A Celebration in Song (Psalm 96:1–13)

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We are often given no insight into the occasion surrounding the penning of the psalms, but Psalm 96 is an exception. This psalm is recorded almost verbatim in 1 Chronicles 16:23–33, and so we know that the events surrounding those verses were its occasion.

You will remember that the ark of the covenant had been captured by the Philistines during the reign of Saul. God had caused all sorts of “bad luck” for the Philistines while the ark was there so that the Philistines eventually sent it back to Judah. It had remained in Kirjath Jearim throughout Saul’s reign, and the first part of David’s, but in 1 Chronicles 13 David made the decision to return the ark to the tabernacle.

Initially, David tried to return the ark on a new cart, but when the oxen pulling the cart stumbled and Uzza put out his hand to steady the ark, God killed him for touching the holy vessel. David was initially angry, but as he studied the Scriptures he realised that the fault was his. The ark was only ever to be carried by its poles by authorised personnel.

In 1 Chronicles 15, having learned this lesson, David returned the ark to its rightful place in the rightful manner. It was a time of great celebration. David danced mightily before the Lord. Michal, his wife, was horrified when she saw David’s open display of worship and rebuked him for it, but the king was happy to forego his dignity in order to express appropriate praise to God.

In 1 Chronicles 16 the ark is finally brought to its resting place within the tabernacle, and “on that day David first delivered this psalm into the hand of Asaph and his brethren, to thank the LORD” (1 Chronicles 16:7). Verses 8–36 record the full psalm, and the words of Psalm 96 are sandwiched in there in vv. 23–33.

The occasion of these words was therefore a time of deep, meaningful and loud celebration. The psalm is at the same time praise for the return of God’s presence and a prophecy of what God will yet do throughout the nations. The worship it expresses is public and passionate. The psalm is unashamedly God-centred, unhesitatingly optimistic and unapologetically commanding. It is local in celebration yet universal in anticipation. The worship is local; the anticipation is global.

Because its anticipation is global, the psalm has much to say to us. We need such celebration of the Lord. We need such anticipation in the Lord. We need such devotion and dedication to the Lord. We need such demonstration for the Lord.

In a very real sense, this is a Great Commission psalm. It speaks time and again of the nations, the peoples, the earth and the world. Yet, even more relevantly, it shows that the King and His kingdom have come.

As we study this psalm together, we will divide it into three major parts. Its three sections will serve as three exhortations to all of God’s people, which enable us to make it “our” psalm. We will learn of the need to boast in the Lord (vv. 1–6); to bring to the Lord (vv. 7–10); and to believe the Lord (vv. 11–13).

Boast in the Lord

We learn in vv. 1–6 that we ought to boast in the Lord.

Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! Sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless His name; proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Honour and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.

(Psalm 96:1–6)

The call here is for authenticity rather than novelty. David at first forgot this when he tried to move the ark on a new cart instead of by God’s prescribed method. The new cart was the Philistine way of doing things. It was novel. It seemed like a good idea. It turned out not to be.

But when David did things God’s way, there was cause for great rejoicing. And his jubilant worship was authentic. When he returned home with the ark, he did so with dancing and shouting and singing. “Michal, Saul’s daughter, looked through a window and saw King David whirling and playing music; and she despised him in her heart” (1 Chronicles 15:25–29), but David was not concerned about how he appeared. Michal accused him of behaviour undignified and unbecoming of a king, but David was more concerned with authentic worship than with perceived dignity.

The psalm tells us at least three things about our boasting in the Lord.

Boast in His Blessings

First, we see that we are to boast in God’s blessings (vv. 1–3). David speaks of blessing God for “the good news of his salvation from day to day” and exhorts us to “declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples.”

As believers, we should boast in so great salvation. This boasting is not self-focused, but is focused on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. The New Testament affirms this principle:

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:26–31)

As Christians, we have nothing in which to glory in and of ourselves. We are not “mighty” or “noble.” Instead, we are “foolish,” “weak,” “base” and “despised.” Therefore, we have no cause to “glory in His presence.” But “in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom for us from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” we can “glory in the Lord.”

