Psalm 96

September 10, 2000


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

Psalm 96

In The Magician’s Nephew we learn the story of the creation of Narnia. It begins with a song.

In the darkness something was happening.... A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away.... Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he would hardly bear it.... Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars.... If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.
“Glory be!” said the Cabby. “I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”

I love the idea that creation is sung into being. It is so much like those words in Job 38 which speak of that time when “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” It’s as if what holds creation together is not really electrons and gluons and so on, but music. Indeed, there seems to be something inside us which loves music, as if we sense music were part of us. Great music is marked by its ability to inspire and create longing in people centuries after it is first written. One of the tests of the staying power of today’s music will be whether anyone pays attention to it 100 years from now. We still sing 4th century hymns by Fortunatus and 16th century hymns by Martin Luther; and, indeed, we still sing versions of 10th century BC hymns by David, even though the music for most of these was written much later. These old Psalms and hymns have a proved staying power. Why does music last?

There is a story about Handel, how his servant came into his study to bring supper while he was writing the Messiah and there were tears streaming down Handel’s face. And we know why. This is grand music with a great theme, the birth and redemption of Jesus, the Messiah and Redeemer of the world. Such music is part of our lives and our worship. When I read a Psalm like Psalm 96, about singing a new song to the Lord, I respond in a way similar to the way I respond to the Messiah or to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. Yes, I say, let’s praise God by singing this. That’s why music lasts.

1. My approach to reading a Psalm like Psalm 96 is to ask questions of it because I want to know about the sort of singing the Psalmist had in mind when he says, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” What does he mean by “a new song”? Are the old songs not any good? Is this like Isaac Watts who wrote his own hymns when he preached because he wanted new hymns to accompany his sermons? Of course Watts lived in the 17th and 18th centuries and there were not many hymns then. He was the first modern hymn writer. So what does the Psalmist mean by “a new song”?

Well, the Scriptures say that God’s mercies are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:23) If God’s mercies are new for us each day, then a new song is a fresh way to give thanks for them. One of the problems I have with liturgy that is the same week after week, as in Anglican (read Episcopalian) services, is that one makes the same responses no matter what the Scripture texts for that day, or the needs of people are. This Psalm suggests we make a fresh response to God.

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood. When the sun rises each morning that is both alike and different, as if God himself says, I liked the sunrise yesterday, let’s do it again! But the color in the sky is different, or the temperature of the day, and yet the promise of the day always lies in God’s providence. God likes things the same, too. This is why I love the hymn, “When morning gilds the skies, my heart awaking cries: may Jesus Christ be praised.” We depend upon a certain consistency in life. That very consistency draws from us a desire to worship afresh and that’s what the Psalmist voices.

2. I have a second question; what does this singing of a new song do? According to verses 2 and 3, what happens in the new song is that God’s name is praised. In particular, in our praise, we proclaim His salvation and we declare His glory. So singing is a response to who God is and what He has done - the two great themes about God in the Bible are, who He is and what He has done.

I reflected on how those two themes are worked out in hymns we know. “To God be the glory, great things he has done.” That’s a hymn by the blind hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, who had a good sense of what God had done. Isaac Watts’ lines describe who God is, “Before the hills in order stood, or earth received her frame, from everlasting thou art God, to endless years the same.”

There is the 20th century hymn by Thomas Chisholm which combines who God is and what He has done, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not; as thou hast been thou forever wilt be.”

In the 19th century there was a Scottish priest in Ireland named Francis Lyte. He was a traditional, believe-very-little priest, when another priest in a neighboring village called him in his last sickness to help him prepare to die. This old priest was in an agony of soul and not ready to die. So Lyte and he opened the Bible to find how men could be saved, and they were both converted. In 1834 Lyte wrote a hymn based upon this experience. He drew the hymn from Psalm 103, “Praise my soul the king of heaven, to his feet thy tribute bring, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who like me, his praise should sing....” That’s the experience Lyte had and he describes in his hymn what God had done for him and this other priest.

3. The Psalmist’s vision in Psalm 96 includes one of the strangest choirs you can ever imagine. What is this choir? The psalmist sees all the earth as God’s choir. Imagine if, as we sing each Sunday morning, the crows flying about the church, the trees standing nearby, the hill on which the church sits, all would sound their voices and join in the hymns. It would be beautiful, and scary! That’s the Psalmist’s vision in verses 11 and 12, the heavens rejoice; the earth is glad; the sea resounds; the fields are jubilant; all the trees of the forest will sing for joy! This is not about Rivendell or Fanghorn. This is what happens when creation anticipates her restoration. Paul wrote of this in Romans 8:21, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

There was an American composer, born in that prosaic place, Somerville, Massachusetts. His name was Alan Hovhaness (hohv- hah’- nuhs) and he wrote a piece of music titled, “And God created the Great Whales”, and in it he uses the recorded voices of humpback whales singing their mysterious songs in the Atlantic Ocean. How do whales do that? They have no vocal chords, but they seem to make sounds with their larynx and air in their lungs. And these humpback whales praise God. Amazing. The creatures of the earth praise God.

