The Voice of the Lord — Psalm 29
I was going to open this sermon by asking you to imagine yourself when a heavy rain storm is brewing and the wind is strengthening, the skies are darkening and the atmosphere is weighty. Suddenly there is a bright flash of lightning and then a massive, ear-shattering clap of thunder seemingly right above and all around you. It concentrates one’s mind so completely that it is hard to think about anything else at that explosive moment.
But actually we don’t need to imagine the effects of a physical storm right now. We are all enduring a prolonged and disruptive one of a different nature, a storm that has become that much more damaging over the last week. We may be isolated at home on our own, with no prospect of seeing family or friends properly for weeks. We may be struggling to cope with the overwhelming demands of home schooling while trying also to keep pace with our jobs. Or we may be worried about losing our employment and whether we will have enough income to support our families. There are so many sources of fear and insecurity at the moment and we must all be yearning for God to speak into these hard circumstances.
Psalm 29’s author, King David, chose the image of a great storm to speak of God’s towering authority, glory, splendour and majesty – I’d like to address how this analogy can reassure us today.
The Psalm has a real sense of motion and one and only one central character, the Lord, who is mentioned 18 times across its 11 verses. As it opens it is set in Heaven, where supernatural beings worship the Lord and honour his glory and strength. From verse 3 it moves to Earth, where a great storm – which David likens to the activity of the Lord — sweeps in from the sea, moving down the whole length of Canaan and then out into the desert. Its range takes in the whole of David’s known world — from Lebanon in the North to the wilderness of Kadesh in the remote South. As it concludes, in verses 10 and 11, references to thunder and storms cease and, in the aftermath, the Lord is revealed on his eternal throne, still in Heaven but also bringing strength and peace to His people on Earth.
Let’s focus now on how David describes the source of this almighty power in this Psalm. As I mentioned, it refers to the Lord 18 times across its short length. Seven of those references are specifically to ‘the voice of the Lord,’ which is said to be over the waters, to be powerful and full of majesty, to break the cedars, to flash forth flames of fire, to shake the wilderness and, finally, to cause the oaks to whirl, or twist, and to strip the forest bare.
Clearly this voice is an active, vigorous agent of the Lord in exercising his power and not at all passive nor static. Respecting that, as Isaiah 55 teaches us, the Lord’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor are his ways our ways, it is still worth pondering why ‘the voice of the Lord’ plays this role. Why not some musculature, which we could better understand as a means of strength? Or why not something scientific or technical, like an energy field or a special algorithm, one way beyond our understanding or imagining in its power and complexity?
But no, it is the voice of the Lord and it is clear, from the very start of the Bible and throughout it, what great impact God has when he speaks. As the opening verses of Genesis record, when the earth was a dark and formless void, it was God’s voice – through seven statements beginning with ‘Let there be light’ – that separated light from darkness, divided sea from sky, formed vegetation, set the sun, the moon and the stars in place and designed every living creature, including humankind.
Later, John Chapter 1 teaches us that it was God’s Word – Jesus – that became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus’ voice had exactly the same commanding authority and creative impact as the Lord’s — at the sound of his voice water became wine, shrivelled limbs were made whole and fishermen left their nets to follow him. In opposing the powerful Roman Empire and Jewish hierarchy, his weapons were words, ones that pointed the way to the Kingdom of God, released forgiveness and delivered healing – and still do. And, lastly, that same voice – from the resurrected Jesus, the lamb on the throne — declares ‘I am making everything new!’ in Revelation Chapter 21, verse 5 – as a new Heaven and a new, beautiful, restored Earth are brought about.
So from Genesis to Revelation we see that the voice of the Lord somehow has power to create something from nothing. It can renew what has been lost and defeat merciless opponents conclusively without firing a shot. It can speak words that change lives completely, altering their course once and for all. Is there any wonder that David writes in verse 9 that all in the Lord’s temple, meaning all who know him and with whom he dwells, say ‘Glory!’ – in other words they pour out praise and worship — in response to that voice and all it accomplishes?
But maybe that was then and now is now and, especially amidst the ongoing agony of a global pandemic, God’s voice seems silent and the dramatic consequences of its impact absent. Is he still speaking now? If so, how can we – all of us, not just the ‘holy people’ like vicars – hear the voice of the Lord today?
We hear the voice of the Lord principally through his lasting word, the Bible, and by reading it and hearing it preached. It is not a dry text that is out-dated and irrelevant – but equally it is often not an easy read and needs application and illumination to bring it to life. It is itself an expression of God’s power – as Hebrews Chapter 4, verse 12 states, ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’
God also speaks today through creation, as he has continuously since conceiving the world and its universe. It testifies to his virtuosity as the Creator, from the most minute detail of a glorious flower to the most majestic view of the night sky on a clear winter evening. Psalm 19 puts it beautifully: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.’