We also have cause to boast in the Lord’s faithfulness to us. During Sunday evening testimony time, a man in our church, who has been unemployed for almost two years, stood up with his Bible, read from Matthew 6:25–34, and gave a wonderful testimony of how God had provided for him. He had learned a number of lessons from this text and listed them one by one as he boasted in the Lord’s faithfulness to him. I joked with him that, if his testimony was anything to go by, he might not be unemployed for long: Someone might employ him as a pastor! It was wonderful to hear a believer, undergoing a time of difficulty, boasting in the Lord. Would to God that we would all do the same!

Boast Boldly

Second, we learn from vv. 4–5 that we can boast boldly in the Lord. David was confident in his boasting because he knew that Yahweh was the true God and all other deities were false gods. While “the LORD is great and greatly to be praised … all the gods of the peoples are idols.” The word “idols” literally means “nothing” or “empty.” The word is translated in Job 13:4 as “worthless.” David was a firm believer in the exclusivity of biblical faith.

We live in an age of philosophical pluralism, in which claims to exclusivity are rejected and ridiculed. But Christians ought to boldly tell it like it is. We do believe the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and His gospel, and we ought boldly to confess it.

The early Christians displayed precisely this kind of boldness. Peter stood boldly at Pentecost and declared the exclusivity of Jesus Christ to a throng of religious, Christ-rejecting Jews. Later, when the enemies of the gospel “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marvelled. And they realised that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). The apostles were not classically trained as teachers of the law, but what a difference it made that “they had been with Jesus”!

Paul (who was more classically trained) displayed great boldness throughout his gospel ministry, despite constant threats of violence to his person. He was flogged, beaten and stoned—even left for dead—but he continued to boldly boast in the Lord and His gospel.

Believer, will you do the same? Will you be bold for the Lord in your workplace, in your family, at school, in the sporting arena, in the carpool, and in society and culture in general?

I recently saw a video clip in which Douglas Wilson (a Presbyterian pastor) and Christopher Hitchens (a militant atheist) were being interviewed for a television program. At one point, Hitchens mockingly stated that he had no respect for a faith that believes that “snakes talk, virgins bear children, and dead men walk.” Hitchens denied that there is a supernatural world. The host then turned to Wilson and asked, “But, Pastor, you don’t really believe that snakes talk and that Noah had all those animals on the boat, do you?” Wilson simply replied, “I believe the Bible. I’m a Christian, so I believe the Bible.” When the host expressed her incredulity that Wilson would literally believe that a snake talked, he replied, “We’re animals [Hitchens interjected his agreement here], and we talk.”

I was blessed to see a Christian in a public forum boldly standing for the truth of Scripture.

As Christians, we should be willing to boldly identify the idols of our age. A character in a nineteenth-century novel stated well our need to stand against contemporary idols:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.1

When Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he was instructed to recant all his anti-Catholic doctrine. Luther boldly replied,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.2

It is important that we know the idols that abound in our day and that we boldly and specifically identify them as idols. To do so is to love both your neighbour and God, for idols are ultimately destructive.

Boast in His Beauty

Third, David, exhorts us to boast in the Lord’s beauty: “Honour and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His sanctuary” (v. 6). A major problem with believers is that we are often simply not impressed enough with the beauty of God. We are too easily distracted by other things when we ought to be in awe of Yahweh’s splendour.

When John Piper was asked why theologians with PhDs are seemingly so often guilty of adultery, he replied, “They don’t know God.” He continued,

You can read theology ten hours a day for forty years and not know God as beautiful and all-satisfying—as the highest treasure of your life. Who cares about knowing God the way the devil knows God? He hates everybody. His knowledge of God helps him hate people.

