MEDITATION ON PSALM 98
Manley T. Johnson
O sing unto the LORD a new song;
for he hath done marvellous things:
his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.
The LORD hath made known his salvation:
his righteousness hath he openly shewed
in the sight of the heathen.
He hath remembered his mercy
and his truth toward the house of Israel:
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise unto the LORD,
all the earth:
make a loud noise, and rejoice,
and sing praise.
Sing unto the LORD with a harp;
with the harp,
and the voice of a psalm.
With trumpets and sound
of cornet make a joyful noise
before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they
that dwell therein.
Let the floods clap their hands:
let the hills
be joyful together
Before the LORD;
for he cometh to judge the earth:
with righteousness shall he judge the world,
and the people with equity.
After studying this psalm for some time I became aware of the low level of worship in my own heart and mind. I concluded this was the reason I had such a hard time of entering into the psalm properly. The worship expressed in this psalm was on a plane that I had seldom experienced, yet it is one where Christians ought always to walk. We seldom enter into the wonder of those things which are most familiar to us. The psalm seems to go beyond all that I could conceive of, or comprehend, simply because the work of God goes far beyond man’s imagination. This is to my shame considering the number of years I have known Him: the apostle Paul said in one place that we are still drinking milk when we should be eating meat.
If we really devote our attention to the Psalms, we see they are a primer to praise, and an instruction book to lead us into worship. The disciples declared, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In a similar way we have the Psalms to teach us to worship.
As I studied the psalm I could not help but picture the old psalmist. In my mind, he was an old gray-haired, stooped-over man near the end of his years. I could picture him taking my hand and saying, “Son, there is something wanting in your life, something lacking. I have some things to show you. I have some things to teach you. Come along and do your best to learn.”
The first verse of the psalm says, “O sing unto the LORD a new song; for he hath done marvellous things; his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.” I am reminded that singing is not optional, it is a command. The psalmist would say, “You cannot neglect this without suffering spiritually.” One cannot read the book of Psalms without realizing that singing is not something we do for entertainment; and it is not the lighter part of our worship. The singing of psalms and hymns is ordained of God and it is necessary to our spiritual well-being.
David calls this psalm a “new song”. He is not talking about something that is new in time, but it is called a “new song” because of its uniqueness and distinctiveness from anything that this earth knows. Without any revelation from heaven the composition of men’s songs is carnal and earthly as is evidenced in the secular music of our day. This is a new song because it is composed of those things which have been revealed from heaven. In the sense that it is above man and above the earth, it is something great and unique, that ought to occupy our thoughts and our praise.
“Why is it,” I asked the psalmist, “that we sing?” He looks at me with wonder and says, “Well, son, it is because He hath done marvellous things.” He spoke with a firmness in his voice that seemed to say, “You ought to know that. This shouldn’t be foreign to you. He hath done marvellous things, and that is the reason you ought to sing.” I replied, “I know He has done marvellous things,
Sir, but that is too broad an area for me to comprehend just now. I am only a man and I must focus on something if I am going to praise. I am overwhelmed if you just say, ‘He hath done marvellous things’. He has done marvellous things in relation to all things, from creation to judgement.” “Well,” he answered, “All right, I had something different in mind. The marvellous thing I had in mind is the LORD’S salvation.” “The LORD hath made known His salvation.”
Then he pointed out, “You have a problem. I do not have any doubt there was a day that your heart worshipped God for His salvation, but just now when I said that, I didn’t see any expression on your face. I think this has become old news to you. I think you look at salvation as something that happened years ago. I am afraid you view it as you would if you picked up a newspaper from twenty years ago. It is just information, and you are considering it too much in the light of history. You have laid it down. You just don’t do that. This is a big lack in your life.” The psalmist was saying, “Pick up the old story again.” And then I was reminded of another song –
Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, Of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story slowly, That I may take it in Â–
That wonderful redemption. God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, For I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning Has passed away at noon.
The Psalmist looked at me and said, “You need to go back; you need to tell the story again. You need to remember how lost you were. You need to remember again how disillusioned you were with life, how disillusioned you were with yourself, and how you searched for a reason for living and all was blackness. It was not just that life was vain, but you need to remember that it was worse than vain. The guilt and debt of your sin made your very existence seem like an unforgivable crime. Do your remember, in the darkness, the first real glimpse you had of Jesus Christ? Yes, you had heard of it for years, you could explain it theologically in detail, but oh, when you saw that you were a lost sinner under the eternal wrath of God, suddenly the salvation of Jesus Christ became a marvellous work. That is the only way you could describe it. That is what I meant when I called it a marvellous work and said that God hath done marvellous things. Do you remember then how praise flowed from the very depth of your being? Every phrase of this psalm dripped with meaning; yet today you read, ‘O sing unto the LORD a new song for he hath done marvellous things’ and your first impression was that it is a mere statement of fact. ‘The early dew of morning has passed away at noon’.”
