Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvellous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
The theme of ‘song’ or a ‘new song’ is one that features prominently in this cluster of Psalms (95:1, 2; 96:1; 100:2; 101:1). It is impossible to precisely identify any specific historical context for Psalm 98 but one can easily imagine it to be the sort of thing that might have been said or sung after the return from exile in Babylon.
The events of verses 1–3 focus on events in Israel’s history – actions that were not just for Israel, but that reveal God’s righteousness and his salvation to the ends of the earth.
Verse 3 refers to God’s covenant commitment to Israel, but that commitment was always to use his chosen people to bring his blessing not just to them but through them to all the world.
The central section of the Psalm (vv. 4–6) is a massive summons to praise. Not just Israel, but all the earth is called upon to celebrate God’s rule (his ‘kingdom’ if we were using New Testament language). The whole earth is called upon to shout for joy, to burst into song, to make music and for good measure to shout for joy again! Sadly, for many people when they think of the rule of God, they think just of the appalling things that have been carried out in God’s name – at the best ‘no fun!’ and at the worst torture, terror and death.
We see clearly in the Gospels that the rule of God as embodied in Jesus is the rule of love that results in joy for all those who embrace it. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the disturbed mind is calmed, the outcast is welcomed, the sinner forgiven and people rejoice.
The final section of the Psalm extends from humanity to the whole of creation. This is a theme picked up by Paul in his letter to the Roman house churches (Romans 8:18–25). ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ (G.M. Hopkins) but it is a fallen world, a world of devastating earthquakes and mudslides, forest fires, plagues and lethal viruses. The coming of the Lord as judge (v. 9) means setting things right. It means the healing of creation.
If Psalm 98 sounds familiar it’s because it was the inspiration for the great Isaac Watts hymn, ‘Joy to the World’. When Watts was 16 years old, he complained to his father about the songs being sung in church – teenagers, huh! His father issued him a challenge and said if he didn’t like what was being sung, he should write something better. Well, we know how that one worked out!
Watts never intended his paraphrase of Psalm 98 to be merely a song sung at Christmas, but for many people ‘Joy to the World’ has become firmly fixed with that time of year and the celebration of Christ’s birth.
Watts also never intended his paraphrase of Psalm 98 to be known by the title it is called today – originally it was called ‘The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.’ We celebrate that Jesus the Saviour has come, we celebrate that he rules, and we celebrate that he will return as judge ‘to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found’ (Watts).
Psalm 98 – Joy to the world – it’s not just for Christmas!