Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 5, 2024

Psalm 98 Commentary

“Sing to the Lord a new song.”  How often?  What about singing to the Lord some old songs too?  Obviously that is OK since what is the Hebrew Psalter if not a collection of very old songs that we have been using and in various forms singing for millennia.  Still, there can always be a call for new songs too and if the history of Christian music and hymnody is any indication, we have never ceased writing new songs.  And from the looks of it, we will never stop having new music and new songs to sing in worship of our great God in Christ.  The production of hymns and songs is as endless as the reasons to praise God in the first place.

We certainly have a lot of old songs too.  Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, Fanny Crosby, Martin Luther, African-American spirituals.  But we have plenty of new songs that keep coming out.  The Gettys, Stuart Townend, Wendell Kimbrough, Graham Kendrick, Chris Tomlin.  We won’t ever stop finding new reasons and new ways to praise God for precisely all the things detailed in Psalm 98 as the reasons to engage in worship through music.

Like many psalms, so also Psalm 98 is in touch with a profound mystery: the ways that music elevates our senses, the way singing expresses a very different level of praise than regular speech can manage.  God’s people have known about this for as long as the worship of God has existed.  You cannot find in the Bible and in history a worshiping community that did not sing, that did not compose music and lyrics, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (as Paul put it in a well-known New Testament epistle).  To sing is to engage in something deeply human.  To sing is to render to God a level of enthusiasm and appreciation and wonder that, again, ordinary speech falls short of no matter how eloquent such speech may be.

Why do we preach in church, the great theologian Jonathan Edwards once asked.  Why don’t we just read the Bible?  Why do we sing in church, he also inquired.  Why isn’t ordinary talking sufficient?  Well, because it just isn’t!  Music touches our hearts and souls in ineffable but undeniably special ways that somehow—as most people would testify—make us feel even more in the presence of the Holy One.

This type of reverential and worshipful expression is so grand that Psalm 98, like many of its fellow poems in the Hebrew Psalter, suggests this cannot be confined to only the human population of planet Earth.  Trees, seas, rivers, and mountains need to get in on the act as well.  Apparently God absorbs praise from the whole of his creation and not just the part distinctly made in the divine image.  We cash out such language as being only metaphorical or the result of poetic license to our theological and spiritual impoverishment.  The psalms that summon praise from ocean billows, snowflakes, wind, rain, hail, donkeys, birds, trees of the field, and so on do not distinguish the calls for these facets of the world to praise God from the parallel calls for men, women, children, maidens, older folks, kings, and princes to do the same.  Everyone and everything thing receives the same praise imperative and apparently in God’s sight and in God’s hearing, it all reverberates equally as genuine praise.  When it comes to the praise of God, we dare not limit who can be in the choir!

If mountains, seas, and trees just doing what they are supposed to do sound like praise to God, then we could even assert that the natural world may do a better job across the board of praising God than even people.  Because despite Psalm 98’s bold declarations that God has made known his salvation to the ends of the earth, not all of the ends of the earth are listening and certainly not every person gets in on the worship of the one true God.  Lots of people refuse to sing to Israel’s God or to any other purported deity.  So maybe on the average day the human choir is actually dwarfed by the choirs singing away in national parks and across the vastness of earth’s oceans!

As Psalm 98 comes in for its rhapsodic conclusion, however, we find a reason to praise God that we might not have quite expected (and a reason we may not ourselves regularly list as items on our “Praise List”); viz., the prospect of God’s coming in judgment.  Judgment is not often a positive word in our vocabulary.  “Judgment Day” is often shorthand for all things apocalyptic.  It’s a reckoning before which a lot of people might be tempted to cower and shake in their proverbial boots.  Yet here the prospect of God’s coming to judge the earth with equity is a reason to sing.  It’s a good thing.  And for all those who are already regularly engaged in the primary activity recommended by Psalm 98—the true worship of God through singing and making music—it is a hope-filled and not a dread-filled event to look forward to.

There will be a righting of past wrongs.  There will be a balancing of our perpetually out-of-whack cosmic books.  This is why after many centuries during which the Medieval Church used the prospect of Judgment Day to terrify people into submission to the Church, the Reformers who penned the confessional document “The Heidelberg Catechism” turned that on its head.  When it deals with the line from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus will come again “to judge the heavens and the earth,” the Catechism frames it this way: “How does Christ’s coming again to judge the heavens and the earth comfort you?”  That, according to Psalm 98, has it about right.

The salvation God has made known to the ends of the earth is what we sing about in worship and it is also what makes the prospect of divine judgment anything but a fearful thing.  And when you add all of that up whether you are a person or a river, what else can you do but clap your hands and sing?!

Illustration Idea


When we use the transliterated word “Hallelujah” most of the time, we invoke it as something purely expressive.  Look the word up in Merriam-Webster and take a gander at the list of synonyms.  They include: Whoopee, Hooray, Huzzah, Yippee, Wheee, and Hot Dog!  (No kidding, “hot dog” is on the list!)  In the original Hebrew and especially in the Psalms, however, hallelu yah is in the imperative mood.  It’s a command, an order.  It is what I have in the past called “the praise imperative.”  This is our duty and, to invoke a phrase from the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” were it not for the eye made blind by sin, we would have no need to be ordered to render praise to God.  We would do it naturally and as a matter of course.  If we could truly perceive the glory and the salvation of God at all times, we would no more need to be ordered to praise God than you would typically have to order a child to eat the delicious ice cream cone you just placed into their little hands.  Don’t worry: it’s going to get eaten!

So also with God: if we could perceive God more clearly, don’t worry: the praise will come as we burst forth into songs of joy, just as Psalm 98 urges.


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