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Psalm 96 Biblical Commentary:
This is one of several enthronement psalms (47, 93, 96, 97, 98, 99). Enthronement psalms celebrate God as king and affirm his Lordship over all of creation. They call people to clap their hands and sing songs of joy.
Enthronement psalms speak often of the earth––one of God’s creative endeavors. They call the earth to sing (96:1-2) and rejoice (97:1)––and show how this rejoicing might be expressed:
- Seas roar (96:11; 98:7).
- Fields exult (96:12).
- Trees (96:12) and hills (98:8) sing for joy.
- Floods lift up their voice (93:3) and clap their hands (98:8).
It is right to give God praise, because:
- He is king over all the earth (47:7).
- His decrees are sure (93:5).
- He will judge people with equity (96:10) and the world with righteousness (96:13; 98:9).
- He rescues the faithful from those who are wicked (97:10).
- He has done mighty things (98:1).
- He is holy (99:9).
PSALM 96:1-3 SING TO YAHWEH A NEW SONG!
1 Sing to Yahweh a new song!
Sing to Yahweh, all the earth.
2 Sing to Yahweh!
Bless his name!
Proclaim his salvation from day to day!
3 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
“Sing to Yahweh a new song!” (v. 1a). What is the significance of a new song? I have been unable to find a definitive answer, but will suggest some possibilities:
- To compose a new song requires a welling up of energy within the composer. To compose a new song for singing to Yahweh requires a welling up of faith and devotion.
- There is something fresh and exciting about new songs.
- Musical tastes change, so an old song might not speak to a new generation.
“Sing to Yahweh, all the earth” (v. 1b). Yahweh was the God of Israel, and Israel was jealous of her God. While Israel was willing to share Yahweh with Gentiles who would become proselytes, Jews tended to keep themselves separate from Gentiles. But there are a number of passages in the Old Testament that reach out to Gentiles (such as this verse).
“Sing to Yahweh! Bless (Hebrew: barak) his name!” (v. 2a). The word barak is related to the word berak, which means kneel. In this context, bless Yahweh’s name means to pay homage to Yahweh.
“Proclaim (Hebrew: basar) his salvation (Hebrew: yesuah) from day to day!” (v. 2b). The word basar (proclaim) is often used for a messenger bringing news. When the psalmist calls us to proclaim the salvation offered by Yahweh, he is calling us to bear that message of salvation to people who need to hear it. In this context, basar is an evangelistic word.
The word yesuah means salvation or deliverance from some sort of distress or danger. I am not a Hebrew scholar, but I was struck by the similarity between yesuah (salvation) and yehosu (Joshua, which means Yahweh saves). Also, the name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew yeshua (to help or to save)––so the Lord told Joseph that Mary would have a son, and “You shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
“day by day.” Does this modify “proclaim” or “his salvation”? In other words, are we to proclaim Yahweh’s salvation day by day––or does Yahweh’s bestow his salvation day by day? Probably the former (proclaim)––but it strikes me that both could be true.
- Our proclamation should not be a sometime thing, but should instead be a daily discipline. We need to tailor our proclamation to the circumstances so it doesn’t become obnoxious, but our failing is more likely to be in never saying a word about God or salvation.
- But it is also true that God saves us day by day. He forgives our sins day by day. He delivers us from the evil one day by day (Matthew 6:13). He makes it possible for us to recover from crushing disappointments, hopefully not every day, but as needed. In my case, he saved me from reckless teenage foolishness behind the wheel of a car that I was not yet fit to drive. He saved me from drowning in a rip tide in the South China Sea. He made it possible for me to survive Stage 3.5 colon cancer and a near-death bout of pernicious anemia.
If you will give the matter some thought, I’m confident that you will remember instances where God saved you from distress or danger.
Further, God saves us day by day in ways that we never even notice. Can you breathe normally? You aren’t likely to count that as one of your blessings, but a person suffering from emphysema will tell you that it is the greatest of all blessings. Praise God! Do you live in a house or apartment with heat and lights? Praise God! Are your children living? Praise God! Etc., etc. God saves us ad infinitum.
“Declare his glory (Hebrew: kabod) among the nations, (Hebrew: goyim) his marvelous works among all the peoples” (Hebrew: am) (v. 3). The word “glory” (kabod) is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things––but especially God’s glory––an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans.
The word goyim (nations) is often used in the Old Testament to mean Gentile nations––pagans. The word am (peoples) is similarly broad, potentially including all the peoples of the earth.
Whether the Jewish people of that time would have recognized it, this verse is evangelistic. To praise God and his works in the presence of people who don’t know God is to whet their appetite to know more––and invites them to embrace your God as their God.
PSALM 96:4-6 FOR GREAT IS YAHWEH, AND GREATLY TO BE PRAISED!
