Psalm 113–The Movie

A short film that aired on TV when I was a child lingers at the fringes of my memory. It began, if I remember aright, with a boy rowing a boat on a lake. Then the camera began to zoom out until first the boy, then the boat, the lake, the country and finally the planet receded from view. Eventually, somewhere in the far-flung depths of space, the motion ceased, and then reversed its direction. The viewpoint zoomed lakeward. On regaining human scale, however, it did not stop–the surprise has stayed with me–and first the boy, then the boy’s arm loomed large, then his skin, his pores, his cells, as the camera continued to zoom into the minute depths of microscopic space.

It struck me recently that Psalm 113 is somewhat like this film. The first in a series of Passover psalms, it begins at a very specific time and place–Jerusalem in spring, in the month of Nissan, with the Passover festival dawning and the servants of the LORD offering due praise to the God who rescued Israel. As the Psalmist lets the eyes of his heart dwell on this LORD who is to be praised, the range of vision expands, and the camera pans back. Not just on this day, at this festival, but now and forever the LORD should be praised. Not just in Jerusalem, but all the way to the horizons visible from Mount Zion, from the rising of the sun to its setting. We zoom out, the view continues to expand, and not only Jerusalem but Israel itself begins to recede and the whole Mediterranean region comes into the picture–the LORD is exalted over the nations. Then the nations themselves shrink, and through wisps of cloud a God whose glory is above the heavens sits enthroned; before another verse has passed he must stoop down to catch a glimpse of the heavens themselves and the earth, tiny below them. The worshipping eye has allowed itself to be adjusted to God’s cosmic perspective.

But then, at the height of majesty, the direction reverses and we swiftly zoom back in to ground level. We find ourselves looking at human society, both rich and poor, both palaces and ash-heaps. We see the God who stoops to see the earth stooping much further to lift those of humble circumstance or who have suffered injustice into places of honor. But we do not stop there; if our ears are attuned, we recognize in the palaces and ash-heaps a quotation, an echo of an earlier prayer. The next verse, with its barren woman, completes the connection–we are no longer contemplating the poor in general, or even a promise to barren women everywhere, but rather are hearing the words of one particular barren woman, an extract from the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:8). On one particular day in Israel’s past, at a single earthly location, God stooped down further still to work with individual cells inside the body of a woman whose humiliation as a childless one, a bearer of shame in the society she inhabited, had led to anguished prayer.

From the cosmos to the womb. From evermore and everywhere to one day in the eleventh century B.C. in Jerusalem. At the end, not a universal promise, but a single, concrete, historical instance from which all are free to draw courage–this, this is the kind of thing that this great God does!

The elastic movement of this Psalm is that of many other parts of Scripture. The sublime creator who makes suns flare with a word is all at once molding mud with his hands in a down-to-earth garden. The one to whom the nations are a drop in a bucket strengthens those who are weary, and carries lambs in his arm of power. Ultimately, the God of all creation becomes himself an embryo and inhabits one time and one place. And we are all free to draw courage from knowing that God is not only quite big enough, but also quite small enough even for our one-of-a-kind, parochial, timebound needs.

David I. Smith is Assistant Professor of German and Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.