We’re talking about knowing God here in 1 Thessalonians. They don’t know God. They don’t know God for who he is—infinitely valuable, infinitely beautiful, infinitely satisfying—why your soul was made. There are more pleasures at his right hand, more eternal joys in his presence, than you could have in ten thousand sexual trysts.

If you know that, sin will have lost its dominion in your life.

We will only boast in the Lord to the degree that we know and adore Him. “Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32). Celebration, expectation and dedication are tied to adoration. Our grasp of the beauty of God drives us to pay the price. It motivates our boldness.

Ask the Holy Spirit to show you God’s beauty and allow Him to do so as you read your Bible on your knees. I have found my study of the first chapter of Ephesians invigorating. Paul opens the chapter with one long doxology (vv. 3–14), which then drives him to one long prayer for his readers to grasp the beauty of Jesus Christ (vv. 15–23). It is in Scripture that you will find the beauty of God. Most old covenant Jews never saw the inner beauty of the temple, but they had the Scriptures to describe it to them. Jesus is our sanctuary, and He is beautiful. Allow His Word to show you how beautiful He is.

Bring to the Lord

In the second major section of the psalm we are exhorted to bring to the Lord His due. David writes,

Give to the LORD, O families of the peoples, give to the LORD glory and strength. Give to the LORD the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts. Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness! Tremble before Him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns; the world also is firmly established, it shall not be moved; He shall judge the peoples righteously.”

(Psalm 96:7–10)

The word translated “give” means “to ascribe.” It does not mean to merely verbally ascribe, and certainly does not describe theoretical ascription; instead, it means to bring to the Lord hearty, heavy, holy, happy, healthy and hopeful worship. Our worship must be hearty because we are told three times to “give” to the Lord; it must be heavy because we are told to “tremble” before Him; it must be holy because we are told to do so in the beauty of “holiness”; it must be happy because He “reigns”; it must be healthy because we are to bring an “offering” to Him; and it must be hopeful because “the LORD reigns; the world also is firmly established; it shall not be moved; He shall judge the peoples righteously.”

If you truly know the Lord, then you will gladly bow before Him, boldly bringing what He prescribes. And you won’t be content that only you and your family are doing so; you will want all peoples to do the same. You will want all “families of the peoples” to “give to the LORD glory and strength” (v. 7). It is when we bring this kind of worship to the Lord that it is spread to the nations. Such celebration and adoration cannot be contained; it must overflow in declaration. The early disciples were so in awe of the Lord, and so careful to bring Him what He asked, “that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). In fact, the gospel spread so quickly that the apostles were widely said to have “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:10).

We will bring what God deserves when He becomes the weightiest person, pursuit and passion in our lives. If we are properly impressed with His glory, we will bring Him our words, our works, our wealth and our worship. He rich young ruler left Jesus saddened precisely because He was not sufficiently impressed with Jesus’ glory. On the other hand, the apostles each in turn left all they had to follow Him precisely because they were impressed with His glory.

Believe the Lord

Finally, David exhorts us in vv. 11–13 to believe the Lord.

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all its fullness; let the field be joyful, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the LORD. For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with His truth.

(Psalm 96:11–13)

This is the prophetic portion of the psalm. David’s experience of Yahweh’s glory was but a foretaste of what would occur later. He expected the presence of the Lord to make a difference both then (vv. 11–12a) and later (vv. 12b–13). He believed God for this, and, for the most part, he lived like he believed it. He fought and won many battles in faith. He planned the temple and instructed young King Solomon.  In the end, his legacy had a lasting impact, for it was as a Son of David that the Lord Jesus Christ came.

The principle is that we need to believe God. William Carey, who achieved great things for God, only attempted those great things because he believed great things from God. Do you believe?

Do you believe God concerning the power of the gospel? I recently read the moving account of Becket Cook on the World magazine website. Cook was a Hollywood production designed, who lived the type of lifestyle we normally only read of in tabloid magazines. He frequently received invites to movie premieres and fancy ceremonies such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes. He was often seen in the homes of A-list celebrities. He had been raised Catholic, but had embraced a homosexual lifestyle as a teenager. He had enough Catholic heritage to know that Christianity and homosexuality were incompatible, but he found his identity in homosexuality and therefore found it impossible to give up.

