In the summer, after the Christmas season, I have noted that many churches turn to preach from the Psalms. A number of factors may influence this choice. Psalms are often seen as stand-alone units, so useful in a season when members may be coming and going, away from church for reasons of rest and recreation or mission and ministry. CMS Summer Schools, SU Beach Missions and the like are some excellent reasons why people may not be on church on a particular Sunday. This can make preaching problematic, if each seeks to build on and connect with those which have gone before. Preaching a series of psalms may avoid this. Visiting or occasional preachers may more readily accept an invitation if they have a Psalm sermon or two in their preaching kitbag. However one problem with this approach is that the psalms are removed from their canonical context. This serves to denature important developmental themes, such as the interplay between lament and trust. See for example the placement of Psalm 23 affirming the Lord as protector provider, immediately following Psalm 22’s lament ‘My God, my God why have you abandoned me?’ It also ignores the arrangement of the Psalter into five books. So I want to consider Psalm 96 first of all in its canonical context.
Psalm 96 is one of a group of “the Lord reigns” or “Kingship of Yahweh” psalms which occur early in Book IV of the Psalter. These have been seen by some scholars as enthronement psalms. The evidence for this as a psalm category is not strong, but most of this particular psalm is used (reused?) in 1 Chronicles 16 to accompany the celebration of the ark being taken into Jerusalem. Kidner observed, ‘The symbolism of the march, in which God crowned his victories by planting his throne in the enemy’s former citadel, is matched by the theme of the psalm.’ (Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, TOTC (Downers Grove: IVP, 1975), 379.)
Another characteristic of the psalm in its canonical context is the more universal view, beyond the community of God’s OT people, Israel and Judah. This psalm belongs with a group (92-101) which explicitly refer to singing and call on people(s) to worship the Lord (Yhwh).
It can aid our interpretation to also consider this psalm from the perspective of its use in the worship of God’s people, both from its use before and after the coming of Jesus the Christ. Often Psalms used liturgically can be read antiphonally, and if we consider the first three verses, the psalm reads like a conversation of mutual encouragement. Paul seems to have something like this in mind when he urges Christians to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). The first part of these Psalm verse, has a comparable and developing response in the second half.
- Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
- Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
- Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvellous deeds among all peoples.
The verses begin with a series of imperatives, and urging to sing and worship the Lord (Yhwh). Note the thrice repeated Yhwh, the specific Name of the revealed God of Israel. There is a development in the verses. God’s people are not just urging each other on in song and words of worship and praise, but further into proclamation and declaration among the nations and all peoples (Christians could use the language of evangelism and mission). This wider view was actually implicitly present in verse 1 where all the earth was called to sing to the Lord.
The next three verses give reasons for singing, worship and declaration. The Lord is great, worthy, and to be feared in contrast to all other rival ‘gods’. It is the Lord who is creator of the heavens. Use of the heavens may help users of this psalm to see the wider scope of God as Lord of all who are under the heavens. He also created the land but this would possibly narrow our view, a more human and particular perspective.
Verse seven begins to call on all the families of nations to join in this great corporate recognition of the Lord’s glory and strength. The vision is of all peoples flowing to the Lord’s sanctuary (temple?), bringing offerings in worship and recognition of God’s glory and holiness.
Who is being addressed in verse 10 is open to interpretation. Is it God’s people, or the nations / all the earth? I lean to thinking this psalm is calling on all peoples to be affirming to one another that the Lord is reigning. The rationale for the call is the solidity of the created world and God’s equitable judgment of the peoples. These are reasons which apply more broadly than with Israel and Judah of the OT or the church of the NT era and beyond until the Lord’s return. It is verse 10 which unites this psalm with others nearby as a “Lord reigns” psalm.
The final verses of the psalm are a continuing call to worship, but now the call goes out beyond all humanity. Every aspect of creation: heavens, earth, sea, fields and all living things they contain, the trees of the bush are called to worship, in fact ‘Let all creation rejoice before the Lord.’ God coming as judge is the reason appended to this final call to worship the Lord.
As Christians we read this psalm through the lens of Christ and his coming. It is the salvation brought by Jesus’ death and resurrection, which we proclaim and which is our reason for worship and gospel proclamation. Jesus’ return, his coming as Lord and righteous judge, is our ultimate perspective. When we use this psalm, we should call on one another, the whole world, and indeed all peoples, to acknowledge the one true God and saviour. We are called to worship this God and to declare his greatness and glory in mission. This call and the mission of God’s people goes beyond our own local gathering and looks to all that God has made resounding in the worship and celebration of God.
Len Firth is Lecturer in Professional Supervision for Ridley College; Pastoral Supervisor and Ministry Coach; Associate Minister St John’s West Brunswick. Former Archdeacon for Multi-cultural Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.