Literary analysis of Psalm 29

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Song 29 is a symphony of words: verses 1 to 9 compose a crescendo of sound; verses 10 and 11, a diminuendo rather than a resolution.

Verse 1 is an exhortation to the “children of the strong” to acknowledge the “glory and strength” of Adonai. Certainly the appellation could refer to a heavenly chorus, but, in the context of the song –set entirely in the natural world– it is more likely that they refer to the children of Israel or even the whole of humankind. The acknowledgement asked of them is much more than a token respect; verse 2 makes clear it is, in effect, a pledge of allegiance, the acclamation due to the ruler Who is God, whose strength is the source of their own:
Ascribe to Adonai the glory due His name;
                                         Offer to Adonai the glory of His name; bow down to Adonai in holy splendour.  (v. 2)

The verses that follow –3 to 9– are a description of God’s glory and strength. That the number of verses is 7 is appropriate — 7 signifies the physical world of nature. Each of the 7 verses begins with the phrase “The voice of Adonai” (but for verse 6 which is, however, a continuation of verse 5, as the joining “and” indicates). God’s voice is wordless. It sounds in thunder:
The voice of Adonai is upon the waters;
                                     The voice of Adonai on the water, God of glory thunders, Adonai on great waters. (v. 3)
A sound that is echoed by the breaking and shattering cedars (v. 5); the shaking of the wilderness (v. 8); the birth-pangs of the deer (v. 9).  The ear of the listener can imagine clashing chords — the impact of divine energy upon nature:
     The voice of Adonai in force; the voice of Adonai in splendour. (v. 4)

No distinction is made in the song between God’s strength and God’s glory or majesty. One quality is the complement of the other. God’s energy provokes both creative and destructive effects upon the physical world: the cedars of Lebanon, symbols of stability and stature, are broken apart, and yet the mountains of Lebanon skip like calves, dance like ”a young antelope” (v. 6). Again, no distinction is made between creative and destructive effects. Indeed, verse 9 combines both without comment:
The voice of Adonai makes the deer give birth, and strips the forests bare. And in His sanctuary all speak glory. (v. 9)

Just as the voice of Adonai thunders (v. 3), so does it show its form in the shape of fire or lightening:
   The voice of Adonai hews them with flames of fire. (v. 7)
The verb “to hew” is commonly used to describe the cutting away or carving of a solid object, most usually a tree (probably why most translators prefer the verb “forks” or “divides”, rather than “hews”); however, the sense of “hews” recalls the cedars that were toppled in verse 5. Certainly the two images, thunder and fire, together describe a storm. Yet a literal interpretation — that the singer is attributing the storm occurring, perhaps even as he is composing the song, to divine power — while completely understandable, considers only one part of what the song depicts: verses 3 to 9 contain no human beings. The perception, rather, is solely of the physicality of the world. That is, it defines the two essential components of creation : making and un-making. Most likely, then, it is for this reason that the creative and destructive reactions in the natural world to divine energy are not differentiated, are not given a specific moral or ethical rationale.

Verse 10 thereby acts as a bridge between the verses depicting the natural world and the final verse, which introduces and wholly concerns the people Israel:
    Adonai sat in judgement, sending the Flood; and Adonai sits enthroned, king for all the world’s time. (v. 10)
The mention of the flood is the first indicator of a moral value in the song. It elevates the un-making, the destructive effect, depicted in the previous verses, while evoking the promise of re-making, of re-creation, that was the final outcome of the flood — God’s promise that never again will a deluge destroy the earth.

The final verse of the song, as if remembering that covenant, asks God to bless Israel with “wholeness”. That the singer asks first for the gift of strength for God’s people draws a circle; the song’s structure matches its final theme: the glory and strength of Adonai in verse 1 will now — so is the singer’s hope — be the attributes of His people:
      Adonai will give might to His nation. Adonai will bless His nation with wholeness. (v. 11)

That the final word in the song is “wholeness” suggests completion. The vision, however, cannot be of a finality. Rather, in its very connection to the song’s opening a new beginning is promised; the promise, that is, of a continual re-making.

Note: “Adonai” occurs 18 times in the song; the Hebrew for the number 18 and the Hebrew for “life” –“chai”– are the same. An appropriate repetition for a song depicting the created world. Because of the 18 repetitions, this Psalm is the paradigm for the 18 benedictions central to daily prayers.

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  1. One feels like breaking into a song of praise after reading Dr. Rosenberg’s astute analysis. Her poetic descriptions reinforce the poetry and intention of the psalm. Wonderful! And thank you!

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