All the Love You Can Muster: Reflections on Psalm 98

Lectionary Reflections
Psalm 98
May 10, 2015
Sixth Sunday of Easter

This sixth Sunday of the Easter season, that time when we all attempt to reflect on just how we Easter people are to act in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, offers to us one of the Psalter's greatest and most buoyant hymns of praise. Psalm 98 fairly bristles and bubbles with words for praise of YHWH, accompanied by all manner of instruments and shouts of joy that are called for in the light of the central characteristics of this God, namely God's righteous and faithful demands for all earth's people and animals and things, based squarely on that magical quality, the divine chesed. We Easter people are urged to contemplate that chesed, that very essence of our God, and then turn our hearts to praise and love of that same God.

Today I wish to exegete this psalm line by line in an attempt to capture a small hint of the excitement the poet has packed into the phrases of her/his work.

"Sing to YHWH a new song,
      because God has done marvels."

The call to praise is based on the deeds of YHWH, God's marvels. Because God has acted on our behalf, we are to respond with praise. Praise in this context is the affirmation, the announcement, that YHWH is the world's first and final actor, spreading God's marvels throughout the earth, indeed, throughout the cosmos. But exactly of what do those marvels consist?

"God's right hand and holy arm have won the victory!"

The poet moves closer to the reasons for our praise, but remains general still in acclamation. Here YHWH acts directly with hand and arm to secure a victory. But just what sort of victory is this? Are we speaking of military conquest or personal triumph? The next line goes further by way of explanation.

"YHWH has made known God's victory in the eyes of the nations;
      God has revealed divine righteousness!"

The psalmist suggests that YHWH's victory is in fact a revelation of God's righteousness, not merely a defeat of the enemies of Israel, but a far wider understanding of exactly how YHWH works a universal victory for all God's people, not only God's chosen ones. Verse 3 offers the heart of the lyric.

"YHWH remembered chesed and 'munah to the house of Israel."

The usual translation of the two Hebrew words is "steadfast love and faithfulness" (NRSV), but a common syntactical construction in the language known as hendiadys, suggests that two nouns joined by a simple connector may be translated as if one played the role of adjective for the other. Hence, I would rather read "faithful unbreakable love." God's chief revelation is precisely that: YHWH's unfailing, unbreakable love for the whole creation.

Please note that the revelation is "to the house of Israel," but that revelation is hardly confined to or is exclusive to the house of Israel. As Genesis 12:3 makes abundantly clear, Israel's role is to demonstrate and to announce that astonishing love to the whole world, not to horde that love as if it were the only recipient of it. To imagine that this is a statement of the exclusive right of Israel to the amazing love of YHWH is to shortchange the width and breadth of that divine love for all. Israel is the vessel and proclaimer of that love, not the sole receiver of it. This fact is made clear in the next line.

"All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God."

God's "victory," a victory consisting of the revelation of YHWH's chesed is witnessed and experienced right to the ends of the earth. And now we may turn to praise!

"Shout to YHWH, all the earth; burst into raucous song and sing praise!"

Now that all have witnessed YHWH's chesed, the only and first response is loud, earsplitting, praise-filled song. And such song must be accompanied by musical instruments that have been tuned and carved precisely for the task.

"Sing praises to YHWH with a harp, with a harp undergirding a melody.
      With trumpets, the blast of a horn;
            make a joyous noise before the monarch, YHWH!"

But the praise of YHWH must not be confined to humans only, because YHWH is God of the whole creation, not merely the human one.

"Let the sea roar (thunder) and all that fills it,
      the vast reaches of the cosmos and all that live in it."

I read the Hebrew tevel as "vast reaches of the cosmos," rather than the NRSV's "world," because the word is an ancient poet's attempt to expand the court of praise as far as she/he may imagine it. Tevel surely means far more than "world"; it includes the great cosmic ocean that existed before the creation of God in Genesis 1 as well as the underworld of Sheol and the great waters that ever threaten the land and the starry skies that hold back the waters that gather to flood the earth as once they did in the days of Noah.

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