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Psalms 96, 97, 98

Psalms 96, 97 and 98 are the psalms set respectively for the alternative readings for Christmas Day. All are referred to as ‘enthronement psalms’ by scholars because they sing praise to Yahweh, Israel’s God who is enthroned as king over the cosmos. On this day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus we celebrate the rule of God over all creation in a most unexpected way. The birth of Jesus sees the coming of God to redeem creation in the guise of one who is weak and vulnerable. This is a different type of ‘kingship’ to that we normally envisage. It signals a different type of ‘rule’ than what we might expect. The Old Testament readings for Christmas Day/Eve with their joyous description of the coming of God among us, and the psalms of God’s kingship over all, add a cosmic dimension to the story of the birth in Luke.

There is another way in which the selection of the three psalms is appropriate for this day.
Psalms 96-99 form a set of four hymns of praise. They belong together by virtue of their genre, the way they have been structured, and their content. In particular, Psalms 96 and 98 go together while Psalms 97 and 99 show a close relationship.

Psalms 96 and 98 each begin by calling the people to ‘sing to the LORD a new song’ (96:1; 98:1). The reason for the summons in the case of Ps 96:4-6 is the greatness of Yahweh the creator above all other gods who are but idols. In Ps 98:1b-3 it is because Yahweh has remembered his steadfast love and made his victory known. In each case, the initial calls are followed by a longer summons for all creation to praise Yahweh (Ps 96:7-13a; 98:4-9a), together with a second reason for praise, ‘for he is coming to judge the earth’ (96:13; 98:9). These songs of praise follow the usual pattern in psalms of praise of a call to praise followed by a reason for that praise. There is no praise without its corresponding reason. Praise of God is a rational thing to do.

The unrestrained praise of Psalms 96 and 98 is interspersed with the measured praise of Yahweh in Psalms 97 and 99. Each begins with the statement Yahweh malak (‘Yahweh reigns’ or ‘Yahweh has become king’). This is followed by reference to Zion (97:8; 99:2) and focus on Yahweh’s holiness, especially in Psalm 99 (97:12b; 99:3, 5, 9).

When read in sequence these four psalms form a progression. From general praise for Yahweh as creator who is coming (Psalm 96), we see him coming in clouds with fire etc. in Psalm 97. In Psalm 98 praise is summoned after Yahweh’s victory as he prepares to judge the people which Psalm 99 declares him to have done. In Psalm 99 Moses, Aaron and Samuel stand as witnesses to those who have called on Yahweh’s name and whom he has answered (v. 8). The praise in this sequence echoes that earlier in Psalm 93 (cf. Ps 96:10 with 93:1).

Psalm 96. There is a universal theme to Psalm 96. It is addressed to all the earth. Yahweh’s glory is to be declared among the nations. In vv. 7-9, verses which are a slight adaptation of Ps 29:1-2, those same nations are invited to join in the praise. Even the heavens, the sea, the fields and the trees shall sing before Yahweh. Nature as well as human inhabitants of earth join in praise of their creator. There is a strong ecological theme running through this psalm. But there is also a strong theme of judgment (vv. 10, 13). Often we might think of judgment in solely negative terms. Adverse judgment equals rejection. But that is not how this psalm, and Scripture as a whole, speaks of judgment. Here judgment is salvation (v. 2). The Lord comes and in the one coming both delivers his people and judges all that does not accord with his righteousness and truth (v. 13). Both God’s deliverance and judgment are worthy of praise because as one act they are indeed an act of salvation worthy of telling abroad.

Psalm 97. Joy at the reign of Yahweh is the theme of Psalm 97. It is as if the call to praise in Psalm 96 has been heard and all creation is now overwhelmed by the glory of their God. Nothing that is worthless or lifeless can stand before Yahweh (v. 7). The psalm divides into three sections: vv. 1-5 in which the earth rejoices; vv. 6-9 in which Zion rejoices; and vv. 10-12 in which the righteous are called to rejoice. In each section two words noting joy dominate.

Psalm 98. Again the note of joyful song fills the psalm. All the earth is called to make a joyful noise before Yahweh (vv. 4-6). This call is repeated a little later in Psalm 100. Nature joins in too in vv. 7-9 with the sea roaring and the floods clapping their hands. Yahweh is coming to judge in righteousness and equity (v. 9, cf. 96:13). As well as joy there is a strong theme of victory in this psalm. It is a reminder that the coming of the Lord is not without opposition, struggle and cost. The outcome is not in doubt but the path toward that has its difficulties. The imagery of vv. 7-9 echoes this. While it may seem a joyous thing for the sea to roar and the floods to clap their hands (vv. 7-8), these images reflect matters of gravity. The sea and the floods in the ancient world were symbols of all that is chaotic and unruly. They frequently stand in the cultures of Israel’s neighbours in opposition to those gods who would bring life to the people. Here, however, they are not only subdued but give praise willingly to the one who would have been their opponent. The assurance of victory is clear but we cannot pass over the reference to evil and threat which have been overcome.

These psalms lend themselves fully to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the coming into the world of God in human form. The birth of a baby to refugee parents signals a victory over all that is worthless and lifeless. It will be at a cost, but it will happen. It is a celebration of an event that has cosmic and universal implications. The carol ‘Joy to the world’ echoes the tenor of these psalms.

Suggestions for the use of the psalms in worship:

Many verses in these psalms could function as a call to worship (Pss 96:1-4, 7-9; 97:1; 98:1-3, 4-6).

Many of the verses from any of the three psalms could also be combined into a prayer of adoration.

A sermon on the nativity on Christmas day might also reflect on the cosmic imagery of Ps 97:1-9 as a way of giving emphasis to the significance of the birth of Jesus. The contrast between the image of the new born baby and the might and power of the theophany described in Psalm 97 brings into sharp focus the paradox of divine power and ways in the world.

In the prayers of intercession some of the verses of the psalms could be used to introduce prayers for peace in the world (96:7, 10; 97:1, 6; 98:4). Others could introduce prayers for the wise use of and living in our fragile world (96:11-12; 98:7-9a) while others could introduce prayers seeking justice and equity in the world and society (96:13b-c; 98:9b-c).

Finally, 97:11-12 would function as an appropriate introduction to the final blessing at a Christmas service:

Light dawns for the righteous,
And joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the lord, O you righteous,
And give thanks to his holy name!
And may the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
be with you this joyous day,
and remain with you always.
Old Testament readings: Christmas Day 1, Isaiah 9:2-7; Christmas Day 2, Isaiah 62:6-12; Christmas Day 3, Isaiah 52:7-10

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