Commentary on Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
“It’s like those miserable psalms. They’re so depressing.” At least, so says the character of God in an (in)famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Yet Psalm 96 is anything but miserable or depressing.
Psalm 96 rejoices in Yahweh’s salvation, works, glory, greatness, honor, majesty, and strength. It proclaims that Yahweh alone created the heavens. It commands that all of the heavens, all of the earth, and all peoples should praise Yahweh. It opens with an imperative that sets the joyous, praise-filled tone for what follows: “Sing to Yahweh a new song!” (Psalm 96:1).
While verses 1-9 are included in the liturgy, the final four verses are absent. Yet at the core of this psalm is the opening of these last verses: “Say among the nations, ‘Yahweh is king!’” (Psalm 96:10, New Revised Standard Version). Verses 10-13 remind listeners why they should sing and praise, both declaring that Yahweh is king and promising divine action: Yahweh “is coming to judge (šepo?) the earth,” with “righteousness … and truth” [verse 13].
The promise of divine judgment might return us to the idea of “those miserable psalms,” which are “so depressing.” After all, judgment rarely carries with it connotations of joy. But many scholars suggest that a better translation of the Hebrew verb šp? might be “to establish justice.” In other words, this is a promise of justice on earth, a promise that the world will be righted and restored even if it doesn’t look that way in the present moment. One day, says the psalmist, things will be better than they are. So “let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it” (verses 11-12).
The image of the heavens, the earth, the sea, the field, and “everything in it” celebrating a new and better future becomes especially moving when we consider when Psalm 96 might have been composed. Along with Psalms 93, 94-95, and 97-99, Psalm 96 has long been categorized as an enthronement psalm; namely, a psalm that celebrates Yahweh as divine king (also see Psalms 29 and 47). For many years, biblical scholars, following in the footsteps of Sigmund Mowinckel, suggested that these psalms originated in an annual festival where Yahweh was (re)enthroned as king over Israel in the Jerusalem Temple.
Alternatively, scholars have proposed that Psalm 96 might have been written as a response to the Babylonian Exile of 587 b.c.e. Psalm 89, which closes Book III of the Psalter, describes the crisis of the Babylonian Exile, asking, “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” (Psalm 89:46). Jerusalem has fallen and Yahweh is hidden. In the aftermath of the exile, hope in any form, especially hope for justice, must have been hard to come by. After this, Psalm 96, along with the other psalms of Book IV of the psalter (Psalms 90-106), follow.
So why do scholars think Psalm 96, with its joyous and praise-filled tone, is a response to the crisis of exile? According to many, the similarities between the language of Psalm 96 and the language of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), largely dated to sometime near the end of the Babylonian Exile, provides us with the clues to situate its composition. A number of parallels are regularly cited. For example, Psalm 96:1 implores its listeners to “Sing to Yahweh a new song!” So too does the book of Isaiah: “Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!” (Isaiah 42:12). As Isaiah declares, “Let the sea roar and all that fills it,” so too does the psalmist (96:11). Psalm 96:2 commands its listeners to “tell (basserû)” of Yahweh’s “salvation from day to day,” using the same Hebrew root behind the “good tidings” of Isaiah 40:9 (mebasseret) and Isaiah 41:27 (mebasser).
Moreover, this declaration of Yahweh’s “salvation (yešû?atô)” in Psalm 96:2 also appears in the book of Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation (yešû?atî) may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6; see 52:7). Both Isaiah and Psalm 96 proclaim that only Yahweh is God and all other gods are idols (Isaiah 44:9-20; Psalm 96:5). And both Second Isaiah and Psalm 96 share the aforementioned vision of divine justice (see Isaiah 42:1-4). So, goes the argument, these literary connections suggest that Psalm 96 might have been written around the same time.
For Second Isaiah, there was hope that the Babylonian Exile might end and that Yahweh would act in Israel’s history once again, as Yahweh had in the past: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The declaration that “I am about to do a new thing” seems to be the same hope that undergirds Psalm 96 and its call for a new song. Once again, says the psalmist, Yahweh will act.
Psalm 96 is anything but miserable or depressing, even if it was perhaps composed in one of the most potentially depressing periods of ancient Israelite history. The psalm looks forward to a time when Yahweh will act yet again. At the same time, the psalm does not ask its listeners to wait passively for the establishment of justice on earth. The series of imperatives throughout the psalm remind listeners themselves to also act: to sing, bless, tell, and declare. These imperatives, all in the plural, demand that everyone act. And the inclusion of all throughout the psalm — all the peoples, families, nations, and, indeed, the very heavens, seas, fields, and trees — reminds listeners of how bound together creation is. Together, the psalmist says, hope, even in the face of misery. Celebrate. But together, too, work.