with Tony W. Cartledge

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Psalm 98

O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things …” – Psalm 98:1

A New Song for a Lasting Love

Do you know anyone who doesn’t enjoy at least some type of music? Music “soothes the savage beast,” so the saying goes, but can also comfort us in melancholy times or lift us from the ordinary to the sublime. We enjoy familiar songs, but there’s something special about hearing a new song that rings our bell. We may need to hear or sing it more than once, but soon the catchy melody or compelling words have us adding the new song to our playlist of favorites.

What are some occasions that might call for a new song? Periodic spectacles such as the summer or winter Olympics traditionally come with new theme music. New movies, Broadway shows, or albums by musical artists call for new songs. Social campaigns such as the Civil Rights movement often birth new songs. In a church context, the dedication of a new building or the retirement of a long-time staff member sometimes leads to the commissioning of a new song.

Can you name one or two new songs that you first heard in the last 10 years? What makes them memorable to you?

A new song(vv. 1-3)

Psalm 98, which is similar in many ways to Psalm 96, would have been used in Israel’s formal worship, whether at the temple or in festival settings. It is one of several psalms (24, 47, 93, and 95-100) that are typically called “Enthronement Psalms” because they celebrate Yahweh as king over all things.

The poet’s summons to “sing to the LORD a new song” (v. 1a) may suggest that the psalm was written for a special occasion, perhaps to celebrate a military victory or the crowning of a new king. It could also have been sung at an annual festival celebrating Yahweh as king, when the Ark of the Covenant might have been brought out for public admiration, then marched at the head of a joyous procession as it was returned to its honored place in the Holy of Holies, an earthly analogue to the heavenly throne room.

The psalm falls naturally into three sections: an initial call to praise with reasons for why such praise is appropriate (vv. 1-3), a further and more detailed summons for people to give joyful praise to Yahweh as king (vv. 4-6), and a closing call for creation itself to celebrate the coming of Yahweh as a righteous judge (vv. 7-9).

Why was divine praise so timely and essential? Because God “has done marvelous things,” the psalmist said. But what marvelous things did he have in mind? The psalmist does not give specifics. Verses 1b-2 suggest that the new song may have been composed on the heels of a military victory in which Yahweh was thought to have played a crucial role. “His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory,” the author sang. “The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.” (See “The Hardest Question” online for more on the significance of God’s right hand.)

The term translated as “victory” three times in vv. 1-3 (NRSV) is derived from the Hebrew verb yāsh‘a, and is more commonly translated as “deliverance” (NET11) or “salvation” (NET). Israel’s historical memory often centered on military victories, so the translation is not inapt.

The Israelites believed that Yahweh had ordained certain battles to be fought, and that Yahweh would fight for them when they were faithful, assuring victory against any odds.

We cannot know whether the psalmist had in mind a particular victory, perhaps a recent one, or if he was celebrating Yahweh’s ongoing role in creating and delivering Israel as a people, then empowering leaders such as David and Solomon to expand the kingdom through military means. The generic terminology and lack of any particular enemy’s name suggests that his psalm celebrates the ongoing heritage of God’s mighty acts rather than a particular victory. And, we should note that the psalmist’s concept of divine deliverance went beyond success in battle: salvation comes in many forms.

The psalm appears to have come from a time of strength for the Hebrew people, for the psalmist claims that God’s righteousness (NRSV vindication) has been revealed “in the sight of the nations” (v. 2b) and “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God” (v. 3b), presumably through the ascendance of Israel on the international stage.

The psalmist credits this to God having “remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (v. 3a). This affirmation of Yahweh’s character, drawn from Exod. 34:6 and often recalled (2 Sam. 2:6, 15:20; Ps. 25:10; 61:7, 86:15, 89:14), was a reminder of the special covenant between God and Israel, one in which Yahweh promised to show steadfast love and faithfulness to Israel, expecting loyalty in return. There was no question in the psalmist’s mind that Yahweh was living up to the divine end of the arrangement.

A joyful noise(vv. 4-6)

A faithful and loving God is worthy of praise, and the psalmist calls for a jubilant response. He addresses “all the earth” in v. 4, focusing on the earth’s people in vv. 4-6 and the forces of nature in vv. 7-9.

Note the author’s use of repetition as a connective device: worshipers are to “. . . break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.”

Modern translations sometimes mask the ebullience of this text. “Make a joyful noise” is much tamer than the text’s imperative “Shout!” – the “joyful” aspect has to be drawn from the context. “Break forth into joyous song” translates “Break out with a ringing cry!” Since the shouting and loud cries are associated with the last verb, “sing praises,” we assume that the shouting and ringing cries would be exuberant counterpoints amid a congregation of people singing joyfully at the tops of their voices.

The ancients had no pipe organ to amplify the sound of singing, but trumpets and horns joined the chorus, according to v. 6. The word for “trumpet” indicates a narrow instrument made from hammered silver rolled into a tube (Num. 10:2). The “horns” were ram’s horns, which are largely hollow, with a tiny mouthpiece cut into the pointed end. Called a shōfar, the ram’s horn can still be heard accompanying bar mitzvahs or weddings in some Jewish circles. Though hard to blow, the shōfar produces a high, piercing wail.

One can only imagine how the combination of loud singing, stringed instruments, and untuned horns and trumpets must have resulted in a raucous tribute to God. The “joyful noise” associated with temple worship must have rivaled that of soccer matches in South Africa, where excited fans punctuate their cheers with long plastic horns called vuvuzelas. Can you imagine the reaction if such uninhibited praise should erupt during Sunday worship in your church?

A coming judge(vv. 7-9)

Caught up in a frenzy of adulation, the psalmist imagined the natural order joining the chorus of people singing praise to God: “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD …” (vv. 7-9a).

The NRSV, perhaps overly influenced by the familiar KJV translation, underplays the psalmist’s intent. The word translated as “floods” – which might connote an occasional rainstorm spawning happy puddles – is the standard word for “rivers,” and the term rendered as “hills” typically means “mountains.” The psalmist’s image was not of pastoral hills and rills, but of majestic mountains and mighty rivers rising up to pour out praise for the God who both creates and continues to act in the world.

And why should all the world’s people and even the earth itself reverberate with praise to God? Because “. . . he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (v. 9b). This confession acknowledges that life before God has three tenses: God’s creative and saving work of the past has significance for the present and extends into the future, when God will one day come in judgment to set all things right – not only with the peoples of the earth, but with the earth itself.

The psalmist intuitively understood that the earth and its people are interconnected: God’s people have a responsibility to care for both. If we wreck the environment through careless exploitation, we make life hard for the people who depend on clean water, fresh air, and fertile soil – including ourselves. If we act in socially unjust or prejudicial ways against others, we diminish opportunities, disregard human rights, and run roughshod over the spirits of people who were created in God’s image.

The psalmist imagined a day when God would “judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” That is a glorious thought, and one deserving of boisterous praise. In the meantime, however, the psalm reminds us that those who live in this world have a responsibility to treat the earth rightly and to act justly toward others – divinely inspired actions that are likewise worthy of praise. NFJ

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for November 13, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Psalm 98



Parent Prep

Do you hear your student’s music and wonder, “What in the world is that?” Then do you immediately think that you are turning into your parents because they said the same thing. Music is an expression of who we are and why music is such an important part of being a teenager. The songs that they listen to are outward expressions of who they believe to be or what they want to be. Pay attention to what your students are listening to. You might not understand it. You might not like it, but it will give you an inside look into who your students are or want to be.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Sing Official Teaser Trailer #1” from Fandango via www.youtube.com

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Psalm 98