There are two very different ways to read this Psalm. If we focus on the Psalmist’s claim that Yahweh is Lord of all nations and the attendant claim that he is far above all the gods of the nations and the in-your-face assertion that, in fact, those gods are nothing but idols, we could call Psalm 96 “the Politically Incorrect Psalm.”
The other lectionary readings for today give credence to that reading of Psalm 96. Elijah (I Kings 18) proves that other gods are completely unable to do anything for their adherents. In the same vein, our reading from Luke 7 shows us that even officers of the pagan Roman army must come to Jesus Christ for healing and salvation. And in hard words to the Galatians Paul insists that there is no other gospel than the one he preaches, because his gospel came by revelation from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11, 12). In other words, we might read Psalm 96 as a condemnation of other religions, which, of course, is politically incorrect in our age of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Or we could read Psalm 96 as a warm hearted invitation to the nations to come to the God of Israel and find salvation. The Psalmist’s comparison of Yahweh with those other gods is not first of all about “superiority per se, neither the superiority of Israel’s God nor of Israel itself. Rather the point is justice!” (J. Clinton McCann) McCann and others focus not the other gods of verses 4 and 5, but on the promise of justice for all in verses 10-13.
James Luther Mays goes even further and shows how we can hear Psalm 96 as an evangelical Psalm. “In a world threatened by chaos, the vision evoked by Psalm 96 is indeed ‘good tidings.’” Given the world wide injustice that makes so many miserable, the nations need to hear the good news that the God of Israel is coming to “judge the earth… in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” So, adds Theodore Mascarenhas, Psalm 96 is actually “missionary in character and… it imposes a missionary function upon Israel.”
So, is Psalm 96 a condemnation of other religions or an invitation to the nations to enjoy the salvation of God? Or is it neither or both? Let’s look more carefully at the whole Psalm. It is one of the 6 “Enthronement Psalms” (93, 95-99) that begin Book Four of the Psalter. Many scholars point out that the Psalms in Book Three focus on the Exile, in which Israel lost its land, its temple, and its king. Book Four insists that, contrary to appearances, Israel still has a King. Over and over again it cries, “The Lord reigns.” (verse 10) This is, in fact, the central claim of the entire Psalter, but it rings with special force and clarity in these enthronement Psalms. Mourning in lonely exile, Israel desperately needed the reminder.
What makes Psalm 96 (and some of the other enthronement Psalms) so remarkable is that it is addressed not to Israel, but to the nations. The very people who have carried Israel into Exile are here called to recognize that Yahweh reigns. Indeed, the call of Psalm 96 is not just to recognize, but to “sing, sing, sing, proclaim, declare, and ascribe to the Lord glory due his name.” That call goes out to “all the earth, the nations, all peoples, families of the earth.” No one is exempt from those imperatives. No one is left out; all are included in the call that was usually reserved for the covenant people of Israel.
There is a new song to sing—not a new melody with fresh lyrics, but a new work of God that has brought a new epoch in the history of Israel and the world. The nations are not called to sing a new tune, but to sing of a new time. “Proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” It sounds as though this new thing that God will do for Israel will also benefit the whole world. That is, indeed, the claim in verses 10-13.
But there is also this business of the other gods that are worshiped by the nations of the world. The Psalmist will have no truck with them. The reason the nations are to praise Yahweh is that he is great and worthy of praise, contrary to those other gods. Yahweh is to be feared above all gods. That’s not just because he is bigger and better, though he is. That would be an offensive enough claim to the nations. But the Psalmist goes on to claim, with the entire Old and New Testaments, that those other gods are nothing at all. They are idols, mere creations of human minds and hands. There is nothing beyond the image—just vanity, emptiness, futility. As I Kings 18 says of Baal, “there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention,” because Baal and all other gods do not exist beyond the idol. Yahweh, on the hand, “made the heavens” where the gods are alleged to dwell.
