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Psalm 98 Biblical Commentary:
Enthronement psalms (47, 93, 96, 97, 98, 99) celebrate God as king and affirm his Lordship over all of creation. See the CONTEXT for Psalm 96 for more about enthronement psalms.
We have no idea what event prompted the psalmist to write this psalm. It could have been deliverance from exile, but it could have been any deliverance event.
PSALM 98:1-6. SING TO YAHWEH A NEW SONG
1 Sing to Yahweh a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand, and his holy arm, have worked salvation for him.
2 Yahweh has made known his salvation.
He has openly shown his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his loving kindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth!
Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises!
5 Sing praises to Yahweh with the harp,
with the harp and the voice of melody.
6 With trumpets and sound of the ram’s horn,
make a joyful noise before the King, Yahweh.
“Sing to Yahweh a new song” (v. 1a). What is the significance of a new song? I 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.
“for he has done marvelous things!” (v. 1b). The psalmist explains why he is calling people to sing Yahweh a new song. It is because Yahweh has done marvelous things––has accomplished wonder after wonder.
Just take the world in which we live––a beautiful gem in the setting of a grand universe. From the intricate structure of an atom to the grand scope of the starlit skies, the wonders that Yahweh has created surround us and call us to express our gratitude and amazement.
“His right hand, and his holy (Hebrew: qodes) arm, have worked salvation for him” (Hebrew: yasa) (v. 1c). For most people, the right hand is the dominant hand––the strong hand––the hand that wields a sword. Therefore the right hand is a symbol of power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 12; Nehemiah 4:23; Psalm 18:35; 20:6; 21:8; etc.). Kings wore the ring signifying their authority on their right hand. Fathers used their right hand to confer their blessing on their firstborn son.
Not only is Yahweh’s right hand strong, but his arm is holy (qodes). When speaking of created things, such as human beings or the temple, the word qodes (holy) means consecrated or set apart for a holy purpose.
But when used for God, as it is here, qodes moves to a different level. God is not consecrated or set apart for a holy purpose. God is the fount from which all holiness springs. He is the eternal source of holiness. He is holiness personified.
“have worked salvation for him” (Hebrew: yasa) (v. 1c). This is an awkward translation, because it sounds as if Yahweh has won salvation for himself. That, of course, is absurd. Instead, Yahweh’s strong right hand and holy arm have made it possible for him to save (yasa) his people.
The NRSV translates yasa as victory. While that is legitimate, I prefer salvation. The word victory seems to tie these verses to a particular event (which might have been the intent), but the word salvation is more open ended, fitting quite a number of situations.
Some Christians use the word salvation almost exclusively to mean salvation from sin resulting in admittance to heaven. That is certainly one meaning, but yasa is used much more broadly in the Old Testament. It can mean deliverance from enemies (Judges 6:14; 10:12-13)––or mortal danger (Psalm 22:21)––or making a disastrous mistake (1 Samuel 25:33)––or famine (2 Kings 6:27).
Perhaps it would be best to say that yasa can mean salvation from any threat. That is what Yahweh’s strong hand and holy arm have enabled him to do. He is able to deliver us from any threat.
“Yahweh has made known his salvation” (Hebrew: yesuah). (v. 2a). The word yesuah means salvation or deliverance from some sort of distress or danger. Note the similarity between yesuah (salvation) and yehosu (Joshua), which means Yahweh saves. Also, the name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew yeshua (to save or to deliver)––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).
“He has openly shown his righteousness” (Hebrew: sedaqah) (v. 2b). Righteousness (sedaqah) is life lived in accord with ethical principles ––life lived in accord with God’s law and God’s will. Righteousness is one of the defining attributes of Yahweh’s character.
Yahweh’s righteousness is reflected in his covenant faithfulness. He chose Israel and then remained in steadfast relationship with Israel through thick and thin. Israel gave Yahweh ever so many reasons to cut the strings that bound him to them, but he never did. He allowed them to suffer defeat and exile, but he never abandoned them. Israel’s every setback was for the purpose of their eventual redemption. Yahweh saves those who trust him.
“in the sight of the nations” (Hebrew: goyim) (v. 2c). While the word goyim can mean nations in general, it was often use to mean Gentile nations––heathen.
The psalmist is saying that Yahweh has demonstrated his righteousness––his faithfulness to his covenant people––”in the sight of the nations”––those outside the covenant relationship. In the Old Testament, the nations were often in conflict with Israel. Therefore, the psalmist is saying that Yahweh has made known to Israel’s enemies his faithfulness to Israel.
“He has remembered his loving kindness
and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (v. 3). This verse repeats the thoughts of verse 2. God has remembered to be loving, kind, and faithful to Israel, and has saved the people of Israel. Furthermore, he has demonstrated his faithfulness to Israel to “the ends of the earth”––which is another way of saying “the nations” (v. 2).
“Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth! (Hebrew ‘eres)
Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises!” (v. 4). The word ‘eres means earth or land. Here it means all the lands under Yahweh’s dominion.
The psalmist therefore invites all the earth (‘eres) to celebrate Yahweh––to make joyful noises to him––to sing songs of praise to him.
