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Christmas [2015]: Joy to the World (Psalm 98)

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December 20, 2015

Every year at this season we hear “Joy to the World” played over the audio systems of stores and we sing it ourselves at church. But a skeptic might rightly ask, “How can you sing ‘Joy to the World’ when the world is so messed up? ISIS and Al Qaeda are competing to see who can murder the greatest number of innocent people. Boko Haram is terrorizing Africa. We’ve recently had the Paris and San Bernardino massacres. Russia has caused devastation in the Ukraine. There are natural disasters around the world, such as the earthquakes in Nepal and flooding in India. Our inner cities are overrun with drug trafficking and gang violence. Sex trafficking of children and vulnerable women is a thriving industry. And you’re singing ‘Joy to the World’?”

Isaac Watts wrote that great Christmas hymn based upon Psalm 98, so I thought that it may be helpful to meditate on that psalm so that we understand why we can truly and rightly sing, “Joy to the World.” This psalm portrays God as the victorious warrior, bringing salvation for the whole world, but conquering and judging all who oppose Him. When we understand that the Psalms testify of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 5:39; Luke 24:44), we can sum up the message of this psalm:

The coming of Jesus Christ as Savior, King, and Judge is a cause of great joy for all the earth.

The psalm falls into three stanzas of three verses each. We can view them from several different angles. Temporally, the first stanza looks at past salvation; the second at present kingship; and the third at future judgment. The first is directed at Israel; the second is addressed to all the earth; and the third calls on all creation. The first answers the question, “Why praise Him?” The second tells us how to praise Him. The third shows us who should praise Him. The first stanza portrays God as our Savior; the second, God as our King; and the third, God as our Judge.

1. God our Savior: God’s people should rejoice because God has revealed His salvation through Israel in the sight of the nations.

Psalm 98:1-3:

O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory [or, “accomplished salvation”] for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Note three things here:

A. God’s victory in bringing salvation should cause us to sing a new song.

“Salvation” is the theme of these first three verses. It occurs (in the Hebrew text) in each verse. Instead of “gained the victory” (NASB), the marginal reading is more literal: “have accomplished salvation.” We aren’t sure when this psalm was written. Some commentators say that it was after Israel returned to the land after the Babylonian captivity, whereas others argue that it was earlier. But whenever it was written, it is celebrating some great deliverance that God accomplished for His people. But in light of Jesus’ victory on the cross, ratified by His resurrection from the dead, we can legitimately apply it to the salvation from sin and judgment that He accomplished for us.

The narrative of Jesus’ birth shows that we are on target in applying this psalm in this way. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of prophecy (Micah 5:2), the angel proclaimed to the shepherds (Luke 2:10-11), “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The terms he used seem to “repeat the sounding joy” of Psalm 98: “good news”; “great joy”; “for all the people”; “a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

Adam Clarke (Clarke’s Commentary [Abingdon-Cokesbury], 3:532) pointed out the parallels between Mary’s song when she heard that she would bear the Savior (Luke 1:46-55) and Psalm 98, which he attributed to David (he used KJV; I’m using NASB):

David: “O sing to the Lord a new song.”
Mary: “My soul exalts the Lord.”

David: “For He has done wonderful things.”
Mary: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me.”

David: “His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.”
Mary: “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.”

David: “The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.”
Mary: “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.”

David: “He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel.”
Mary: “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy.”

When the psalmist tells us to sing “a new song,” it isn’t restricted to composing a new song or singing the new song that he has just composed, although those options are included. But beyond that, it refers to singing to the Lord when He does something new in our lives or when we have a new experience of His grace. And there is no greater experience of God’s grace than the new birth that brings salvation to those who were in spiritual darkness and death. As Zecharias prophesied regarding his promised son, John the Baptist, who would prepare the way of the Lord, the Messiah (Luke 1:77-79), his role would be…

To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

So the point is, when God works the miracle of salvation in your heart, forgiving all your sins, shining His light into your darkness, giving His eternal life to your dead soul, all because of His tender mercy, you should sing a new song to Him, praising Him for His great salvation!

