The winds howled and rattled the single-paned windows. Branches tumbled from the fir trees in our backyard as we sat safely in our house, grateful for sturdy modern architecture.
And my three-year-old son, with wide wonder-filled eyes, breathed out one word: Ruach!
Ruach is the Hebrew word for wind or spirit, a word I had inserted into my son’s vocabulary. I wanted to combine wind and spirit in his imagination, especially in relation to the Spirit of God.
A few years before, I had been a part of an evening gathering at our church when gusts of wind screamed so loudly we couldn’t hear one another speak and we felt certain tongues of fire would appear above our heads.
The story of John Muir climbing to the top of a conifer during the middle of a storm in order to ride its wildness is legendary.
Mighty storms are invigorating, filled with electricity and danger and life.
Psalm 29 is a thunder clap, rumbling with power in the middle of my Bible. In one sense, it very simply follows the track of a raging storm as it rises out of the Mediterranean Sea north of Israel (Lebanon is referenced twice and Sirion is another name for Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights). It bursts trees into splinters with its lightning strikes. Eventually, it travels the full length of the land, shaking the Desert of Kadesh in the south.
But the psalm, in violently exquisite poetry, reimagines this storm as a cosmic event. This isn’t just thunder and lightning, this is the Voice of Yahweh. Seven times (which always elicits creation imagery), we have the Voice of the LORD referenced. The Voice that spoke creation into being is making himself heard through the thundering skies.
This is so like my son whispering with awe, “Ruach!” The wind is filled with Spirit.
But the psalm does more than invest a natural event with divine presence. That’s a great start, but the psalm dives deeper.
The Canaanite god Baal (whose name merely means Master) was considered to be a cloud rider, a storm god whose virility watered the earth. As the rain god, he held sway over agrarian people. As a thundering god, sending his shafts of lightning across the sky, he displayed his power.
But this psalm taunts Baal, turning him into a herald of Yahweh.
Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.
Our major translations do a vast injustice to the first verse of Psalm 29. Instead of rendering it as “you heavenly beings,” it should be “you sons of gods.” Angels aren’t in view here, Baal is. And he’s turned into a worship leader not for himself, but for Yahweh. A full 18 times, we encounter the name Yahweh (rendered as the LORD in all caps). Baal is told to “ascribe to Yahweh the glory due his name.” Not Baal’s name; Yahweh’s name is glorious.
That opening salvo of ascribing finishes with “worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.” Holiness isn’t about beauty or purity, it’s about otherness. In fact, I’d prefer the word to be translated as “differentness.” To be holy is to be different. When the Scriptures call on our Lord’s people to “be holy as I am holy,” what we’re being told is to “be different as I am different.” Just as our God is different from the gods of other people, we’re to be different from those other people. Where Baal is harsh and Yahweh is compassionate, we’re to be compassionate in the midst of harsh people. And so on. (I’ve written more about this here.)
The Desert of Kadesh is name-checked in v. 8 because the word Kadesh is based on the Hebrew word kadosh, which is … holy. Different.
How is he different?
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. (Ps. 29:3)
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace. (Ps. 29:10-11)
The psalm ends with a reminder that our God is King. He’s on his throne. Forever. But his throne is over the flood. Outside of this psalm, the word for flood there only appears in Genesis 6-11. That flood is the same Deep from Genesis 1, the chaotic waters that our Lord takes dominion over by … his Voice.
Just as our God mocks false Baal with his thundering Voice, he takes the chaos in the universe and in our lives and brings his order. In a disordered world of petty and competing gods, “the LORD blesses his people with peace.” In a world blasted apart like splintered cedars and the twisted oaks, our Lord brings our fragmented lives back together in a holy wholeness.
And God’s people seeing and hearing this display of nature, with all of its cosmic and personal overtones, cry out one single word in unison: “Glory!”
So, what is the storm revealing in my life?