Summary of the Text
The Psalms divide–we would call it an over-simplification–the earth’s inhabitants into “Israel” and “the nations” (the earth). Psalm 98, quite interestingly, virtually ignores that division, and intertwines Israel’s salvation and the world’s into a homogenous whole.
Keeping that in mind, we can view Psalm 98 under three themes. First, the psalmist issues a summons, evidently spoken both to Israel and the nations to “Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (98:1). Then the same verb occurs twice more in a summons to “all the earth” (vv. 4, 6), accompanied by the celebratory instruments used on a festive occasion, especially when a new king was crowned. Indeed this psalm, among others in Book 4 (Pss. 93, 95-99, called “psalms of the heavenly King”), proclaims Yahweh as King (v. 6). A “new song” was not just any song available, but it was normally composed and sung when some important event had occurred. I suggest that, given the historical backdrop of Book 4 (Pss 90-106) as the end of the exile and preparation for the return, instigated by Cyrus’s decree of 538 B.C., that the event may have been the decree itself.
Second, God’s covenant with Israel is also the basis of God’s relationship to the nations of the earth. As is often the case in the Psalms, the Lord’s covenant with Israel is only hinted at. Psalm 98 drops its hint with only two words: “love” (hesed) and “faithfulness” (emunah). These two terms are found in the Lord’s self-revealing description of his character in the formula of grace found in Exodus 34:6-7. It is the sad occasion when Moses had come down from Sinai after receiving the law and found Israel dancing around their newly formed idol of the golden calf (Exod. 32): “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
Third, Psalm 98 appeals to creation itself: “the sea. . . and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”; the rivers and the mountains” to join the celebration (vv. 7-9). The great event that awaits, at first surprisingly, is that the Lord comes to “judge the earth.” But then the dreadful emotion elicited by this expectation is put to rest when we recognize what kind of judge God is: “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity” (v. 9). We need not dread such a Judge whose righteous and equitable judgment assures us that all the injustices of the world will be made right.
C. Hassell Bullock is the Franklin S. Dyrness Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College (IL) where he taught for 36 years. He is a graduate of Samford University (Birmingham, AL), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Instiutute of Religion (Cincinnati, O).
Among his published works are An Introduction to
the OT Poetic Books (Moody), Encountering the Book of Psalms, and a two-volume commentary on the Psalms, Psalms 1-72, and Psalms 73-150 (Baker Academic).
In addition to forty years of teaching in the college classroom, he has served Presbyterian congregations as pastor in Alabama and Illinois. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda, and they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
The resurrection is the revelation to chosen witnesses of the fact that Jesus who died on the cross is indeed king – conqueror of death and sin, Lord and Savior of all. The resurrection is not the reversal of a defeat but the proclamation of a victory. The King reigns from the tree. The reign of God has indeed come upon us, and its sign is not a golden throne but a wooden cross.
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Eerdmans, 1986.
The King of Kings is Here
The story is told that Hugh Latimer, one of the great leaders and preachers of the English Reformation in the sixteenth century, was preaching in Westminster Abbey when King Henry VIII was present in the congregation. As Latimer stood up to preach, he soliloquized, “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say, the king of England is here!” And then his soliloquy changed tones: “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say, The King of Kings is here.”