Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 6, 2018

Psalm 98 Commentary

The church has long loved Psalm 98.  It is the Psalm for Christmas Day in all three years of the lectionary cycle; indeed, it is the Old Testament text for Isaac Watts’ beloved carol, “Joy to the World.”  It is also the perfect Psalm for the end of the Easter Season, as it looks back at the salvation just won by Christ’s climactic victory over the enemies who ruin God’s good world and looks ahead to the end of the war when a just peace will descend on the whole world.

The structure of Psalm 98 points to that Easter application.  It consists of three equal stanzas.  The first, verses 1-3, looks to the past where Yahweh “has done marvelous things,” where “his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.”  The third stanza, verses 7-9, looks to the future, where Yahweh will “come to judge the earth… in righteousness and… with equity.”  Between those two stanzas is the second, verses 4-6, where all the nations are called to “shout for joy to the Lord.”  Note how that command brackets the stanza in verses 4a and 6b.  And note that verse 6 ends by identifying “the Lord” as “the King.”  As Watts’ hymn sings, “the Savior reigns.”

The whole Psalm issues a call to joyful celebration in ever widening circles.  It begins with Israel, gathered in worship in the temple, celebrating what God has done for them.  He “has remembered his love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.”  But the praise doesn’t end there, because the salvation done for Israel “had been made known to the nations… all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”  So, the circle of praise widens in verses 4-6 to include those nations, “all the earth.”  And then in verses 7-9 the summons to praise goes out to the whole inanimate world, including the sea and the land, the rivers and mountains.   When the Good News of God’s salvation is dropped into the world, the praise spreads in concentric circles.  Watts had it exactly right.  “Joy to the World, the Lord has come.”

There are some important preaching points embedded in this Easter Psalm.  In the first verse, we are called to sing the praises of the Lord, “for he has done marvelous things;” he has “worked salvation.”  God did not bring salvation to the world first of all by teaching us to do something.  If he had, then we would be saved by doing what he taught us to do, or by at least trying to live the way he taught.  Sadly, many church people think that way.  When asked why God should let them into heaven, many answer, “Because I tried hard to live a Christian life.”  No wonder so many lack the assurance of salvation.  If salvation depends on what we do, how can we ever be sure we’ve done enough?

But Psalm 98 trumpets the clear message of the entire New Testament.  We are saved by what God has done in Christ’s life and death, resurrection and reign. “Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul,” sings the old hymn.  My hands don’t have to save me, because “his right hand and holy arm have worked salvation for him.“  I need only trust what he has done for me.  We are saved not by trying, but by trusting.  God has done all the rest, “marvelous things.”

There’s a second crucial preaching point in verse 2, where the parallelism seems to equate “salvation” with “righteousness.”  That’s not unusual in the Psalter, but it can sound strange to some contemporary Christians.  When we think of salvation, we think of forgiveness of sins, adoption into the family of God, enjoying eternal life.  Of course, those blessings are part of the salvation given to us through Christ, but God wasn’t content with a merely personal and relational salvation.  God loves “the world,” and he wants to make all things right again.  That’s the idea summarized in the world “righteousness.”

This emphasis should not surprise us.  Think of how Paul talked about the Gospel in his magnum opus, the letter to the Romans.  After boldly proclaiming that he is not ashamed of the Gospel, he summarizes that Gospel and gives us the theme of Romans: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last… (Romans 1:16, 17).”  We often think only of justification when we read of righteousness, but it means much more than that, as the end of Psalm 98 so clearly says.  More on that later.

If we aren’t paying attention, we might miss the important point made in verses 4-6, namely, that Israel’s Lord is the nations’ King.  Yahweh, who has worked salvation for his people, is the King, not only of Israel, but also of the whole human race.  Again, this is not news to us, but as ancient Israel so often did, we tend to get quite parochial and possessive.  We easily slip into what one scholar called “a narrow religious nationalism.”  Though God had told Israel from the very beginning of his covenant with them that he had chosen them to be a blessing to the whole world, they often thought it was all about them.  It was “Israel First,” and last, and only.  But here in Psalm 98 the nations, Israel’s often hated enemies, are commanded to join Israel in praising Yahweh, because he is their king too.

This claim was sometimes hard for Israel to hear, because the nations had so often persecuted God’s people.  In an increasingly hostile world, we might also struggle to imagine our enemies joining the choir and playing the strings or the brass in the orchestra (cf. verses 5 and 6).  And surely the world would have a harder time believing the claim of Yahweh’s universal Kingship.  As James Mays puts it, “This Psalm believes and claims that Israel’s God had been shaping Israel’s particular history to establish and reveal his rule over universal history.  This belief is astonishing and the claim appears to be theological bravado.”  But that is precisely what the entire Psalter and the whole Bible contend, and thus what we must preach.  “Despite the disasters of sin and the terrors of history, the Lord alone is king, and he will make all things right again.”  (Raymond Van Leeuwen)

