Christians cannot be shy about poetry. It is an indispensable part of our heritage. So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets. On top of that, our faith is a singing faith. The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are. Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression. Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:
. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung . . .
It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context. They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience. It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.
It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm. Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote. Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:
I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.
It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm. I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him. But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work. It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not. David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord. Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:
Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
8 There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
9 He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.
If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is. This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering. The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move. God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.
What are we to make of it?
In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of Godin heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV) What results? As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”
Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)
What do these two passages have in common? First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.
But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer. In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance. In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.
Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine. These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”
We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.