In this Close Reading series, biblical scholars reflect on a passage in their area of expertise that has been formational in their own discipleship and continues to speak to them today.
I’ve sung the Psalms for as long as I can remember, first as a kid in church, then as a worship leader from my college days until now. When I was younger, I remember singing at the top of my lungs to worship songs like Martin Nystrom’s “As the Deer” (Ps. 42) and Matt Redman’s “Let Everything that Has Breath” (Ps. 150).
When I became a biblical scholar, I encountered the Psalms in a new way, reading them historically and culturally. Meanwhile, as a worship leader, I help lead people into God’s presence through the singing of the Psalms. At times, reading the Psalms has felt like a conversation with a dear friend who knows me well.
In March 2020, when the world changed all around us due to the pandemic, Psalm 68 redefined the idea of presence for me, just as I was experiencing absence in new ways.
Many of us wrestled with new absences then. I realized how much I took embodied presence for granted, whether in the form of conversations with colleagues and students in my university’s hallways, a hug from a friend, or congregational singing.
At the end of March 2020, I experienced a strange pain in my chest, sending spasms throughout my ribcage and back. This pain continued for almost two months. At first, we thought this might be connected to COVID-19, so I was quarantined for two weeks. After I tested negative, I was able to be with my family again. But though I was in the same room with them, for weeks I couldn’t even handle a small hug; the pain was too intense. Until my pain subsided two months later, I felt that lack of closeness, the inability to be near others.
In this struggle, the Spirit reminded me that when I can’t be physically present with others, I can still experience God’s presence with me. Even when I can’t sing at the top of my lungs to God, he can still be near to me in worship. The Holy Spirit revealed this to me through Psalm 68.
The 68th Psalm has many things to say about God’s presence, especially when we feel alone and isolated or when we are starkly aware of our own need. It sits in the second of five books gathered to form the Book of Psalms. Book 2 contains many Davidic psalms—either by or about David—including Psalm 68. It continues the theme of praise found in Psalm 67 and is followed by another picture of God’s presence in Psalm 69, where God saves David from the “miry depths” (v. 2).
Scholars debate how Psalm 68 was used in the past: perhaps as a communal lament the people sang together, a hymn sung when the people entered the temple, or a victory psalm celebrating Israel’s defeat of its enemies. Whatever the case, Psalm 68 shares with us aspects of David’s life, focusing on how God’s people sing about his divine presence.
Psalm 68 is a theophany psalm. The idea of a theophany comes from two Greek words: Theo, meaning “God,” and phainein, meaning “to show.” A theophany is an experience of God’s presence—the moment when God shows up! Scholars point to how Psalm 68’s theophany relates to other theophanies in the Old Testament. God appears in times of need to Jacob (Gen. 28:10–22), to Moses (Ex. 3), and to prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel (Isa. 6; Ezek. 1). When God shows up, he reveals who he is and transforms difficult situations. This helped me see God’s presence in Psalm 68 differently.
First, God shows up in Psalm 68 as a divine warrior. While it may seem odd today to think of God as waging war, it might be helpful to remember how much we appreciate God’s power in times when we feel powerless. God’s power is able to send any of his enemies running (v. 1) and make evil melt away (v. 2).
When I think of these enemies as the forces of darkness around us, I find this encouraging. God is more powerful than the thing I fear the most. He is more powerful than death or disease or loneliness or pain.
Scholars point to images of divine warriors in the ancient Near East and how they relate to Psalm 68’s picture of God. As a divine warrior, God rides on the clouds (v. 4), reflecting a common picture of storm gods as divine warriors in the ancient world.
Yet in Psalm 68, God is the divine warrior who is also the Creator of the world and has power over everything he created (v. 8, 14). No other ancient god could claim this. Also, in ancient times, chariots (v. 17) were the best technological advances for war. So, in this sense, God is the high-tech divine warrior, using his created world to show his power.
In the Old Testament, we also see God, the divine warrior, set his people free from slavery in Egypt, part the waters, and destroy their enemies. Joel 2 pictures the Day of the Lord with God as the divine warrior who has power over creation (here a locust swarm; see verse 25).
The power of God’s name travels from the Old Testament to the New when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). John 12 quotes Zechariah 9 and pictures Jesus as the divine warrior when he enters Jerusalem. In each case, the message is clear: “Do not be afraid of [your enemies]; the Lord your God himself will fight for you” (Deut. 3:22).
Despite his power, God is not like the leaders of ancient Israel’s time or today’s leaders who might value or care for only the powerful and elite.