That last phrase in the Van Leeuwen quote (“he will make all things right again”) is another crucial preaching point.  Actually, there are two points there, “all things’ and “right again.”  I’ve already mentioned that salvation is more than personal and relational.  It’s also creational, meaning that it involves all creation.  This is clearly why the Psalmist calls inanimate creation to join humanity in praising the Lord—all the oceans and all the continents (“seas and world”), the two great realms of creaturely life; all the rivers and all the mountains, the dominant features of the inhabited world.  Sin ruined God’s good creation.  Ever since God’s fallen world has needed redeeming.  It is hard to imagine what that can mean; I mean, how can a tree be redeemed?  But it is exactly what Paul taught in Romans 8:18-24.  Many preachers will see environmental implications here, though I’m not at all sure that’s where the Psalmist is pointing.

Rather, he is pointing ahead to the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness (II Peter 3:13).  The Psalmist’s point is not environmental; it is eschatological.  He wants the whole world to praise Yahweh because he is coming again to finish the work he began at his first coming.  But the way the Psalmist describes that coming might kill the joy of the world, for, says verse 9, “he comes to judge the earth.”  It’s true that he will judge “with righteousness and equity.”  But it’s still judgment.  And that’s a terrifying prospect.

Unless we think of it in the light of the Gospel of righteousness.  I can’t say it any better than Robert Davidson, so I’ll just quote him.  Judgment here “does not mean merely condemning the world for its evil and corruption.  It means saying ‘No’ to all that threatens to destroy the world of God’s creating, but saying ‘Yes’ to all that will lead it to finding its true purpose and peace.  It means putting the world right again.”

There is still something to fear in God’s coming to judge, if someone is on the wrong side of history, that is, in hardened rebellion against the Lord, the King.  But this message of judgment is part of the Gospel of God’s love for the world, so there is hope even for the rebels.  Remember that the nations are invited to join the royal choir and orchestra in verses 4-6.  That may well be an anticipation of the Great Commission of our Lord in Matthew 28. Ray Van Leeuwen explains the relationship between love and judgment with characteristic eloquent brevity.  “God’s judgments are not opposed to his love, but are the very instrument of that love. God’s judgments restore all that is broken to the goodness that the Bible calls ‘righteousness.’”

That should be music to the ears of the world’s oppressed, whether they are members of the Black Lives Matter movement or evangelicals scorned by the elite left or victims of the Holocaust or survivors of sexual assault or the “huddled masses” seeking refuge in newly closed countries or anyone who wonders if the world will ever be right again.  Psalm 98 and its Gospel fulfillment in the Resurrection and Return of Jesus Christ invite the world to “sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge in righteousness and with equity.”

Evil cannot win.  That’s the overriding message of this Psalm, but it is hidden in the NIV translation I always use.  In verses 1-3 the word “salvation” is used three times.  That is an accurate translation of the Hebrew word yasha, from which Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus is derived.  It means salvation, deliverance, or victory.  That last word is how the NRSV translates all those occurrences of yasha.  If we focus on the image of God’s right hand and holy arm in verse 1, we might see a warrior’s muscular arm raised in victory.  That gives the Psalm a whole different feel.  It’s a victory song.

In the Resurrection of Jesus, God has won the decisive victory over the enemies of the human race– sin, Satan, and death.  In the words of the reading from the Epistle for today, he has “overcome the world (I John 5:4 and 5).”  And by faith in him, so have we.  Therefore, even as we wait for the final mopping up operation, when righteousness will be established once and for all upon God’s good earth, we can rejoice in hope.

Illustration Ideas

After the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl, the Associated Press reported on the victory celebrations as follows: “Fires in the streets.  Smashed windows. Flipped cars. Light poles toppled by alcohol-fueled crowds.  Philadelphia awoke this morning after the triumph of Super Bowl Sunday to a city in disarray and the vexing question: What is it about sports that makes fans riot.”  The article that followed was instructive, but I was fascinated by that picture of devastation after victory.  What a different picture is painted by Psalm 98, where God’s victory means precisely the end of the devastation caused by a riotous human race.

In a similar vein, I am haunted by a scene from a new bestselling debut novel, Lilac Girls.  It follows three young women through the devastation of World War II.  One is an American socialite who devotes herself to aiding people who are suffering around the world.  A second is a German doctor who conducts horrific experiments on Polish girls in Ravensbruck.  The last is one of those Polish girls who is hobbled for life by one of that doctor’s savage surgeries.  Toward the end of the book, after the war is over, the Polish girl travels through a war-ravaged Poland to confront that German doctor.  Even 10 years after the war, Poland is in shambles—buildings in ruins, streets filled with potholes and craters from bombs, farms covered with weeds, the people still in bondage (though to a new power, the Soviet Union).  Even after the Nazis have been defeated, there is no victory.  Righteousness and equity are totally absent in that brave new world.  And so it is and ever will be, until the King returns to make all things new


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