READ : Psalm 96:1-13
If you have really experienced the saving love of God through Jesus Christ, you just can’t help but sing his praises. And just any old song won’t do. You’ll need a new song to praise God for the new things he is doing.
Unlike their neighbors (and one-time masters) the Egyptians, the ancient Hebrews were not renowned for great art or architecture. They left behind no impressive pyramids, no paintings or sculpture or ornamental metalwork. Even the magnificent Temple they built in Jerusalem was constructed with the help of imported Phoenician craftsmen.
The people of Israel did, however, produce great poets and musicians. They may not have made much art in stone or paint, but no people did more with words. When the Jews were carried away into exile in Babylon, their captors had heard of their skill. The Babylonians wanted to hear some of the famous Jewish religious music. “Sing us one of the songs of Zion,” they demanded (see Psalm 137:3). Music and poetry were the arts in which the people of Israel excelled, so much so that we still listen to their poems and sing their songs.
The reason for this, I think, lies in Israel’s special relationship with God. The Lord had chosen them from among all the earth’s peoples to belong specially to him, and to produce the Messiah who would eventually be the Savior of all the nations. God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He had given them his Word. He even told them his Name and explained its meaning. God made himself personally known to them. And in response, the people of Israel poured all their talent and energy into praising this God with words and music. This creative activity produced the worship of the Old Testament, and the book of Psalms in particular.
Being human seems to compel us to sing about the things that most excite us. I suppose that’s why there are so many love songs in the world. When we truly are moved about someone or something, it seems that words alone aren’t enough. We feel that we simply must add sound to them – preferably the sound of music, but sometimes even more exuberant sounds, sometimes yells and cheers and shouts. And when we respond from our hearts to the Lord in worship, the same is true: words alone don’t seem to be enough. We feel compelled to answer the psalmist’s invitation to “Sing to the Lord a new song” (v. 1).
A SONG OF PRAISE
What is that new song like? It is first and foremost a song of praise to God. The psalmist urges us to “Sing to the Lord,” and “Shout for joy to the Lord” (vv. 1,4), to “burst into jubilant song” and “make music to the Lord” (vv. 4,5). The Psalms are full of that kind of urging to worship and praise the living God with enthusiasm and vigor and delight. “Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength . . . the glory due his name. . . . Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness” (Psalm 96:7-9). Or again, “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs” (Psalm 100:2). Or still again, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; and all my inmost being, praise his holy name” (Psalm 103:1).
Is it too obvious to point out that the most important thing we can do is to worship God? Is it too simple to say we must adopt the God-centered focus of the Psalms for our life? It may be both obvious and simple, but I’m convinced it is very much needed, because the focus of so much of our lives is on us, not God. Too many of us (including me), too much of the time, center our attention not on the Three-Personed God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), but on the same old threesome of me, myself and I.
Even when I go to church to worship God, I often find myself thinking about myself, instead of concentrating on what I can give to God. I think mostly about my feelings and needs – Is this service helping me? What do I think about the music or the preacher or the other people there? I even let my mind wander over completely different subjects. Church-goers sometimes complain about boring services, or they object to the kind of music that’s being done in their church. But the number one problem with worship today isn’t poor leadership or unpopular music. It is inattention to God on the part of those who should be concentrating on offering him the worship of their hearts.
The psalms offer us a two-part reason for worshiping God. We are to praise God for both his nature and his actions, for who he is and what he does. Our worship begins as a response to God’s self-revelation. Worship isn’t just a human idea or initiative. Notice that all the verbs I quoted from the Psalms are in the imperative. That is, they are commands, clear orders from God, not requests or suggestions. If you know the true God, the living God of the Bible, then you must worship him. You don’t have any choice; worship is an obligation. There is an honor which is due to God. This glory or praise or worship belongs to God’s name. It is owed to God by virtue of his nature as God. Even if he never had done anything except tell us his name, God would still deserve everything we have: our love, our loyalty, our skills, our time, our possessions, our words, our music, our very breath – all given back to him in adoration. We must worship God just because he is God. He is great. He is worthy of praise. Spend a few minutes meditating on that single thought: the worthiness of God to be praised, to be worshiped by everyone everywhere.
