Psalm 113: The LORD in action in God’s cosmos.

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord,
    praise the name of the Lord!

Blessed be the name of the Lord
    from this time forth and forevermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised!

The Lord is high above all nations,
    and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
    making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 114 is unusual in this section of the book of the psalms of Israel as it does not feature the phrase, ‘Praise the LORD’ either at its beginning or end. Instead, we are arrested in verse 7 by ‘Tremble, O earth!’ Psalm 113 is unusual because it is both topped and tailed with ‘Praise the LORD.’ The programme of this psalm is cosmic in scale, and yet its scope also reaches down to the local, even lowest level of concern. By which I mean, the locality is that of God, and also the concerns are God’s concerns- which the psalm reveals to us here.

And we are not addressed from afar, in an overly formal or aloof message from God’s private office, mediated through a series of faceless bureaucrats. That’s not at all how this works.

In verse 1, ‘Hallelu Yah,’ the reader is immediately included- as we read, it is we who utter the revelation.

In verse 1b, the utterance itself is broadened to include all peoples, in principle, if we will admit to being ‘servants of the LORD’. And at once, we all can be brought into a relationship of familiarity with God, for together we may ‘praise the name of the LORD’!

As we continue to read and proclaim and include other human creatures in this blessed invitation and declaration, we find that all of time is included; not merely this present moment but all time following. ‘Both now and forevermore’ as the NIV puts it.

We won’t be surprised to find that all possible boundaries are brought under the covering of God’s sovereign reach and influence. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. Quite plainly, that’s everywhere. These are the times and places in which we live, and in which we proclaim the praise of God, whose Name is knowable to us- can be known by each of us.

All people and peoples. All times. All places.

Some criticise the biblical message for being too human-centred. ‘Its not really about God, its about you.’ Others worry that the way God is portrayed in the bible is overly anthropomorphised, such as the Jewish commentator Onkelos. ‘God in your own image!’ In sum, the product of arrogant God-botherers, full of hubris. Both criticisms betray an inadequate grasp of the worldview of the scripture, and the revelation this offers to us of a biblical worldview that is a meaningful description of the view God wants us to have of God, or ourselves, and of our relationship with God in God’s cosmos. God made us for His love, and so quite reasonably wants us to know Him- so He must be knowable in human terms. This desire of God to be known divinely sanitises the use of ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in such sentences in what must be human language. And our knowing is also sanitised so it is more personal rather than merely abstract if our knowing is expressed in praise and appreciation, not overly-objectified ‘knowing about’. And all this with reverence.

Genesis told us that God placed the lights in the sky as signs- but signs must be interpreted, and some interpretations are more light-giving than others.

The position of the sun in the sky changes gradually throughout the year, giving the sequence of the ‘signs’ of the seasons. Photographer Sam Cornwell placed a “matrix” of 27 Solarcan cameras in a frame overlooking Williestruther Loch in the Scottish Borders, with all 27 exposures were started at the same time. Following the 2018 winter solstice Cornwell then visited the site once a week until the 2019 summer solstice, retrieving one of the cameras from the matrix (and ending that camera’s exposure) each time. This is one of the processed composite images showing the seasonal changes collated together.

Verse 4 grandly proclaims that God, the LORD, is mightily exalted over all this- all the nations of people, in all times and places. All is summed up in this manner: ‘over all the nations… [and] above the heavens.’

As we read, we are addressed by the singular rhetorical question of the whole of the book of Psalms- it only occurs in such a direct form here in Psalm 113,

Who is like the Lord our God, the One…?

Surely, there are other instances where the same general sentiment is expressed, but in Ps 113:5 the question itself is brought to front and centre of our attention – the ultimate challenge, in the most serious philosophical terms. And yet even here, the question is not about God alone, as Godself, considered independently. The question ‘Who is like God?’ is asked with reference to God’s own recognised servants- the ones He is pleased to call, ‘the servants of the LORD.’ Thus: Who is like the Lord OUR God?!

The ancients had their various ways of depicting the imagined relationship between divinities and we earthlings. Atlas or Hercules/Herakles standing mightily and manfully, concentrating furiously to maintain the balance of the globe above his shoulders, was the way the Greeks and Romans did it. The Jews would concur: truly God upholds the world in all respects, though the God of the Psalmists was not about to loose His footing in a momentary lapse of concentration. In this psalm, even that recognition does not do justice to the full-orbed reality: the Lord is above even more than He is sustaining all from below or within. Yet this aboveness is not described as being at a great remove from creation, from earth or creatures. God is bot above and transcendentally beyond and all-at-once nearby. Recalling the Babel incident, our God enthroned is also our God who stoops down to look (NIV) on everything and especially on us. This is not the looking of the dispassionate scientist, but the attentive seeing of the Creator Father.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral from behind Atlas. The seven-ton, 15-foot tall cast bronze statue of the colossal Titan Atlas has stood at the 630 Fifth Avenue main entrance frontcourt to Rockefeller Plaza since it was installed in January, 1937.

Artists in the Christian tradition have themselves struggled and, dare I assert, failed to do justice to these greater truths. Here is an eighteenth century example in the Renaissance-Baroque tradition, depicting the Triune God gazing down on the earthly landscape and, simultaneously, God the Father has a guiding hand on an orb (with a misplaced axis), perhaps representing His sovereign control of the worlds He has made.

God, Jesus & Holy Spirit with angel and cherub on a cloud above the world. (My title) Illustration from Book Die Betrubte Und noch Ihrem Beliebten, Austrian Empire, 1716. Artist is unknown.

Depicting the mystery of God both transcendent and immanent, God who is allowed to be God-the Great Other, beyond and above, and yet also present with us, the creatures who are the chosen and privileged objects of His love, is an impossible task for the artist. The psalm puts so well in the tension of words in verse 5 what is completely beyond the capacity of the visual artist. But perhaps the sculptor can achieve something in three dimensions of what is beyond his painting colleague in just two. A sculpture is both a stone, a rock, that is a fixed reference to what is other, and at the same time is very much here, in our now. You really can touch it, and you may live in the same space that it is in. And a sculpture can be big- really big. Other than ‘Christ the Redeemer’ above Rio de Janeiro, (which I write about here) I was not familiar with many of the monumental sculptures that have been erected in Catholic majority countries in the last century. You can see a survey of ten of them here. The ‘Saviour of the World’ (1942) in El Salvador is notable as Jesus is standing aloft with a raised hand and pointing finger, atop both cross-pillar and globe, in contrast to the struggling Atlas images of classical Europe. As the monument is here with us in this world of our lives, sculpture has, as it were, stepped out of the gallery into life with us, into the seasons and changes of day and night. Which also offers rich comic potential for patient photographers.

However, for me, it is in this photographic combination of light in the dark world with ‘Christ the King’ at Santuario Nacional de Cristo Rei in Lisbon that captures the power and presence of God-in-Christ with the most eloquence of all of these iterations:

Cristo Rei. Overlooking the city of Lisbon, this statue (1959-1969) was inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil following the visit of Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon.

Of course, in our psalm, it is the God of Israel, the One God of the Hebrew Bible, who is revealed and declared as preeminent and glorious in v5. It is the insight of the Christians that we might connect this rule and reign to that of the revealed Servant King, the yet-to-come-again Christ in glory. But make no mistake: God who is the LORD in Ps 113 is the true God whose sovereignty and omnipotence are directed toward us, to His chosen affairs with humans, made according to God’s sovereign will in the image and likeness of Godself. We do not have to read the second testament to find out what the core concerns of the God who is truly enthroned, not so much in heaven as above all heavens truly are: God’s true concerns are amongst us all, for the poor, the needy and the barren. God’s concern is indeed for the prosperity of our lives, but expressed in a focus on those at the bottom, not those for whom the natural and easy blessings of their lives have already lifted them to the top of the pile.

I live in a brick house, with a thickly insulated roof, and efficient double glazing, and a serviced boiler. I have steady and well-paid work. I pay my sewage and water bills and have never given thought to being able to afford them. My family is blessed with children who are or are nearly adults, with soon-to-be realised hopes for independence. I am sitting here typing about an ancient book and publishing to a niche audience whose personal concerns are largely unknown to me. So I am rather like the king in the book of Daniel (4:29) standing on his rooftop, idly surveying his kingdom, without cares and with too much time on his hands.

