Psalm 98: Justice and equity

‘God will judge the world aright, and the people with equity.’ (9)

Psalm 98 comes up every year without fail at Christmas and other times. So is there anything new to say?

Of course there is. Each reading of the psalm brings a fresh song, comes at a different moment in our lives. Perhaps that’s why it starts in verse 1 with “Sing a new song”.

O sing to the Lord a new song, who has done marvellous things. … Sing praises to God with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. (1-5)

Why always a new song? What’s wrong with the familiar and well-worn, the traditional? It’s a question that arises for the psalm singer every week. Do you stick to refrains that people know, sing happily and smile; or succumb to new musical or harmonic temptations, accept worried expressions in the interests of exploration and inspiration?

This call to sing a new song is not an isolated offhand comment. The same invitation is made in other psalms, including 33, 96, 144 and 149. Sometimes when turning to what we sang last time, the choice seems stale, or just does not appeal for some reason. Circumstances alter cases, as J M Barrie reminds us in The Admirable Crichton.  The poetic nature of the psalms, to say nothing of the changing balance of our lives, asks for a new view each time they are sung.

This particular song celebrates, and imagines the whole creation celebrating, the divine standards of equity, justice, goodness and love, regardless of the gloom in the 7 o’clock news. It again urges us to lift up our voices to sing a new song. This time, we are encouraged to bring along our harp, trumpet and horn. The psalmist broadens the focus to call for vibrant harmony among all nations with creation.

So the message is more than a literal direction to the musicians. We are invited to stand back from the old tune, the old ways. Like Fagin in the musical Oliver, start ‘reviewing the situation’. Implicit is the need for fundamental change in our systems of justice, governance and equity across the whole community — see verse 9 again at the top of the page.

This psalm extends the concept of grace from the promised land and a chosen people to the whole of humanity. It imagines the created world singing and clapping along, celebrating the rule of justice. This strong theme starts in verse 2, in which divine righteousness is on display. Mercy and faithfulness follow, and the song concludes with that resounding verse quoted at the outset. The theme continues in the next psalm, 99.


An easy verse for the antiphon calling us to: “Sing a new song to God, who has done marvellous things” was introduced with Psalm 96.

Inspired by a visiting Gospel choir some time ago, we sang Psalm 98 to a jazz-inspired 12-bar piano blues in the interests of including styles and traditions from around the spiritual cultures of the world. Somehow the blues don’t quite fit at Christmas, despite the magnanimity of the gathering flock. The slightly chaotic atmosphere of visiting friends and families rolling in with children bearing — or wearing — their new gifts is far from blue.

Duet based on 1551 Genevan in the Scottish psalter

Another ready choice is in our hymn book Together in Song at No. 166, starting, sure enough, with: ‘Sing a new song’. However, the verses do not follow the psalm. It’s an easy matter to paraphrase the verses to fit the music and metre of the verses in the book. One advantage is that it is well known and enjoyed, so the change of words is literally singing a new song to the old tune.

C					F				C
A new song sing for all God's wond'rous works
C					Am		Em	Am
Whose hand and holy arm gain victory
F					G7		Am
Revealing love and faithfulness to all
F			C		F		C
Ends of the earth see glory of God.