Christians sing it every Christmas season, even though it’s not primarily a carol about the birth of Jesus. It’s much broader than that. The words are familiar to believers in English-speaking countries:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
So wrote Isaac Watts, who lived from 1674 to 1748. Significantly, his inspiration for “Joy to the World” was not Luke 2 but Psalm 98. In fact, Watts himself said, “I have formed out of the 98th Psalm…what I esteem to be the first and chief sense of the Holy Scriptures.” In other words, it’s all here—the whole gospel, the overarching message of Scripture, and it leads to jubilant worship. Historically, the church has called Psalm 98 the Cantate Domino (“O Sing to the Lord”). Similar to Psalm 96, it calls for jubilant praise to God, and it provides a compelling rationale.
Psalm 98 divides nicely into three stanzas. In the first stanza, the author instructs the people of God to worship the Lord because he has been a GREAT SAVIOR (vv. 1-3). “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he writes, “for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” Over the centuries, Yahweh has been to Israel “the God of rescue,” most prominently in the great exodus from Egypt and the great return from exile in Babylon.
In the second stanza, he tells the covenant people to worship the Lord because he is the REIGNING KING (vv. 4-6). He writes, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music…shout for joy before the Lord, the King” (v. 4, 6). Moreover, all kinds of instruments are to be used to supplement the music and shouts in order to celebrate the King (vv. 5-6).
In the third stanza, the author says to worship the Lord because he is the COMING JUDGE (vv. 7-9). As the Apostles Creed says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Specifically, the psalmist calls for all of humanity and all of nature to celebrate this Judge and his coming judgment. But that’s what makes this composition seem a bit odd to us in our day. We don’t usually think of divine judgment as an event to be celebrated. Rather, we think of it as an event to be dreaded. Consequently, some people have dismissed the idea of an end-time judgment altogether. But that only leads to other problems we don’t like.
On the one hand, if there is no future judgment, what hope is there for the world? Evil stands, the scales of justice remain unbalanced, and all the horrors, abuse, and trauma inflicted on us during this life go unanswered. It is helpful to remember, however, that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and we are the plaintiff. He hears our case. He rights the wrongs done to us. He satisfies our deep desire to have all things properly settled in the end.
On the other hand, if there is a future judgment, what hope is there for me? Haven’t I committed certain acts of evil during my life? Haven’t I transgressed God’s law at some point in time? Haven’t I committed sins against God and other people who are made in his image? If so, how can I escape the punishment due me? It is sobering to remember that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and I am the defendant. The prospect of a cosmic trial, then, can be frightening.
But great relief can be found woven into the psalm itself, not to mention the trajectory it creates. There is hope for the world collectively and hope for me personally precisely because the coming Judge is also the historical Savior. In fact, the ultimate biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge who has taken his people’s judgment himself. It’s the picture of a judge pronouncing the sentence, and then coming down off the bench to take the sentence he just imposed so the guilty party doesn’t have to. As Psalm 98 indicates, the Judge and the Savior are the same God.
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, learns that she will bear the Savior of the world, she hearkens back to portions of Psalm 98 (along with other sections of the Hebrew Bible).
|Cantate Domino (Psalm 98)||Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1)|
|“Sing to the Lord a new song.” (1a)||“My soul glorifies the Lord.” (46)|
|“For he has done marvelous things.” (1b)||“The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (49)|
|“His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” (1c)||“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” (51)|
|“The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” (2)||“His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” (50)|
|“He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel.” (3a)||“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful.” (54)|
In doing so, Mary alerts us to the intended fulfillment of Psalm 98 in her own Son, Jesus Christ—the Savior of the world to whom all final judgment has been committed (cf. John 5:22). The only way to celebrate the God of future judgment is to know him as the God of past salvation. Have you trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior—the one who has taken your judgment on the cross? If so, you have every reason to celebrate.
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