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29 April 2015

Singt, singt dem Herren neue Lieder (Kantate / Easter 5)

Psalm 98

As I have previously written on the psalm assigned for Sunday (Psalm 22; see 2/21/15), this post is on Psalm 98, assigned for this Sunday in the German lectionary, and for Easter 6 in the RCL.

The Sufis tell this story about the great mystic, Farid:

One night he dreams that by the grace of Allah, he has reached Paradise. And the whole of Paradise is decorated, millions of lights.and flowers everywhere — some celebration is going on — and great music. He enquires, “What is going on?”

And they say, “This is God’s birthday — we are celebrating it. You have come at the right time.”

So he stands underneath a tree to see what is happening, because a great procession starts moving on the road. A man is sitting on a horse; he enquires, “Who is this man?” and they say, “Don’t you know him? He is Hajrat Mohammed.”

And then millions and millions of people behind him, and he asks, “Who are these people?” and he is replied to. “They are followers of Mohammed.”

And then comes Jesus, and millions are following him. And then comes Krishna on his golden chariot, and millions again are following him. And so on and so forth… the procession continues on and on and on ...

And then finally, in the end, there is an old man riding an old donkey. And nobody is behind him; he is all by himself. Farid starts laughing as he is looking at this man — it is hilarious: nobody is following him. And why should he be riding on a donkey? He asks, “Who are you, sir? I have seen Mohammed, Christ, Krishna, Mahavira, Buddha — who are you? You look like a kind of joke! And nobody is following you.”

And the old man is very sad and he says, “I am God, Farid. This is my birthday. But many people follow Mohammed.  Many follow Jesus. Many follow Krishna and Mahavira and Buddha — but nobody is left to be with me.”

Farid woke up from the dream and was very agitated.  The next day he told his disciples, “From now on I am no more a follower of Mohammed. The dream has been a great revelation. From now on I want no part of organized religion — I am simply myself. I want to be with God, so there will be at least one who follows him.”

The story of Farid's dream speaks to the fact that religious people are divided, and the longing to end those divisions.  Psalm 98, one of the most joyful psalms, seems to suggest that divisions fall away when everyone joins in praising God:

Sing to the Lord a new song, / for
 he performs amazing deeds! / His right hand and his mighty arm
accomplish deliverance. 2 The Lord demonstrates his power to deliver; / in the sight of the nations he reveals his justice. 3 He remains loyal and faithful to the family of Israel. / All the ends of the earth see our God deliver us. 

4 Shout out praises to the Lord, all the earth! / Break out in a joyful shout and sing! 5 Sing to the Lord accompanied by a harp / accompanied by a harp and the sound of music! 6 With trumpets and the blaring of the ram’s horn, / shout out praises before the king, the Lord! 

7 Let the sea and everything in it shout, / along with the world and those who live in it! 8 Let the rivers clap their hands! / Let the mountains sing in unison before the Lord! 9 For he comes to judge the earth! / He judges the world fairly, / and the nations in a just manner. (NET)

Psalm 98 appears in a grouping of psalms that focus on the reign of God (Psalms 93, 95-99). These psalms are sometimes categorized as "enthronement psalms" because many of them contain the cry, “The Lord is king”; their focus is on God's eternal kingship. 

It is unclear whether or not the origin of the enthronement psalms is that they were recited in the Jerusalem temple during a New Year festival that revolved around the celebration of God's enthronement. 

What is clear is that their location in the psalms shows that they deal with the theological crisis of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E. in a positive, hopeful tone, whereas Psalms 73-89 express grave doubts about Israel's core beliefs. The enthronement psalms reminded those who doubted that God was still in control.

In V. 1 the Psalmist shouts these words:

שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָ֨ה שִׁ֣יר חָ֭דָשׁ
כִּֽי־ נִפְלָא֣וֹת עָשָׂ֑ה
šî·rū Yah·weh šîr ḥā·ḏāš
kî- nip̄·lā·’ō·wṯ ‘ā·śāh;
Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he performs amazing deeds!

The people and all of creation are then instructed to “make a joyful noise” in VV. 4 and 6, using the Hebrew root ר֫וּעַ (rua: to raise a shout, give a blast, to split the ears with sound).

In addition to rua, other terms for praising God are employed as well:

-In VV 4 and 8 we find the Hebrew root רָנַן (ranan: to give a ringing cry, to creak, to emit a stridulous sound, to shout aloud for joy).

-In VV 4 and 5 another Hebrew root is encountered: זָמַר (zamar: to make music, to touch the strings or parts of a musical instrument i.e. play upon it, to make music accompanied by the voice).

-In V. 7 the Psalmist uses the root רָעַם (raam: to make the sound of thunder, shout thunderously, roar).

Notice that in V. 7 (Let the sea and everything in it shout, / along with the world and those who live in it!) the Psalmist widens the scope from God's people to God's creation (some people speak of "inanimate objects" but I have often thought that might just be human arrogance talking). Thus, in V. 8 the floods are invited to “clap their hands,” and the mountains to “sing together for joy.”

"Let rivers clap their hands / And mountains kick their heels / At your presence" translates Norman Fischer both insightfully and beautifully.

V. 9 states that God not only delivers, but comes to judge the earth and the world with “righteousness and equity”:

יִשְׁפֹּֽט־ תֵּבֵ֥ל בְּצֶ֑דֶק
וְ֝עַמִּ֗ים בְּמֵישָׁרִֽים׃
yiš·pōṭ- tê·ḇêl bə·ṣe·ḏeq;
wə·‘am·mîm bə·mê·šā·rîm.
He judges the world fairly,
and the nations in a just manner.

Again, Norman Fischer's rendering: "For you are coming / To awaken all / To establish justice and harmony everywhere."

The first of those terms is צֶ֫דֶק (tsedeq: rightness, and as a derivative, righteousness). The basic meaning of צֶ֫דֶק is “to do the right thing.” The other term is מֵישָׁרִים (meshar: evenness, uprightness, equity). To judge with meshar is to be upright, straight, and to the point.

To return to my initial thought after telling the story of Farid: Can you create unity among the people, religious or othwerwise, by making them sing together? Not likely.

But the Psalmist is after something else altogether.  He says:  If you will connect yourself with the God who acts in tsedeq and meshar, you can be sure that you'll do well in the long run. And one way to connect yourself with God is to sing with the rest of God's creation:

Singt, singt dem Herren neue Lieder, 
er ist's allein, der Wunder tut.
Seht, seine Rechte sieget wieder,
sein heilger Arm gibt Kraft und Mut.
Wo sind nun alle unsre Leiden? 
Der Herr schafft Ruh und Sicherheit; 
er selber offenbart den Heiden  
sein Recht und seine Herrlichkeit.

Sing, sing a new song to the Lord God 
for all the wonders he has wrought; 
his right hand and his arm most holy
the victory to him have brought. 
The Lord has shown his great salvation, 
to Israel his love made known; 
he has revealed to every nation
his truth in righteousness alone.

(Metrical psalm/German by Matthias Jorissen; metrical psalm/English by Dewey Westra).

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