Psalm 98: Justice and equity

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


“PSALM 98, 6 MAY ’18”

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”.

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 created divine standards of equity, justice, goodness and love, regardless of the gloom in the 7 o’clock news.

The third song of this grouping 96-98, 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. Psalm 98 is a burst of joy:

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)

This delightful song goes on to imagine 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.

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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