Psalm 96 is one of five psalms in Book Four of the Psalter that are classified as Enthronement Psalms, psalms that celebrate the reign of God as king over all creation.
God as king is a prevalent theme in Christian worship. We offer prayers to God the king; hymns about God as king ring in our ears: "Come Thou Almighty King," "All Creatures of Our God and King," "O Worship the King," and "All Glory, Laud, and Honor, to Thee Redeemer King." What exactly do we mean when we sing the words of the hymns and pronounce the benedictive words, "O God, our redeemer and king"?
The major lectionary reading for this Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost does not actually contain the words, "God is king." That pronouncement comes in verse 10. Thus we may read verses 1-9 of Psalm 96 as introductory words, words inviting all nations and all peoples to look in wonder at the God of Israel (verses 3, 7). In verse 1, the whole earth is called to "sing a new song." The phrase "new song" occurs as well in Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 98:1; 144:9; and 149:1. Samuel Terrien, in The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary, maintains that in each instance the phrase "new song" does not indicate a song sung to a tune that has never been heard before, but rather refers to the beginning of a new era, a new epoch in history (p. 924).
In the case of Psalm 96, the "new song" refers to the reign of God, rather than a king of the line of David, as sovereign over Israel and the whole earth. Some historical and canonical background is helpful at this point.
The Historical Background: In the Ancient Near East, people gained protection, livelihood, prosperity, and justice by giving allegiance to the king who ruled over a particular city or district. Being subject to the ruler guaranteed safety and way of life. If you traveled outside your own city or district, you were immediately at the mercy of a different ruler, one who may not look favorably upon you. Such was life for the people of Old Testament times.
When the Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses and settled in the Promised Land, one of the first issues that surfaced was that of leadership. In the book of Judges, we read about the struggles of the newly-settled Israelites to claim the land. The book closes with the words, "In that day, there was no king in Israel; everyone person did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25).
In 1 Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and demand, "Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations" (verse 5). When Samuel prayed to God, God answered with these words: "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them" (verse 7). Samuel anointed Saul and then David, and we read in the book of Kings about the reigns of the kings of the Davidic dynasty. They were a rather mixed bag of the good and the bad: Solomon, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Josiah.
When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the Hebrew people captive, such a protected and guaranteed life disappeared. Israel no longer had their own king -- their own protector. They were subjects of a foreign king. And even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they were still subjects of foreign rulers -- the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Try to imagine the fear, the questions, the searching. Who would protect the Hebrew people, guarantee their livelihood and survival as individuals and as a people, and who would administer justice?
The Canonical Background: The book of Psalms relates the story of the life of ancient Israel from the time of the kingship of David (Books 1 and 2: Psalms 1-72); through the reign of Solomon, the divided kingdom, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon (Book 3: Psalms 73-89); to the exile in Babylon (Book 4: Psalms 90-106); and finally the return from exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Book 5: Psalms 107-150).
Five Enthronement Psalms appear in a cluster in the middle of Book 4, whose setting -- according to the canonical background outlined above -- is the exile in Babylon. Davidic kingship was no more; a foreign king reigned as sovereign. What did that mean for the exiled Israelites? Would they simply be absorbed into the vast Babylonian empire? Or could they find a way to maintain their identity as the people of Yahweh, their God? Recall the words of 1 Samuel 8, in which God says to Samuel, "They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them." In these new circumstances, it seems, the only option was to accept God as king; not a human being.
Why? An interesting aspect of the Enthronement Psalms is their incorporation of what scholars call "creation language." Verse 5 of Psalm 96 says, "For all the gods of the people are idols, but the LORD made the heavens." In Psalm 95:4, we read, "In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also." And Psalm 97:6 says, "The heavens proclaim his righteousness." God the creation has full claim to the throne as sovereign over all.
How? Without a human king to guarantee protection, livelihood, prosperity, and justice for the people of Israel, how would such care be provided? How does God -- the God of the heavens and the earth -- reign in the midst of this messiness called the present reality? The answer is what some scholars describe as a "democratization" of kingship, when the people of God join together to bring about the reign of God on the earth -- what Jesus continually referred to as "the kingdom of God."
Each person must consciously strive to be fully human, human in the way that God created them to be -- in rightness and faithfulness to the human community. Each person much strive to create a world in which all are cared for, provided for, lifted up, satisfied, and have an opportunity to be all that God created them to be.
And how does the kingdom of God come about? By each of us who acknowledge God as sovereign in our lives becoming the arms and legs and voice and conscience of God in our world. We are the arms and legs and voice and conscience of God on this earth -- the embodiment of the kingdom of God.
A daunting task? Yes. Can it be any other way? No. God is in control over this place we call home, this earth. But God has being and substance in those of us who proclaim God as sovereign in our lives.