Commentary on Psalm 98
Psalm 98 invites hearers and readers into a new frame of reflection about the activity of God.
It breathes with the movement of the planet around the sun. It ties the movement of life to the power of song and music. The earth sings, the sea booms out a bass line, the rivers tap a rhythm, and creation is joined together in an orchestral arrangement that goes on around the clock and is generally imperceptible to human minds or unnoticed by those traveling from one obligation to another.
The passage of time is something that everyone experiences in a range of ways. In childhood I would stare at the elementary classroom clock and wonder why time moved so slowly. Now as an adult who is moving swiftly toward my twilight years, I wonder why time moves so swiftly. The year has barely begun and before I know it I am preparing the house for another winter. The experience of time and reflections about it are ubiquitous, yet the perception of the passage of time is something that varies with age, cultural context, economic status, and so on. Any number of factors can intersect the human experience of time’s passage.
Human perception is limited, yet it can be prompted to discern more than what appears to be possible. The movement of planets, solar systems, galaxies, electrons, microbes, and anything else not readily discernable through human senses are moving all the time, yet people don’t generally think about them.
The earth turns and revolves around the sun. The sun and planets spiral around the Milky Way galaxy. The movement is imperceptible if it weren’t for a few objects in the sky — sun and moon — or in the ocean’s tides. People and all creation experience the rising and falling of the sun as it sweeps across the sky. They see the moon rise and set at all hours of the day. But they don’t really feel the movement of the earth’s turning under the sun or the moon’s passage, nor do feel the revolution of our planet around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Yet, everything is in constant motion. Everything is moving. One could also make a similar observation about the movement of electrons around individual proton and neutron cores in the atoms of everything. In the human body trillions of electrons are moving at any given time. In other words, move than “seven billion billion billion.”1 The sun, planets, and stars follow their courses, but human beings cannot sense the movement. The expanse is too great for human senses to easily observe.
The earth teems with life and only a fraction of it is discernable to the human eye, ear, touch, taste, or olfactory nerves. According to Discovery Magazine the average human body is shared with roughly ninety trillion microbes.2 Microbes move in and over human bodies at every moment, but human beings cannot discern the paths they travel. They are too small for human senses to notice.
Perhaps the Psalmist is inviting people to not only sing a new song, but to sing a song infused by new perception. Reflect on what God has done and is doing in creating trillions of microbes, trillions of atoms, and trillions of suns, planets, moons, and galaxies that stretch out further than the human mind can discern or smaller than the eye can see. Maybe it is the act of reflecting on the mysteries of creation that can give rise to a capacity to begin to notice the atom singing, the mountain drumming, trees dancing, clouds clapping, and pulsars blowing horns?
Maybe the marvelous things of which the Psalmist wrote are that which human capacity cannot easily reach or craft or create. They exist somewhere beyond perception and yet bump against human abilities to see, touch, hear, smell, and taste them. In that expansive and microscopic space there is movement that brushes all things. In the movement there is an activity that the Psalmist claims is the activity of God.
Given that human perception is limited, yet also able to be stretched beyond its limits, the Psalmist invites people to consider the activity of God as a movement of salvation that is oriented toward putting all things right. It is an activity that is infused with not only the movement of God, but the very presence of God in the thickness of human experience and in the movement of all things. “The Lord has made God’s salvation known and revealed God’s righteousness to the nations” (New Interpreter’s Version Psalm 98:2).
Psalm 98 is an exhortation to discernment of God’s activity in the ordinary activities of every living thing. Even the things that may not be seen as living are exhorted to join the chorus of those already singing — sea’s resound, rivers clap hands, mountains sing before the Lord God. Their movements and solidity provide a framework on which the musical score is sung.
Psalm 98 can function as both an awakener to perception about the presence and activity of God and a reminder that God remembers in love, is faithful to Israel, provides salvation, and judges people with equity.
Psalm 98 is a timely Psalm for today. Many are convinced that God is absent, hidden, deceased, or never existed. This isn’t anything new for human experience. However, it is present. The Psalm interrupts that musing by offering another way to reflect on the present. The writer invokes human minds to break out of spaces where thinking is limited and life is regarded as something lived independent of other living things or of God. It seems that the writer was intent on pushing people to see the unseen that was right before their eyes. And once they could begin to make out the outlines and contours of the activity of God, then it was time to shout, burst into song, and make music. What else can really happen once one has discerned the previously un-discernable? It seems that the most reasonable choice is to open one’s mouth and let the songs usher forth from wells of joy.
1 Quora.com. “How many electrons are in the average human body?” Srijan Ghosh. https://www.quora.com/How-many-electrons-are-in-the-average-human-body-How-many-atoms-are-in-the-average-human-body-How-many-electrons-leave-the-body-at-death Accessed June 28, 2016.
2 Discovery Magazine. “Your Body is a Planet.” Josie Glausiusz. June 19, 2007. http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/your-body-is-a-planet Accessed June 28, 2016.