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By Sigrid Fowler
The Book of Psalms ends with loud expressions of unsubdued praise. The final three psalms are all about glorifying God, as if the whole world is outdoing itself. In Psalm 148, even the heavenly bodies we don’t think of in such a role—sun, moon stars—are joining in. The focus is on nature, but toward the end of Psalm 148, human beings add their voices. Coming next, Psalm 149 is taken up with vocal praise. It begins, “Praise the LORD” and then commands, “Sing to the LORD a new song” (Ps 148: 2).
Groups of worshipers are listed—the “assembly of the saints,” “Israel,” and “the people of Zion”—as if in widening circles. They not only “sing praises to him with timbrel and harp,” they are dancing. They are “joyful in their King,” they “rejoice in their Maker,” they “sing aloud in their beds” (vv. 2, 5). Here the psalm takes a surprising turn. We find “high praises in their mouths” and “a two-edged sword in their hand” (v.6b). The purpose is “To execute vengeance on the nations, / And punishment on the peoples” (v. 7).
What to make of this? Execution of vengeance and punishment seem an odd detail to include in a psalm of praise. However, another striking description comes to mind, other puzzling details that may cast light on the sudden negativity of this psalm. Toward the end of the Bible, we find a description of one known as Faithful and True, one who judges righteously. The description is worthy of attention because it seems unlike the Jesus Christ of the gospels, the one who calls himself “the Good Shepherd.” The same gospel that tells us about the Lord who welcomes children, heals the sick, and delivers those troubled by unclean spirits also describes the cross. If we miss the full significance of the cross, we may not understand the full importance of the empty tomb. Jesus not only came out of that tomb, he also brought us out of death, which the Bible declares to be the necessary consequence of sin.
We have to remember that the horrifying fact of the cross not only ends with the triumph of the resurrection, but opens a truth we have to consider, perhaps for a lifetime. Jesus has changed the lot of everyone who lays claim to what he did in that sacrifice. The deed was liberating. He has delivered us. The redeemed people of God will not suffer the “vengeance on the nations, the “punishment on the peoples” Psalm 148cites. When John opens the “Revelation of Jesus Christ,” as the final book of the Bible is called in its full title, he reveals the actual identity of God the eternal Son, whose right it is to execute vengeance on those who choose against God. John writes: “His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except himself. He was clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called the Word of God” (Rev 19: 11-13).
When the ills humanity has fallen into come to mind, some too horrifying to describe, the thought of vengeance and punishment seems a welcome corrective. The defeat of Hitler was cause for celebration! Who hasn’t seen the photos of the streets of New York packed with joyful people, ticker tape streaming through the air? No one likes war, but it was a joyful thing to know that Nazism wouldn’t spread across the world, the Jewish people and others would no longer be demonized and murdered by a crazed state government. John continues his description of the victorious one: “Out of his mouth goes a sharp sword that with it he should strike the nations. And he himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of the Almighty God. And he has on his robe and on his thigh a name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev. 19: 15-16).
Jesus was hailed as he rode into Jerusalem before the crucifixion as “the King, who comes in the name of the LORD” (Luke 19: 38). That he would be rejected by the leaders says nothing about the accuracy of that title. In fact, Isaiah prophesied that the same Messiah who would “justify many” would also be “despised and rejected” (Isa 53: 11, 3). But the suffering man hanging on that cross, the one who effected our salvation, is and always was God the Son, the victorious warrior, who finally “does vengeance on the nations.” The “new song” we find in Psalm 149 is for him,and we will join the singing. Come, Lord Jesus!