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Scripture resounds with the worship of God. From its pages echo the voices of countless men and women—as well as myriads upon myriads of angels—who offer cries and prayers of homage to the Lord. We, too, can join this chorus of praise by making our own the words of those great hymns in the Book of Psalms that extol the Lord and his greatness.
The word “worship” is derived from the Old English weorthscipe—“to acknowledge the worth or value of something.” Thus, when we worship God, we are recognizing and acclaiming his worth and rightly honoring him because of it. We worship God because of who he is—our creator and Lord, the holy One “worthy . . . to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might / and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). We worship God because of the love, faithfulness, and mercy he continually shows us and because of his wondrous works. In fact, we have been created for this very purpose. And as we raise our voices to declare his praises, we can also raise our hearts to him—hearts filled with love and adoration.
Psalms that recount the praises of God in particular are called hymns and commonly open with a call or invitation to praise God. Often the psalmist addresses the summons to praise to himself, in the form of self-exhortation: “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 104:1). Or he invites others to join him in worship: “Praise the Lord, all you nations! / Extol him, all you peoples! (117:1); “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” (100:1). Some of these hymns address God directly, while others speak of him in the third person.
Then these hymns declare various reasons for praising God, which are frequently introduced in the Hebrew by the emphatic word ki, meaning “because” or “for.” Many of these declarations point to God’s saving actions and awe-inspiring deeds on behalf of his chosen people or describe his acts as Creator and Lord of nature. Some statements of praise may reflect God’s kingship and sovereignty over Israel or over the whole world; others proclaim and praise God’s attributes of steadfast love, mercy, justice, wisdom, faithfulness, and so forth.
Psalm 98:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition)
1O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
2The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
8 Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
9 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98 is “is a call to all people by these who have experienced God’s saving presence and power in their lives . . . an explosion in song and praise resulting from God’s self-revelation, goodness and tenderness to his people,” notes Msgr. John Sheridan in Living the Psalms. Opening with an invitation to sing the praises of the Lord, the psalm celebrates the “marvelous things” that God has done for Israel. The psalmist proclaims that the Lord, whom he portrays as a warrior, has acted in keeping with his covenant—that is, “he remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness / to the house of Israel”—and declares that the whole earth recognizes God’s victory (Psalm 98:1-3).
In verses 4–6, the psalmist urges all the earth to “make a joyful noise to the Lord,” vocally with “joyous song” and “the sound of melody” as well as with musical instruments of all sorts. This exhortation to harmoniously orchestrated praise calls to mind the manner in which Israel worshipped in the Temple and at great festivals, acknowledging God as King and Lord.
Finally, the psalmist calls upon all of creation to acknowledge the Lord’s presence and glorify him, for he is coming to judge the earth and establish his kingdom of justice and equity (Psalm 98:7-9). The images that personify nature—the sea roaring, floods clapping their hand, and hills singing together for joy—are some of the most poetic, beautiful, and exhilarating verses in the Book of Psalms.
Traditionally, Psalm 98 has been seen by the Church as a celebration of the coming of Christ in his Incarnation and of his presence among us in the created world. Consequently, it has been given a place in the Christmas liturgy and throughout the octave of Christmas. The psalm also points to God’s final coming. Scripture scholar Jean-Pierre Prévost has fittingly summed up its significance and unique power:
We can truly speak of Palm 98 as being an “unfinished symphony” meant to encourage among the faithful the joyful awaiting of God’s coming at the end of time “to judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Shall we join the chorus and the orchestra in such an uplifting symphony in honor of our God? (God’s Word Today)
Read more about the various sorts of psalms—wisdom psalms, psalms of lament, psalms of repentance, psalms of thanksgiving, and the messianic and royal psalms—in The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer by Jeanne Kun, a study guide in the popular The Word Among Us Keys to the Bible series. Available at wau.org/books