The Function of the Divine Council in Heavenly Worship: Piety, not Mysticism Part 3

[This is Part 3 of Stephen Huebscher’s series on the divine council and heavenly worship. See Part 1 and Part 2. — MSH]

 


 

We now move on to the second group of texts relating to our topic, the OT biblical texts. Over the next several posts, we are will look at nine that are fairly clear and direct in referring to worship in heaven. This post includes the first two of them. We begin with Deut 32:43.

“Rejoice with him, O heavens; bow down to him, all gods, for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries. He repays those who hate him and cleanses his people’s land.” (ESV)

This Pentateuchal text is the first, clear reference to celestial praise. The Hebrew text is corrupted, so it is necessary to look at the Septuagint and Qumran. (The MT has 4 lines, Qumran 6 lines, and the LXX 8 lines.) The Qumran version is most likely original. This verse comes at the end of a song that Moses taught to Israel for the purpose of helping them return to worshiping Yahweh in the future. It calls on the gods who have been receiving worship to bow down and worship Yahweh. Yahweh will keep covenant faithfulness to his people in the form of vengeance on his enemies. The call to the inferior gods does not focus on them. The human worshipers are concerned that the heavenly beings do what they are supposed to. Why? Because they have no business soliciting worship away from Yahweh. In fact, by all rights they ought to be worshiping Yahweh themselves! Within Deuteronomy, Yahweh has shown himself to be so gracious in giving a covenant to his people. It is unconscionable for them to be worshiping other gods. There is no concern with achieving unity with either heavenly beings or God himself in this text, only a concern that God alone be worshiped because of his righteousness and faithfulness.

Our second text is more familiar. Isaiah 6:1-8 is a well-known passage that is unique in the Hebrew Bible in its depiction of celestial praise. God’s holiness is the focus of heavenly praise.

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”  4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”  8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me”.”

The prophet’s visionary experience spans the entire chapter, not just the section of praise.  The heavenly praise is closely linked to each of the elements: the holiness of God, sanctifying the prophet, and appointing the prophet to a specific ministry based on his having been in Yahweh’s council (cf. Jer 23:22). The plural “for us” reflects the concept of the divine council. “The imagery surrounding the commissioning is that of a divine court. God is consulting his entourage. The parallels with 1 Kings 22 are striking”.1

The identity of the seraphs is not certain, although different theories have been put forth. What does seem reasonably certain is that they were powerful, high-level spirits in close proximity to God. Little is stated about the praise called between the seraphs. The ‘Trisagion’ (which is what liturgical scholars call the three-fold proclamation, “holy, holy, holy”) certainly emphasizes Yahweh’s holiness, and may have been part of the liturgy already in the Jerusalem temple. The second part of the seraphs’ praise is often understood to mean that the earth is filled with his kavod, his “glory,” “honor,” “majesty,” “significance.” This “expresses the fact that God’s kavod demands an appropriate response, an acknowledgment”.2 A more literal rendering, perhaps, would be “the fullness of the earth is his [Yahweh’s] glory.” In this translation, “fullness” can be understood as the peoples of the earth, and glory can refer to his army. This results in saying, “All the peoples of the earth are at the Lord’s disposal as his army, to do with as he wishes.” This has a much broader tone highlighting God’s sovereignty, not to mention an anti-nationalistic ring as well. God’s presence elicited not only praise, but also an overwhelming awareness of the prophet’s own sinfulness, who cries out, “I am destroyed or ruined.”

The celestial praise thus validates Isaiah’s message because (1) the heavenly host were expected to praise God, so to hear their praise would certify one’s presence in the divine council as an authentic prophet, and (2) their message of God’s holiness and sovereignty powerfully reinforced it.

The third OT text is Psalm 29:1–2:

A Psalm of David. Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.  2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.” (ESV)

This praise psalm deals with the glory of the LORD (kavod Yahweh), especially in nature. The sense of this psalm attributes glory and power over creation to Yahweh instead of to Baal. In so doing, I see the Ugaritic parallels as part of the overall rhetorical strategy of taking back what rightfully belongs to Yahweh, which had been stolen by worshipers of Baal.

The psalm opens with a call to the beney ’elim, the sons of God, to give praise to Yahweh. By doing this, the writer begins “at the top” both in terms of cosmology and importance. He calls on the members of the top tier of the divine council to ascribe kavod to Yahweh. Why? Because if Yahweh truly is greater than Baal, then it is imperative that those spirits closest to him, who would also be his closest competitors for receiving worship, acknowledge Yahweh’s greatness. If they would not be willing to praise him, this would be a clear indication that Yahweh’s kingship over the spiritual realm was in doubt. Yahweh would then be just another god among all the rest.

In verse 2, the psalmist says that the reader needs to worship “in/with holy attire or adornment” (verse 2). What does this means? The difficulty is figuring out what the psalmist was referring to, since only the priests were required to vestments. The translation of the Hebrew (behadaroth-qodesh) as it stands is pretty clear; it means what it says: “in/with holy attire or adornment.” As it turns out, there is a text critical issue at this point, perhaps because of the difficulty of making sense of the Hebrew. One would hope this would clear matters up, but it doesn’t. It gets complicated to explain, but basically, trying to find a text-critical problem creates as many new problems as it solves.

In light of these difficulties, it seems most prudent to me to wrestle with the text as it stands. Thus, the holy (or purified) attire may reflect the garments that the writer and other human worshipers would wear when singing this psalm and praising Yahweh.3 We simply don’t know at this point.

Whatever the exact significance, it seems clear the writer is unwilling to accept any shortcuts in getting back Yahweh’s rightful glory from Baal, and the sons of God play an important role in this.

Psalm 89:5-8 (vv 6–9 in Hebrew). “5 Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! 6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD, 7 a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? 8 O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O LORD, with your faithfulness all around you?”

This psalm concludes book three of the Psalter. (The book of Psalms is divided into 5 “books” or collections. This is in addition to other smaller collections that seem to have been incorporated into it.) It deals with the fallout of the Exile, especially the loss and seeming abandonment of Yahweh for his people. For this reason, the writer begins with praise for the “faithfulness” of Yahweh. In 5–9, the heavenly council is portrayed as praising Yahweh for his “faithfulness,” which is also thus linked to his incomparability, even when compared to the council members. The fact that the divine council praises Yahweh for these very things is some of the highest corroboration possible. The psalm itself wrestles with Yahweh’s faithfulness in the face of his apparent betrayal and powerlessness. The writer struggles to hold onto faith. With language that is at times poignant and heart-wrenching, he desperately cries out to Yahweh to again show his “faithfulness” and to keep covenant with his humiliated people and his anointed. Unlike other Psalms, there are no answers here, only believers grappling with pain and grasping for hope.

  1. Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 56.
  2. Claus Westermann, “כבד kbd to be heavy,” in TLOT, 2:596.
  3. Craigie and Tate, WBC, Psalms 1—50, 247.

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