“His right hand and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.” The Psalmist continued, “Do you remember; you had a list of things that you had done? Oh yes, theologically you would tell anyone that salvation was all of grace, but practically, you had a lot of faith in your faith. You would say, ‘Surely God has helped me. Surely I could not have made it without Him.’ But at last you saw, ‘His right hand hath gotten him the victory.’ It was all of God and none of yourself.” And I heard singing again.
Not what these hands have done
Can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do
Can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers, and sighs and tears
Can bear my awful load.
Thy work alone, O Christ,
Can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
Can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God,
Not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest
And set my spirit free.
“This is the meaning,” the Psalmist affirmed, “of ‘His right hand hath gotten Him the victory.’ It was His almighty grace that elected. It was His almighty love that went to Calvary. It was His almighty power that called you to Himself. It was His almighty Spirit that regenerated you. It is His almighty faithfulness that keeps you.” Then I remembered the clarity with which that first appeared: “His arm hath gotten him the victory.” How great that victory seemed at that time. How impressed I was with the holiness of God’s arm. Always, when trying to impress God with my righteousness, I could not afford to see Him in His holiness. When God exhorted, “See my holiness” it is as if I turned my back and said, “Let me see what I have.” I tried to push His holiness out of my mind. But, when I was robed in the holiness of Christ, His holiness blazed with new brightness. At last, in Christ, I can look on His holiness and see His beauty.
“The LORD hath made known his salvation.” The Psalmist asked, “Do you remember when God laid hold on you, and you came into His presence with the assurance He had shown mercy on your soul and then you glanced back over your shoulder and saw the thousands perishing? Do you realize that thousands of your friends and your loved ones and those whom you were acquainted with had never once seen the beauty of Christ as He has shown Himself to you? You looked around and thousands were still struggling in their idolatry, offering their bloody sacrifices. You saw men struggle throughout their lives to establish their own righteousness, only to die in their sins. And you wondered why ‘The LORD hath made known his salvation’ unto you. The fact that God would make known His salvation was one of the most glorious thoughts that ever crossed your mind and you stood in awe.”
“His righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.” That He might show His righteousness to a good man I could understand, but that He should show His righteousness to a heathen man like me was incomprehensible. Why me? And again I heard singing:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
“He hath remembered his mercy and His truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” I had used the word mercy many times, but like many in this world I preferred the word grace. Not that grace does not have the same depth of meaning, but I put a different meaning on the word grace. Grace was something that God gave to me. It did not emphasize, the way the word mercy did, that God withheld from me those things I clearly deserved such as His wrath and His Judgement. The word mercy had an unpleasant ring to me, but at last the word mercy was written in blood, flowing from the Saviour’s side, poured out for the most wretched sinner. And again I heard singing:
Depth of mercy! can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God His wrath forbear,
Me, the chief of sinners, spare?
There for me the Saviour stands;
Shows his wounds, and spreads his hands!
God is love! I know, I feel;
Jesus weeps and loves me still.
Then the Psalmist seemed to get carried away. He shouts, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth; and rejoice, and sing praise.” The earth and all nature seemed to have a song of praise unto the LORD. At the Psalmist’s command, it was as if a mighty chorus had stood up and started to sing. I became aware of things I had never seen in my life, that were there all the time. Just simple things that have stuck in my mind until this day. Looking up at the giant oak tree with its limbs spread out, I pictured in my mind the strength of that tree, the intricacy of its design, the beauty of it, and its age, made the oak tree seem to have a song of praise to my God. I can remember that yet today. At the time Christ revealed His salvation to me, I was working for a farmer and I was out in a field. To the right of the field were trees, and it was one of those places where the vines had grown up into the trees. As I sat on the tractor and looked, I was amazed. God had planted that garden, beautiful to behold, out here in the field, and for whom? That it might sing its song of praise for a poor redeemed sinner who was there ploughing one day. But it seemed that with all of this, the earth could not pay tribute enough to the Saviour. All creation crying in unity could not cry loud enough to express His praise. All the joy it reflected seemed to dull His countenance. There was no voice loud enough or clear enough to express His praise. So with the Psalmist, I join in, and sing, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD.” In those days it seemed that worship was restricted by limited expression.
