Psalm 47 - link to the NRSV text
[EDIT: Yikes! Just saw all the weird formatting errors. Should now be correct. Apologies! - Geoff]
In his book Surprised By Hope, N.T. Wright, New Testament scholar and a bishop of the Church of England, noted that the story of Jesus’ ascension is a story that communicates the Christian confession that “Jesus is Lord,” the ruler of earth and heaven through and in whom all things are created. This is what is meant by the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed when it states “he ascended into heaven and is sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Thus, Wright argues, the observation of Christ the King Sunday is an anacronism, and what that day intends to celebrate is more properly to be observed on Ascension Sunday.
Whether you argee with Wright on whether or not Christ the King is a redundant day in the Christian year, his point about Ascension Sunday provides a good place to start when considering what route to go on this day of the Christian calendar. The point of the Ascension is not that Jesus has left this world and is now in heaven somewhere else, and when we die we go to meet him there. The point of Ascension is the conclusion of the Christ-event in Christian theology, that Jesus the Incarnate Son of God has been resurrected and glorified and has now taken his proper place at the right hand of God as the Lord of Creation.
Psalm 47 is thus an appropriate psalm for the day, celebrating God as the “great king over all the earth” (v. 2) and “king over the nations” (v. 8). The psalm is what could be classified as a hymn of praise, or what might be classified as a psalm of orientation. This is a psalm that proclaims and celebrates God as in control, as God in power, as God in charge. It does not have the places of uncertainty and distress that classify psalms of lament or thanksgiving; there is no expression of desperation, only confident trust in the authority of the God of Israel.
There is also an element of the enthronement theme in vv. 5 and 8 (cf. Ps 24 for a full enthronement psalm), celebrating God’s enthronement on the ark of the covenant and in the holy of holies within the Temple. Whether or not Psalm 47 was used in an enthronement ritual or not the idea of God being enthroned within the Temple is assumed and celebrated by the psalmist. There is an assumed assurance through God’s residence within the Temple, an assumption attacked by the prophets at various points (see particularly Jeremiah 7:1-17 and Ezekiel 10).
The prevailing expectation was that God’s kingdom would somehow be related to the preservation and continuation of the Temple, as it was understood as the location of God’s dwelling on earth and thus the true seat of power. The Qumran community so tied the Temple to God’s kingdom that they expected two messiahs, a political/military messiah that would kick out the Romans and a religious/priestly messiah that would restore the Temple to what the Qumran community believed was true Temple purity and practice.
Jesus’ ascension reoriented the early church’s understanding of God’s kingdom and from where God ruled, however. Jesus the Messiah did not come to sit on an earthly throne, but instead ascended to the heavenly throne where he is at the right hand of God, the position of power and authority. It is from “heaven” that Jesus reigns; not the “heaven” as popularly understood as the blissful place of angels playing harps and where our disembodied soul goes when we did, but the biblical understanding of heaven as the realm of God which will one day be united in fullness with the created order through Jesus’ return (the paraousia) and the resurrection of the dead.
This brings us back to Psalm 47, which has a glimpse of this eschatological hope, this restoration of creation as once again being under the reign and rule of God. As the psalm says: “The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham” (v. 9). This language of all the earth becoming a part of the people of God is echoed in Isaiah and elsewhere as a hope that all people will come to understand God as ruler of all the earth. Even the Hellenistic-era writing of 1 Enoch has this hope, where the writer envisions all the other animals that represent the Gentile nations becoming just like the sheep of Israel (see 1 Enoch 90:30-42).
The early church came to understand (though slowly!) that the ascension of Jesus was the fulfillment of this hope and promise. Or as Luke puts it: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Luke 24:47). The reign of God was proclaimed in Jesus’ coming (Mark 1:15), and is now revealed in fullness through the resurrection of Jesus and God’s triumph over death itself. Thus, the reign of God has begun and it is now the church’s job to pick up the call to proclaim it. We proclaim our hope and promise, the one that the prophets begun to have an inkling of and which Jesus proclaimed and lived:
God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.