Although short in wording, Psalm 98 is rich in meaning. It is this psalm that inspired the well-known Christmas song Joy to the World. I’ve included it below for us to listen to outside of its holiday context for us to maybe understand more deeply it’s meaning and what it truly celebrates. Yes, it sings of celebrating Christ coming to earth to save us, but that’s not all that He did.
It is supposed that this psalm was written in response to Israel’s freedom from the Babylonian exile and rule. However, it also hints at God’s justice in a time to come (fast forward to the book of Revelation). Jesus’ first coming set the stage for spiritual salvation, as foretold by Israel’s freedom that He created from the Babylonians. If you recall, the Babylonian exile was a disciplinary action from God upon the Israelites because of their rejection of Him over the course of generations since David’s reign. If the story of Israel is to be a miniature example of the modern-day Christian brotherhood (which I am thoroughly convinced of), then we cannot and should not simply read this psalm as applicable to only the past.
In Jewish tradition, praise and worship was not just a means of recognizing God for who He is, but also a testimony to the nonbelievers. While worship should not be considered a “show” to wow a nonbelieving audience, it should at the very least cause people to wonder, “why are these people so happy?” This is why the psalmist declares that the whole world has seen God’s salvation. The whole world, believing or not, has seen God’s righteousness and love poured out among His people. Is that true today? Does the world witness God’s goodness toward us through our worship and reverence for Him? In 1 Peter 3, the apostle wrote about this as he detailed instructions for the Christian life:
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Our joy in Christ is a testimony to those around us. While this life is not easy, our hope is not in our circumstances but rather the One who has set us free from bondage. Let us rejoice together!