4 For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised!
He is to be feared above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but Yahweh made the heavens.
6 Honor and majesty are before him.
Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
“For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised!
He is to be feared (Hebrew: yare) above all gods” (v. 4). This verse says that Yahweh is great, but doesn’t say why. The next verse will clarify that.
Yahweh is to be feared (yare), a word that means feared, respected, or reverenced. Fearing Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). It means serving Yahweh only (Deuteronomy 6:13). It means keeping Yahweh’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58).
“For all the gods of the peoples are idols, (Hebrew: ‘eliyl)
but Yahweh made the heavens” (v. 5). The psalmist contrasts the gods of the peoples (Gentiles) with Yahweh. The gods of the peoples are ‘eliyl––a word that means worthless. It was also used to mean false gods or idols, which are worthless because they aren’t real and therefore have no power to help anyone. These worthless idols have accomplished nothing.
Yahweh, on the other hand, “made the heavens.” A quick glance at Genesis 1-2 will reveal that Yahweh made the heavens––and much more:
- He created light, and separated the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:3-5).
- He created a dome to separate the waters above from the waters below (Genesis 1:6-8).
- He separated the waters from the dry land (Genesis 1:9-10).
- He created vegetation (Genesis 1:11-13).
- On the fourth day, he created the sun, moon, and stars (Genesis 1:14-19), which is what the Psalmist meant when he said that Yahweh created the heavens.
- He created birds and sea life (Genesis 1:20-23).
- He created animals (Genesis 1:24-25).
- Finally, as the crowning act of his creative nature, Yahweh made man in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27).
That creative inspiration and energy is one reason why Yahweh is worthy to be praised.
“Honor and majesty are before him.
Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Hebrew: miqdas) (v. 6). The psalmist presents four lovely attributes––honor, majesty, strength, and beauty––as if they were Yahweh’s entourage––his attendants in his sanctuary.
The word miqdas (sanctuary) refers to sacred space, as over against secular space. It is a space dedicated to God and reserved for worship or other sacred endeavors.
The Israelites thought of the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (later, the temple) as Yahweh’s sanctuary. It was there that Yahweh sat above the Ark of the Covenant on his Mercy Seat, guarded by the outstretched wings of two cherubim.
To appreciate the majesty of that setting, it helps to understand its scale. The following describes the temple rather than the tabernacle, which was therefore more modest. The cherubim were each 15 feet (5 meters) high. The spread from wingtip to wingtip was 15 feet (5 meters). These cherubim were overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:23-28). The Mercy Seat was made of gold.
PSALM 96:7-13. ASCRIBE TO YAHWEH THE GLORY DUE TO HIS NAME
7 Ascribe to Yahweh, you families of nations,
ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.
8 Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name.
Bring an offering, and come into his courts.
9 Worship Yahweh in holy array.
Tremble before him, all the earth.
“Ascribe (Hebrew: yahab) to Yahweh, you families of nations,
ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (v. 7). The word yahab (“ascribe”), when imperative, as in this verse, means give––”Give Yahweh glory and strength.”
“families of nations” refers to subdivisions of nations, such as extended families or tribes or clans. This is a call for all peoples everywhere to honor Yahweh. For the nations to truly honor Yahweh, they would be required to forego worshiping other gods.
“Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name.
Bring an offering, and come into his courts” (v. 8). The psalmist is calling people to give Yahweh his due––that which he deserves––”the glory due to his name.”
The worship begins with the bringing of an offering and coming into Yahweh’s courts––presumably the temple courts.
“Worship Yahweh in holy array” (v. 9a). The priests would be clothed in liturgical garments prescribed by Jewish law and appropriate for honoring Yahweh.
An alternate translation for this verse is “Worship Yahweh in the splendor (or beauty) of his holiness.”
“Tremble before him, all the earth” (v. 9b). In the presence of great power, we often find ourselves manifesting some measure of awe: Trembling, difficulty speaking, etc. Yahweh is ultimate power, so it is appropriate to tremble before him, especially when we understand that he will come to judge the earth (v. 13).
The psalmist calls “all the earth” to do this––an invitation to non-Jewish people to join in the worship of Yahweh.
PSALM 96:10. HE WILL JUDGE THE PEOPLES WITH EQUITY
10 Say among the nations, “Yahweh reigns.”
The world is also established.
It can’t be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.
“Say among the nations (Hebrew: goyim), ‘Yahweh reigns'” (v. 10a).
As noted above, the word goyim (nations) is often used in the Old Testament to mean Gentile nations––people whom most Jews of that time would classify as pagans. This verse has an evangelistic thrust, as does much of this psalm. We are to teach the ungodly to know God so they can sing his praises.