God does see me, I am sure, but God is really paying attention to some different people, say verses 7-9, and perhaps I am looking with Him. The really poor folk live in the world, that is to say, outside. Not much use for vacuum cleaners there- its all dust. Whatever clothes you have are never really clean, and if for a minute they are clean, they certainly won’t stay that way. It is a life never far from open fires and the ash that remains, nor from barely drinkable water, and sewage that is barely contained. Both the NIV and ESV translate the Hebrew as ‘dust’ and ‘ash heap’ but ‘dung heap’ is more accurate. Why won’t they say it as it is? Jan Luyken’s 1710 etching (below) of ‘Two men at a dung heap on which a pig and the world lie’ shows a scene long forgotten in my neighbourhood and across western Europe, where carts of dung were driven barely beyond the community boundaries to dispose of wastes of all kinds. Interesting subtexts emerge from this picture- is the man remonstrating with the misdirected cart driver? Why has a dead pig been discarded rather than butchered? And what symbolism is meant by a globe of the world being added to this pile of rotting excrement? Are there intimations of protest against unsustainability in this preindustrial scene?

Such theoretical horrors are still a common reality in our day, as summarised in the photographs I have added to this montage of tragic poverty. And it is these realities that Godself addresses in our passage: Having stooped to look down on us, God has really seen. As we look, He sees.

There is no hesitation. The God who might sit at ease on a throne, who might be thought to gaze dispassionately across the realm of His creation immediately acts:

He raises the poor…

He lifts the needy…

He seats [them]…

and settles…

The verbs jump out of the page at me.

How profound is the rectification that God desires to bring, Who acts with immediacy to make real? The poor and needy are lifted up as high as it is possible for them to be lifted- to the place of princes, of kings, of the place of Godself:- onto a throne. In our day some of us may make real a dream of this kind for just a moment. If you go to the right event, and get there early enough and wait, you might meet royalty, for just a moment. You might even grasp their hand, exchange a word and a smile; perhaps even get a photo op.

Prince Harry speaks with a Team U.S. family during the road cycling events of the Invictus Games Sydney 2018

But it will pass, with pictures on Flickr or Facebook as the only memorials of the occasion. The psalm says God will seat the poor with the princes of their people– that is an altogether more permanent and meaningful promotion. This speaks of the permanent mending of an entire community- the lives of the princes are also transformed in this unified seating plan. Now we really are all in it together. Beyond the trappings of life- thrones and whatnot- this speaks of a unity in sustainability. There may still be ‘princes’, but there is also justice in the collective modes and means of life. The weak are not permanently left out, living sub-humanly in dust and dirt.

Meeting of village in Rajgir region of Bihar state, India. December 2016. The whole community are considering where latrines will be placed and used to raise the standard of living for all.

Not only do we see the whole community brought together in the photograph above, but justice-in-living is being done, as a map is drawn of the neighbourhood on the ground in view of all and agreement being sought as to where the activities of clean living will be kept free of open defecation, a hitherto accepted habit in the community. In the toilet, not in the fields. Now that’s a godly enthronement!

God’s blessing gives us ‘a hope and a future’ says Jeremiah 29:11, in words that might seem to be rather abstract for many of us. Ps 113 concludes by showing us exactly what that looks like, in terms meaningful to the poor and downtrodden, in preference to kings and princes whose shareholdings and off-shore investments separate them from more common folk. If we were blessed to have children, and then as those children grow up, our thoughts turn to their futures, and the longer term legacy of our lives. What a difference it is for those who see their poverty in not having children, or whose poverty means that the children they have have such poor prospects; communities with inaccessible healthcare and inadequate schooling. And especially for women, for a whole variety of complicated reasons, less empowered in so many ways through history and across cultures- perhaps infertile, or unmarried, or widowed. The text and verse 9 does not dwell on the causes, the history, the reasons- God sees and acts: the ‘barren woman’ is settled into her home as the happy mother of children (NIV) and grandchildren, she would no doubt add.

God is not describing the palace or the dreams of princes- those with their heads in the clouds. This is the panorama God is describing:

This is the worldview of Psalm 113. Note the scriptural rebuttal to those who say that God does not promise us happiness. At least in the NIV, it seems they are wrong.

Praise the LORD!

PS. Perhaps the central rhetorical question can also be answered.

Who is like the Lord our God? Well, in absolute terms, no-one. Obviously.

But perhaps He wants us to be like Him.

Doing that stuff He does.

More people would be minded to say ‘Praise the LORD’ if we did that. Just saying.

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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