Sixth Sunday of Easter

Establishing justice and setting things right on a world-encompassing scale

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Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

May 5, 2024

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Commentary on Psalm 98

Psalm 98 is an extraordinarily important psalm. Along with the similar Psalm 96, it anchors the collection of YHWH-mlk (“the LORD reigns,” or “the LORD is king”; see verse 6) psalms, or enthronement psalms, that many commentators view as “the theological ‘heart’”1 of the book of Psalms. Furthermore, it is likely that Psalm 98 has been sung over the past 250 years as much as or more than any other psalm. This is due, of course, to the popularity of Isaac Watts’s metrical version of Psalm 98, “Joy to the World.”

Psalm 98 at Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter

We sing “Joy to the World” as a Christmas carol, and Psalm 98 is the psalm for Christmas Day in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary cycle. But this essay is for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (note that Psalm 98 is also used during Easter Vigil in all three years of the lectionary cycle). What is to be noted is the fundamental message of Psalm 98 that makes it appropriate for Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter—that is, God is present in the world for the purpose of establishing justice and setting things right on a world-encompassing scale, including “equity” among “the peoples” (verse 9; see below).

The origin and ancient setting of Psalm 98

In terms of origin and ancient use, it is likely that Psalm 98 originated in the exilic or early postexilic era as a response to the crisis of exile. For instance, Psalm 98:3 sounds like a direct response to the lament of an apparently deposed and exiled Judean king in Psalm 89:49. Plus, there are several similarities between Psalm 98 and Isaiah 40–55, the portion of the book of Isaiah that proclaims that God is leading the people out of exile in Babylon in what amounts to a new exodus (see “new song” in verse 1 and Isaiah 42:10; “salvation” in verses 1–3 [New Revised Standard Version: “victory”] and Isaiah 52:7; “holy arm” in verse 1 and Isaiah 52:10; “all the ends of the earth” in verse 3 and Isaiah 52:10).

In this regard, it is to be noted that Psalm 98:1–3 is full of vocabulary that recalls Exodus 15, the song that celebrated the exodus from Egypt (see “song” in verse 1 and Exodus 15:1; “marvelous things” in verse 1 and Exodus 15:11 [New Revised Standard Version: “wonders”]; “right hand” in verse 1 and Exodus 15:6, 12; “salvation” in verses 1–3 [New Revised Standard Version: “victory”] and Exodus 15:2; “steadfast love” in verse 3 and Exodus 15:13). The message? Just as God’s presence was known in the exodus from Egypt, so God’s presence is to be discerned in the return from exile, a new exodus that invites the singing of “a new song” (verse 1). Or, as Isaiah 40:9 puts it in proclaiming an end to the exile, “Here is your God,” or perhaps better, “Your God is here” (my translation).

Psalm 98:9

It is unfortunate that commentators have often failed to discern Psalm 98’s proclamation of God’s presence in the world as a current reality. Rather, the conclusion has frequently been that Psalm 98 portrays God’s coming into the world as a future event. At issue here is the translation and interpretation of verse 9. The New Revised Standard Version and other major translations render the Hebrew verb ba’ as “is coming,” which sounds in English like a future event. To be sure, there is some ambiguity here. The verb form can be properly identified as an active participle, in which case “is coming” may be understandable (but the participle could still indicate a current and ongoing event).

But the verb form can also be properly identified as a Qal perfect, third-person singular—that is, “he has come.” I prefer the latter, and thus I translate verse 9 as follows:

… at the presence of the LORD, for he has come to establish justice on earth.

He will establish justice in the world with righteousness,

and among the peoples with equity.

     (see also the Common English Bible)

In short, God is currently present in the world, and God has come to do what God characteristically wills and works for—justice, righteousness, and equity (see Psalm 72:1–7, where the king is to enact the justice and righteousness that God wills; Psalm 82, where the God of Israel indicts the gods for failing to do justice and righteousness; and note that each of Psalms 96–99 contains the vocabulary of justice and righteousness, and “equity” is mentioned in 96:10 and 99:4).

Psalm 98, then and now

In its original setting and use, Psalm 98 proclaimed God’s presence at a moment when the reality of defeat and exile had led many among God’s people to conclude that God was absent (see Isaiah 40:27). The state of the world today leads many contemporary folk to the same conclusion. So it is all the more urgent that we people of faith proclaim God’s loving commitment to and presence in and with our world. We are invited to proclaim boldly that we see the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in continuity with the exodus and return from exile, God’s marvelous doings of old.

The liturgical use of Psalm 98 at Christmas, at the conclusion of Holy Week, and during the season of Easter represents the good news that God steadfastly and faithfully loves the world (see verse 3) and is present as an active force for setting the world right. And note well: Psalm 98 suggests that God intends not only the “salvation” (verses 1–3)—that is, the life and well-being—of the human community that extends to “the ends of the earth” (verse 3), but also the “salvation” of the entire creational community. The sea, the floods, and the hills join the song of praise that acknowledges and celebrates God’s presence in the world (verses 7–8). In our day when the creation is under duress, the ecological implications alone are paramount!


  1. Gerald H. Wilson, “The Use of Royal Psalms at the ‘Seams’ of the Hebrew Psalter,” JSOT 35 (1986): 92.
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Festival of Homiletics 2024

May 13-16 | Pittsburgh (or digitally from anywhere)

The 2024 Festival of Homiletics is an invitation to lean into a little self-love. Hear from some of the voices of our time, including Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Neichelle Guidry, Brian McLaren, and Angela Dienhart Hancock, and more! Experience inspiring worship along with time for reflection, renewal, and remembering – to recall once again the why for what we do.