CS Lewis once observed, ‘I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to “rejoice” as much as by anything else’.
Yet, rejoicing is not just an apostolic injunction. Various psalms in the Old Testament Psalter pulsate with exhortations to sing our praise to the Lord with joy in our hearts. So, Psalm 96 begins, O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
The psalm seems to have been for the celebration of the time, some 3,000 years ago, when King David brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. The Ark was the sign of God’s steadfast commitment to his people. First Chronicles, chapter 16 quotes the psalm almost in full.
As with any good poetry, a number of themes are tightly woven together. Two particularly stand out: sing and tell.
Sing. Three times we are exhorted to sing to the Lord. Vital Christianity always gives rise to joyful singing because we have every good reason to rejoice. The words, the Lord, stir us to lift our gaze beyond the material world: there is one Lord.
The great commandment that Jesus quoted is found in Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 4: Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And Isaiah chapter 45, verse 5 says: I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god… Paul the Apostle echoes this when he writes in First Corinthians: we know that “no idol in the world really exists, and there is no God but one (8:4).
The world we live in is a most unusual place, and the more scientists discover about it, the more extraordinary it seems. There are high-level chemists and physicists who agree that the universe is not some gigantic accident, but rather the product of a creator’s genius. Indeed, when we look around us with open minds, we see how true this is.
Everything that exists came into being at God’s command, be it the structure of the universe, the atmosphere that surrounds our world and enables us to live, or the proportions of land and sea. All reflect God’s perfect design.
The implications are enormous – both encouraging and frightening. Encouraging because we learn we are not alone in the universe: there is a purpose and direction to life. Frightening because all humanity is called upon to do business with this God, for he alone is the Lord.
But there is something else that is most significant. The psalm-writer exhorts us all to sing to the Lord a new song. While new could refer to new music, the context suggests something far more significant: we are to tell of his salvation from day to day. The Lord is not just creator, he is also a merciful savior. We are to glory in and tell of his mercies that are new every day. I wonder how many of us do this?
Personally, I find it helpful to start the day with a Bible reading and prayer – and to end the day with prayer. This helps me reflect on God’s mercies each day. Furthermore, as I recognise God’s daily work in my life, I am more motivated to sing his praises in church.
Which brings us to a second important theme: Tell. Verse 3 reads: Tell the nations… We are to sing so that the city and the nations will hear. With the word tell, the direction of the psalm changes – from worship of God, to telling the nations. In fact, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible uses the word from which we get the word evangelize.
There is an important sequence of ideas here. True worship will express itself in gospel proclamation. If we say we worship this Lord, we will want to introduce the nations to him.
From the time of Kings David and Solomon Jerusalem was a busy international city. In Jesus’ day the temple layout included a court for Gentiles where the songs of God’s people would have been overheard by the pagan visitors.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, the psalm continues. The Lord is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
The logic is clear: the majesty and glory of God are to be announced throughout the world for the simple reason that there is only one God. And, as we would expect, the focus of exhortation shifts from God’s ancient people, the Jewish people, to the nations (verses 7-10). In the singing of this psalm, visitors in Jerusalem would overhear the exhortation to attend to Israel’s God, the Lord who not only made the heavens, but whose mercies are new each day.
Psalm 96 is so important in providing a link between worship and witness, between ‘songs to God’ and ‘speech to the nations’, between the reality of faith and gospel outreach.
This theme of gospel language develops in the Old Testament. The prophets spoke of a day when God’s anointed king would be revealed and announced to all the world. For example, Isaiah writes: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news (gospel), who announces (proclaims the gospel of) salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (52:7).
The content of the gospel is the news, “Your God reigns”. From the time of these prophetic words of Isaiah, God’s people looked for the messenger who would announce God’s King. As we now look back through the lens of the New Testament we see that the messenger has not only come, but that he himself is the king. God’s king, the Lord, is Jesus.
The theme that there is only one God who is Lord of all reaches its climax in the closing verses of Psalm 96: Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
Martin Luther reflected:
Christ is Himself the joy of all, The sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah!
A prayer. Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all people. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your amazing love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.