But then one night he found himself sipping champagne at a Paris Fashion Week after-party and, looking around the sea of beautiful people around him, wondered, “Is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life?”

A short while later, he was at a trendy coffee shop in Los Angeles when he noticed the group behind him sitting with open Bibles. This was a startling site at any venue in LA, let alone that particular trendy coffee shop. He turned around to the group and asked the man closest to him, “So, are you a Christian?” When the man replied that he was, Cook shot back, “Well, what is a Christian? I don’t even know what that is anymore.” The man shared the gospel with him. Cook asked the man what he thought of homosexuality, and when the man replied that it is a sin, Cook surprised himself by not lashing out. Instead, he agreed to visit the man’s church in Hollywood.

The pastor that Sunday preached from Roman 7, and Cook found himself blown away by the truth of the gospel. “I knew then that, oh my gosh, this is true, true, true! It was freaking me out. It turned everything I thought about religion on its head.” He knew right away that if what was being preached was true, then homosexuality was dishonouring to God. God graciously saved him, and though same-sex attraction hasn’t disappeared, God has given him new desires. Today, he leads a prayer ministry team and a community group at that church and openly testifies of how God made his hostile, broken heart whole and fertile.

This is a wonderful testimony of a God-glorifying conversion that all started because a group of Christians believed God about the power of the gospel. They didn’t express disgust and shun Becket; instead, they invited him to church to sit under the sound of the gospel. Do we believe God in this way?

Parents, do you believe God for the salvation of your children? Do you believe that God is both willing and able to answer the cry of your heart to save them?

Christian, do you believe God for deliverance from your sin? Perhaps you feel weighed down by a particular sin right now. Do you believe that there is power available through the gospel to overcome that sin? The gospel does not only save you at one point and then leave you as you are; it changes you and makes you more like Christ. Do you believe that?

Do you believe God for deliverance from your darkness? Many great Christians throughout history have known what it is to struggle with dark times of the soul but have been able to testify of God graciously delivering them. He can do the same for you.

Do you believe that God can do great things in your nation. I have met many South African Christians who have seemingly given up hope for the country, but God is able to do great things in response to the faith and faithfulness of His people.

Do you believe God for what He can and will do in all the nations? At our Missions Conference next year we will be privileged to hear from the director of missions at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C. I met him when I was in the United States earlier this year. I sat in his Bible study class and listened to him talk about his church’s philosophy of missions. CHBC is a church that specifically targets unreached countries, where gospel preaching is particularly dangerous. They do so because they have a biblical philosophy. They believe God for what He can and will do in those nations, and they have committed to be a part of that great work. Do you believe? Will you be a part of the Great Commission?

Do you believe God for the restoration of strained relationships? Perhaps you are living in a marriage that appears to be irreconcilable. Believe God for what he can do in your marriage! Perhaps you are at relational odds with a fellow church member and you see no hope of restoration. Believe God for what He can do!

Do you believe God for wandering sheep who need to come home? I was there once. I was a sheep who needed to be restored. I had many people praying for me. Perhaps some had given up hope. But on 11 February 1980, God grabbed hold of my heart and brought me back to Himself.

Do you believe God? Then live like you believe. Boast in the Lord and bring to Him what He deserves.

The New York Yankees baseball player, Yogi Berra, was famous for saying, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That may seem like something of a redundant statement, but perhaps it is one that we need to embrace as Christians.

Christians can be easily guilty of looking at the unbelieving world around us and concluding there is no hope. But, Christian, it ain’t over! Restoration and celebration are possible. In fact, they are promised. Let us boast in the one who promises and can do it. Let us bring worship to Him. And let us believe Him for the great things He has promised to do.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Elizabeth Rundle Charles, The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1864), 1:276.
  2. Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 202–3.