David’s triumphant song of thanksgiving to God for providing him with protection in his times of need provides a colorful expression of both the exacerbating circumstances of David’s low moments and his triumph over adversity. In one vignette, God’s saving power is described as expressing itself through the forces of natural: “Then the earth did shake and quake; the foundations of heaven did tremble; they were shaken because He (God) was angry.” (22:8)
Rashi states that this verse describes miracles performed by God to save Israel. Similarly, Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence), in his commentary on the version of this song found in Psalms, sees this verse as a parable of God’s saving power against Israel’s enemies.
This verse offers a poetic opportunity for one rabbinic author to offer a moralistic explanation of why earthquakes occur:
Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani: ‘Why do earthquakes occur? Over the upheaval caused by the end of one government and the transition between one government and another, as it is written: As the earth shall tremble and shake, for every purpose of the Lord shall be performed against Babylon, to make the land of Babylon a desolation. (Jeremiah 51:29)’ (Midrash Tehillim 18:11, Buber edition, p. 140)
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani sees political upheaval in apocalyptic terms. The disruption of society caused by the transfer of power was frequently violent in the Roman empire. Life turned chaotic and its destructive nature could be as disruptive as an earthquake. The sages, who were great believers in poetic justice, which they called “midah k’neged midah – measure for measure”, may have seen earthquakes as an appropriate punishment for these ‘man-made’ earthquakes.
One has to wonder why this sage drew such a correlation when he probably realized that there was no direct empirical connection between earthquakes and political upheaval. I would suggest that he intended it as a dire warning to those who sought to create just such scenarios (yes, even in Jewish circles) of the horrendous consequences of such actions.
This has been a crazy year politically. There is enormous dissatisfaction with the existing political structures throughout the world, giving rise to all kinds of “politically messianic” movements which have managed to wrangle their way into the normative political frameworks. The resultant upheaval is frightening and threatens to overturn civilization. It may be wise for all those who find radically disruptive forces attractive to heed Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani’s warning. Earthquakes heal nothing. They only create destruction and chaos.