Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Indulge me for a minute in a little fantasy. Let’s just say that the garage band I was in during high school made it big as a bunch of (mostly) Christians playing a mix of 70s classic covers (by AC/DC, The Sweet, and Max Merritt and the Meteors). Sort of U2 meets The Beatniks.
And say that because of our global fame we got invited to play the Super Bowl and penned a special song for the occasion. And there we were, before the eyes of the world, belting out a song the essential theme of which was the following: “All you nations of the world, stop following the stupid and worthless gods of your culture and fall down instead before the true God of all the world, the God of the Bible, the God of Israel, the God and Father of Jesus Christ”.
Can you imagine the reaction? All right-thinking people would be appalled. US embassies across the Middle-East would be torched. And we’d have even less chance of being invited back to the Super Bowl than Janet Jackson.
The strange thing is that this kind of highly offensive, blatantly exclusivist anthem is belted out regularly in Christian churches all over the world, every time the words of Psalm 96 are said or sung.
The Psalm is a trumpet call for everyone everywhere (“all the earth”) to acknowledge how great is Yahweh, the God of Israel. In fact, ‘acknowledge’ is much too weak a word—shout from the rooftops is closer. The psalmist not only wants every adherent of all other religions in the world to admit that Yahweh is the true and only God; he wants them to advertise the fact. He wants them to proclaim and tell forth the salvation and glory and magnificent works of the one true and living God (that is, to ‘praise’ him).
What are his reasons for this grossly insensitive piece of cultural imperialism?
Our psalmist has three.
The first is that Yahweh is the mighty Creator who “made the heavens” (v. 5)—as opposed to the gods of the nations, who are merely idols and images. The idols of the nations are human constructs, but the God of Israel constructed the humans. He made the hands that carved the wood into a statue. He made the wood, come to that. He is a God of incomparable splendour and majesty, of strength and beauty (v. 6). He possesses the immense power required to create a cosmos, and the infinite wisdom to fill it with such wonders.
Why would you worship a human artefact, the psalmist is saying, when there is a true God whose artefact is the entire world and everyone in it?
The psalmist’s second reason flows from the first. As the world’s Creator, Yahweh is also the world’s king (v. 10). He rules in majesty over all the earth, and is worthy of all the honour and glory and worship his creatures can give him. To use a word that is much debased these days, God is simply ‘great’ (v. 4), and therefore greatly to be praised by all the earth.
And thirdly, and to us most surprisingly, the psalmist urges all the world to rejoice extravagantly in God, and declare how marvellous he is, because “he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness” (v. 13).
From our point of view, judgement is a necessary but painful truth—the theological equivalent of a trip to the dentist. But the psalmist sees it differently. He imagines the reaction to God’s impending judgement as a creation-wide song and dance, with the seas roaring their approval, and trees of the forest singing for joy.
But why should the whole earth—including all the nations and peoples in it—rejoice in God’s judgement, and praise him for his truth and justice?
It’s because God’s judgement is also the restoration of goodness. It is the time when the great and good King of all the earth gives evil what it deserves; when he brings justice and equity at last to our unjust world; when he fixes what is broken, and brings healing and rescue to all that is sick and enslaved.
The idols and images and false gods that our world worships will never fix anything. Only the one true God who made the whole world, and who reigns in power over the whole world, is going to bring justice to the whole world.
This is why he, and he alone, is worthy of the praise of all the earth.