“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing.” – Isaac Watts
Psalm 98 is a prophecy of the kingdom of Christ.1 It is the appointed psalm for Christmas morning in thousands of churches worldwide that follow the traditional lectionary of the Western Church. Composer, Isaac Watts, wrote the great Christmas hymn, Joy to the World, based on Psalms 96 and 98.
This Christmas, let us celebrate the nativity of our Savior, Jesus Christ, taking a brief look at this wonderful Christmas psalm.
Psalm 98: “A Psalm.
1 Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.”
No one puts new wine in old wine skins (Matt 9:17). Therefore, the old song of Moses will not due for the coming of the Christ. A new song is needed!
On the night of Jesus’ birth, an angel announced “a new song” to a few shepherds near Bethlehem: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11) The birth of Jesus was the Lord’s “marvelous” act, and the day about which the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” (Isa 52:10). The ends of the earth indeed did see the salvation of our God when a star appeared to wise men from the east and led them to the Christ child in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-12).
No one could work salvation for fallen mankind but the Lord alone, by the strength of His “right hand and his holy arm,” as it is written: “I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me.” (Isa 63:5)
Thus God “has done marvelous things” for the world by His own arm, by sending His only begotten Son into the world – “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), to save us from our sins (Matt 1:21).
Jesus fulfilled the law for us and also suffered the curse of the law for us by bearing our sin in His flesh (Rom 8:3). He made a new covenant in His blood, dissolved the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, and announced the universal reign of God’s grace for the world. Therefore, God’s people have received a “new song.” On that first Christmas, even the host of heaven broke forth in a new song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
“2 The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.”
Listen to the echoes of these verses in the Song of Simeon, when he held the infant Christ in his arms and blessed God saying: “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)
Salvation in Christ is for the whole world – to “the ends of the earth.” We do not contribute anything. Christ accomplished everything for us for the sake of God’s righteousness.
“4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!”
This “new song,” is a “joyful noise.” This is the new worship of our God for His new covenant. Luther writes: “Here then is worship – not offerings given in Jerusalem, but preaching and thanksgiving that He is King in righteousness over the entire world, that is, that He has redeemed us from sin and death by Himself alone, without our merits.”2
Since faith comes from hearing the Word of Christ, He has also given us the words of our new song: It is the Gospel (or Good News) of Jesus Christ set forth in God’s Word. Faith in the forgiveness of sins is a hearing of “joy and gladness” (Ps 51:8). Without faith, it is impossible to praise the Lord. On the other hand, faith in Christ opens our lips to praise to Him.
“7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
8 Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
9 before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.”
Believers in Christ do not fear God’s judgment. He is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:26) Thus Paul described the kingdom of God as “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17) Although Jesus warns us to be prepared for the last day, peace and joy, rather than fear and reluctance, should reign in our hearts and consciences as we live out our daily lives.
This psalm also looks forward to Christ’s second coming. Creation itself will praise the Lord at His second coming when it is set free from the effects of sin and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:23) Christ “will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Amen.
May the “marvelous things” that God has done for us in Christ be our new song and a joyful noise resounding both in our hearts and on our lips, and let all the earth bless His holy name. Amen.
“Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love.” Amen.
– Joy to the World, Isaac Watts, 1674-1748.
1 Concordia Publishing House. Reading the Psalms with Luther. 2007. Print. p. 232.