B. God’s mighty power was required to gain the victory of His salvation.

It took “His right hand and His holy arm.” The same imagery occurs in Isaiah 52:10 (see also, Isa. 59:16; 63:5):

The Lord has bared His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations,
That all the ends of the earth may see
The salvation of our God.

This means two things: First, salvation is not a matter of human effort, but rather of God’s mighty power. If it requires God’s holy arm, then He doesn’t need our puny efforts to help Him out! In Ephesians 1:19-21, Paul prays that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened so that we might know “what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” This power, he adds, is “in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” That’s the power that it took to rescue us from Satan’s domain of darkness and transfer us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14)! Since salvation is a matter of God’s mighty power, no sinner is beyond hope! We may think someone is hopeless, but God is mighty to save!

Second, if God’s holy arm saved us, then He is sufficiently powerful to keep us and to provide all that we need for life and godliness. Jesus said (John 6:39), “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” (See also, John 10:27-30.) As 2 Peter 1:2-3 promises, “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” As he goes on to say, these things are granted to us in His precious and magnificent promises. God’s Word is a treasure house of benefits and blessings for you if He has saved you. Has He worked the miracle of salvation in your heart?

C. God’s salvation has been revealed through His righteousness, lovingkindness, and faithfulness to Israel for the nations.

As Psalm 98:2-3 states:

The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

God’s covenant promise to Abraham was to bless all the families of the earth through his seed or posterity, that is, through Jesus Christ (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:14, 16; Luke 2:28-32). As Paul wrote (Gal. 3:13-14), “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” We who are Gentiles should rejoice at this great news! Before Christ, we Gentiles (Eph. 2:12), “were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” What a bleak picture! But then Paul adds the good news (Eph. 2:13), “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Perhaps, though, someone is wondering why the Bible talks about Jesus becoming a curse for us by hanging on the tree. Why did it require Jesus’ blood to provide salvation? To begin with, God is absolutely righteous. By making known His salvation, He reveals His righteousness in the sight of the nations. Being absolutely righteous means that God cannot just brush away our sin. The just penalty of sin, which is death, must be paid, either by the sinner or by an acceptable substitute. That’s what the Jewish sacrificial system was all about.

But righteousness is not God’s only attribute. He is also full of lovingkindness or “steadfast love” (ESV). When Moses asked God to show him His glory, the Lord responded (Exod. 33:19), “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” The Lord further gave Moses this amazing revelation (Exod. 34:6-7), “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” That revelation of God’s character is repeated often in the Old Testament. It shows us both His righteousness in punishing sin, but also His love and mercy in forgiving the sin of those who seek Him.

The fact that salvation depends on God’s righteousness and lovingkindness shows that it is not due in any way to any human merit or good works. It is due to God’s grace alone. As Romans 4:4-5 explains, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” God’s salvation is revealed through His righteousness and His lovingkindness. Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:3)?

The birth of Jesus demonstrates God’s faithfulness to the house of Israel, so that all the ends of the earth might see His salvation (Ps. 98:3). For centuries, Israel waited for God to fulfill His promise to send the Savior. Finally (Gal. 4:4-5), “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Jesus, born of the virgin Mary through the Holy Spirit, God in human flesh, showed that God remembered His faithfulness. The godly old Simeon prayed as he held the baby Jesus in his arms (Luke 2:29-32):

“Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A Light of revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

So the first stanza of this wonderful psalm shows us God the Savior. Every sinner can rejoice because the righteous, loving, faithful God has revealed His salvation through Israel in the sight of the nations.

2. God the King: All the peoples of the earth should rejoice because of God’s present kingship.

Psalm 98:4-6:

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy 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
Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.

Briefly note three things:

A. All the earth should rejoice exuberantly.

The mood of this stanza is not drab, ho-hum, boring mumble through some songs while you read the bulletin or think about the football game on TV after church! Note the commands: “Shout joyfully!” “Break forth!” “Sing for joy!” “Sing praises!” Again (in case you missed it!), “Sing praises!” “With the lyre, the sound of melody, with trumpets and the sound of the horn!” “Shout joyfully!” Does that describe your worship? Does it describe our worship as a church? If not, why not? As I told you last year after I spoke in Illinois to about 700 mostly Korean brothers and sisters, I wish I could import their worship to our church! They were not passive! They were exuberant! The Lord of all the earth, the King, is worthy of such worship.