On the whole, nature is silent now. Oh, John Muir climbed a redwood tree to observe a storm in northern California and the tree swayed and groaned in the wind, and Muir made note of the sounds. But the Psalmist is visualizing the response of creation at the end of all things when , verses 10 and 13, God comes to judge the world. By speaking of God coming to judge, the Psalmist isn’t visualizing judgment as punishment. That’s not why nature is singing. He is visualizing the coming of equity and fairness and righteous dealing. Finally it’s come. He is seeing the sin which pollutes earth, air and water finally done with, and God cleansing nature itself and restoring it to the vision he had for it in his original creation. The ability of creation to sing is restored.

I think this is the reason we sing in church. The more grand the music and the text, the more likely we can feel for one sacred moment what the original creation was like as we are lost in wonder, love and praise. We approach, as we sing, if only for a moment, life without the self-centeredness of sin; life, thinking about something besides ourselves. Only for a moment, though. The best musicians have known this.

Mozart was a far different man than we might ever suppose by viewing the film “Amadeus.” As always Hollywood pollutes what it touches because writers and producers can’t imagine godly people. When do we ever see them in films? Mozart was a godly man. His letters and the recollections of those who knew him personally portray him as carefree, confident and generous, a young man - he died when he was only 35 - who could write, “God is ever before my eyes. I realize his omnipotence and I fear his anger; but I also recognize his love, his compassion and his tenderness toward his creatures.”

There is a story about Mozart that a street beggar asked him one day for money and in this, at least, the film was accurate, he had no money. So Mozart brought the beggar into a coffee house, wrote down an entire Minuet and Trio spontaneously, gave it to the man, with a letter to his publisher, who gave the beggar five guineas, a considerable sum.

Mozart composed music we still sing in worship, as well as play in concerts. For example, the music to “Jesus, I my Cross Have Taken” is by Mozart. So is one of the tunes for “Take My Life and Let it Be.” And Karl Barth’s take on Mozart is seen in this story. Barth wrote a little booklet about Mozart and he played his music every day before he began to write theology. Barth was once asked to describe what music in heaven would be like and he answered, “When the angels play before God Almighty, they play Bach, but when they play en familia (informally, as a family of angels) they play Mozart!”

Now who knows! But such things are possible. For myself, I think the music of heaven will be stranger and more grand than anything we might imagine on earth. If I understand the Psalmist’ vision aright, who sings will be new. The quiet trees and hills and so on will be unstopped and they shall be singing. And the whales and the stars and the fields. I am fairly certain music in heaven will not be anything like Rap music, but what exactly it will be like - well, maybe Handel did not weep in vain. Maybe the “Hallelujah” of the Messiah was indeed inspired by God, giving to this composer of the 18th century hints of heaven’s music. It’s possible.

Usually when we sing in church, let’s be honest, some of the music is prosaic. Sometimes the themes of hymns or songs or choruses are good, but the music is not outstanding. Sometimes the musical score is endearing, but the text, weak. Sometimes the music doesn’t seem uplifting. But at its best, what we sing in church lifts us up to glory and brings the praise acceptable to God.

It is often true that there is one particular hymn which resonates with your own spiritual life, so that if I were to ask, what hymn is your favorite hymn? You all wouldn’t choose the same hymn. At least, I don’t think you would. Now what would you choose? I have a favorite hymn, Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. It was written about 1527. One of the interesting things about it is that Luther wrote both the words and the music. It seems like him, at least as I know him after studying the 16th century. It shows utter confidence in God in the midst of trials. It shows how God can help the believer defeat the world, the flesh and the devil.

In 1969, I think, David Koop, Dr. C. Everett Koop’s son, was killed in a mountain climbing accident in New Hampshire. The funeral was in 10th Presbyterian Church. The organist, who sits in the back of the church in the balcony, misread a signal to start the service and he began the opening hymn before the Koop family had come to their seats, and so they walked down the aisle as the congregation had stood and were singing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” Not every hymn would stand up under the emotion of such a moment, but this hymn does. And so do others. There are more than a million hymns for the church. Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby each wrote some 7,000 hymns. Each year new hymns are written, some good, some mediocre. The ones that shall last the longest, though, are those new songs which praise God for who He is, and for what He has done, that for the moment take us outside ourselves.

That’s what this Psalm hints at, and many more Psalms and other biblical passages use singing to do what cannot be done in more prosaic ways. I pray that God would use our singing in worship to awake in you something of the new song that God brings into your mind.