“The world is also established. It can’t be moved” (v. 10b). I have not found much in the commentaries to help me with this verse. The psalmist might be calling the nations (Gentiles) to reflect on the solidity of the ground on which they stand––the magnificent stability of the creation––so that they might be inclined to honor the creator by proclaiming, “Yahweh reigns.”
“He will judge the peoples with equity” (Hebrew: meysar) (v. 10c). The word meysar means rightness or equity or just. Yahweh will dispense justice––not preferential treatment based on a person’s status.
The good news is that there will be a healthy dose of mercy in this judgment. If Yahweh were to dispense pure justice, none of us would have a chance. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23). But God showed considerable mercy in the Old Testament, and the New Testament rests on the grace conferred by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
PSALM 96:11-13. HE WILL JUDGE THE WORLD WITH RIGHTEOUSNESS
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice.
Let the sea roar, and its fullness!
12 Let the field and all that is in it exult!
Then all the trees of the woods shall sing for joy
13 before Yahweh; for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
the peoples with his truth.
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice.
Let the sea roar, and its fullness!” (v. 11).
Keep in mind that this is poetry, and poets strive to help us see pictures and hear music instead of trying to describe reality with scientific precision. In verse 6, the psalmist spoke of honor, majesty, strength, and beauty as if they were people––Yahweh’s entourage, his attendants.
Now he does something similar with heavens and earth and seas and fields and trees. Walt Disney could have done something wonderful with these verses, which depict the heavens morphing into creatures able to express heavenly joy. Just imagine how Walt might have depicted seas roaring––and fields exulting––and trees singing for joy.
Walt called that Imagineering––using imagination to help us experience wonders that would otherwise remain inaccessible to us. The psalmist is using Imagineering in verses 11-12 to help us see pictures that we would otherwise miss.
“Let the field and all that is in it exult!
Then all the trees of the woods shall sing for joy before Yahweh” (v. 12-13a).
The last half of this verse––the part about trees singing for joy––is also found in 1 Chronicles 16:33. Timothy Botts, a Christian calligrapher with the soul of an artist, has spent a lifetime creating calligraphic images that convey the meaning of particular scriptures. He did that for 1 Chronicles 16:33, and you can see the trees singing at the following link:
Or you can order that image online at:
“before Yahweh.” I have chosen to link this with verses 11-12, because I believe that the psalmist is presenting the heavens and earth and seas and fields and trees as a majestic chorus, praising Yahweh at his coming.
“for he comes; for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
the peoples with his truth” (v. 13).
This verse brings to mind Psalm 19, where the psalmist celebrates God’s law as “more to be desired than gold” and “sweeter than honey” (Psalm 19:10). I usually think of the law as a red flashing light in my rearview mirror. While I know that laws are necessary, I don’t usually think of them as “more to be desired than gold” and “sweeter than honey.”
But the psalmist goes on to defend his position, saying that God’s laws are perfect, sure, right, pure, etc. They restore the soul, make wise the simple, enlighten the eyes, etc. Thinking of God’s laws in those terms makes it possible for me to envision God’s laws as taking an out-of-whack universe and snapping it into sharp focus. Psalm 19 also reminded me of God’s merciful nature, which is to help rather than to condemn. Those understandings elevated Psalm 19 to be one of my favorites.
In like manner, when we think of God coming to judge the earth, we might experience that as threatening rather than reassuring. Even with a lifetime of faith behind me, I am not looking forward to standing in the great line of humanity waiting for Jesus to label them as sheep or goats––to direct them to the right to experience eternal rejoicing, or the left to spend eternity gnashing their teeth (see Matthew 25:31-46).
I know many reasons why God might shunt me off to the left where I would spend eternity in misery. While I am familiar with the concept of God’s mercy, I am always a bit concerned that he might revert to dispensing justice in my case.
This last verse of Psalm 96 reinforces that fear. Yahweh will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with truth. While those who have fallen prey to the whims and fancies of our this-world justice system might find righteous judgment comforting, I find it otherwise. While a righteous judgment is far superior to an unrighteous one, those of us who are conscious of our guilt realize that we need something more.
That something more is mercy. Both Old and New Testaments assure us of God’s mercy and the grace that he dispenses. I still struggle to believe that he will do that for me, but I live in the hope that he will.
God’s mercy makes his coming judgment a prospect for rejoicing, because it means that, at his coming, he will set all things right. He will remove the stinger and poison that make our earthly existence so painful, and will usher in an age where we will recycle swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks––where people will learn war no more (Isaiah 2:4)––where we will no longer need police or locks or passwords.
When that happens, we will look up and see the heavens smiling. We will look down and see the earth rejoicing. We will look outward and see the seas roaring approval and fields exulting and trees singing for joy. Then we will look inward, and find our hearts bursting with delight in the Lord. Come, Lord Jesus! Come soon! Come now!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan