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Psalm 98

ďSing to the Lord a new songĒ and ďmake a joyful noise to the LordĒ, both familiar phrases from Psalm 98, but both eminently suitable as responses to the Easter message and as expressions of our Easter faith. Psalm 98 is a song of praise, which is made up of three parts: vv. 1-3; 4-6 and 7-9. The psalmís major focus is a call to praise. The praise of God is focused around Godís coming and presence, and Godís reign. God is declared to be the king in v. 6b, and is portrayed as judging, or setting right the world in v. 9. There is also celebration of Godís victory, salvation and steadfast love towards the house of Israel (especially in vv. 1-3). These too are integral parts of the reign of God.

Because of the presence of all these elements in this psalm, it has been grouped together with several other psalms in a set often referred to as Enthronement Psalms.  Other key psalms which are part of this group are Psalms 47; 93; 96; 97 and 99. All of these psalms celebrate and proclaim the reign of God, with an emphasis on Godís coming and presence. It is little wonder , therefore, that Psalms 96, 97 and 98 are alternative psalms for use on Christmas Day each year. In addition, Psalm 98 is one of the psalms set for the readings at the vigil on the Saturday night before Easter Day. Within the group of Enthronement Psalms Psalm 98 has a particular affinity with Psalm 96 with repetition of certain phrase and themes.

It has been argued by some that the Enthronement Psalms were part of an annual celebration of Godís reign, of Godís becoming King, which took place in ancient Israel at the feast of Tabernacles. The details of the connection of such a theme to that festival, however, are not clear and have been the subject of much debate. There is no biblical description of such an enthronement festival, although there are some suggestive hints. This set of psalms itself does not spell out a liturgical form, and could easily be placed into several different liturgical settings.

Just as it is not possible to determine the particular liturgy to which this psalm belonged, it also is not possible to determine its historical period, nor to tie down the references to Godís victory to any particular events or battles. The psalm may have arisen from a particular victory, but the song itself is quite general. Finally, although it has often been interpreted as a prophetic, messianic psalm, this is not clear either. The psalm is not clearly pointing to messianic hopes, nor does it unequivocally point to Godís final coming: it is not clearly speaking in an apocalyptic fashion. These interpretations of this psalm are not impossible, but they also cannot be argued with any surety, nor do any of them constitute a specific or unique context for the psalm.

Above all else, this is a joyful call to praise, a call which is repeated several times throughout the psalm, in vv. 1, 4, 5 and 6. The first verse contains part of the explanation or reason for the praise, i.e. in the unspecified victory. The second stanza (vv. 4Ė6) calls on the whole human world to take part in the celebration, with a focus on music as the ďjoyful noise,Ē and a listing of instruments, similar to but shorter than the list in Psalm 150. In vv. 7-9 the call to praise is extended beyond the human realm, to include the whole earth in the praise of God: seas roar, floods clap and hills sing. Some of these elements were seen in the ancient world as enemies of God (especially the seas and floods) but clearly here even those things traditionally thought of as negative or chaotic, now lend their voices to the chorus of praise of God. The psalm concludes by rounding off the reason for praise with reference to Godís judging the earth and its peoples. Often Godís judgment is seen in a negative light but it need not necessarily be so. Judgment in righteousness and equity (v. 9) is not only a statement of abstract qualities upon which God makes determinations but the very things God brings to the peoples in that judgment. The Gospel readings for last week (John 15:1-8) and this week (John 15:9-17) speak about the pruning of the branches so that the vine may bear more fruit. This act of judgment is not an execution of punishment on whatever is undesirable but a way of removing that which impedes growth and life.

For the preacher the generality of this psalm might present difficulties. It does, however, invite a call to the congregation to see their life participating in the great praise of the Lord in the Easter season. The psalmís presence in lectionary readings for both the Christmas (Christmas Day alt.) and Easter seasons can suggest to the preacher a strong connection between the celebration of the incarnation in the baby Jesus and the events of Easter itself. The coming and presence of the Lord in Jesus celebrated at Christmas incorporates or anticipates his death and resurrection at Easter, just as his death and resurrection cannot be separated from the wonder of his coming to us in the babe. As a liturgist, the psalm, its abundant joy, and its focus on energetic, noisy participation in worship may be an invitation to new expressions of praise.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Ps 98:5-9 could be used as a call to worship at the start of the service or before a song of praise. Alternatively, a different couplet could be used before each hymn or song during the service. The references to different instruments or clapping hands could suggest expanding the musical accompaniment of the hymns or songs as the congregation is able.

Sound praises to the Lord, all the earth;?
break into singing and make music.

Make music to the Lord with the lyre,?
with the lyre and the voice of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn?
sound praises before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea thunder and all that fills it,?
the world and all that dwell upon it.

Let the rivers clap their hands?
and let the hills ring out together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.

Verses 1-4 could also be employed in the assurance of forgiveness said by the minister after confession:
Sing to the Lord a new song,?
for he has done marvellous things.

His own right hand and his holy arm?
have won for him the victory.

The Lord has made known his salvation;?
his deliverance he has openly shown in the sight of the nations.

He has remembered his mercy and faithfulness towards the house of Israel,
and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

I declare, therefore, in the name of Jesus Christ,
Your sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God.

This psalm text is from the Psalter in Uniting in Worship 2 which is taken from Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, London: Church House Publishing, 2000. Kind permission has been given to use this Psalter, which is a revised version of the Psalter published in the Standard Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in the USA, prepared by the Liturgical Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England. Permission is given to reproduce the psalms in that Psalter for non-commercial use in local orders of service with this acknowledgment.

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