Opening The Old Testament
Defenders of the Poor: Reflections on Psalm 47
And with that amazing opening command of the enthronement of the king, we can more easily see just why Psalm 47 announces that YHWH is king over all the earth. YHWH's role is to judge and defend the poor, to deliver the needy, to crush those who would oppress any of these defenseless ones. And as YHWH acts, so is the king charged to act.
With verse 5 we find the connection with the Christian festival of the Ascension of the Lord, a day perhaps not referred to much in most Protestant churches, celebrating as it does that scene in Acts 1:1-11 where the disciples witness the resurrected Jesus ascend to heaven. This supernatural event has not found much resonance in many of our churches. However, when we connect that event with the psalms of enthronement, I think we should give another look at what the ascension of the Lord might mean in our time.
Let's clear up one thing first. The Ascension of the Lord is not to be looked for on a lost video somewhere stored in the Vatican archives. The disciples are warned by two men in white robes to stop gazing up at the departing Jesus whose last words warned them to cease speculating about the supposed restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The Ascension of the Lord is a purely political act, and the correct response to it is to get about the right business of that kingdom as announced by the earthly Jesus, the enthronement psalms, and the Moses/Sinai covenant with Israel.
If YHWH is ruler over all the earth, and if all kings of Israel were to be the guarantors of the righteousness and justice of the land (however poorly they in fact played that role in reality), and if Jesus is now enthroned at the right hand of God, as the creeds all say, then his ascension has placed the divine seal of approval on God's intention for all of God's people for all time.
We, too, like God, Israelite kings, and Jesus are called to be lovers and defenders of the poor. As such, we must speak truth when those who make our laws would forget the poor when they deliberate. As such, we must speak truth when those who make our laws would rather have more tanks and bombs than homes and hope for the poor.
Psalm 47 is at the last a deeply political psalm as is the Ascension of the Lord. So, please. When your congregation starts that execrable chant, "you have stopped preachin' and started meddlin'," just say, "I am doing what YHWH, ruler of the earth, and the poet of Psalms 47 and 72, and the ascended Jesus have called me to do. Sorry. I can do nothing else."
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.