When mountains battle (or, Worship that welcomes God)

“… And so, Lord, we welcome you in our worship today. Amen.”

“That’s so wrong,” the person next to me whispered after the worship leader finished his prayer. “We don’t welcome God. God welcomes us. It doesn’t make sense to welcome God if he’s always with us. He’s the host here, not us.”

It sounded like a good argument. If God is always with us, it doesn’t make sense to “welcome” him.

Despite the omnipresence of God, the Psalms agree: We do indeed welcome God into our worship. Even though there is no place we can go to escape the Presence, God is somehow uniquely present when we gather to worship him.

How so? Because we’ve kicked God out of his world. We’ve made God absent from our non-worshiping lives.

God created this world to be his temple, the place of his Presence. But our human rebellion has turned the temple into a battleground, a place swarming with competing gods. Each of these “gods” actually represents our desire to be gods of our own lives. History is the story of God reclaiming what was once his.

There will be a day when heaven (the realm of God) and earth (the realm of humanity) are reunited and all the earth again becomes the temple of God, so that no temple buildings are necessary anymore (see most of Rev. 21, but particularly 21:2-3, 22).

But for now, the kingdom of God looks like Swiss cheese, with all kinds of holes in it. And we have holy huddles in church buildings around the world, each one welcoming our Lord and his kingdom, each one saying YES to his rule and reign in the midst of others who hold up a NO hand against him. As unimpressive as they often seem, our worship gatherings are a loyal underground movement, welcoming the King back into rebel-held territory.

Psalm 68 is an entrance psalm, a psalm that prepares the way for our Lord to enter into his sanctuary, a psalm that returns the temple to at least part of the world. Similarly, Psalm 24 acknowledges the world as God’s and opens up the gates for him to enter in:

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it …
Lift up your heads, O gates!
    And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in (Psalm 24:1, 7).

But instead of a simple welcome like Psalm 24, Psalm 68 clears the ground of other gods first. And it does so in an exuberant and aggressive way. It begins by clearing the ground of the wicked who are representatives of alternate gods:

God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
    and those who hate him shall flee before him!
As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away;
    as wax melts before fire,
    so the wicked shall perish before God!
But the righteous shall be glad;
    they shall exult before God;
    they shall be jubilant with joy! (Ps. 68:1-3)

And then comes a verse which is notoriously hard to translate because of a probable double meaning in the poetry.

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! (Ps. 68:4)

What the ESV above translates as “who rides through the deserts” is translated by the NIV as “who rides on the clouds.” I believe the psalmist has both in mind. The deserts brings the Exodus to mind, which the psalm will continue with over the next few verses. But the cloud rider, as everyone in the ancient Near East knew, was Baal. And here, David our psalmist refers to the god who rides the clouds and then adds, “his name is Yahweh.” Not Baal.

Consider that a theological smackdown. “Take that, you Baal worshipers! The real cloud rider is Yahweh.” And there will be more coming. This is just the first slap across the face.

Continuing on, David points to the character of our God. He cares for the vulnerable but exiles the rebellious.

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,
    but the rebellious dwell in a parched land (Ps. 68:5-6).

The Exodus is the justice of God in action in history. He cares for a nothing people. The least, the last, and the lost become the found, the first, and the foremost. But rebels who lives self-lives, who chase other gods, are left out in the sun-scorched desert. They don’t take part in the Exodus.

And then the Exodus imagery begins in earnest, God leading his people through the wilderness and bringing them to a place of abundance.

O God, when you went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness, (Selah)
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain,
    before God, the One of Sinai,
    before God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you shed abroad;
    you restored your inheritance as it languished;
your flock found a dwelling in it;
    in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy (Ps. 68:7-10).

Kings and armies stood in the way, hampering the Exodus and the taking of the land. But Yahweh not only defeats them, he plunders them and their gods.

The LORD gives the word;
    the women who announce the news are a great host:
    “The kings of the armies — they flee, they flee!”
The women at home divide the spoil —
    though you men lie among the sheepfolds —
the wings of a dove covered with silver,
    its pinions with shimmering gold.
When the Almighty scatters kings there,
    let snow fall on Zalmon (Ps. 68:11-14).

Zalmon (also referred to as Mount Ebal, near Jacob’s well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman) is the first in Psalm 68 of a series of mountains where alternative gods were worshiped. It is also linguistically related to the Hebrew word for image or idol (tselem). Both as a location and by poetic assonance, it points to the worship of other gods. But it’s Yahweh who wins battles there and covers it with snow, showing his supremacy.

And Zalmon isn’t the only mountain to bow down. Bold Bashan is skipped over for Mount Zion, which is never referred to by name in Psalm 68 but which is “the mount” and the “dwelling place” throughout the psalm.

