Joy to the World: Christmas and the Psalms (Psalm 98)Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Grace, Jesus, Luke, Psalms, Salvation
Last Christmas Eve, I went to Fry’s to get some stuff for cooking when Rachael and Talya showed up. Along with the usual Salvation Army bell ringer, there was a lady playing the flute. I recognized immediately the song. I walked by her on the way in and while going up and down the aisle, in search of an “oven bag” (what in the world is that!!), I could not help but sing the words to the music she was playing. You know it too, Isaac Watts great hymn.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King …
“Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy …
“He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness …”
Watts classic exhortation to praise is a paraphrase of the great call to worship in Psalm 98. I was unconsciously drawn into the worship of the great King through the music of a flute at the entrance of a grocery store. The power of a Christmas gift!
Psalm 98 was regarded as a “messianic psalm” in the ancient church. Ancient Christians chanted the psalm to welcome Christ as the one who is enthroned on high.
The Spiritual instincts of the early church were not far off. Psalm 98 is an “enthronement” psalm. God is the subject of these type of psalms while in “royal” psalms the king is. The early church, following the LXX, believed this was a “Psalm of David” (in the MT the heading is simply “A Psalm”) and David was a “prophet” (Acts 2.30).
God’s Yeshuah (vv 1-3)
Gathered in worship, our ancient Spiritual mothers and fathers, are challenged to “Sing to the LORD a new song for he has done marvelous things.” The “marvelous things” are historical actions by Yahweh that bring grace to his people. In the past these refer to acts of God like the creation of the world, call of Abraham, the Exodus, and the election of David, see Psalm 136. This psalm celebrates an unspecified present, or possible future, grace.
In these first three verses the word “victory” as the NRSV renders it is used three times. God’s earth shattering grace has brought such a victory that “all the ends of the earth” are now witnesses. What many English readers do not know is that this word “victory” renders the Hebrew “yeshuah” in verses 1, 2 & 3.
Sometimes “yeshuah” is a proper name as in “Joshua” or as it is translated into NT Greek, Jesus. I much prefer the translation of “salvation” to “victory” (cf. NIV, etc). God’s “salvation” has been revealed by his own activity in history. Psalm 98.1-3 is about the proclamation of that amazing salvation by the grace of God …
Christmas declares that “salvation” has come because “Yeshuah” now has flesh and blood was born to Mary (cf. Mt 1.21). God’s salvation is testimony to his infinite “hesed” (steadfast love). This word, the heart of Exodus 34.6-7 – the revelation of the divine name – is love, mercy, grace, faithfulness, commitment and more all wrapped up into one (this will come again in Mary’s song below).
All the Earth Erupts in Praise (vv 4-6)
Isaac Watts zeros in on vv 4f in Joy to the World. Here, the assembled saints of Israel challenge not just each other but “all the earth” to worship the one true God, the God of Israel. That God has done “marvelous things” and been faithful to Israel and has brought “yeshuah” is Good News for ALL! Grace to Israel is grace to all. Now that the earth has witnessed God’s righteousness (because Israel did not deserve God’s salvation) they can worship him. His deeds reveal who he is. So “make a joyful noise to the LORD” and break out in praise to him.
And like the lady at Fry’s, the nations are called to take up the “kinor” (harp/lyre), “hasosoeroth” (trumpets”) and the “shofar” in worship of the Great King. The nations, who up to this time have been pagans, are shockingly invited to enter into the Presence of the Holy One and offer sacrifices of praise. While our English translations render the Hebrew idiom paniym as “before” it quite literally means “face.” This indicates the intimacy of worship. Bring your instruments, break out in celebration, before the FACE of God.
Such is the Good News of salvation. Truly Grace is to be celebrated in Psalm 98!
Rocks, Trees & Oceans Worship (vv 7-9)
The congregation, as a kingdom of priests, now turns to what we might call “inanimate” creation and exhorts it to also praise. This is clearly reflected in Watts’ paraphrase too. Since the dawn of creation the fate of humanity and the “physical world” has been tied together in the creational purposes of God. Adam was fashioned from Adamah. When humans rebelled against the Creator, our fate was again tied together with the earth from which we were formed. Israel knows this far better than many typical Restoration/Evangelical type believers.
So in anticipation of God’s fresh act of salvation even creation itself is exhorted to praise! Why? Because salvation for Israel means salvation for the nations AND the creation itself (Paul, like any Jew nourished on the Hebrew Bible and a frequent chanter of Ps 98, knows this well as we see in Col 1 and Rom 8).
In obedience all creation “roars” and “claps their hands” because the Creator has now saw fit to Redeem Israel. It is HIS act of grace that commands the response on the part of every thing that has been created to burst into joyous song. Watts’ understood this very well. God deserves applause on this day! Applause is a perfect act of worship in response to the Great King.
Jesus, Mary & Psalm 98
On Christmas Day, at the birth of Jesus (whatever day that was on the literal calendar, Dec 25 or Jan 6 or whatever) the Gospel of Luke tells us that angels appeared in the sky and they burst into worship because of God’s fresh act of grace, that is his “marvelous deed.” The birth of Jesus was, beloved, an amazing act of GRACE! Where Psalm 98 celebrates God’s “Yeshuah” the angels tell us in joyous praise that Yeshuah has arrived. This time in flesh!
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth shalom among those
whom he favors!”
Salvation has been born (Lk 2.10-14)! It is no longer simply an Act by God but Salvation is in 3-D in flesh and blood. Salvation is a PERSON!!
The young maiden Mary, after Elizabeth blesses the salvation that is taking on flesh in her, bursts forth into a “new song” as Psalm 98 commands. The Magnificat is saturated with “Old Testament” images, echoes and themes. Psalm 98 is among them. Mary had grown up singing Psalm 98 in worship (and all the Psalter). Those magnificent words in 98.3,
“he remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.”
God action shows his grace. These words are part of Mary’s “Spiritual DNA.” So she sings in her New Song with Old Roots, in Luke 1.54 …
“He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy”
Psalm 98, like all the “hope of Israel” has now arrived because the God of Israel is true to his covenant of love and has acted in grace and mercy. Jesus is mercy to Israel. Jesus is God’s “Christmas” present to Israel as the miraculous incarnation of Salvation itself.
What do the Psalms have to do with Christmas?
Almost everything! The Psalms promise that God is the Creator God who is the Redeeming King. The Psalms promise that God’s “yeshuah” will be shown to his covenant people. This “yeshuah” will be witnessed by all the nations and indeed all of creation. The Psalms tell us that this “yeshuah” is grace not only for the house of Israel but to all.
And the Psalms call us to celebratory worship – even command it – because of God’s amazing act of grace. The nations have responded, the creation never ceases to praise, and the angels have added their voice. Mary joins in the chorus and extols the wonder of the God of Israel because he is the God of the whole creation.
Christmas is Good News. God’s salvation, extolled in Psalm 98, has arrived in flesh and blood. Grab a flute, lift up your voice, clap your hands, “Shout to the Lord a new song” for Jesus the Messiah is born.