Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 22, 2023
Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13) Commentary
My pastor during much of my growing-up years back in Ada Christian Reformed Church in the 1970s often used the middle portion of Psalm 96 as his Call to Worship. I can still recall hearing Sunday after Sunday “Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name . . .” The word “ascribe” was definitely not a part of my vocabulary back then. I had some dim sense there was such a thing in life as someone who serves as “a scribe” but wasn’t sure if that vocation had anything to do with my pastor’s words.
Truth is, most of us don’t use “ascribe” all that often even as adults. We would not say to someone by way of a compliment, “I just have to ascribe to you credit for your efforts here” or “I want to ascribe to you your intelligence and wit.” No, we would “give” someone credit or we would “give” them a compliment. As most of us know, to “ascribe” in the Psalm 96 sense of the word means to assign something to someone or to designate that someone has this or that characteristic. It’s an acclamation. It’s a due acknowledgement of something. In this case the target is Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, and what all the earth is being asked to do is acknowledge and so publicly proclaim that this God alone has honor and glory and strength.
The psalm begins with singing and then moves to declaring, ascribing, and worshiping. But it is the scope of all that activity that is the heart of poems like this one in the Hebrew Psalter. Because this psalmist was not content to tell Israel to do all this. Oh no, it’s the whole earth. It’s all the families of all the nations. All of this glowing ascribing of accolades is the vocation of everyone and they cannot just ascribe all this to just anyone or to any random god. Nope. Israel’s God is the real deal and all other alleged “gods” are backhanded away here as idols. And idols are by nature something we human beings create. God, however, is the one who created the heavens and everything else and so if anyone in the families of nations thought they were in touch with some divine reality, Psalm 96 rebukes it and calls for a singularly new orientation to praise Israel’s God alone.
It’s hard to know how well-known such a psalm was outside of Israel. It’s difficult to discern how often an Israelite individual or some Israelite choir would have actually sung this psalm in front of people from other nations and who worshiped other gods. Probably as is the case today, most of the worship services that might have included this global call to praise were never heard by anyone not already inside the church sanctuary to begin with.
Still, if other nations got wind of this psalm, surely it would not go over real big. Psalms like Psalm 96 definitely had a pugilistic, feisty polemical dimension to them. We can forget this pretty easily when we recite or sing such psalms in worship today but make no mistake: Psalm 96 and its ilk threw down their fair share of gauntlets for the world to pick up—or not. It’s hard to say whether the people who composed these psalms saw them as a possible tool for de facto “evangelism.” But then as now, probably a lot of people at whom these words would be aimed would not take kindly to the sentiments here. Not a few people in the church today would likely regard this approach to unbelievers or people of other faith traditions as too much “in your face” and then some.
And anyway, does something like Psalm 96 have things backwards? Aren’t the people most inclined to ascribe all this stuff to God and to sing new songs to God the ones who A) Already believe this God exists and B) Have come to a faith-induced appreciation for this God’s attributes and work? Wouldn’t you need to try to convince a person of something like God’s grace and love before expecting them to sing to this God about those traits? Otherwise it’s like telling a man “See that lovely woman over there? Her name is Sandy. So go over and sing a love song to her. Ascribe to her a great sense of humor and a great compassion for needy people!” Well, if I don’t know Sandy yet and have no way of knowing yet how funny and compassionate she may be, it does not make sense to start out by singing to her about all that.
So perhaps Psalm 96 assumes that some pre-work has already been done among the people to whom this praise imperative was given. And perhaps there was some thought that if you behave a certain way long enough—whether or not you initially felt particularly convicted of something—often the feelings eventually catch up with the rhetoric and the posture it demands. C.S. Lewis famously said something like this once: behave in loving ways toward another person long enough and you may find that sooner or later you actually do love that person more than you did when you first started behaving toward them in loving ways. Sometimes feelings can evolve from actions.
Maybe. But all of this deserves careful consideration. Because although the Revised Common Lectionary makes the last 4 verses optional here (I guess that is what is signaled when they put some verses in parentheses), Psalm 96 does conclude with a reminder that this God to whom all people are asked to ascribe honor and glory and power will in the end be judging all the earth and its peoples. It will be a righteous judgment borne of God’s own goodness and faithfulness but it will be a judgment nonetheless. The psalmist here states this pretty matter-of-factly. You don’t get the sense he is dangling the prospect of judgment here as a threat or as a de facto bony finger wagging in anyone’s face. Psalm 96 is overall too cheery and upbeat for that.
Nevertheless the poem ends with the idea that you can be on the right side of all this with God or not. When it is all said and done these things will not merely be a matter of personal opinion or preference. Think long and hard, then, about getting in on all the singing and ascribing going on here. Because in the end, few things may prove to be more important.
Psalm 96 proclaims that God made the heavens and everything else and as a result, “strength and glory” are in his sanctuary. One could get the sense that a good bit of what constitutes that strength and glory are the things we can see around us in the physical creation. Look around! See what God has made! Revel in its beauty.
That seems to be part of the idea here. We see the glories God has made and reflect some of that very glory back onto the Creator. It reminds me of the lyric words that come near the beginning of the Reformed confessional document “The Belgic Confession.” In an article titled “The Means by Which We Know God,” it says:
We know God . . .
by the creation, preservation, and government
of the universe,
since that universe is before our eyes
like a beautiful book
in which all creatures,
great and small,
are as letters
to make us ponder
the invisible things of God:
God’s eternal power and divinity,
as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.
All these things are enough to convict humans
and to leave them without excuse.
The whole physical universe is like a giant book and the letters that compose the words in that book are all creatures great and small. As imagery goes, that is lovely and can sit very nicely next to the declarations in something like Psalm 96.
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