Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 13, 2016
Psalm 98 Commentary
On the church’s liturgical calendar, next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year, on which we finally get to celebrate Christ the King. So, fittingly, the lectionary has us preaching on Psalm 98 this second to the last Sunday of the church year. We can think of it as a prelude to that great climax we’ll focus on next Sunday.
Psalm 98 is one of several enthronement Psalms in the Psalter (cf. Psalms 29, 93, 96, 97, and 114). It is in a sense the King of the Psalms, summarizing as it does the central message of the entire Psalter, namely, that Yahweh is the great King over all the earth, in spite of appearances. “Despite the disasters of sin and the terrors of history, the Lord alone is king, and he will make things right again.” (Raymond Van Leeuwen)
Understandably, Brueggemann includes Psalm 98 in his category of “Psalms of Re-orientation.” After all the struggles of Israel’s history and the tragedies of their individual lives (as spelled out in the Psalms of Disorientation), God’s grace has come on the scene in new and surprising ways. Life is good again in ways never experienced before. Says Brueggemann, Psalm 98 is one of those “songs of new orientation par excellence. They give public liturgical articulation to the ‘new kingship’ of Yahweh… [it is] one version of the victory psalms that celebrate Yahweh’s victory over Israel’s enemies.” Indeed, says Davidson, there is “no mention of defeated enemies and no mention of the gods of other peoples as in Psalm 96 and 97. They have faded into the background. The Lord alone holds center stage.” Truly, Psalm 98 is the King of the Psalms.
The structure of Psalm 98 is as simple as its contents are profound. In verses 1-3 the Psalmist sings about what Yahweh has done as the great King. In verses 4-6 he commands the human inhabitants of the whole earth to join Israel in praising the King. Verses 7-9 widen the summons to praise by inviting the entire non-human, indeed, inanimate creation to fill out the choir that sings the praises of the King who will come to make all things right. These concentric circles of praise involve the entire creation in the praise of the King of World. “Joy to the World, the Lord has come!”
A careful study of Psalm 98 will help us 21st Century Christians join in this ancient, future and cosmic praise. It begins with a call to sing “a new song” to the Lord. Why a new song? What’s wrong with the old ones? Well, the Lord has done such a stunning new thing that it calls for new song. God has created a new reality that must be celebrated with music suited to that reality.
How did the Lord create that new reality? All other world religions claim that we can experience a new reality by following the teachings of the god(s) or guru or prophet at the center of that religion, whether it’s the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita or the teachings of Confucius. (Of course, Israel and we Christians also have teachings we are supposed to follow.) But the central way Yahweh created a new reality was not by teaching, but by doing “marvelous things.” Indeed, that is the reason for the new song; “for (ki in the Hebrew) he has done marvelous things.”
The focus of our praise is on what God has done in history with his “right hand and holy arm….” Both Old Testament and New emphasize the mighty historical acts of God. For Israel, those marvelous things include the Exodus, the giving of Torah at Sinai, the preservation of Israel in the wilderness, the conquest of the Promised Land, the Exile and the return from Exile. For Christians, God’s marvelous deeds culminate in the birth, teachings, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension, reign, and return of Christ. By these mighty historical deeds, the King of the World has broken into the disarray of a sinful world and created a whole new reality where all things will be right. This is how God has “worked salvation for him.” That phrase is significant. God works salvation, not us. It is not the product of our effort, of our “right hand and holy arm,” but of God’s.
Not only has Yahweh done these things in history, but he has also made them known. What good would it have done if God had simply acted in a far off corner of the world (as in fact he did), but didn’t tell anyone about it? Who would know? Who could believe? Who would benefit from it in the future? It would have been a once and done event (as opposed to “once for all”), the significance of which would have been lost to world.
But God made sure that there were witnesses, human beings who saw God act in history and then told the story and its meaning not only to their children, but also to strangers who lived at the ends of the earth. What God did in little Israel and in that one man Jesus was a fulfillment of his special relationship (covenant) with Israel. But in those particular events God was acting for all the nations of the earth. So Psalm 98 commands us to praise the Lord not only because he “has remembered his love and faithfulness (uniquely covenantal words) to the house of Israel,” but also because “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”
One more little note about the reason we are to praise the King. Actually, this is not a little note at all. It’s a big deal. Did you notice verse 2, where the Psalmist links salvation and righteousness? “The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” What is the relationship? The order of that verse suggests that salvation reveals God’s righteousness. But is there more to it than that? Does salvation consist in righteousness? And, for that matter, what is this righteousness that the Psalm ties to salvation in such a provocative way? I’ll say more about this later in my comments on verse 9.