It seems odd that the psalmist would invite all the earth to celebrate Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel, given that many of the nations were, at one time or another, enemies of Israel, with whom Yahweh had a covenant relationship.
However, Yahweh might have inspired the psalmist to write something beyond the psalmist’s immediate understanding. The fact that Yahweh was faithful to Israel, with whom he had a covenant relationship, would one day be mirrored in the covenant relationship that he would enjoy with all nations––to all the earth. When Christ died on the cross, the temple veil was torn in two (Matthew 27:51), signifying that Christ’s death had provided access to God to all people everywhere.
“Sing praises to Yahweh with the harp,
with the harp and the voice of melody.
With trumpets and sound of the ram’s horn,
make a joyful noise before the King, Yahweh” (vv. 5-6).
These verses call God’s people to use music to praise Yahweh. The psalmist even enumerates some of the instruments to be used in praising Yahweh: The harp, voices (yes, our voices can be used as musical instruments), trumpets, and ram’s horns.
Elsewhere, we find mention of other instruments used in praising God––lutes and lyres (Psalm 92:3), cymbals (1 Chronicles 15:16), stringed instruments (Isaiah 38:20), tambourines and flutes (1 Samuel 10:5), castanets (1 Samuel 6:5), golden bells (Exodus 28:33), and “instruments for sacred song” (1 Chronicles 16:42). This is a general list, because the Old Testament mentions various kinds of trumpets and stringed instruments and woodwinds.
Praising God with music does two things. First, it uses a beautiful medium to praise God. Many of the finest classical musical works were written specifically to praise God. Second, praising God with music evokes something deep inside us. The music and our efforts to perform it creates emotional energy and enthusiasm within both those who perform and those who listen.
I have had the opportunity to see what a difference excellent music makes in a worship setting. We had a not very talented musician leading the music in our church, and the service had a dead feel to it. A number of us chose to attend an alternative service with no music rather than to suffer through the musical mediocrity of the other service. Then we found a talented, enthusiastic musician, and our worship was transformed. We no longer had to have two services, one with music and one without. We gather together in one service and raise the roof with our enthusiastic singing.
PSALM 98:7-9. SEAS, RIVERS, MOUNTAINS
7 Let the sea roar with its fullness;
the world, and those who dwell therein.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands.
Let the mountains sing for joy together.
9 Let them sing before Yahweh,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
The psalmist has called all the earth to make a joyful noise to Yahweh (v. 4). Now he extends his call to include the earth itself––the sea, the rivers, and the mountains. He calls them to roar and clap their hands and sing for joy before Yahweh, who comes to judge the earth.
“Let the sea roar with its fullness” (v.7a). Anyone caught in the middle of a great storm at sea will be impressed by the roar of the sea. Crashing waves accent the sound of the wind so that the full sound becomes the noise of a freight train––or of a building crashing to the ground.
Verses 5-6 list some of the instruments used in Jewish worship. I like to think of the sea’s roar as the foundation (cymbals, drums, cello, and bass) for an earthly symphony.
“the world, and those who dwell therein” (Hebrew: yasab) (v.7b). It isn’t just the sea, but the whole world that is to give voice to Yahweh’s praise––the whole world and “those who dwell within” (yasab).
The word yasab has to do with dwelling or sitting, and can be used for animals as well as people (Jeremiah 50:39). Could a cow add its “moo” to the grand chorus––and the donkey its “hee-haw”? Could a chicken add its “cluck cluck” and a duck its “quack quack”? Could an eagle add its screech and the mourning dove its lament? Could the rattlesnake rattle its praise and the whale sing its song? Could the wind in the pines add its whisper?
How many voices could join this chorus of praise? Billions upon billions upon billions!
“Let the rivers clap their hands.
Let the mountains sing for joy together” (v. 8). This verse stretches the metaphor. Can rivers clap their hands––or mountains sing for joy? The psalmist thought so, and Walt Disney would have agreed. He would have portrayed rivers clapping their hands and mountains singing for joy. “Impossible!” you say! “No, imagineering!” Walt would answer.
“Let them sing before Yahweh,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness (Hebrew sedeq),
and the peoples with equity” (Hebrew meysar) (v. 9).
This verse holds a surprise. We might praise God for providing food––or for saving us from peril––or for bringing us a husband or wife––but how many of us would think of praising God for coming in judgment.
The psalmist notes that Yahweh will judge with righteousness (sedeq) and equity (meysar). Both of these words have to do with that which is right or fair or equitable. There will be nothing capricious or arbitrary about the Lord’s judgment. Unlike human judges (or rulers or bureaucrats), the Lord will never favor the wealthy and powerful––or fail to heed the pleas of those who are poor or vulnerable. Unlike human judges, the Lord will never be diverted by legal technicalities––or the arguments of glib lawyers. Unlike human judges, the Lord will never make a mistake.
Those of us who are sinners (all of us) can take heart from the fact that the Lord will judge his people graciously. Because of his grace, our sins, which were like scarlet, have become white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). It isn’t as if our sins have become invisible, but still present, lurking in the background. Instead, our sins have ceased to exist. They are gone. When the Lord comes to judge, our account will read “Paid in Full!”
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