< November 17, 2019 >

Commentary on Psalm 98

 

Psalm 98 is said to belong to a small collection of so-called “enthronement psalms” (Psalms 47; 93; 95-99).

Presumably, these songs were sung during festivals that celebrated the LORD as a king (see Psalms 93:1; 95:3; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). In the present psalm, the affirmation of the LORD’s regency appears in verse 6: “make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.”

Such rituals were not unique to ancient Israel. Indeed, records of the first millennium Babylonian Akitu festival provide a possible parallel.1 Ancient Israelites likely had similar rites during which priest carried the Ark of the Covenant around Jerusalem before returning it—and thus the invisible LORD!—to the Holy of Holies.2

On the other hand, Longman expresses skepticism about the existence of an enthronement festival in Jerusalem.3 He maintains instead that the psalm is a “Divine Warrior victory song celebrating the return of Yahweh the commander of the heavenly hosts who is leading the Israelite army back home after waging victorious holy war.”4

Naturally, the preacher need not settle the scholarly squabbles about literary genre nor its Sitz im Leben (that is, its setting in life). It is, however, constructive to note that with either hypothesis, the psalm affirms Yahweh’s defeat of God’s enemies, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the promise of the righteous judgment that Yahweh’s victory portends.

In the first stanza of Psalm 98:1-3 the psalmist summons worshippers to sing a new song on grounds of what the LORD has done in the past: the LORD’s marvelous deeds and victory include the revelation of his “vindication” to the nations, and the remembrance of the LORD’s steadfast love and faithfulness to Israel. The NRSV’s translation of ?edaqa as “vindication” attempts to convey the LORD’s saving righteousness, directed at Israel, but which is ultimately intended for the benefit of all the nations (verse 9).

The second stanza, Psalm 98:4-6, summons the earth and the congregation to break into song and praises with every manner of musical instruments. Verse 4a and 6b form an inclusio. Both imperatives that summon all to make a “joyful noise” derive from the verb rua‘ (shout) and appear in both martial5 and worship contexts.6 The appropriate response to the LORD’s activity is ebullient song and noise.

A third stanza, Psalm 98:7-9, point toward the arrival of the LORD. The roaring sea—that ancient symbol of chaos—is called to praise, as are all its creatures. Likewise, the mainland (world) and its inhabitants are summoned to praise. Why? All of creation should praise because of the impending presence of Yahweh who comes to judge the earth. Such judgment is good news for a world that will be judged with righteousness (?edeq) and with equity (verse 9).

On the surface of it, the message of this psalm is simple: a victorious Yahweh draws near. This warrior king, who has proven faithful in the past, comes to set the world and its inhabitants straight. The psalm affirms the eternal sovereignty of God and thus, it might also appropriately be employed a week hence, on November 24, Christ the King Sunday.

Nevertheless, there is more to this psalm than a claim of Yahweh’s triumph. Scholars have long noted the parallels between this psalm and the message of Deutero-Isaiah:7

Psalm 98:1  |  Isaiah 42:10; 52:10; 59:16; 63:5

Psalm 98:3  |  Isaiah 40:5; 52:10; 66:18

Psalm 98:4  |  Isaiah 52:9

Psalm 98:5  |  Isaiah 51:3

Psalm 98:7  |  Isaiah 55:12

 

The parallels are interpretively significant. The prophet, like the psalmist, articulated a hope on the near horizon, but a hope that was not yet fully realized. Cyrus was on the scene and, perhaps, that regent had already disseminated his edict of liberation. Nevertheless, the challenges of an exiled people, far removed from home and sans security, remained their reality. They were distant from a space or a time when the regency of Yahweh was palpable. This psalm proclaims that, the “facts on the ground” notwithstanding, the LORD would come—was coming!—to “judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”

Obviously, the “facts on the ground” for contemporary believers differ in details from ancient worshippers. Nevertheless, the preacher will have no trouble discerning loci of injustice and inequity, many of which impinge directly on the lives of her listeners. Political rhetoric aside, we obviously continue to live with racism, with an environmental crisis, with problems accessing health care, the greed of many in the pharmaceutical industry, and more. We long for the roaring seas of our lives and, indeed, for the entire tumultuous world to be brought to heel and turned over to songs of joy. We yearn for the presence of the LORD, for blameless judgment, and for verdicts that create righteousness and equity.

The LORD who has acted marvelously in our past will arrive once again. That is the gospel promise of this psalm.

Meanwhile, the Church is summoned to shout and to sing. The heart of this psalm (Psalm 98:4-6) describes believers who grab every musical instrument available and “make a joyful noise” to the LORD, the king. Such music is not phony triumphalism. Nor are the festal shouts proverbial whistling in the dark. The current disjunctions in our lives and world cannot be dismissed lightly; they must be faced, named, and lamented. The work of faith, however, is this: worshipfully shouting and singing to one another that “nevertheless” the LORD is coming. Nevertheless, judgment is just around the corner. Nevertheless, righteousness and equity will surround us, even if we cannot yet quite see it. That promise gives all who shout and sing a motive to live with righteousness, equity, and—most of all—eager hope.


Notes:

1 The particulars of the Akitu festival are known only in part owing to missing or damaged parts. Nevertheless, the general outline of the festival and some surprising details appear certain. See Uri Gabbay, “Babylonian Rosh Hashanah,” TheTorah.com (https://thetorah.com/babylonian-rosh-hashanah/), accessed 3/10/19.

2 See Hans Joakim Kraus, Psalms 60 – 150, trans. by Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1989), 263, and the bibliography cited there.

3 Tremper Longman, III, “Psalm 98: A Divine Warrior Victory Song, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 (1984), 270.

4 Tremper, 267-8.

5 For example, Joshua 6:10, 16, 20; 1 Samuel 17:52; Isaiah 43:13; Hosea 5:8, etc.

6 For example, Psalms 47:2; 66:1; 81:2; 95:11; 100:1.

7 Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 263.