It is also through others and through wise counsel that God’s voice can often be heard – he can speak through trusted friends who know him and his ways and to whom we can bring our concerns. God wants us to be earthed in communities and families, and so often seems to speak most clearly when we are in regular relationship with other followers of him.
Perhaps most important, the voice of the Lord can and does speak directly to us, probably more often than we realise. Sometimes he can speak through an instinct or an impulse, a wordless, settled conclusion that just feels right. Some Christians have heard his voice audibly, while for others it is not like a thunderclap but more like a whisper, as Elijah testified in 1 Kings Chapter 19, recording that the Lord’s voice was a ‘still small one’ and not in the wind, earthquake or fire.
But, when God does speak to us, how can we trust that it is his voice? May I suggest two key tests:
- First, when he speaks he will not contradict his own Word or his character (as expressed in the Bible) and we are encouraged, in Thessalonians in particular, to weigh and test what we hear. So, to take an extreme example, if we feel encouraged by his voice to kill — rather than love — our neighbour, it is not God who is speaking. We are unlikely to be contemplating such violence, but what about impulses to covet our neighbour’s possessions or to lie when convenient to us?
- Second, God’s voice may well be corrective, but is also always compassionate and not He wants the best for us, so is prepared to underline parts of our life that are damaging or destructive when he speaks to us, but he acts only out of love. His posture towards us is one of generosity, with his arms wide open to welcome us back and to forgive us when we have wandered off course.
What is really important is that we get to know and to recognise that voice – to be like the sheep that the good shepherd Jesus spoke about in John Chapter 10, who listen to his voice, know him and follow him. Shepherds in the Middle East two millennia ago lived with their flocks, so what might make the difference for us now? Spending time with Jesus, having a relationship with him and coming into his presence regularly.
For years I struggled with the classic early morning quiet time with God, mostly because I found my mind wandered easily as I thought about the new day and its activity. This challenge was particularly acute when away on business travels. My work has always required a lot of travel and, too often in the past, when waking up in Seoul or San Francisco, I gave priority not to time with God, reading the Bible and praying, but rather to my usually overflowing inbox and the demands of work.
Being in one place for most of 2020 and now 2021 has been hugely beneficial in re-orienting those daily patterns and ensuring I am renewed by conversation with God every day. Fresh air and exercise have been key to that change – motion and being in his creation seem to help me make myself available to God. I now ignore my e-mails at the start of the day and set off on a walk with our Spaniels for an hour or so of what has become incredibly valued time – so much so that I often extend it and I think my wife may occasionally worry what has happened to me. I find it particularly helpful to start the walk listening to Lectio365, a free App recommended by Lucy Pease in the first lockdown https://www.24-7prayer.com/dailydevotional– it is a 10 to 12 minute daily reflection grounded in God’s Word and has become a foundational part of my day.
Our personalities and patterns can differ – some of us are early risers and others are night owls. So can our circumstances be different – some of us may be on our own and others may have full houses of young children. As a result there is no magic formula to apply to come into God’s presence, to communicate with him and to listen for his voice — what’s important and what will give oxygen to our relationship with him is that we find a place and a point in the day, every day ideally, when we can spend time with him, giving him undivided attention, even for just a few minutes.
As we finish, let’s return to that awesomely powerful voice of the Lord that David writes of in Psalm 29. Will God speak to stop Covid 19 in its tracks, just as Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee? If not, why not? We can’t explain why God sometimes appears to act and sometimes doesn’t. Yet we can remind ourselves that we live in a fallen world and in the ‘now and not yet’ time, when God’s Kingdom has been introduced to Earth and to its people but has not fully overcome evil. We can also remember that Jesus never promised us untroubled lives in this world, but also that God promised, long ago, never to leave us nor forsake us.
Therefore, even in the midst of terribly dark times, we can know the comfort of his presence and hold on to what he has promised, in the confidence that this voice will ultimately make all things new and bring about restoration of this broken creation, as Revelation 21 tells us will happen. Then there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
So can we find opportunity in crisis, with so much of our normal lives disrupted, to get to know the Good Shepherd better, remembering that it was he who laid down his life for us and ultimately is our only source of real and lasting security? As our Psalm shows us in its final verses, he is enthroned as king forever, gives us strength and blesses us with peace. That loving God spoke with power in the past. He still speaks with power now — and will again. Can we slow down, calm ourselves and listen for his voice today?
The Voice of God in a Great Storm
A Psalm of David.
1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ps 29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.