Commentary on Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
Psalm 96 is for royalty. It should start with timpani and end with a trumpet. (If you don’t have a drummer or trumpeter handy, read on.)
This enthronement psalms (93; 95-99) calls the people to praise God (verses 1-3, 7-10a, 11-12a) and gives reasons why God is worthy of praise (verses 4-6, 10b, 12b-13). Taken together these moves “describe the nature and consequences of God’s rule.”1
God’s reign gets spectators involved and awakens sleepers. No wonder the Psalm brims with imperatives: three times we are told to sing, and after that to bless, tell, declare, ascribe and worship. This Psalm is motivational. It moves people to proclaim God’s mercy and might.
In Part 1 (verses 1-3) God’s people get their marching orders. First we are to “sing a new song” (verse 1). But what exactly is that new song? The preacher can well ask what song his or her congregation is given to sing. The Psalm leaves that pretty open ended. It could be Psalm 96 itself, or some brand new composition. It might be a response to some event in the story of God’s people, such as “the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity” or something that has happened in your congregation or community. It could be a song looking toward the future, or one that combines past, present and future.2
After three calls to sing, the Psalm moves to another imperative: the call to bless God’s name (verse 2). Of course God does not need our blessing. But in worship, to bless God is to tell of God’s saving deeds…to extol God’s mercy, might and compassion. Ancient worshippers in the Temple used Psalm 96 (and others like it) to bless God, and they may also have knelt and lifted up their hands. Worship is between the worshipper and God, yet it moves outward with another imperative: we are to tell others of God’s salvation. This is not just preaching to the choir, but to all the world. The Psalmist says we are to declare God’s glory “among the nations” God’s marvelous works “to all the people.” So Psalm 96 has been called a “missionary psalm.”
Part 2 (verses 4-6) tells why God is to be praised. God is great above the heavens. But down here on earth where there are many gods, the one true God outshines them all. The Psalmist dismisses those other gods-with-a-small-‘g’- as mere idols. They are things we made up, in contrast to the creator who made us, and the heavens (verse 5). We praise God as Creator, and we also praise God’s character.
Perhaps the most famous description of God’s character appears in Psalm 103:8 (and elsewhere): God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The description of God’s character found in Psalm 96: 6 has a different emphasis: God’s “honor and majesty are before him, his strength and beauty fill the sanctuary.” This points to God’s sovereignty and holiness, an important theme in scripture though often neglected today.
Part 3 (verses 7-10) returns to the imperative mood once more, in a worship setting. Three times we are told to ascribe to glory to God. To “ascribe” is to name a quality that belongs to a person or thing. To a deer we ascribe speed and grace and to an artist or composer we ascribe creative genius. To God we ascribe glory and strength — especially when looking at creation. To express our gratitude and dependence on God, we are told to bring an offering, come into God’s courts (verse 8) worship the Lord, and tremble before God (verse 9). In verse 10 (not included in the lectionary) we are to say to the nations that the Lord is King.
Part 4 (verses 11-13) is not included in the lectionary, perhaps because of the judgment theme. These verses proclaim that God comes to judge the nations in righteousness. Yet this judgment evokes more joy than dread, for the whole world, both nations and nature, will rejoice — even the trees will sing.
The other texts appointed for this day emphasize God’s power among the nations. The first lesson (Isaiah 45:1-7) is a hymn to the Persian King Cyrus who sent the exiles back to their homeland; yet Cyrus, however great, was only a man. To God alone, the return of the people from their exile is ascribed.
In the second lesson, from 1 Thessalonians, Paul gives thanks for Christian believers who spread the Gospel message to all nations (Psalm 96:3,7 and 10 tell us proclaim God’s reign to all peoples and nations). And in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes a clear distinction between what we owe to Caesar, the human king, and we owe to God. We have to pay taxes to Caesar, but only God is to be worshipped. This is reminiscent of Psalm 96 with its clear distinction between the gods humans make and the one true God, who alone is to be worshipped.
Psalm 96 presents an excellent opportunity to preach a sermon on worship, especially when used together with 1 Thessalonians 1. In a time when worship attendance is falling off in a great many churches, it is a good thing to work with the congregation on why and how we worship. The church is more than a social network or a cultural artifact. So why worship? Because we are created to be in relationship with God. And because God calls us to worship.
To preach on this Psalm, you can ask and answer three basic questions: First, whom we do worship? (see 1 Thessalonians 1: 3,10 and Psalm 96: 4-6). Second, why do we worship? (Because God our creator calls us to be in relationship. That is what Psalm 96 does.) And finally how we do we worship (Psalm 96: 1-3 and 7-9). There is great variety in how we worship, but proclamation is at the heart of it.
Hymn: ELW 731 Earth and All Stars
1 New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1064.
2 New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1065.