Sing to the Lord
Passage: Psalm 96
Lord willing, we will be spending the next 10 Sundays in the book of Psalms. I’m excited to spend time in this incredible section of Scripture that has ministered tremendous grace to me over the years. I’m sure that’s true for many of us. We could probably take testimonies for a long, long time based on two questions. What is your favorite psalm and why? And when was a time that God used a psalm to help you through a tremendous trial? Psalms is an incredible book.
I’d like to take a little time to introduce the book and our series before we look at our first psalm. You probably know that Psalms means songs. Songs and poetry played a crucial role in the religion of Israel from its beginning. Exodus 15 records a song of Moses and a song of Miriam to celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea. There are many other significant songs in the OT. Numbers 10 records a brief psalm that Israel sang whenever the ark was moved. Numbers 23–24 record several songs of Balaam. Deuteronomy 32–33 record a couple of significant songs of Moses. Deborah composed a song in celebration of her victory over the Canaanites, and Hannah composed a song in celebration of the Lord giving her a son, Samuel. In a time when illiteracy was high, poetry and songs played an important teaching role. And the Book of Psalms captures Israel’s broad history of poetry. For example, Psalm 90 is a song of Moses that was written around 1400 B.C., and other psalms were composed in the post-exilic period up to around 400 B.C. Psalms includes some the earliest and latest writings of the OT.
Psalms has a broad history, but it also has a broad variety of content, which is one of the reasons we love it so much. It includes broad emotions from passionate joy to deep sorrow. It has broad themes, from historical reflection to prophecy about the future, royalty to poverty, or deep theology to private reflection. And so there are several distinction literary genres in Psalms. Our plan for this summer is to study at least one psalm from each genre. This morning, we will begin with Psalm 96, which is a Hymn of Praise.
Introduction to Hymns of Praise and Psalm 96
Hymns of Praise:
As I mentioned, Psalm 96 is a hymn of praise. I wanted to begin with this genre because while there are more laments, hymns of praise dominate the book. These psalms stand out for their heightened emotions, especially their heartfelt joy. This joy is rooted in the nature of God. These psalms reflect heavily on character of God and his mighty deeds, and then they call on the reader to respond to God’s character with passionate worship. We are going to see that pattern today in Psalm 96 as the psalmist goes back and forth between meditating on the character and works of God and calling on us to respond with praise. These psalms have tremendous value for us because they call us to think deeply about the nature of God, and they push us to respond with awe-inspired, glad worship.
Psalm 96 was written for congregational worship. There are some minor differences but 1 Chronicles 16:23–33 records almost the same text as Psalm 96. The Chronicles passage is part of a longer psalm that David wrote to celebrate bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem for the very first time. Therefore, Psalm 96 is based off a psalm of David, though some editorial work has been done. We don’t know when the final version was finished. The Septuagint, which is the Greek version of the OT and which is generally reliable gives the following title for the psalm. “When the house was built after the captivity, a song of David.” This title affirms that David is the ultimate author of the psalm but notes that the present form was produced for worship at the post-exilic temple, which was completed in 516 B.C. Assuming this is accurate, Psalm 96 was probably written for the great feasts in Jerusalem. The people would make solemn processions to the temple mount, and they would sing psalms while they walked and then while they stood in the outer court of the temple. Therefore, Psalm 96 gives us an interesting window into how Israel worshipped God together.
I said earlier that hymns of praise consistently call on the congregation to worship God based on his character and mighty deeds. Psalm 96 is a classic example of this pattern. It consists of three units. Each unit begins by calling on the people to worship God and then gives reasons for worship based on God’s character and deeds. You can see this pattern clearly in vv. 1–6. Verses 1–3 give several commands summoning the people to worship, and vv. 4–6 ground this summons in God’s greatness, his exclusive sovereignty as the creator, and his glory. The same pattern is present in vv. 7–10 and vv. 11–13. And so Psalm 96 provides us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the awesome glory of our God and to learn how we ought to worship him in response.
Let’s begin by considering vv. 1–6, which call on us to…
Praise the Lord because he alone is God (vv. 1–6).
As I mentioned already, vv. 1–3 give the initial…
The Call to Praise (vv. 1–3):
The first three lines each command us to “sing to the Lord.” Specifically, we are to sing “a new song.” It doesn’t mean new in content. Rather, we are to sing a new song in the sense that we are to renew our focus on the glory of God so that we response with renewed praise. This is an important aspect of worship because life tends to pull us away from a Godward orientation. One of our first priorities in private or corporate worship is to renew our focus on the glory of God so that we can respond accordingly. The second line of the psalm calls on “all the earth” to participate in this worship. You may have noticed as we read the psalm that it has a worldwide focus even though it was written for Israel. This was not normal in the ancient world because most peoples believed in local gods, not a supreme God. But our God is not merely the God of Israel. He is the Lord of all the earth, and he deserves praise from all people. Therefore, this psalm reminded Israel that their God is sovereign over all the earth.
