From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 68 is at once one of the most solemn and most exuberant psalms in the Psalter. It unites a key moment of communal celebration with very personal reflections and assurance about the character of God. It is a psalm filled with joy and encouragement.
Formally, this psalm is part of a great procession into the temple: “Your procession is seen, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary – the singers in front, the musicians last, between them virgins playing tambourines: Bless God in the great congregation,” (vv. 24-26a). The exact occasion of this triumphal procession cannot be determined. The psalm may have been written for use at more than one victory or even for some annual celebration. But it may first have functioned for a particular event.
This psalm may originally have been designed for the entrance of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (see 2 Samuel 6:13-19). While the ark is not mentioned explicitly in the psalm, there are allusions to its movement. The psalm begins with almost identical words to those used whenever the ark moved with Israel in the wilderness: “And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you,’” (Numbers 10:35). While Moses addressed God directly, Psalm 68 speaks indirectly, “God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him!” (v. 1) This psalm also alludes to the presence and leadership of God in the wilderness that the ark had represented: “O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, the Earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel,” (vv. 7-8).
Psalm 68 might also have been written to celebrate the great success of David over Hadadezer, king of Zobah. We may tend to forget this moment in Israel’s history, but it was very important at the time. This victory was a culmination of the general extension of David’s power: “And the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went,” (2 Samuel 8:6b). In his victory over Hadadezer, David captured one thousand chariots, (2 Samuel 8:4), as well as “gold shields” and “very much bronze,” (2 Samuel 8:7-8). Also, King Toi of Hamath honored David with “articles of silver and gold and bronze,” (2 Samuel 8:10). We are then told, “These also King David dedicated to the Lord, together with the silver and gold that he dedicated from all the nations he subdued, and from the spoil of Hadadezer,” (2 Samuel 8:11-12). Psalm 68 seems to reflect on several elements of this time of victory. First, the psalm celebrates God’s triumph over the kings of this world: “The kings of the armies – they flee, they flee! The women at home divide the spoil. When the almighty scatters kings there, let snow fall on Zalmon,” (vv. 12, 14). As this psalm seems to connect Israel’s present experience with its past journey through the wilderness, these verses may refer to both the kings defeated in the days of Moses and Joshua as well as the kings defeated in David’s day. Second, the psalm celebrates the vast number and power of the chariots of God in implicit contrast to the relatively few chariots of the enemies of God: “The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands,” (v. 17). Finally, the psalm may allude to the precious metals that David received from his enemies and vassals: “the wings of a dove covered with silver, its pinions with shimmering gold,” (v. 13b; the exact meaning of this verse is obscure, but the reference to silver and gold is clear). Also, the plunder taken from kings is explicitly mentioned here: “Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings shall bear gifts to you,” (v. 29). Whatever the precise original setting of the psalm, it gives the people of God words to express basic responses to the goodness of our God. First, this is a psalm of thankful remembrance for what God has done and eager anticipation of what he will do in Christ. This psalm remembers the presence of God and the victories that he gave to his people. As the New Testament shows us, this psalm is not only for the Israel that God brought through the wilderness into the Promised Land, but it also anticipates the new Israel saved by Jesus. As Paul wrote, Jesus is our victory: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere,” (2 Corinthians 2:14). Psalm 68 is not only fulfilled in Christ but is also the background and context that helps us understand the work of Christ fully.
Jesus is victorious as the final exodus of his people. Matthew links Israel’s first exodus to Jesus in quoting the words of the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son,” (Hosea 11:1b; Matthew 2:15b). Jesus’s death is also presented as his exodus at the time of his transfiguration: “And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure [exodus], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:30-31). His death and resurrection are his exodus – and ours.
Jesus is also victorious in his ascension. Paul alludes to Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 as a prophecy of the ascension of Christ. He changes the quotation to emphasize what Christ gives to his people in victory, rather than emphasizing, as the psalm does, the gifts given to Christ from his defeated enemies. Paul rightly saw that Jesus received gifts to give them away to his people. Paul alludes to this same thing in Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” David’s victories in the Old Testament pointed to the greater victory yet to come in Jesus.
Jesus is also victorious in bringing the full presence of God to his people as the final temple. Jesus’s incarnation was his tabernacling among us, (John 1:14). His body was the temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19). This psalm in profound ways draws the minds of Christians to thankful remembrance of the work of Christ, to whom Moses, David, and the temple all pointed.
Second, in addition to thankful remembrance, this psalm leads us on to joyful praise of our God. The call to praise rings clear: “Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the Lord; exult before him,” (v. 4). This call to praise is directed both to Israel – “Bless God in the great congregation,” (v. 26) – and to the whole world – “O kingdoms of the Earth, sing to God; sing praises to the Lord,” (v. 32).
This praise redounds to the great God who is victorious in the face of every enemy: “But God will strike the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of him who walks in his guilty ways,” (v. 21). But the triumphant military language of this psalm is not its only tone. It praises God also for his very intimate, personal care for his people. He is near to each one: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death,” (vv. 19-20). He cares especially for the weak and needy: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity. In your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy,” (vv. 5-6, 10b). And in Jesus, we see both the powerful, victorious King and the tender, loving Savior.
Finally, this psalm expresses the hopeful prayers of God’s people. As triumphant as this psalm is, it recognizes that God’s kingdom is not yet fully come. The prayer must still be raised that God would scatter his foes, (v. 1). But in addition to the destruction of the foes, (v. 21), the psalm contains a vision of the conversion of some of the enemies of God: “Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings shall bear gifts to you. Nobles shall come from Egypt; Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God,” (vv. 29, 31). Israel looked forward to a day when the nations would be united in serving God. As Christians, we join in this hopeful prayer as we see the missionary outreach of the church carrying the gospel of Christ around the world.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What makes Psalm 68 one of the most solemn and at the same time one of the most exuberant psalms in the Psalter? What role does the ark of the covenant play in this psalm?
- What three elements of David’s victory over Hadadezer, king of Zobah, does Psalm 68 reflect upon? Why is this significant?
- What are some examples of the people of God’s responding to the goodness of God in this psalm? In what ways do you offer thankful remembrance, joyful praise, and hopeful prayers to God?