Instead, the psalmist points out that God sees those others might overlook. He acts as a father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5). He defends the widow. For those who have experienced loss, he longs to care in the midst of that loss.
When my husband, Jon, and I were doing our PhDs simultaneously, I remember treasuring these words. At the start of my program, one of my close friends unexpectedly died of leukemia. Meanwhile, Jon and I were struggling to pay our bills. I remember feeling like the bottom was pulled out from under my life and wondering what to do.
One night, I didn’t know where our food was coming from for the next day. We were between paychecks and didn’t have enough to buy groceries for another few days. I remember praying late into the night for enough to feed our young daughter Elena. I cried out, “God, we just need some fruit and veggies, maybe some milk. That would be enough.”
The next morning at 7 a.m., I heard a knock at my door. It was a woman from our church. She said that God woke her up and told her to bring us some of the fresh fruits and vegetables from her weekly delivery. The delivery service had accidentally given her extra; she had asked God who needed them. She threw in some milk because she sensed God wanted her to add to the bundle.
As she spoke, tears filled my eyes. God cared about my little practical prayer. God showed me that even when I felt like my pain wasn’t being seen or heard, God saw me. It was an important lesson to learn: When you feel powerless, God sees you. God sees the fatherless and fathers them. God defends the widow who might fall prey to those looking for vulnerable ones to attack.
God also sees our loneliness; he “sets the lonely in families” (v. 6). In my early 20s, I moved from the US to Canada to start seminary. Though I knew no one, God showed me that he saw my loneliness by creating a new family for me in Canada of friends and surrogate parents and grandparents. He even introduced me to my husband at seminary. Years later, during the pandemic, God reminded me of each of these times when he was present. He reminded me that he is always the God who sets the lonely in families.
But Psalm 68 doesn’t stop there. This personal God who knows the most fragile places in us is also the God who is able to free his people from slavery and sustain them in the wilderness through his miraculous provision.
He led the Israelites out of Egypt with singing (Ex. 15). He poured rain down on them when they needed water (Ps. 68:8). He sent them manna when they needed food; he “provided for the poor” (v. 10). Through these signs, God refreshed his people, his “weary inheritance,” when they were wandering in the desert (v. 9).
This is the Lord Almighty, whose power far exceeds that of any other king or any other nation (vv. 11–18). This is the God who saves his people,“who daily bears our burdens. Our God is a God who saves” (vv. 19–20).
When I have surveyed my life and the burdens around me, God has reminded me that he is powerful enough to hold them. Whenever I have looked at sickness, death, and destruction around me, God has reminded me that he has the power to destroy all of these enemies, smashing them into bits and allowing us to escape from death (vv. 21–23).
Psalm 68:24–26, then, does what I have done throughout my life as a worship leader: guide people into a procession of worship. When God as divine warrior destroys the enemies who plot against his peace and wholeness, we respond with praise.
Back in 2020, when I could barely breathe through my pain, I remember longing to be part of my congregation again, singing with all of my might the praises of God. Responding with praise is our good and natural instinct.
Psalm 68:32–35 continues this praise by referring to what we see about God in the first 10 verses: They encourage the whole world to sing praise to the Lord, who is powerful and majestic. God’s power is not just over Israel, but over all of creation. This God of power and majesty—who is awesome in the original sense of the word—is also the God who gives strength to his people and who knows our deepest needs.
Reading Psalm 68 not only encourages us to praise the God who is present when we experience loss and absence; it also reminds us of those who are often overlooked in our society: the marginalized, the fatherless, the widowed, the lonely, the poor.
We might not immediately realize who those people are around us. But do we know a single mom who might be trying to balance work and kids? Do we have a friend who lost their job and is worried about what they will do next? Do we know someone who is living on their own and feeling lonely?
Churches are finding ways to reach out to these people in need following COVID-19. Part of my work since 2020 has been with the Canadian Poverty Institute as we study how churches have responded to the pandemic, echoing God’s presence as they are present to those struggling. Continuing to care for those suffering from the pandemic is only one of many ways we can share Christ’s presence with the hurting around us.
Psalm 68 reminds me that God sees my pain and the pain of those around me, and can heal them. This is the God who is present with us right now—who sees us in our physical afflictions, loneliness, confusion, and grief. This is the God who will be present with us when we can’t be physically present with others and the God who will be present with us when we can. And this is the God who has power over all creation, who can use the clouds as his chariot across the skies and can give us the provision we need.
Beth M. Stovell is professor of Old Testament at Ambrose University and author of several books including The Book of the Twelve, coauthored with David J. Fuller.
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