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 or own the words of those great hymns in the Book of Psalms that extol the Lord and his greatness.
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 who is “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. 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.
For nearly three millennia—from the days of King David to our own era—men and women from diverse lands and cultures have been lifting their hearts to God by praying and singing the psalms of ancient Israel. Originally a sort of hymnal for public prayer and liturgical worship in the Temple built by David’s son King Solomon, the Book of Psalms has also imbued Christian worship since the days of the early Church.
As a devout Jew, Jesus prayed the psalms frequently and occasionally cited verses from them in his public discourses and conversations and controversies with the Jewish elders and scribes (for example, Mark 12:10-11, 35-37; Luke 20:42-43). He and his disciples sang psalms during the Last Supper before leaving for the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). Jesus even prayed portions of the psalms as he hung on the cross (Mark 15:34; Luke 23:46). St. Paul quoted from them throughout his letters and urged his fellow Christians to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16; cf. Ephesians 5:19). And as the faith spread, the early Fathers of the Church maintained love and reverence for the Jewish psalms. St. Augustine exclaimed, “O, in what accents I spoke to you, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those faithful songs and sounds of devotion. . . . O how I was enkindled by them toward you” (Confessions, Book IX). Eventually, the Catholic Church incorporated the ancient psalms into its official prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours.
Psalm 98 “is a call to all people by those 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.
O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
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.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
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.
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 has 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 hands, 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 Psalm 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 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