Psalm 98 breaks down nicely into three parts: Verses 1-3 tell you why to praise God: Because of the marvelous deeds of salvation he has done. Verses 4-6 tell you how to praise: Loudly, joyfully, with guitars and trumpets. Then verses 7-9 say who should praise: The sea, the world, the rivers, the hills, which must mean everybody and the ground they’re standing on.
The psalm begins with the command: Sing to the Lord a new song! This phrase, “a new song” occurs exactly seven times in the Old Testament, six throughout the Psalms and once in Isaiah 42. All seven occurrences are amazing things (worth taking a look at sometime) but maybe Psalm 40 is familiar enough that a few lines will conjure the whole context:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit,
out of the miry clay,
He set my feet upon a rock,
and made my footsteps firm.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
You can see from Psalm 40 and Psalm 98 that a “new song” in scripture is always an indicator that God has achieved a victory: A new song is a song to be sung when God has done something new, conquered a new enemy.
You can also see its warfare and victory connotations here in verse 1. Whatever it is God has done, it has been a flexing of his muscles, a vigorous exercise of his abilities toward carrying out what he has chosen to do: his right hand and his holy arm did it. One commentary said that whatever God has done here in Psalm 98, it took more muscle than creating the universe: For that creation, God used his fingertips, but for this salvation he used his right arm. Psalm 8 says “when I consider the heavens, the works of your fingers,” but Psalm 98 says “his right hand and his holy arm.” God really put himself into this act of deliverance, which is probably why it says that in this deed he revealed his righteousness and made his salvation known.
This is a Psalm about God the warrior, who has the power to do whatever he wills, and it’s a Psalm about the particular way he has chosen to do something: he works wonders, makes known his salvation, reveals his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He is strong enough to get this done.
This Psalm uses exactly seven action verbs for God’s work:
He did marvels,
He worked salvation
He made known holiness
He revealed righteousness
He remembered grace and truth,
That’s five, then after the orchestral interlude you get two more in the future tense in verse nine
He is coming
and He will judge.
And we should sing and praise because of this victory, because —here’s the surprising part, the good news— God’s victory is not bad news for man. The rule of God is no reign of terror. The Psalm ends the same way it begins, with praise for God because of his victory, but it’s even starker in verse 9: Let everything praise God because “he is coming to judge the earth; he will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
To see why the happy outcome is a surprise, try running this Psalm backwards. Psalm 98 in reverse order would be: God is coming to judge the entire world. Strike up the band and sing Hallelujah, because the great, final day of judgment has come, and it is universal. Nobody will escape this day of reckoning, as Paul says in Acts 17, “God commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” (Acts 17:31) Who can abide the day of his coming, for he is like a refiner’s fire. “The Lord comes to judge the earth with righteousness and equity.” And Psalm 98 backwards would then end with, “the right arm of this mighty judge has made known salvation, revealed righteousness to the nations, and remembered grace and truth to Israel.” So sing to the Lord a new song for a new, unprecedented, wonderful thing he has done.
How does Judgement day turn out to be something to praise God for? If we sin, we put ourselves on the other team from God, and the victory of God on judgement day is a victory of God’s righteousness against our unrighteousness. It will be good news for our victims, for all victims, that all accounts will be set in order. The fact is that even now, right here and now on this side of judgement day, nobody is getting away with anything. We just appear to be getting away with our sins, but God knows everything, and he has fixed a day and appointed his Son as judge. The New Testament is very clear that today is the day to get to know that judge, to open up your book of secrets to him here and now, because he already knows them and it will be too late on the day of his second advent, when he arrives as judge.
The Old Testament can’t say it as clearly as the New Testament, but somehow the whole message is implicit here in the fact that in this Psalm, God’s approach as the judge is good news and cause for celebration. Though there is plenty of reason to fear that “God is against us,” this Psalm knows that God is for us, and will save us without compromising his righteousness. This Psalm knows that the coming of God as judge is not “doom to the world” but, as we sing at Christmas, “joy to the world.”
How does God make it work for everybody? How can he reveal his righteousness to the nations, and remember his grace and truth to Israel? These go together according to the ancient promise to Abraham, that God would choose him to use him, that through his offspring, a blessing would come to the world, and that he would make “his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
We are beginning to close in on why Psalm 98 is, according to ancient tradition, a Psalm appropriate for Christmas time. Posing one more question to the Psalm should give us our answer.