For now let’s focus on verses 4-6 where the Psalmist steps outside the worshiping community of the covenant and addresses the rest of humanity, which, of course, includes Gentiles like us. “Shout for joy to the Lord (Israel’s God, Yahweh, the covenant name of God).” That is a command. Indeed, all the verbs in verses 4-6 are imperatives. The Lord is King and all human beings are commanded to praise him. This is a note that is often heard in the Jewish Psalter. Yahweh may have been the God of the Jewish people in a special way, but as God said to Abraham way back in Gen. 12:3, his intention in choosing Israel had always been to save the whole world. So, of course, in the King of the Psalms, the entire human race is ordered to praise “Yahweh, the King.” (verse 6)
I think it is fascinating that these commands in verses 4-6 all have to do with music. The inhabitants of the world are commanded not to bow down, not to grovel, not to offer sacrifices, not even to obey (though that comes into the picture in other Psalms), but to make music. The Lord is king, so sing, sing, sing, with jubilant song, with shouts of joy (if you can’t sing very well or get so excited that you go out of tune), using all the instruments you have.
The first response, the most appropriate response to what our great King has done for us is singing. What God has done should move us to joy, and joy must sing. Is there a more musical faith in the world than Christianity? Of course, the Jewish faith also sings, as we hear in all these Psalms. But we have seen the mightiest act of God in Christ (cf. Heb. 1:1-4). How can we keep from singing?
Indeed, says verses 7-9 the entire creation joins us in song. These verses have a slightly different tone—not the imperative mood, but the jussive, not command, but encouragement. “Let the sea resound…. Let the rivers clap their hands….” It’s almost as though the Psalmist is saying that humans need to be commanded to do what the rest of nature does by nature. The non-human inhabitants of the sea and the earth (the two great regions of terrestrial life) are simply invited to join the praise. Even the inanimate parts of creation are invited to “clap their hands” and “sing together for joy.” The creation praises its Creator, acknowledging that he is Lord.
Interestingly, the creation sings the praises of Yahweh not only because he is their creator, but even more because “he comes to judge the earth.” The main focus of this praise, then, is not on the past, but in the future. Note that this is non-human part of creation, not the human part, praising Yahweh because he is coming to judge the earth. The earth hears that as good news, but many humans will hear it as very bad news, as a threat to their life and well-being.
This brings us back to that business about salvation and righteousness. Verse 9 says that the reason for and result of Yahweh coming to judge the earth will be righteousness. “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Many Christians might have expected different wording, something like “he will come to save the world by his grace.” But this Psalm and the rest of the Old Testament and, indeed, the New Testament does not see a conflict between grace and judgment, between love and righteousness. In fact, righteousness is what salvation by grace is all about.
What does salvation amount to? We often reduce it to the forgiveness of sins, being made right God, and having a home in heaven. It is that, but it is more. In his saving plan, God intends to make everything right again—not just our relationship with himself (though that is central to the whole enterprise), but also our relationship with each other, with the rest of creation, even with our own selves. The New Testament ends not with the saints in heaven, but with the New Jerusalem coming down to a new heaven and new earth in which all the effects of sin have been eradicated. All that was wrong will be made right again. So, says II Peter 3:13, “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
So it’s no wonder that the whole earth joins in praise at the prospect of the King’s return, “for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the people with equity.” If this still sounds threatening, consider these words from Ray Van Leeuwen. “God’s judgments are not opposed to love, but are the very instrument of that love. God’s judgments restore all that is broken to the goodness the Bible calls ‘righteousness.” The only creatures who need to fear the judgment are those who refuse to sing, but instead continue their rebellion against the King. With that in mind, you could end your sermon on this King of the Psalms with an invitation to stop rebelling. Stop murmuring and grumbling and plotting against the King. Lay down arms and lift up hands and sing the praise of the King.
Psalm 98 was the Old Testament text on which Isaac Watts based his famous Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.” Listen for the echoes of this Psalm in that hymn of praise to the Lord who has come.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing….
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rock, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy….
No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found….
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love….
The relationship between singing and shouts of joy when victory has been won is vividly illustrated on Saturday afternoons in the fall when your favorite college team wins. Any fan of the University of Michigan knows that every touchdown, field goal, and victory is followed instantaneously by the singing/shouting of the famous “Hail to the Victors!”
The joy of judgment can only be understood by someone who understands how terribly wrong things are in this world. As Neal Plantinga put it in the title of his masterpiece breviary on sin, the world is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be.
For a stunning picture of the way non-human creatures will join in the praise of the King, read C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles again. Not only do the animals speak to humans, but they join them in the battle against evil and in the final victory. The movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has breath-taking scenes of badgers and beavers, rams and leopards, all creatures great and small, racing into battle for and then bowing in worship before Aslan. The only thing lacking is the singing of Psalm 98.
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