Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 10, 2015
Psalm 98 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 98 is a stirring call to joyfully (and boisterously!) celebrate God’s reign over all creation. It’s very similar to Psalm 96. After all, both invite the listening congregation to sing a new song and each ends with God’s righteous judgment being a reason for jubilant singing. Each psalm is also part of the cluster of “kingship psalms.” However, psalms 96 and 98 are also subtly different. Psalm 96 focuses on God’s glory. Psalm 98 focuses on God’s salvation.
The psalmist invites the listening congregation to join her in singing a “new song.” Since she doesn’t identify what new marvelous thing God has done, we’re not sure if she’s referring to some specific new act of salvation. In some ways, however, that doesn’t really matter. After all, God is always doing some new work of redemption. Whether it’s leading them out Egypt, into the land of promise, back from exile or some other dramatic act, God constantly intervened in surprising ways on behalf of God’s Israelite children.
This provides those who preach and teach Psalm 98 with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what new things God is still doing that might inspire even more new songs. We may invite modern worshipers to ask themselves how they’re experiencing God’s salvation, not just in the sense of salvation from sin, but also from various dangers. What sorts of new songs might we able to write, even if they’re just for singing in the shower or car?
Psalm 98 includes two reasons for offering such new praise. Verses 1b-3 and 9 direct our attention to God’s salvation, to the ways God has intervened in our world in marvelous and unexpected ways. In fact, Psalm 98 places a particularly strong emphasis on God’s work of salvation as a cause for jubilant singing. Verse 1b’s reference to God’s “right hand and holy arm” point not to God’s ability to sling a baseball or football but, instead, evoke images of God as the divine warrior whose victory over God’s enemies points to God’s kingship over all of creation, over even those who oppose God and God’s good purposes.
In fact, verse 2 asserts, God is such a mighty king that God doesn’t just save God’s needy sons and daughters. God also lets people, including both Jews and Gentiles, know about that salvation. So as the NIV Study Bible notes, God serves as God’s own evangelist. God’s saving works themselves testify to God’s righteous rule over the whole cosmos. In fact, as a result of God’s royal acts, not just Israel but “all the ends of the earth” have seen those acts of salvation. By God’s grace ministered through the Holy Spirit, people from every part of the world can see God’s mighty hand at work on behalf of God’s children.
The psalmist asserts that God has not forgotten God’s children who so naturally forget the Lord. Israel may forget to be faithful to God. Yet God remembers to be faithful to Israel. In that way God is like a wife who remains faithful even when her husband is persistently and even serially unfaithful. God remembers God’s love and faithfulness to not just “the house of Israel,” but to God’s people everywhere.
Yet Psalm 98 doesn’t just see God’s activity in the past as cause for jubilant singing. The psalmist recognizes that God is also sovereignly at work even now, judging the earth. God punishes sin not just at Christ’s return, but already now. In fact, James Mays notes that the psalmists and prophets saw the exodus and return from exile as part of the “coming” of the Lord to judge human affairs.
However, as the psalmist peers into the future he also anticipates God’s further judgment. He anticipates a day when God “will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” While humans may execute and hand down unjust judgment, God judges righteously. God is just when God judges.
Those who read Psalm 98 through the lens of the New Testament see its talk about judgment as referring, in part, to Christ’s return at the end of measured time. After all, then God will come to judge everyone, believers and unbelievers. Those who have received God’s grace with their faith will hear God’s gracious verdict of “not guilty,” for Jesus’ sake. However, those who have persistently rejected that grace will put themselves in danger of hearing God’s just pronouncement of “guilty.”
That’s one reason why the psalmist can call the whole creation to join her in singing a new song to God. God’s sovereign activity isn’t limited to just the people of Israel. God is the Savior and Judge of the whole world. So the psalmist invites “all the earth” to join her in singing a new song. In other words, she calls people from across the world to join their voices to Israel and hers in happy singing and joyful shouting. She even invites people everywhere to employ a whole cacophony of instruments – harps, voices, trumpets and the ram’s horn — in offering such jubilant song.
In fact, the psalmist beckons not just people across the whole world but also the whole creation to join him in singing a new song to the Lord. He invites the seas, earth, rivers and mountains to lend their “voices” to the cosmic choir of praise to the Lord.
Of course, while the seas and what are in them may literally “roar,” rivers don’t literally clap their hands and mountains don’t literally sing together for joy. So what’s the psalmist saying by inviting them to do so?
Raymond Van Leeuwen suggests that in ascribing human actions to creation, the psalmist is implying that the cosmos’ very existence, its doing what God created it to do, is a kind of song of praise to the Lord. So it’s as if the very oceans, rivers and mountains’ existence and actions testify to not only God’s creative work, but also God’s loving care. As a result, when we do things that harm that creation or prevent it from doing what God created it to do, we’re silencing part of the mighty chorus that sings God’s praise.
If the seas, their contents, the earth, rivers and mountains can sing a new song to the Lord, how much more able are those whom God created in God’s image with hands and voices to do the same? God created us to glorify God and enjoy the Lord forever. What more appropriate response, then, is there than to devote our lives to praising God, not only in what we sing and say, but also in what we do?
Most Christians don’t think of Psalm 98 as a Christmas psalm, even though it’s the appointed lectionary psalm for Christmas Day. Yet it’s the inspiration for Isaac Watts’ beloved Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.” That hymn celebrates Jesus’ incarnation as God’s coming into the world to rule it with “righteousness” and “equity.” Reading Psalm 98 through the lens of the New Testament, Watts saw Jesus’ nativity as the kind of earth-shaking event to which the psalm points ahead.
“Joy to the world! the Lord is come: let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing (italics added). Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns: let all their songs employ, while fields and flocks, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy” (italics added).
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