Commentary on Psalm 98
We read today’s psalm lection in light of two expectations: next week “Christ the King” Sunday celebrates his eternal, messianic reign; in two weeks, the first Sunday of Advent marks a new liturgical year with expectation of the coming messiah. Thus, Psalm 98—the scriptural basis for “Joy to the World”—invites our joyful praise with bookending rationale: the “marvelous things” King YHWH has done (verse 1), and the fact that YHWH “is coming to judge the earth” (verse 9). It therefore fits well in the series of Enthronement psalms (Psalms 93-100).
Psalm 98 is a thing of poetic beauty. As I just noted, it is framed by two reasons for praise, marked with the particle, kî (“for”). Most commentators recognize a tripartite structure, typically divided around subject matter, such as Weiser’s headings: YHWH’s deeds (verses 1-3); call for the world to praise (verses 4-6); call for nature to praise (verses 7-9).1 Balancing these three sections, however, is a striking verbal precision. After the opening, imperatival invitation (“Sing to the Lord a new song”), there are eighteen verbs equally divided across the sections:
Six verbs in the perfect conjugation (verses 1b-3)
Six verbs in the imperative conjugation (verses 4-6)
Six verbs, comprised of four imperfects, one infinitive, and one participle conjugation (verses 7-9).2
Moreover, one of the more prominent repetitions is the word eres (“earth”), occurring once in each of the three sections. Finally, three uses of the root zmr (“sing/make music”) are clustered at the center of the poem within seven words of each other (verses 4-5), with a fourth use of that root being the single-term superscription, mizmôr (“melody”). The point of this description is to highlight the indissoluble union of a psalm’s poetic features with its message. Philosophically speaking, Psalm 98 is the integration of beauty, truth, and goodness.
As I reflect on the psalm’s contribution to our worship, three areas of study come to mind: ecology, eschatology, and ecclesiology.
This is not one of the classic loci of Christian theology, but perhaps it ought to be. At the very least, the Bible offers a theological ecology. Psalm 98 is not alone in its concern for the earth or in its underlying assumption that God cares about this place of residence. The three-fold use of eres (“earth”) is tied to another repetition: tebel (“world,” verses 7, 9). Both are called to praise God (verses 4, 7) and both will be judged (verse 9). Nancy deClaissé-Walford explores the richness of the term tebel “as earth’s habitable space.”3 God’s intimate, creative relationship with the “world” demands that we embrace God’s intention for equity and justice for all creation. And this is not merely what we ought to do but what we were made to do, as Ellen Davis eloquently states:
An ecological concept of praise has immense implications, for if indeed every one of God’s works is specifically designed for glorification, then the praise of God cannot be viewed as an activity in which human beings engage occasionally or even electively. Rather, praise is woven into the very web of reality, as the primary mode of communication between Creator and creature, expressing their mutual respect and delight.4
Psalm 98 concludes with a positive outlook on the coming judgment of God. That should strike us as very strange, since we typically don’t think of being judged—by people or God—as a positive experience. Perhaps that is why Christian eschatology, the study of last things, evokes such ambivalence. I was not raised in a tradition that followed elaborate timetables based on the Book of Daniel, showed scary movies about the rapture, or evangelized people with the question, “If you were to die tonight, do you know that you would go to heaven?” Psalm 98 simply lays it out there with an open-ended participle: YHWH “is coming” (verse 9). One reason that YHWH’s coming is a cause for joy is his consistency across the psalm: the YHWH who reveals “vindication” (sedekah) in verse 3 is the same YHWH who judges with “righteousness” (sedek) in verse 9. This consistency reminds me of T. F. Torrance’s famous statement, “There is thus no God behind the back of Jesus Christ, but only this God whose face we see in the face of the Lord Jesus.”5
The eschatological hope for God’s righteous judgment carries major implications for the church’s life here and now: “God’s righteousness aims [at] nurturing healthy, healing relationships within the faith community and between God and humanity.”6 Psalm 98 challenges the church that gathers for worship. Brueggemann and Bellinger aptly state that some churches have “considerable substance in their worship but little joy or enthusiasm. Others show great enthusiasm but little substance”7 The so-called worship wars, as David Lewicki rightly diagnosed, are a “trivial conversation until we can muster up the music locked inside that we were created to sing together. Do we even know what that song sounds like?”8 Each congregation and congregant can feel both the claim of this psalm as well as its potential impact. Lewicki eloquently declares: “If Psalm 98 demands anything of the reader, let it be a careful inventory of everything in this life that stirs song. This psalm wants to take all of us to that kind of place.”9
- Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, 5th ed., OTL (Westminster John Knox, 1962), 637.
- The last section begins with three of the imperfect verbs, used as invitations to praise (e.g., “Let the sea roar”), and the fourth imperfect verb (“he will judge”) is the last verb of the psalm.
- Ellen Davis, “Psalm 98: Rejoicing in Judgment,” Interpretation 46 (1992): 175.
- Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons ( T & T Clark. 1996 ), 243.
- Davis, 172.
- Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Psalms (Cambridge, 2014), 422.
- David Lewicki, “Psalm 98,” Interpretation 69 (2015): 210.
- Lewicki, 209.