So, does this denigration of the gods of the nations mean that the nations have no part in God’s salvation? Not all. But the nations must do what Israel has done. They must “fear” the Lord (verse 4); they must “tremble before him” (verse 9); and they must “come into his courts” (verse 8). The reigning Lord is coming to bring justice to an unjust world, but to enjoy the benefits of his righteous reign, all must come to him.
When the Lord came to the world in the person of Jesus, the Risen Christ sent his disciples to all nations to make them disciples of Jesus. At the heart of becoming a disciple of Christ is a believing response to the call to “turn to God from idols and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (I Thess. 1:9 and 10)
Psalm 96 doesn’t talk about the wrath to come at the Final Judgment. The frequent use of the word “judge” and its corollaries doesn’t seem to be a threat here. This is probably not about the “Great White Throne Judgment” of Revelation. This proclamation of judgment is seen as promise, as good news. When God comes, he will “establish justice.” That’s the real meaning of the two Hebrew roots translated “judge.”
The Psalm claims that Yahweh reigns even now. That present reign of Yahweh has two consequences. First, “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” That is, we can rely on the stability of nature because Yahweh is in charge. Chaos does not reign. The Lord does. Second, “he will judge the peoples with equity.” We can count on justice in the world. Those are the two great longings of every human heart—for a predictable and just existence. The heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, the fields and the trees sing for joy because of the present reign of the Lord..
But we humans often have a hard time joining the rest of creation in their song. That’s because Psalm 96 and other enthronement Psalms don’t seem to be true. It sure doesn’t look as though Yahweh reigns, because there is disorder and injustice everywhere. Thus, human hearts cry out in disappointment and frustration. That’s why Psalm 96 invites, even commands the nations to sing a new song. God is going to do a new thing. God will come to judge the earth. And when he does, the entire human race will join all nature in singing God’s praise.
He will establish justice on the (new) earth by putting all things right. No more abuse of power, no more moral corruption, no more arbitrary justice, no more exploitation. He will “judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” J. Clinton McCann puts it well. “In a world weary of old patterns of injustice and unrighteousness, the best possible news is that God is still at work, creating new possibilities for life that are properly welcomed, celebrated, and facilitated by the singing of a ‘new song.’”
But we can sing that new song only if we receive the coming King. The news that Yahweh is coming to judge the earth is not good news for anyone who is still bowing down to Baal and other false gods and perpetrating injustice. When Jesus announced that the Kingdom had indeed come, he always added, “Repent and believe the good news!”
James Luther Mays nicely combines the universal invitation of Psalm 96 with its hard words about other gods. “The audience of the Gospel (“The Lord reigns!”) is the nations and peoples of the earth. Its purpose is to turn them from their gods to the God whose reign means stability for the world and equity for the peoples.” Many scholars note the similarities between Psalm 96 and Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 45:22 sums up the invitation of Psalm 96. “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”
Is that politically incorrect? Yes, if it is used to justify unjust treatment of other religions. The benefit of inter-faith dialogue is that it humanizes “the other” and impresses on all participants the need to love those who are different. “They” are just like “us” in many ways. But the hard words of Psalm 96 and Isaiah 45 and John 3:16-18 remind us that real love means speaking the truth, even if our words are judged to be politically incorrect. If we believe that there is real benefit in serving the Lord Jesus today and, even more, if we are convinced that he is coming to judge the living and the dead, then love means calling people to turn away from dead idols to the risen and living God.
Psalm 96 gives us opportunity to preach a warm hearted, but uncompromising Gospel message about God’s rich offer of salvation to all who will say, “The Lord reigns! Jesus is Lord!”
The Supreme Court is often in the news, but even more so lately because of the untimely death of Justice Scalia. The subsequent controversy about the naming of a new justice shows just how important justice is, and how easily justice becomes a political thing. The “truth” of either party dominates the discussion. This gives poignancy and power to those last words of Psalm 96. When Yahweh comes to judge the earth, he will do so, not according to the Democratic or Republican version of the truth, but according to his truth. Thank God!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 29, 2016
Psalm 96 Commentary