Commentary on Psalm 96
The Lord is king!1
One of the most consistent, counter-cultural, and evangelical messages of the Bible is that the Lord reigns as king, the crucified-and-resurrected Christ is king — of our lives, of God’s church, of the world, of history, of the universe. Which means, of course, that we are not. You are not. I am not. No president, emperor, general, CEO, governor, or tyrant is. God is king.
This message is found throughout the Bible. The poetic creation lyrics that can be found in the Bible’s earliest poetry testify that the Lord reigns. The story of the Exodus bears witness to Israel’s confession that the Lord—not Pharaoh—is true God. And the First Commandment means that Israel is to have the Lord as king, rather than any human king (see 1 Samuel 8:7). The prophets prior to the exile and during the exile—Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and “Second Isaiah”—proclaimed that the Lord is king of Judah and of history—the emperors of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia … not so much. They may think they are kings and rule history, but really they are just little surfers riding the front edge of the wave of history, which is being propelled by the Lord.
Although it seems fairly unlikely that very many Christian preachers—if any—will preach on Psalm 96 on Christmas Eve, read this commentary on Psalm 96 as context for your sermon preparation this Christmas.
The Lord’s enthronement: an annual celebration?
Psalm 96 is part of a group of psalms that for the last 100 years or so have been called the “Enthronement Psalms”—Psalms 47, 93, 95, 96, 97, 99. Not to be confused with the so-called “Royal Psalms,” a group of eclectic psalm forms each of which deals with the human, Davidic kings, the Enthronement Psalms are all hymns of praise that celebrate the universal kingship of God.
Each of the Enthronement Psalms contains the phrase “The Lord is king” (Yahweh mā-lāḵ), or a near equivalent of that phrase:
- “The Lord is king” (93:1)
- “For the Lord is a great God, a great king” (95:3)
- “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” (96:10)
- “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice” (97:1)
- “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble” (99:1)
- “God has gone up with a shout … God is the king” (47:5-7)
The idea of labeling this group of psalms “Enthronement Psalms” was proposed by the great Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel. Mowinckel argued that each year at a special New Year’s/harvest festival, the Lord was ceremonially enthroned as King—not just as Israel’s King, but as the universal King.
As part of the enthronement festival, the shout was made, “The Lord has become King!” Mowinckel made the analogy to Christian Easter worship services, at which worshippers proclaim in liturgy and song, “Christ is risen!”
“In the poet’s imagination,” writes Mowinkcel, “this enthronement of Yahweh is an event which has just taken place, and the hymn of praise is sung to acclaim the new king.”
He continues, this witness is that “Yahweh is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”
For many years Mowinckel’s proposal was widely accepted. For many reasons, most of which are not germane here, most psalms scholars today no longer accept Mowinckel’s historical reconstruction of a new year’s festival.
But this much, at least, we can learn from Mowinckel’s sensitive theological imagination. In our worship, just as in ancient Israel’s worship, we bear witness to not simply to who God was for the early church or to what Jesus did in the past. Rather, in our worship Christmas is “an event which has just taken place, and the hymn of praise is sung to acclaim the new king.” Like Mowinckel, we believe Christ “is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”
The Lord’s Incarnation: an annual witness
Christians celebrate Christmas annually into order to proclaim and observe—in the deepest darkness of winter (in the northern hemisphere anyway) that Christ the Light came into the world in the flesh. Christmas is our annual celebration of the Incarnation.
As part of our annual liturgical rhythm we await (liturgically at any rate) with longing, expectancy, and hope. . . the birth of the Savior. And on Christmas Eve and Day we sing as if Christ really were just now, right here, born.
Consider these lyrics:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king …
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn king;
With angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
All my heart again rejoices
As I hear, far and near,
Sweetest angel voices;
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing,
Till the air everywhere
Now with joy is ringing.
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from your holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth,
Jesus, Lord, as your birth.
Notice especially the present-tense language of our Christmas songs: “Christ is born”; “radiant beams from your holy face … Jesus, Lord, at your birth”; “Christ is born in Bethlehem”; “the Lord is come!”
These examples could be multiplied many times over. But the point is made clear in these few examples: In our annual Christmas worship, Christ “is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”
As mentioned at the start of this commentary, it is very unlikely many, or any, preachers will preach on Psalm 96 on Christmas Eve.
But let this commentary provide a context that frames the importance of what you and your worshipers do on Christmas. You bear witness in the midst of a physically and spiritually dark creation, that Christ the light still entries into our world—and the darkness cannot overcome it.
In your preaching, the coming, revealing, salvation-bringing Christ is born again today.