Subdued by God
[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 10/11/10]
Psalm 47 is one of those many Old Testament passages that does not exactly interpret itself. How we understand the meaning of the psalm will be greatly affected by how we understand it in relation to the rest of the Bible.
Clearly, Psalm 47 offers strong affirmation that the God of Israel is the sovereign God of the universe. In so doing, the psalm also offers some strong statements about the people of this sovereign God, who has “subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet” (47:3).
On one level, we should understand this statement as part of Israel’s praise after their establishment as a nation in the Promised Land. And we may share in this praise — for their sake and for parallel ways where we have received blessing. However, this psalm challenges those of us who read it post-Jesus. What do we make of this picture of God as “king over the nations” who “subdued peoples under us”?
Who is God?
From Genesis one through Revelation 21-22, the Bible affirms God’s sovereignty, God as the king of creation and all that is in it. However, the Bible itself, and certainly Christian theology and practice, presents enormous diversity in how it understands that sovereignty.
God is indeed at work, the Bible tells us, at subduing the nations. But how does this subduing happen? What is its goal? And, the next question in relation to our psalm: What is the role of God’s people in this submission? What is their vocation?
The Old Testament tells a dramatic story of how the children of Abraham seek to come to terms with their vocation. They do become a powerful nation-state, capable of dominating their neighbors, wielding the sword and bringing fear into the hearts of their neighbors. But where does that get them? Check out Jeremiah and Lamentations.
The true vocation for God’s people, reflecting God’s ultimate way of subduing the nations, may be seen in Isaiah 40-55, especially in servant songs such as Isaiah 53. True justice and shalom come through self-giving love, taking suffering upon oneself rather than delivering it to the other.
Indeed, “God is king over the nations” (Ps. 47:8) — and God exercises this kingship most definitively in showing the nations the same kind of preserving, faithful love God shows Israel. The chosenness of Israel is not for the sake of domination but for the sake of service.
What is the world really like?
The world is full of “kings” and “nations” who try to subdue others under them. Such efforts generally have led to brokenness and a spiral of violence. The Bible’s message, ultimately, in the Old and New Testaments, is about God’s work to break that spiral, to heal the brokenness, to model a kind of kingship that does not dominate but rather serves.
The Old Testament gives us plenty of information about a God who seeks healing — and becomes the basis for Jesus’ way of messiahship (or, we should say, “kingship”). Mark 10:42-45 captures powerfully Jesus’ message about kingship — “the world’s rulers tend to be tyrants; the kingship I model is one of servanthood, not domination.”
We should note that in the Christian tradition, Psalm 47 has long been part of the readings for Ascension Day. So we have good grounds for holding the affirmation of God’s kingship in this psalm together with Jesus’ definitive embodiment of this kingship. Jesus may have subdued the nations (by persuading people from all nations to trust in his way), but he did it with love and service, not with coercive force.