< May 17, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 98

 

"Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre ... and the sound of melody! With trumpets ... make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!" (Psalm 98:5).

Once in a while I try in my mind to imagine the sound of ancient musical instruments and the mindset of the ancient Israelites who played them.

When they thought of God, their first reflex was Praise. Our first reflex might be far more utilitarian: I ask God for stuff, I measure God by whether God seems to be doing what I need, or else, I question God.

But Israel praised.

Praise is our amazement at God and God's greatness, our recognition of the power and tenderness of the creator. Praise enjoys and celebrates God's love, and it is our best attempt to feel, say, or sing something appropriate to God. Praise doesn't ask "What have you done for me lately?" but instead exclaims "How great Thou art!"

Psalms scholar Walter Brueggemann explains praise for us: "All of life is aimed toward God and finally exists for the sake of God. Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the One whose we are. ... We have a resilient hunger to move beyond self. God is addressed not because we have need, but simply because God is God."1

Praise doesn't "work." It is not productive, and it isn't even about me. Praise means being lost in adoration of the beloved, being awestruck by beauty. Praise is downright wasteful in terms of possible ways to spend your time. To think of God like a lover, one on whom you might dote for hours, requires considerable imagination, a radical reshaping of the soul.

Israel praised with makeshift instruments which craftsmen labored over -- and their sole purpose was to produce sound that would rise to the skies and be heard by God. Psalm 98 speaks of the lyre. Wasn't the lyre the instrument Orpheus played in that mythological story? Sailors constantly shipwrecked when seduced by the songs of the sirens. Odysseus managed to sail past their perilous rocks by stuffing wax in the ears of the rowers and strapping himself to the mast of the ship; but Orpheus simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, and the rowers listened to his song and sailed to safety.

Praise is our best counter to evil in the world. If we are "lost in wonder, love, and praise," there is not much chance we will stumble into tawdry sin, or find ourselves jaded and cynical. Praise is the cure for despair and loneliness. If we "make a joyful noise to the Lord" (cf. Psalm 100:1), we experience a quiet in the soul, a community of love.

Psalm 98 praises the Lord "for he has done marvelous things... He has made known his victory" (Psalm 98:1-2). Weaving the universe into existence, fashioning the delicate petals on a rose, crafting massive canyons, musing in wisdom, promising eternal bliss−we could expend every minute of every day noticing some new aspect of the greatness of God.

Of course, the most marvelous "thing" God ever did was to visit us on earth. Jesus, by simply showing up on earth, by teaching, touching, suffering and rising, was and is marvelous. Jesus is the victory of God, and our only sensible response is to praise.

The Lord reigns!
Psalm 98 is part of a little cluster of Psalms (93 through 99) whose primary theme is: "The Lord reigns! The Lord is King!"

Worshippers in ancient Israel must have had considerable hutzpah to travel for miles in caravans over rocky, dangerous terrain in order to press with the crowd into the temple and shout: "The Lord is King!" They must have known their temple was a pipsqueak among ancient temples.

Their God (whose 'name' was 'Yahweh') must have seemed like the weakling on the playground of bigger, more impressive deities (like Marduk or Ea of the mighty Babylonians, or Osiris or Horus of the wealthy Egyptians).

All other gods could boast of military triumphs, vast hordes of gold, and shinier cultic objects. If success was the measure, the gods of the Assyrians or the Phoenicians had superior reasons to elicit praise from their subjects.

Why this foolishness in Israel? Was it panache or lunacy? Or was it a profound faith that could stand boldly in the face of being the laughingstock of other nations and still affirm that "Our Lord is King! (And yours isn't.)"? Did they understand the true nature of the true God?

I suspect they did, although it was when Jesus arrived that the world was treated to the ultimate display of what exactly a King looks like. Jesus lay in a manger instead of a palace. Jesus surrounded himself with poor, clueless fishermen instead of a slick bureaucracy. Jesus recruited an army of grateful lepers instead of well-drilled regiments. Jesus rode a wobbly donkey instead of a sprightly stallion. Jesus assumed a cross instead of a throne, a crown of thorns not gold and jewels.

Psalm 98, not once or twice but three times, proclaims the Lord's victory. The Hebrew word translated "victory" is yeshu'a -- the very name Jesus assumed when he won the stunning victory that was becoming flesh and dying.

Christians who strive for power in America or any other place on earth misconstrue the heart of our faith. We are historically wary of power.

When J.R.R. Tolkien told his scintillating stories of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, and their quest not to possess the ring of power but to destroy it, he articulated in fable form the essence of Christianity. It is not about us wielding power, but is a yielding to the power of God.

Or perhaps it is the wisdom to intuit that with our God, with Jesus, we glimpse a very different and much better type of royalty.

Want to see power? Watch Jesus touch the untouchables. Watch Jesus wash the feet of those who would gladly have washed his. Watch Jesus surrender his very life, so powerful was his love. Watch Jesus forgive the very people who just spat on him and drove nails into his flesh. Watch Jesus breathe his last -- and then quite fantastically show up three days later.

"The Lord is King!" And our only reply is the way Isaac Watts rephrased this Psalm: "Joy to the world!"
The world still mockingly laughs, or yawns. But we know and praise the Lord who is king. We pray that the world will rejoice and revel in the Lord's kingship.

Until they do, we rejoice for them, on their behalf, raising a chorus of "Joy to the world; let earth receive her King!"


1Walter Brueggeman, Israel's Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1988), 1.