God gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs; who can stand against his cold? (Ps 147: 17-18)
Not surprisingly, this verse of Scripture keeps echoing through my mind this week. So I commend to you this wonderful commentary on Psalm 147 verse 17-18, written by the Bible scholar Fred Gaiser. (It has been altered only slightly here.)
Snow stands out in this Psalm because it is rare in the Bible. After all, it was (and is) rare in the part of the Middle East in which the Biblical texts were written. This verse of the Psalm certainly fits the season here in the frozen north. But it doesn’t fit so well in the land of the text, and that’s the point. The snow, the frost, the hail -- they are wild and uncontrollable; they are unexpected and have huge consequences; they are remarkable and make you take notice. They are divine mysteries (Job 38:22-23), so sometimes in the Bible snow serves as a sign that God is up to something (for example, here and in Psalms 68:4; 148:8). Those of us who are used to snow in this season need to be reminded that we should not get completely “used to” the work of God in the world -- and certainly not the divine word. They are meant to surprise. In this part of the Psalm, those strong and unexpected phenomena of weather illustrate the unexpected and effective word of God in the surrounding verses.
In this regard, the psalm parallels those well-known verses of Isaiah:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
God’s word accomplishes God’s purpose. So do snow, wind, and rain. Sometimes, snow, wind, and rain wreak havoc; sometimes they provide the moisture for the earth that is necessary to produce the “finest” wheat (Psalm 147:14). God’s word, too, is meant to bring life and hope; but sometimes, in order to do that, it must challenge and condemn -- perhaps doing both at the same time. The word of God is as life-giving and dangerous as snow and wind, and the how and why of this is mysterious and surprising.
There are other surprises in the psalm, too. The same God who names and numbers the stars cares for the downtrodden and the outcasts, heals the brokenhearted, and feeds the young birds (Psalm 147:2-9). Who’d have thought it? Moreover, God does not require icons of culture like the strength of the horse (or the Harley?) or the speed of the Olympic runner (or the Porsche?) -- as impressive as those things are -- to do God’s work (v. 10). The wounded and the marginalized will do. What builds up and protects is hope in God’s steadfast love, which God freely offers to all (v. 11).
Psalm 147 so closely unites God’s creative work (stars, wheat, water, snow, wind) and God’s redemptive work (saving, healing, protecting) that they become essentially indistinguishable. God is one, and so, finally, is God’s work. That truth is shown again in the gift of Jesus Christ, God taking on human flesh and dwelling among us. The word of creation now becomes the Word made flesh, the word of salvation. It’s another surprise; everything is blown open. All of our confining categories, with which we try to understand God and God’s work - all of those are blown open.
God’s word is like the snow? Here in New England, we take snow for granted. So maybe God’s word would be like a December tornado, as unexpected and powerful as Job’s whirlwind (Job 38:1). In that tornado, Job found a word of God that challenged everything, especially Job’s own presumption. Job would never comprehend all things, but the fact that God actually showed up was enough to give him new life (Job 42:5-6). We believe and proclaim that in that humble Christmas manger, and throughout the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, God actually showed up. How odd. How challenging.