B. All the earth should rejoice and sing praises to the Lord.

Twice this stanza emphasizes that we are to shout joyfully and sing praises to the Lord. Again it states that we are to “shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.” This is to say that worship isn’t about us. We aren’t singing to ourselves. We’re coming before the King, the Lord, and singing praises to Him! We’re worshiping in His presence. Would your worship be any different if you kept that in mind?

C. All the earth should rejoice and sing praises in submission to the Lord as King.

You can’t rightfully rejoice and sing praises to the King if your heart is in rebellion towards Him. He must be your King, not just with lip service, but in your heart, if you want to rejoice in Him as you should. Make sure each morning as you spend time with Him and every week when we gather for worship that your heart is in submission to Him. God is our Savior; He is our King. Finally,

3. God the Judge: Creation itself should rejoice because the Lord is coming to judge the world with righteousness.

Psalm 98:7-9:

Let the sea roar and all it contains,
The world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy
Before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth;
He will judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with equity.

Again, briefly note three points:

A. Creation should rejoice because the Lord will restore it to its original glory.

The psalmist calls on inanimate creation to praise the Lord because when He comes, He will revoke the curse. When Adam and Eve sinned, God imposed a curse on the earth. It no longer yielded a bountiful crop without man’s sweat (Gen. 3:17-19). Death entered the world, both on humans and on all animal life. Paul (Rom. 8:19-22) describes it as creation groaning and suffering the pains of childbirth as it awaits release when we fully experience the glory of our salvation when Christ returns.

People today go to one of two opposite extremes. Those who put “Love Your Mother” bumper stickers on their eco-friendly cars deify and worship the earth, not the Creator. On the other hand, some rape the earth, mowing down the rainforest or slaughtering endangered species for their own gain. As Christians, we should be good stewards of the earth, using it wisely as our Creator tells us to do. While many evangelicals are skeptical about human-caused climate change, it seems to me that all Christians should be in favor of cleaning up the environment. I grew up breathing Los Angeles smog, so I’m glad that they have improved the air quality there in recent years. When we’ve traveled in China, the pollution is horrendous. Creation groans under that sort of thing, but it will rejoice when Jesus returns and restores it to its original glory.

B. Creation should rejoice because the Lord, the righteous judge, is coming.

The psalmist pictures the sea roaring, the rivers clapping, and the mountains singing together for joy because the Lord is coming to judge the earth (see Isa. 55:12). Until then, we can enjoy the beauty of God’s creation and we should work to preserve that beauty. But it won’t be fully restored to the original glory until the Lord returns to judge the earth. Then the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the lion will eat straw like the ox, and the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra without harm (Isa. 11:6-8). Isaiah 11:9 concludes,

They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.

If inanimate creation rejoices when the Lord comes for judgment, then how much more should we who know Him long for His coming! But, finally,

C. This great joy is only for those who submit willingly to the King.

Revelation 19:11-16 describes the coming of the Lord as the conquering warrior King, which Psalm 98 celebrates:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”

When He comes again as the righteous Judge, either you will rejoice greatly because you have received His gracious salvation, or you will shrink back in horror, because you rejected Him as your Savior and King.


And so, when you hear or sing “Joy to the World,” make sure that Jesus’ coming is truly a source of joy for you and not a cause of fear! As Isaac Watts wrote:

Joy to the world! The Lord has come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders of His love.

Application Questions

  1. Why is God’s righteousness (in addition to His love and faithfulness) an essential part of His salvation?
  2. What is the proper role of emotions in worship? What should we do if our feelings just aren’t there?
  3. Biblically, what is our responsibility toward the environment?
  4. Should we always emphasize God’s judgment when we present the gospel? Give biblical support.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas

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