O mountain of God, mountain of Bashan;
    O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan!
Why do you look with hatred, O many-peaked mountain,
    at the mount that God desired for his abode,
    yes, where the Lord will dwell forever? (Ps. 68:15-16)

It’s there on Zion that Yahweh the warrior, with his armies and his captives and his tribute from the vanquished, sets up his residence.

The chariots of God are twice ten thousand,
    thousands upon thousands;
    the Lord is among them; Sinai is now in the sanctuary.
You ascended on high,
    leading a host of captives in your train
    and receiving gifts among men,
even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there (Ps. 68:17-18).

In yet another triumph of one mountain over another, Yahweh moves from Sinai to Zion.  (Paul plays with this allegorically in Gal. 4:24-25.) “You ascended on high” here doesn’t refer to going to heaven, but to parading in victory up the slope of Mount Zion to Jerusalem atop it.

And then, right in the middle of this cosmic battle between gods and their representative mountains where they were worshiped, David pauses the parade to highlight how personal our Lord is with us: He daily bears our burdens. This cloud-riding, idol-killing God stoops to remove the burdens from our backs, choosing to carry them himself.

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
    who daily bears our burdens.
Our God is a God who saves;
    from the Sovereign LORD comes escape from death (Ps. 68:19-20).

If there’s anything we know about our God, it’s this: Our God is a god who saves. We don’t worship him because he’s great and mighty in and of himself, apart from us. We worship him because he has intervened directly in our own lives. We don’t worship God in general. We worship him because of what he has done specifically on our behalf.

One specific way we have seen his salvation in action is by his defeat of his enemies, who are our enemies as well.

But God will strike the heads of his enemies,
    the hairy crown of him who walks in his guilty ways.
The Lord said,
    “I will bring them back from Bashan,
I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
that you may strike your feet in their blood,
    that the tongues of your dogs may have their portion from the foe” (Ps. 68:21-23).

And then the procession to the sanctuary comes into sight. The singers are out in front, leading the way. The gathered people are there, too, from the smallest to the largest.

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,
    the LORD, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!”
There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead,
    the princes of Judah in their throng,
    the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali (Ps. 68:24-27).

Because of our God’s might, because he is King over kings, the rulers of nations will offer him tribute in his courts on Zion.

Summon your power, O God,
    the power, O God, by which you have worked for us.
Because of your temple at Jerusalem
    kings shall bear gifts to you (Ps. 68:28-29).

In the Revelation, we see this both echoed and turned upside-down:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:11)

Instead of showing power, he is the slain one who receives power as a form of tribute. And he receives wealth not because he needs it, but because that’s what conquered kings give to the king who conquers them. He is the Wise One whose wisdom makes our wisdom look foolish, and yet we bend our intellect before him, submitting it to him and using it for him.

But the nations are “beasts” opposed to God. These wild brutes will be humbled and tamed so that they become beasts of burden, carrying their own silver as tribute to our God.

Having defeated them, God brings his peace, scattering the nations who delight in war.

Rebuke the beast among the reeds,
    the herd of bulls among the calves of the nations.
Humbled, may the beast bring bars of silver.
    Scatter the nations who delight in war.
Envoys will come from Egypt;
    Cush will submit herself to God (Ps. 68-30-31).

God has arrived in his sanctuary and so too have the envoys from all nations, including Israel’s arch enemies. And they, who have bent the knee to false gods, will join the choir of God’s people, singing praise to Yahweh.

He is the true cloud rider. It is his voice heard in the thunder. It is his power seen in the heavens. Not Baal. Not Ra. Yahweh.

Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth,
    sing praise to the Lord,
to him who rides across the highest heavens, the ancient heavens,
    who thunders with mighty voice.
Proclaim the power of God,
    whose majesty is over Israel,
    whose power is in the heavens.
You, God, are awesome in your sanctuary;
    the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.

Praise be to God! (Ps. 68:32-35)

This is who we invite into our worship gatherings. This is the mighty God, who rejects every human and spiritual attempt to take over his world, to take over his temple.

There are no competitors. Every other mountain knees before his. Every other god is tossed aside in the bin.

This cloud-riding God is mighty and majestic. He’s not afraid to spill a little blood along the way, cracking the heads of those too thick-headed to oppose him.

All this should give us pause, we who so casually mosey into worship. We are dealing with true power here. We’re playing with dynamite. If our worship lacks awe, we might be worshiping some other god.

At the same time, he is the father to the fatherless. He sets the lonely in families. He daily bears our burdens. Our God is a God who saves.

Almighty God is our heavenly Father, mighty and meek at the same time. And he is coming to reclaim his temple, even if today that means a small-steepled church with a few humble worshipers.

Our worship now is a downpayment on the day when all the nations will gather and the whole earth will be the temple of our Lord, the day when he will enter in and never, ever leave again.

Maranatha! Our Lord, come!