After calling us to sing, the psalmist begins to specify what this song should be. He commands us to “proclaim” the good news of God’s salvation or deliverance and to “declare” God’s glory. In other words, he calls on the congregation to cry out of God’s great deeds and great glory. In this context “salvation” is not specifically a reference to the gospel but is a general reference to all of God’s gracious works including spiritual and physical blessings. The psalmist wants us to tell of what God has done and of who he is. Verse 3 says he is a God of “glory” and “wonders.” These terms speak of God’s majesty and power. The psalmist says that all the world needs to hear how great and awesome God is through the passionate proclamation of his people. We cannot remain silent, and we must not half-heartedly go through the motions of worship. Furthermore, the psalmist exhorts us to make sure that our praise is more than an emotional charge or emotional frenzy. Rather we should be moved to worship by rich truth about who God is and all he has done. That’s important for how we worship as a church. We aren’t just looking to get a buzz. We want to be moved, but we want to be moved by deep reflection on the character and works of God. And so the psalmist calls us to passionate, public worship.
But why does God deserve such worship. Verses 4–6 give us the first set of reasons.
The Reason for Praise (vv. 4–6):
Verses 4–5 tell us that God deserves unique praise because he is unique. God has no peers. I mentioned already that declaring God to be supreme would have been a bold declaration in the ancient world, but the psalmist says it anyway. Verse 4 declares that God is great. He is exalted above every other power and because of that, he deserves great praise or worship. And then he goes after the common idea of his day that man should worship many gods. He declares that God “is to be feared above all gods.” Fear is another descriptive word for what our worship should look like. It speaks to the fact that we worship God in humble recognition of the fact that he is not like us. We must give him the honor and reverence that is due the infinite sovereign of creation. As the psalmist says, he is not like any other god and certainly not like us. Verse 5 then attacks the polytheistic worldview of the ancient world. It says that there aren’t actually many gods. All of the other gods whom people worship are mere “idols.” The psalmist uses an interesting wordplay here. Gods translates the common term elohim, and idols translates the term elilim. It’s not the normal term for idol, and it literally means “a nothing” or “a non-entity.” The idea is that the Gentiles claim to be worshiping elohims, or gods, but they are actually worshipping elilim, or nothing. In one line, the psalmist dismisses all rival gods and all other religions as worthless. It’s a weighty statement, and then he follows with a weighty contrast. “The Lord made the heavens.” God created the universe. He is not worthless. Far from it, he is the only God. Therefore he absolutely deserves to be feared and praised.
And so we must praise God because he is the Creator. Verse 6 says that we must also praise him because…
God is majestic, strong, and beautiful (v. 6).
This verse paints a poetic picture of God’s glory. It pictures God’s qualities as attending to him in the temple. The idea is that his presence exudes these qualities. Since this psalm was written for temple worship, this is an especially appropriate picture for Israel to consider as they sang this song in the temple courtyard. To be in the presence of God is to be in the presence of honor and majesty, strength and beauty. The psalmist will proceed in the next two sections to emphasize the royalty of God as king of the universe. Therefore, it’s safe to see v. 6 as combining the picture of the temple with that of a majestic throne room. The ultimate point of v. 6 is to describe God as majestic, strong, and beautiful, and therefore, worthy of a new song that is to be sung by all the earth. God deserves passionate praise from all people including you and me. May God help us to see more and more clearly his awesome majesty so that we worship him appropriately.
We must praise the Lord because he alone is God. Verses 7–10 then call on us to…
Praise the Lord because he alone is sovereign (vv. 7–10):
Again this section begins by instructing us in how we ought to worship and then gives reasons for why we ought to worship. Let’s consider…
The Call to Praise (vv. 7–9):
Once again this section maintains a global focus. Verse 7 doesn’t just call on Israel to worship God even though the psalm was written for Israelite worship. Rather, since God is the Lord, the psalm calls on all “families of the peoples” to worship the Lord.
In vv. 7 –9, the psalmist calls on the nations to worship God in three different ways. First…
Give God glory (vv. 7–8a).
The first three lines of this section begin with the command to “give,” or “ascribe” glory to God. Of course God is full of glory, and there is no way humble sinners can add to the glory of God. Rather, when we ascribe glory to God, we acknowledge the glory he already possesses, and we shine a light on that glory for those around us. A telescope provides a helpful illustration. The stars and the planets are impressive creations, but to the naked eye, they are no more impressive than a headlight on your car. But a telescope helps us to see more clearly just how great they are. Similarly when we worship God by meditating on his glory and proclaiming it to each other, we are better able to see God’s majesty. The psalmist calls us to glorify God by proclaiming his greatness.