But now the psalmist has more to teach me. Notice in verse 7 he says, “Let”. I hope I am not misapplying this, or making too much of it, but the word ‘let’ struck me. He said, “Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein.” I looked at the psalmist and said, “What do you mean, ‘Let the sea roar’? The sea is going to roar without your help or mine. I could not stop it from roaring if I had to.” And he looked at me with pity and said, “Son, I said ‘Let the sea roar and the fulness thereof.” And I thought, What is he talking about? But he insists, and that more forcefully, “Let the sea roar and the fulness thereof.” Then I began to see. We stood at the seashore and the waves smashed on to the rocks. As I stood there I was impressed with the endlessness of the persistent waves pounding the rocks. Suddenly I was caught up. I strained my eyes to see the horizon and there, at last, was a mighty chorus – a men’s chorus with deep voices, singing with unsearchable depth, praising the Almighty. As we stood there on the shore, I looked around and saw others. They too were looking at the sea, but
they could not ‘let’ it roar. They could not ‘let’ it speak. God to them was a fearful thought to their unredeemed souls. To ‘let’ the sea roar is the privilege of the redeemed. The redeemed can stand in awe, and rejoice and glory in the magnitude of the power of the God of the sea.
Then the psalmist said to me, “See that drunken man over there?” There he was by the seaside, his life wasted and spent, turning again to the poison of alcohol to dull his senses. And the psalmist said, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a poor drunken man.” He said, “Look again. You don’t understand. All the world has a song of praise unto our God.” I asked, “How can this poor drunken man be a song of praise unto our God?” He said, “He is a testimony of the excellent way God has shown to you. He is a testimony of the wages of sin that you have been delivered from. He is a testimony to the wonder of God’s salvation, who is able to save even such a wretch as that.” Then I began to get the idea. Even the ugly sights in this world have a story to tell if we can hear it. A voice sang on,
But sinners filled with guilty fears,
Behold His wrath prevailing,
For they shall rise, and find their tears
And sighs are unavailing.
The day of grace is past and gone;
Trembling they stand before the throne
All unprepared to meet Him.
Suddenly I understood the psalmist. As sad as his song was, as dark and dismal as it was, I suddenly realized, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I heard the voice of song arising even in such pathetic sights as this.
The psalmist then took me to the river. The river was at flood stage. I watched it roar and foam, and he said to me, “See it clap its hands.” I understood he meant that the water bashing against the water was as if it were clapping its hands. And he said, “Watch.” So I watched, and I saw a river that refused to be tamed. I saw a river that would overcome anything in its path. I saw a river with mighty power cutting its way through the earth. I saw in the river the overflowing power of God, making His way according to His purpose. It occurred to me that men by the thousands stand by the hour and watch Niagara Falls, but how many see a glorious God amidst the roar and the spray? That is the privilege of the redeemed.
Then he directed my gaze to the hills. I think I am beginning to understand now. They are hills. They have always stood there, from the time God created them, but now there seems to be a majesty and a beauty to assist my heart to praise.
I thought he was finished, but he said, “Now son, before I leave I have one more thing to show you. This is where it goes beyond you. You complained at the beginning that I was too general in my subject, but I must return again to that generality, or you will not see the picture.” And so he began to draw it together. He said, “You have heard a chorus here and a lone voice over there, you heard a trumpet yonder and harps beyond. But now stand back and listen at a distance. And as I stood listening I heard that all the sounds were orchestrated together. The God of all the earth had composed them and was directing them in perfect harmony. “Now,” he said, “listen, and when the psalm comes to an end you are going to hear a finale that shall surpass your present understanding. The music is going to glide suddenly into a coronation song. All the background noise is going to disappear in sudden silence and you are going to hear, ‘Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is LORD unto the glory of God’. That is not the end. The song will sweeten and you will hear the most beautiful chorus of all singing, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such that are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever’.”
How thankful we are for this psalm. We are thankful it has elevated our hearts to the degree it has. Somehow, I feel afraid to walk away from it. It was such hard work, it seems, to get our dead hearts to sing. I feel within that tendency to sink back to that low level of worship, to view the world as the unredeemed view it, to view my salvation as a fact of history, to view my Saviour as a historic figure. We often look for something new, rather than delighting in that which we have which has no limits. Oh that our God would help us, for if it were not for His persistence with us in every aspect of our lives there would be no hope at all for us. Surely, ‘none but thine arm shall get the victory.”
We see we are rich beyond our greatest expectation, rich above all the creatures of earth. May we be kept from falling into the things rich men fall into – presumption, unthankfulness, pettiness, and all the rest. May we never cease to delight in our Pearl of Great Price,and may our hearts ever rise in praise and thanksgiving to our almighty God. May God teach us to praise His name! Amen.