Theme: The Psalm’s Universal Significance
In this week’s lessons we focus on the gracious power of God seen in the wonders of creation and in the bounty of his provision.
Scripture: Psalm 65:1-13
A psalm which is as focused on a national Jewish festival as this one might easily have become narrowly nationalistic, that is, a psalm in praise of One who is thought to be the God of Israel only. But however special the relationship between Jehovah and his specially chosen people may be, the God of Israel is nevertheless the God of all other peoples too, and this important balance is maintained in the opening verses. Verse 1 declares that praise awaits God “in Zion,” that is, in Jerusalem where the great Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was held. But the next verse, verse 2, recognizes that God is a prayer-hearing God “to whom all men will come.”
This is a right and proper kind of universalism, not a universalism that presupposes the equal truth and validity of all religions but a universalism that welcomes all of whatever race who will come to the true God.
This right kind of universalism is not only found in verse 2 of Psalm 65. It is also found in stanza two in the words “the hope of all the ends of the earth” (v. 5) and “those living far away fear your wonders” (v. 8). It is worth noting that it is found in the three following psalms also (Ps. 66:1, 4, 7, 8; 67:2-5; and 68:32), giving us a little set of four.
How can sinful men and women, Jews as well as Gentiles, come before a God who is holy? How can sinners hope to have their prayers heard or their desires satisfied? The answer, the only possible answer, is the atonement, that is, God providing a sacrifice by which an innocent victim bears the punishment of those who are actually guilty. Isaiah 59:1, 2 explains the problem in classic language: “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”
Sin causes God to cover or hide his face from us. But the sacrifice “covers” or “atones” for the sin, so that God can deal with us graciously again. The word “atonement” (kopher) actually means “a covering” and refers to the way the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant by the Jewish high priest. Since the Ark held the two stone tables of the law, containing the Ten Commandments, which we have broken, the blood covered over those transgressions, shielding our sins from the gaze of the thrice holy God, and pointing to the coming, only sufficient sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. His sacrifice not only covers our sins but removes them from us forever.
The word “atonement” is very common in Leviticus but, as noted earlier, it is found only three times in the Psalter (Ps. 65:3; 78:38; 79:9). Perhaps the most striking thing about this psalm’s uncommon reference to atonement is that it is described as something God himself does. For it is not the people who make atonement, or even the high priest; it is God: “You atoned for our transgressions” (v. 3). This is because God is exceedingly gracious, which is what the rest of the psalm will show. Indeed, even the next verse shows it, for it speaks of the one who has been brought near to God by virtue of the atonement now being blessed with every good thing: “We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple” (v. 4). This verse sets up the rest of the psalm in which some of these good things from God for his people are laid out.
J. J. Stewart Perowne is an older commentator who provides an especially well-stated summary of this stanza. He writes:
In Zion God is known, there he is praised and worshiped. He is the hearer of prayer; that is his very character, and therefore all flesh comes to him. All who feel their weakness, all who need help and grace, seek it at his hand. It is true that they who thus come, come with the burden of sin upon them: their iniquities rise up in all their strength and might, and would thrust them away from the presence of the Holy One. But he himself, in the plenitude of his mercy, covers those iniquities, will not look upon them, and so suffers sinners to approach him. And how blessed are they who, reconciled and pardoned, are thus suffered to draw nigh. Of that blessedness may we ourselves be partakers, may we be filled and satisfied therewith.1
Which leads me to ask: Do you know that blessedness? You will never know the God of the abundant blessing of nature (or any other blessing) until you first know him as the One who has made atonement for your sin.
1J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 498. Original edition 1878-1879.
What keeps this psalm from being nationalistic? How do we see this demonstrated in the opening verses?
How does our sin separate us from God?
How does our psalm describe atonement? What is the most striking thing about this psalm?
Reflection: What are the right and wrong kinds of universalism? In what sense does this psalm promote universalism?
For Further Study: To learn more about the idea of atonement, download for free and listen to James Boice’s message from Leviticus, “The Day of Atonement.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)