He also calls on the world to worship God by…
Bring an Offering (v. 8b):
When we think of OT sacrifices we may sometimes think purely in terms of payment for sin, but remember that this context has to do with God’s royal prerogative as the sovereign creator. Therefore, we should read this command thinking of subjects bringing their king a tribute gift. This kind of gift is intended to demonstrate honor and respect to the king for his greatness and good deeds. Of course, now that Christ has died, we are no longer required to offer sacrifices, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from this command. We ought to consider how can I practically demonstrate my love for God and my thankfulness for all he has done for me? One obvious means would be to give to the Lord’s work. We should never think of the offering as paying a tax or a due. We shouldn’t think of it as fundraising or a time when someone plays an entertaining song. Instead, we ought to think of giving in the offering as an expression of worship. It’s a statement of thankfulness to God for his provision, and an acknowledgment of the fact that everything I have is ultimately a gift of his grace. Of course there are other ways we can obey this command, and we ought to be intentional in expressing our love for God and our thanks for his gifts.
The third way we are to worship God is by…
Demonstrate Reverence (v. 9):
There is some debate regarding how to understand the phrase translated “beauty of holiness.” The NASB translates it as “holy attire” and assumes that it refers to the worshipper coming before God in the proper attire. It would then picture the worshipper as careful to approach God in respect of his holiness and properly cleansed. Of course, that’s a good thing, but most people see this phrase as referring to God’s “beauty of holiness” as the NKJV puts it. According to this interpretation, God is pictured in the royal robes of a great king. And so the psalmist is calling on us to approach God with the reverence that is due such a great king. He adds that all the earth is to “tremble before Him.” “Tremble” is a very picturesque word for how we ought to think about worship. Of course, we need to understand it in light of the fact that God is also our Father, but in our extremely casual culture, we could really use a dose of trembling in how we think about worship. God is not honored when we role out of bed and mosey in when we get here. Then we have to catch up with 3 buddies about nothing of significance, and then we sit through the service thinking more about our afternoon plans than about the fact that we are in the presence of God. You would never dare to approach a man of great significance that way, and we should never tolerate that kind of attitude in our hearts when we approach God.
Verse 10 then tells us why we need to have this attitude.
The Reason for Praise (v. 10):
This verse teaches that we ought to approach God with reverence because he is the divine king of all the earth. He “reigns” over all the world. And because of his divine rule, the “the world is firmly established.” This refers to the fact that God created the world and set in motion the laws of nature. He sustains his creation as its king, and one day he will judge his subjects “righteously.” Our God is a great king, and we must praise him because he alone is sovereign.
Finally, vv. 11–13 call on us to…
Praise the Lord because he is coming to bring justice (vv. 11–13).
This final section has a strongly eschatological focus. In other words, it looks forward to the end of time when God will restore creation. This is especially apparent in v. 13 where it says that he is coming to judge.
The Call to Praise (vv. 11–12):
We ought to read the call to praise in vv. 11–12 in light of this future orientation. This call to praise is obviously different from the first two because the psalmist doesn’t call on people to praise the Lord; instead, he calls on inanimate creation to praise the Lord. He mentions the heavens, the earth, the sea, fields, and the trees. Notice that all of the verbs in these verses are characterized by joy. He says to “rejoice,” be glad,” “roar,” “be joyful,” and “rejoice.” In essence all of creation is to be glad in the Lord, and then he tells us why in v. 13.
The Reason for Praise (v. 13):
Notice that he repeats the statement that the Lord “is coming.” He does so to emphasize the certainty of the Lord’s return. The Lord is coming, and he is coming to judge. That may not sound like a cause for rejoicing to us because justice is often corrupted in our world, but God’s justice will not be corrupted. It will be characterized by “righteousness” and “truth.” God will judge sin, and he will restore righteousness. Not only that, we can conclude from vv. 11–12 that the psalmist is also looking forward to the reversal of the effects of the curse, which affect all of creation. The idea that God will bring justice would have been very significant to post-exilic Israel. Israel was under Persian rule. The Davidic monarchy was no more, and the once glorious Jerusalem was now just a shadow of its former beauty. But despite these hardships, God was still on his throne, and he will assert his authority one day.
Praise the Lord that we have the same hope. What a wonderful day it will be when God demonstrates his righteousness and power and restores his creation to its original design. Our world is so broken that it’s hard to even imagine such a restoration, but our God is mighty and able to put the pieces together again, and so we ought to praise him for this great hope and for what it says about his mighty power.
The challenge of this psalm is pretty simple. We must worship God in a manner worthy of his great glory and wonderful works. We serve an awesome God, and we need to meditate often on just how incredible he is. And then we must respond appropriately to God’s awesome glory by expressing the many varieties of worship that are described in this psalm. Let’s all be challenged today to see our God more clearly and to respond accordingly.
Before I close, I want to emphasize that call to worship includes every person on the face of the earth. This is because whether you believe in God or not, he is your creator, he is your Lord, and someday he will be your judge. And every person on this planet must deal with this fact. Christianity is not just a matter of opinion or a way to help myself function better, which you can choose to accept or not accept without consequence. If you have never come to Christ for salvation, I hope you will get counsel after the service today about how you can be saved and be delivered from the judgment to come.