The second major reason God deserves to be worshiped is because of what he has done. God is a God of mighty acts and wonderful deeds; “he has done marvelous things,” says the psalmist (v. 1). God created the world (Psalm 96:5). He saves his people (98:3). He rules the nations and the world. One day he will come to judge the earth and all its peoples (v. 9). All those magnificent works of God call for our jubilant praise. And not ours only. Creation itself – the heavens and the earth along with their inhabitants, the sea and rivers and mountains – is called upon to join in the worship of God the creator and the sustainer, the Savior, and Lord, and coming judge (vv. 7-8).
Let the ocean and everything in it roar.
Let the world and all who live in it shout.
Let the rivers clap their hands.
Let the mountains sing together with joy.
Let them sing to the Lord.
A GLOBAL SONG
One other element in Psalm 98 calls for comment. I am especially struck by the universal emphasis running through the psalmist’s exhortations. Our worship of God must also bear witness to God, the one and only God of the universe. Biblical worship is not just private devotions, conducted in secret. Worship is public witness to the greatness and the goodness of God. And this testimony must never be limited merely to our friends and families and immediate neighbors. As so often in the Old Testament, Psalm 98 has a strong emphasis upon the nations. All the earth is commanded to sing the song of God’s salvation (v. 4). God isn’t a localized, tribal deity. The Lord is never the God only of the few – only of the Hebrews, only of the West, only of the middle class. He’s the God of all the earth, of every man, woman and child. He’s the God of all creation, of every creature, of all time and space, from the greatest galaxies to the minutest sub-atomic particles.
Our psalmist declares that the Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. All the ends of the earth have seen God’s salvation (vv. 2-3). If the gospel that salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone is not true for everyone on earth, it can’t be true for anyone. If the God of the Bible, the God who has revealed himself in scripture as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who has acted decisively to save sinners through the cross of Christ, if this God is not the God of every nation and people, then he can’t be the God of any nation or person, because then the Bible isn’t true. The psalmist calls us to worship the one true living God. He also commands us to bear witness to every people on earth that only Jesus Christ is Lord. Every other god is an idol, a deception that cannot save.
A NEW SONG
One of the interesting features of our time is the explosion of new music everywhere, including within the church, along with new technologies for performing and enjoying this music. (I’m especially thankful myself for CDs. What a marvelous invention!) We’re called here in Psalm 98 to sing, praise and testify to the marvelous saving love of God throughout the whole world. But why specifically are we urged to sing a new song to the Lord? There are plenty of old songs. Aren’t they good enough? Well, they would be – if God never did anything new himself. If God stopped working when the Bible was finished being written, or at the time of the Reformation, or when our parents and their generation were young, then we wouldn’t need any new songs.
But each one of God’s gracious works requires our worshipful response. And each new generation of believers must offer their own unique praise to God. That’s the reason the psalmist calls for a new song to the Lord -because every new act of God demands a new celebration of his greatness and goodness, in every culture, in every new generation, from each individual. There was music at creation, “when,” as the book of Job says, “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). There was a new song when God delivered Israel from Egypt at the time of the Exodus (see Exodus 15:1). There were more new songs when Christ came, as saints and angels sang at his birth (Luke 1, 2). And as the book of Revelation describes, the whole church in heaven and on earth continues to sing in praise for the triumph of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, heavenly rule, and future coming in glory.
One of the best things about traveling around the world a bit as I get to do is the opportunity to sample some of the rich variety of worship being offered to Jesus Christ all over the world. Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians as well as Europeans and Americans are all singing new songs to the Lord. If your worship doesn’t make use of some of these fresh forms of praise from the world church, then you’re missing out!
If God still is working in our lives, then we really must learn to sing a new song. Of course we should still use the old songs too, but the spirit in which we sing them always has to be fresh and alive. Each new experience of God’s amazing grace should prompt a fresh expression of gratitude and worship from us:
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Like another psalmist, we should be able to say, “He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:2-3).I’m so thankful that I can tell you God has done this for me. Has he done it for you? If not, why don’t you ask him to?