Monday, September 8, 2014

Psalm 98

I'm sorry to have neglected this blog for so long.  I hope that what you read can be helpful in your approaching the psalms.  The psalter is like a good wine.  You know it's good, artistically and perhaps culturally, but the taste may not be what you're expecting.  Maybe you get something bold when you're looking for something smooth.  Maybe you're challenged when you're looking for comfort.  Either way, there is always something unexpected when we approach the psalter.  And, to carry the metaphor further, like a good wine, the psalter can be an acquired taste, though once acquired, we tend to treasure it and on our best days share what we love with others.

My thoughts kept coming back to Psalm 98 today.  This Sunday is September 14 and for centuries, September 14 has been recognized as Holy Cross Day.  Beginning in the fourth century, it was a day to celebrate what legend has as the finding of the actual Holy Cross.  Tradition, thankfully, has turned it into a day to celebrate the victory of the cross of Christ and the saving work that the cross and resurrection afford.  This psalm is an apt psalm to go with the lessons for Holy Cross Day.

Take a minute to read it by clicking here.

This psalm comes in the middle of a chunk of psalms that are doxological (praise).  These psalms sing over and over the line "sing to the LORD a new song" or "make a joyful noise unto the LORD." They call on all creation to join the song of redemption.  Each of these psalms, beginning from about psalm 93 through psalm 104, praise God in a very direct way and always lifting up his saving work for the people who are called in his name.

Something about the phrase "sing to the LORD a new song" got to me today.  I have been chewing on this phrase in my mind and discerning where to go with it.  So many times, this phrase is used by musicians like me to encourage congregations to be about singing to the Lord a new song; be it a literal new song, or to remember the song by which we're called.  But my thoughts were different today.

When you read about the battles fought in the Old Testament, particularly in the books of the Kings, or when you read about the dedication of Solomon's Temple in both accounts (Kings and Chronicles), you see this phrase over and over again: Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his steadfast love endures for ever.  Even what we know of as the psalter was used in portions of the historical books as the songs that the people would sing upon winning the battle, dedicating the temple, or hearing the law in the assembly.  This is THE song of the Old Testament.  The people of Israel were constantly turning, disobeying and returning to God.  God would say that he would write them off, but constantly, he would come back to them out of his goodness and his steadfast love.

What does this mean when we see the command, the acclamation to sing God a new song?  Perhaps I can illustrate it with a story from my own life.

I got married about five years ago.  When you're finishing up college, you're in the middle of what you think is a temporary identity struggle but what actually turns out to be the entrance to adulthood. Crossroad's Grill was a greasy spoon in my hometown that I went to often.  It was the Wednesday before I was to be married and my dad wanted to treat me to dinner at Crossroads.  This place was great - it had the best hotdogs, fries, onion rings - fill in the fried blank.  It was the place that my friends and I would go to after exams were over.  It was the place my wife and I later deferred to on Friday nights.  But, this evening my dad and I went, a rare and wonderful treat.

We sat there and ate our respective fried goodness, a little of which goes a very long way.  We talked about a lot of things.  We talked about my being almost done with school (I had only a semester to go).  We talked about Christmas coming up in about 10 days or so.  Actually, I am only guessing that we talked about these things based on the context.  The only thing that I really remember is how satisfying that evening was, sitting there, chowing down with my dad on one of the last evenings that I would not be a "grown up" married off with new challenges.  There was a feeling of contentment that was very real and can still be felt today, but only as a memory.  It was as if, though I had been saying "I love you" for years, I wanted to say more.  I wanted to say something that would express the joy of that moment in time that was more that "I love you," that was deeper than "thank you" that was fuller than anything I could think of.

This is what I believe the "new song" is in the verses in and around psalm 98.  For centuries the people of Israel were proclaiming the steadfast love of the LORD.  Though this was still their message, it was almost not enough of a refrain; words couldn't capture the full nature of God's saving help.  All of creation is summoned in the verses of psalm 98 and following to join this song.  The new song is beyond words and in fact, all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God! The psalmist commands trumpets to sound, people to shout, the sea and all that's in it to rejoice, the lands and all who dwell in the lands.  The rivers themselves will clap over the rocks and the hills will break out in joyful singing because it is the Lord Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who comes to judge the world, reconciling all things, making all things right again.  It is the Lord triumphant, riding on the cherubim, surrounded in clouds of darkness and majesty calling all creation to the goodness of his judgment and to the faithfulness of his love.

This is a song, like our God, that can never be contained.  This is a song that will always be new because God's mercies are always new.  This is a song, a new song, that will always be new because even our words are not enough to express the joy and love of God.

My experience with dad was not unlike experiences we all have whether in relationship with others or relationship with nature.  There is a fullness that we can't quite express because we're human.  By nature of this grasping for fullness of expression, we are always looking for that new song and singing with the fullness that we can muster.

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