Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

God’s rule extends to everyone, everywhere, and for all time.

The birth of Jesus with shepherds
JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

December 24, 2015

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Commentary on Psalm 96

God’s rule extends to everyone, everywhere, and for all time.

This is the remarkable claim of Psalm 96 as it summons the entire world to acknowledge the reign of God.

In the ancient Near East, many kings made similarly comprehensive claims about the extent of their own rule. Indeed, it was a common feature of ancient Near Eastern kingship to dedicate vast resources to expanding the king’s political influence as far as possible. Kings would routinely embark on military adventures, conquering smaller states and installing vassal kings and princes who would be loyal to the empire. These states, thus aligned with the empire, would pay tribute, emptying out their coffers to support the king’s quest for world domination.

Demonstrations of subjugation and loyalty to the empire would take the form of processions, elaborate rituals in which people from far away would bring exotic and precious materials as tribute to the king in his capital city. Such a parade of people and wealth appears in the famous reliefs at the Persian capital city of Persepolis. (You can take a virtual tour of the Persepolis palaces.)

Judahites and Israelites were very familiar with such rituals since they were often among the train of those bearing gifts to foreign kings. Israelite and Judahite kings tried to manage the constantly shifting political sands by sending out more and more tribute. In fact, visitors to the British museum can actually see an Israelite king kneeling before the Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III as he brings his tribute of silver, gold, tin and weapons. This scene is just one of countless episodes of Israel and Judah bearing tribute to the imperial forces of the ancient Near East.

It is just such tribute scenes that the Hebrew psalmist describes in vv. 7-8. However, now the king is neither Shalmaneser III in Mesopotamia nor Darius in Persia. In fact, the psalm claims that the king of all the world is not a person at all. Yahweh is king. This is a radical statement on it its own, but even more so given the history of Yahweh’s people, who were constantly overcome by vastly more powerful kings.

A worldwide call to praise

In Psalm 96, the entire world is the audience of a stirring call to praise Yahweh as king. The psalm begins with a string of imperative verbs: “sing” (vv. 1-2), “bless” (v. 2), “tell” (v. 2), and “declare” (v. 3). Grammatically, the subject of all these verbs is “you” (plural). The psalmist is essentially saying: “Hey! All of you out there, sing! (vv. 1, 3) And don’t ever stop! (v. 2)”

Having summoned the nations (vv. 1-3), the psalmist then provides the reasons for the nations to praise (vv. 4-6). The rationale for praise begins with the claim that Yahweh is more powerful than all other gods (v. 4). Again, the political overtones of such a claim should not be missed. In the context of the ancient world, conflicts between cities, regions, and people-groups were often understood as conflicts between their respective gods. The struggle between the Neo-Assyrians gods, for example, and Yahweh, the God of Israel and Judah, would have had a clear outcome given the disparity of territory and military might. Yahweh would be understood to have lost when Israel and Judah were conquered. But the psalm makes the opposite claim: Yahweh wins, despite any evidence to the contrary.

On the heels of this surprising affirmation, the psalm suddenly changes tactics in v. 5. It moves from the claim that Yahweh is more powerful than all the other gods, to argue that, in fact, there are no other gods. They are just idols! The psalmist skillfully uses rhyme and alliteration to underline the futility of all competing claims to divine authority. All the “gods of the people” ’elohe ha‘ammim are worthless things ’elilim. This simple, pithy phrase then sets up the fundamental claim of the psalm: Yahweh alone is the creator of the world (v. 5). And since Yahweh alone created the world, all praise should be directly solely to Yahweh.

This affirmation spurs the psalmist back into the mode of praise, so another string of imperative verbs breaks out in vv. 7-9. The frequently appearing word “ascribe” in vv. 7-8 is the NRSV’s translation of the Hebrew verb habu. “Ascribe” in English is not a word that most people use very often. It’s rather stilted. But the Hebrew here means, quite simply, “give!”

The rhetoric of “giving” glory, bringing offerings and coming into Yahweh’s courts (vv. 7-8) all evoke the Near Eastern practice of the procession of tribute before a supreme king. The psalmist is, in fact, calling the entire world to step into a long parade of people winding toward God’s throne. They bear gifts, and in doing so, acknowledge God’s utter superiority.

A king like no other

The final section of the psalm describes the nature of God’s kingship. Here we see the differences between the empires of the day and God’s kingdom. As we noted already, the reign of Yahweh is not the reign of a human but that of a god. This divine power is not directed at subjugation and exploitation of the earth’s population (as is always the practice of empires). But just the opposite, the reign of God brings equity (v. 10), truth, and righteousness (v. 11) to all peoples.

Moreover, the earth itself responds to the reign of God. We have ample evidence from history that the great empires of the past abused the resources of the natural world just as readily as they abused human communities in the endless quest for power. Of course, empires still function in this way today.

Yet the psalm presents a different way by which the king of the world relates to the earth. The realization of God’s justice in the world means that the earth’s systems are stabilized: “the world is firmly established, it shall never be moved” (v. 10). Exploitation and disorder are no longer the means to power. And creation itself responds to this cosmic stability by echoing praise. Sounding along with the chorus of the nations, we now hear that the sky, the land, the oceans, the forests also anticipate God’s righteous rule.

Psalm 96 challenges us to see kingship, that is, power, differently. The psalm challenged the dominant modes of authority in the ancient world, establishing Yahweh as king over and against all human and divine claimants to that title. The birth of Jesus the Christ renews that challenge. It brings to our lips a new song (v. 1) about God’s reign of justice for everyone, everywhere, and for all time.