a rightful place—for exuberance and demonstrative passion. A place for setting aside our various inhibitions and reservations in order to, well, celebrate. We celebrate promotions at work and high grades at school. We risk our dignity over touchdowns and homeruns. We gush over grandchildren and dance when she finally says “I do.” Any number of experiences and accomplishments in life move us to rejoice—and to say so! Why must our faith be any different? Some texts in the Bible call to mind inspiring places like Pikes Peak or the Grand Canyon. Some conjure up images of contemplative settings like Iona or St. George’s Monastery in the middle of the Judean wilderness. But Psalm 47? Frankly, there is a bit of Madison Square Garden going on here! People are getting out of hand. They are celebrating.

And what are they celebrating about? They are, as I said, rejoicing that God is in fact their king. In a scene apparently derived from David’s now famous dancing act when the Ark of the Covenant was brought back into Jerusalem, the Psalmist declares that “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.” Or recall the festive occasion when Solomon officially became king over Israel (1 Kings 1:39-40). Now, in the same way that the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, so the congregation declares: “God sits on his holy throne.”

But the people celebrate with such enthusiasm, not simply because God is king, but because of the type of king that he is. He is no corrupt monarch—you won’t find God on Parade Magazine’s list of the world’s 10 worst dictators. God is no Omar al-Bashir, who has uprooted over 2 million people and butchered untold thousands in the Sudan. God is no Crown Prince Abdullah, who has ruled Saudi Arabia with an iron fist for the last ten years. God is no Robert Mugabe, who dashed his peoples’ hope and has run Zimbabwe into the ground in recent years—the average life expectancy there is 33 years! God, for that matter, is not even a Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, or George W. Bush. He is the Lord, the Most High, and no one can compare to him. God is awesome, inspiring life-changing respect (v. 2). He is powerful, rescuing those who follow him (v. 3). And he is gracious, providing a wonderful heritage—the land of Canaan—for those whom he loves (v. 4). God is king, to be sure, but he is a genuinely wonderful king at that.

Even this, however, fails to explain fully the reasons behind such a celebration. God, Psalm 47 highlights again and again, is not only a wonderful king who reigns over his people, but he is the king—period. It is a striking conviction that the Psalmist clearly shares with many of Israel’s great prophets. In a time when people typically worshiped local deities—gods who exercised authority and control only over specific, geographically defined areas—both the prophets and now the Psalmist celebrate the realization that God is king, not just over Jerusalem or the whole of Israel, but over the entire world. “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,” Isaiah announced. It is he “who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (40:21-23). In the Psalmist’s words, he is “a great king over all the earth.” “God is king over the nations,” and the princes of the people—people from all over the earth—will one day gather before him. The throne upon which the Lord sits is not one among many. Even the shields of the earth—the very resources in which earthly people so often place their confidence—belong to him. God is not simply a king. God is the king!

It is, once again, a stirring thought, one capable of inspiring these ancient people into a rather exuberant and feisty congregation—clapping, shouting, singing. But if the significance of this theme—the Lord ruling over us as a great and wonderful king—begins to grip us, we won’t for long wonder why they experienced such excitement. If God is in fact the king over all the earth, and if he reigns over us, then the implications are enormous. It means that he will ultimately guard our welfare and give us victory over those foes and forces that seek our destruction, just as he did for this enthusiastic congregation hundreds of years ago. It means that he will extend to us a bright and promising heritage, not the land of Canaan for a season, but all of heaven for ever and ever. And it means that we no longer need to fear even the worst that the world has to throw at us. While we never want to use the authority of God over the earth as an excuse for disengaging from contemporary issues and problems, neither do we want to accept the climate of “fear” that is often handed to us, even by our current leaders. The power of Parade’s 10 worst dictators combined is but a juice glass of water in the Atlantic compared to God’s.

“God,” Psalm 47 assures us, “has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.” So too, according to Luke 24, Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven, where he sits in power at the right hand of God the Father. What do we have to worry about? What concerns can overwhelm us? God is King, ruling and reigning. If that doesn’t get your adrenalin pumping, then—please forgive me—I simply don’t know what will.