There’s not a year that goes by without the Earth shuddering, sinking, shifting, shrugging or doing something spectacular. We call these events “natural disasters.” The legal profession and insurance companies call them “acts of God.”
Acts of God. It’s a quite human reaction to some of these catastrophes. The psalmist agrees. “The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare” (vv. 8-9).
Acts of God appear in many forms: wildfires, blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, thunder, lightning, tsunamis, earthquakes, hailstorms and more. This is Mother Nature’s witchy side, the nasty aspect of her otherwise benign nature. The ancient Romans, and especially the Greeks, were aware of the power of the feminine Earth and recognized numerous goddesses whose beneficence extended to specific spheres like lakes, trees, fruit, harvest, fertility, crops, the changing of the seasons and more. Artemis – with her quiver, bow and arrows – was the goddess of the hunt. Demeter was the goddess of harvests, healthy crops and fertile seasons. Her very name (according to some philologists) means Earth’s Mother – from the stem de, and meter.
But if you hesitated to fool with Mother Nature in the ancient world, you most certainly did not provoke Father Nature. The gods of the natural world were no joking matter. Poseidon, wielding his triton, was god of the sea, storms and earthquakes. The ruler of the gods was Zeus, the god of the sky, rain and thunder. When provoked, he’d hurl lightning bolts at the hapless humans who dared ignore his power and might.
Today, natural disasters – like Hurricane Katrina, which caused an estimated $108 billion in damage – are so powerful that a taxonomy of disaster was created to help us understand their power. Using the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, meteorologists identify the strength of a hurricane in terms of categories, running from Category 1 (the weakest) to Category 5 (the strongest):
- Category 1: Very dangerous winds will produce some damage.
- Category 2: Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage.
- Category 3: Devastating damage will occur.
- Category 4: Catastrophic damage will occur.
- Category 5: Catastrophic damage will occur — total destruction.
Indications are that hurricanes are getting stronger so, perhaps there should be a Category 6 hurricane. The Saffir-Simpson scale only goes up to 5, but the consensus among meteorologists is that Category 5 already means “total destruction.” How does one describe a landscape that already looks as though it has been pounded and plowed by an earthmover? Creating a Category 6 doesn’t make any sense.
It can be argued that David, when thinking of the “glory and strength” (v. 1) of God, would jump immediately to Category 5. No other rubric, category or classification could adequately describe the unparalleled, unmatched and unthinkable power of the God we worship. It is this power that the psalmist tries to describe.
When we think of the power of God, however, it is natural to make it personal in a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” sort of way. Thus, our taxonomy of blessing – rather than disaster – might read like a text from Maslow:
- Category 1: We have our daily bread.
- Category 2: We don’t worry about material needs like clothing, food and shelter.
- Category 3: We feel useful or “actualized” in human society.
- Category 4: We have a strong network of family and friends.
- Category 5: Our worldview is anchored by a strong faith in God.
These suggestions reflect a view about the power of God in our lives as persons, since, as J.B. Phillips renders 1 Peter 5:7, “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.” But it doesn’t speak to the power of a Category 5 God in terms of God’s essential nature. If we move the discussion outside of, or beyond, our personal circle of life, who is God?
This is the question David attempts to answer in Psalm 29, and one gets the feeling that he would agree with the legal profession that earthquakes and hurricanes are indeed “acts of God.” “The LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon,” he writes. “The LORD flashes forth flames of fire … the LORD shakes the wilderness … the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare” (vv. 5, 7-9).
The description is almost worthy of a Disney movie. It reminds one that 10 years ago, the first Frozen movie hit theaters. According to the trailer:
In Arendelle’s fair kingdom, a ruler did appear,
Born with a secret power so great, alone, she stayed in fear.
Although the force was hidden, one day she let it go,
And all the land was covered in eternal ice and snow.
In the movie, Elsa accidentally injures her sister with her magic ice powers as a young child. Her parents tell her that she has to cool it; she can’t use her power because she’s bound to hurt others. But unfortunately, at some point Elsa accidentally releases her powers in front of everyone. She “let it go.” She forgets about concealing her powers and makes dramatic and demonstrative use of them. And if you have kids, you remember that they came home from the cineplex singing, “Let it go, let it go …” They sang it in the car, at breakfast, in the bathroom – everywhere – until you were ready to let them go!
But as powerful as Elsa’s ice magic was, it’s child’s play compared to the incredible power of God, who brought the created world into being.
Or consider the Star Wars franchise. However intelligent, powerful, or magical you conceive the Force to be, the power and intelligence of the God in “a galaxy far, far away” – indeed, the God of all stars and galaxies – should leave us in fear and trembling.
Saint Anselm (1033-1109) put it this way (paraphrasing): God is greater than any conception of God we might have. Conjure an image of God who can create light, push mountains high above the surface of the Earth, throw stars and moons into the sky, cause rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and crack open the crust of the Earth. Think of this Category 5 level of power. Then realize that God is greater than your most amazing and awesome conception. “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever,” David exults (v. 10).
One has the sense that David is attempting to describe what is beyond description. How do you convey what an orange smells like when you squeeze it, and the juice runs over your hand? How does one describe a color without using the name of the color or pointing to it. How do you explain the difference between left and right? How would you depict the taste of water? Or, as singer Chris Rice asks, “How do you smell the color 9?”
But what would this mean to us, if we could not conceive of God as greater than any possible conception, if the idea of God did not also include a God who cares for and loves creation, and who loves us?
Were God to be an uncaring God who left us to fend for ourselves, a God to whom we could not pray and communicate, a God who did not speak to God, would not that God be a lesser, inferior God to a God that can?
Perhaps this is why David ends this hymn of praise with the words: “May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!”
A Category 5 God gives “strength to his people”! Do you need strength? Do you feel weak and powerless sometimes, unable to get out of bed, or to face the challenges of the day? Do you wobble in the face of the daunting tasks that await you, and wonder how you are going to survive?
God gives strength. This is the promise of this psalm. A God who can do all the things, David enumerates, can certainly give you strength. God offers power and grace for the day. Annie Johnson Flint was right when she echoed in a song what David wrote in his:
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added afflictions he addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, his multiplied peace.
But this Category 5 God will also “bless his people with peace.” We need strength, but we also need peace, the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). As Corrie ten Boom reminds us, “There is no panic in heaven! God has no problems, only plans.” If we believe that, we can have peace. Our hearts can rest. We are in good hands.
J.B. Phillips, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and John Stott, published Your God Is Too Small in 1953. Yet it reads as though it was written yesterday.
Phillips devotes the first part of the book to disparaging the “small gods” fashioned by small human thinking – The Resident Policeman, Grand Old Man, Meek and Mild, God in a Box, Pale Galilean, Managing Director, et alia.
Phillips was an Anglican churchman and translator/paraphraser of the very popular The New Testament in Modern English. He was in touch with what people were thinking and feeling at home and at work. He wrote, “Many men and women today are living, often with inner dissatisfaction, without any faith in God at all. This is … because they have not found with their adult minds a God big enough to ‘fit in with’ the new scientific age, big enough to command their highest admiration and respect, and consequently that willing cooperation.”
David did not have any trouble finding a “big enough God.” His God was in a category all by himself: a category in which the God of creation alone existed – a God for whom anything was possible, and nothing was impossible.
This was his God, a Category 5 God.
And with a little faith, it can be ours, too.