Characterizing God is a hefty, controversial business, but any analysis of the Bible has to come to terms with it: God is totally epic. For crying out loud, the guy is more famous than Moses, the Beatles, and Chuck Norris put together.
God says it best in Exodus: "I am what I am." Enough said.
Bottom line: God, like any big protagonist in any big book, is a hard figure to pin down for coffee. The writers of the Bible made sure of it, and Psalms is no exception.
The Anthropomorphic Dragon Thunder-God Superman Thang
Throughout Psalms, The Loch Ness Monst—ahem, God—is referred to as a powerful figure whose nostrils smoke, who breathes fire, and who marshals the winds and seas to do his bidding. Sounds exciting to us, and it was no different back then. These images were designed to blow the average Israelite's mind out of the water. We're talking mind-numbing displays of natural power.
In Psalm 18, God sounds like a dragon rising from his mountain lair: he's "angry," and the "foundations of the mountains tremble" while the earth shakes (18:7-8). He flies down "on a cherub," a divine being, and unleashes "devouring fire from his mouth" and "glowing" hailstones (18:9-10). In a reference to the parting of the sea, God "laid bare the foundations of the world," and sent bolts of lightning as his arrows (18:14-15).
This is raw, divine power at its most fun to watch. And it's all because God is angry.
Don't forget that the ancient Israelites didn't have weathermen getting things wrong on the evening news; that means they explained natural phenomena in religious terms. So it makes sense that he's a thunder god. Check out Psalms 29, 36:7, 57:1, 68:7-8, 74:1, 77:16-20, 81:7, 83:15, 97:3-5, 99:7, 126:4, 135:5-7, and 148:7 for more Zeus-like action.
The Capricious and Indignant Boss
God reminds us of our older sister. Why? Because he always seems to be annoyed for mostly unspecified reasons.
He often laughs at his non-worshippers (see 2:4, 59:8, and 37:13), and he sits on his throne deriding anyone who would challenge him. Yeah, we're a long way off from a God that governs everything, has no rivals, and is always forgiving. There's a whole lot of time and a whole lot of intellectual distance between the time Psalms was written and now.
So how do you get on God's good side? Well, God "delivers" the loyal soul because he "delights" in that soul (18:19-21). Essentially it comes down to this: "He saved me because I followed his laws and because he liked me." What God's laws are isn't quite clear. Head over to Exodus and Leviticus if you're looking for specifics.
Did you notice that God tends to take off unexpectedly in Psalms? After all, why would people need to cry out to God if he were definitely there? Want some examples? We're there for you:
- Sometimes, God has seemingly forgotten his people. The writer declares, "you have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations" (44:11). You can't get much more absent than that. Or can you?
- In Psalm 79, we're told that the enemies of the Israelites have "given the bodies of your [God's] servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth" (79:2). Where was God in all that?
- God even forgets the dead sometime. Check out 88:5 to see what we mean.
These absentee moments pose a definitively human question: "If God exists and is omnipotent and omniscient, then why is there suffering?" The Psalms don't offer an answer, but they do give us some killer poetry on the subject.
P.S. Hungry for more? Other instances of God's absence include Psalms 10, 11:5, 13, 22:9-21, 38:3, 44, and 66:10-12.
Oh, But He's Cool, Too
Doubt in God is an integral part of the Psalms, no question. But faith in God's power as creator is everywhere, too. The writers declare, "It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture" (100:3). So despite all their whining, the Israelites rarely stray from the belief that God created the universe and holds a deeply personal relationship with every human being:
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. (139:15-16)
Talk about a personal connection.
What's with all the contradictions? God's absent, but he's everywhere. He knows every human being, but loves seeing his enemies obliterated into dust. What gives?
Keep in mind that the Bible was written and put together at different times by different people. The writers weren't necessarily concerned with creating a coherent, logical figure.