Psalm 96 – A New Song
TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)
1. Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
2. Sing to the LORD, bless His name; proclaim His salvation day after day.
3. Relate His glory among the nations, His marvels among all the peoples.
4. For great is the LORD and much acclaimed; He is 1-more awesome than all-1 gods.
5. For all the peoples’ gods are idols, whereas the LORD made the heavens.
6. Grandeur and Majesty are before Him; Strength and Splendor are in His sanctuary.
7. Ascribe to the LORD, O clans of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
8. Ascribe to the LORD the glory of His name; bear tribute and come to His courts.
9. Bow down to the LORD with the majesty of sanctity; tremble in His presence, all the earth.
10. Say among the nations, “It is the LORD Who is king! Indeed, firm stands the world, it cannot be shaken; He judges the peoples with equity.”
11. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea and all within it thunder;
12. let the fields and everything in them exult; thereafter all the forest trees shall shout for joy
13. in the presence of the LORD, for He comes, for He comes to govern the earth; He will govern the world with justice and peoples with His faithfulness.
1. Also means “held in awe by.”
Within the Book of Psalms, Psalm 96 stands out both for its focus on other peoples (i.e., not
) and for its close association of human and ecological celebration of God. These characteristics are all the more remarkable because the psalm sounds so familiar, as it includes, perhaps more than any other psalm, phrases found elsewhere. Seybold calls it “an anthology of classical quotations” (p. 58) and Israel Gillingham (p. 183) cites Culley, who notes that fully 65 percent of the psalm is “formulaic.” The psalmist has still managed to create a unique poem.
Two Breaks, Two Surprises
The two breaks in Psalm 96 are of very different natures. The first break is created by a rhythmic refrain (as opposed to a refrain of words—one recalls Beethoven’s use of rhythm, not notes, as the theme of the Fifth Symphony). The opening triple repetition, “Sing to the LORD,” is paralleled by the triple repetition “Ascribe to the LORD” (vv. 7, 8).
The second break occurs in verse 10. The first phrase, “say among the nations,” includes the last of fourteen (twice seven) imperative verbs that dominate the psalm to that point, those words belonging both with what comes before and what comes after. Indeed, there is an inclusio to the first nine verses, “all the earth,” and the subject matter and format of the last four verses is very different, moving radically toward the world of nature and structured as two verses dealing with governance (vv. 10, 13) around two verses dealing with natural phenomena.
Each break brings with it a major surprise that redefines what came before. In what follows I describe the psalm in terms of its three units.
Sing a Song
The first section, verses 1 through 6, a call to laud God, expresses the joy of proclaiming God's grandeur and supremacy. The triple repetition at the beginning is an ancient literary opening technique found in pre-Israelite Canaanite texts. There is a tone of something very exciting having happened recently (“a new song,” in verse 1) but little else seems to demand particular attention.
Ascribe to the LORD
Psalm 96 is typified by a “clear-cut universalism” (Dahood). It is one of the international psalms, perhaps the most international, although this is not apparent at all in the first section. It is the second section that focuses on all peoples, forcing the reader to interpret the first section in those terms as well. Indeed, one now becomes aware of the same international emphasis through repetitions that occur throughout the psalm: five times “peoples,” four times “earth,” twice “world,” and twice “nations.”
Phrases in the first section also gain new import, particularly “all the earth” and “among the nations,” which now seem very deliberate choices (as opposed to
alone, which was the initial assumption). In verse 6, the “sanctuary,” which seemed to refer to the Israel in Temple (and indeed the coming verses will refer to His courts) now seems also to refer to God’s residence in heaven. (So interprets Radak, citing the use of sanctified place in II Chr. 30:27. Note also the use of "sanctuary" as a metaphor for God himself during the exile, Ezek. 11:16. ). Jerusalem
Of course there is no hint here of acceptance of the religious systems of other nations. Quite the opposite is the case. The clans of the peoples are called to worship the true God, and their idols are derided. Indeed, when verse 5 states that God made the heavens, He is named creator precisely of those spheres containing the principal deities of these other peoples: the moon, the sun, and the stars (so, again, Radak). The peoples are welcomed in, but not their religion.
The Grandest of Celebrations
Perhaps even more radical is the change that comes with verse 10, introducing the third section, which announces God’s kingship as encapsulated by two qualities: a solid, orderly universe and just governance. The first is reflected in verses 11 and 12, as nature celebrates, and the latter in verse 13, as justice is celebrated.
Just as the first section changed radically on rereading (from
to the world), so too the third section reframes the tone of the whole psalm from just human society to all of nature. Indeed, the scope is enormous: heaven and earth and sea and dry land and all the contents of both. The metaphor of universal celebration is complete. Israel
There is, however, a slight differentiation in verbs. All human audiences are addressed with imperatives—told to celebrate. Nature is invited to do so (in the jussive, “let it exult,” etc.). Thus, people and nature are both connected, but differentiated. All celebrate, but primacy is given, appropriately, to humankind.
In any case, the final section has again expanded Psalm 96. It is, in the end, a grand statement of renewal for the whole world. Here is a broad vision of the ultimate unity of man and nature within the unity of the one God. There is no direct mention of the people of
, even as it concerns the LORD, the God of Israel. Israel
Turns of Phrase
In verse 6, many understand, as do I, that “grandeur,” “majesty,” “strength,” and “splendor” are personified. One should also note that the last two qualities are once paired as representations of the
(Ps. 78:61). This again indicates possible reference to Israelite formats of worship (the Ark ), even as the psalm studiously avoids singling out the Israelite people. Temple
There is no agreed derivation for the term “idols” (v. 5). This word, elil, is thought by some to be related to one of the Hebrew terms for god, el, possibly a mocking term indicating a diminutive (“godlet” or the like) or non-God, as a pejorative.
* * * * *
This psalm (with some omissions), together with a section of Psalm 105, appears in I Chronicles –33 as a single psalm, attributed to David. This is testimony to the process that we have intuited with other psalms, namely that later generations attributed psalms to David when it seemed appropriate, or dedicated them to him, given his great reputation as a psalmist and singer.
One is reluctant to ascribe significance to the placement of individual poems within the Book of Psalms because we know little of the anthologizing process and there is also some doubt about the divisions among the psalms. However, it is fascinating that Psalm 95 ends with a brutal rejection of the people of
and Psalm 96 includes no explicit, direct reference to them whatsoever. (In my comments on Psalm 100 I reflect further on this connection.) Israel
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at email@example.com.
(א) שִׁירוּ לַיהֹוָה שִׁיר חָדָשׁ שִׁירוּ לַיהֹוָה כָּל הָאָרֶץ:
(ב) שִׁירוּ לַיהֹוָה בָּרְכוּ שְׁמוֹ בַּשְֹּרוּ מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם יְשׁוּעָתוֹ:
(ג) סַפְּרוּ בַגּוֹיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ בְּכָל הָעַמִּים נִפְלְאוֹתָיו:
(ד) כִּי גָדוֹל יְהֹוָה וּמְהֻלָּל מְאֹד נוֹרָא הוּא עַל כָּל אֱלֹהִים:
(ה) כִּי כָּל אֱלֹהֵי הָעַמִּים אֱלִילִים וַיהֹוָה שָׁמַיִם עָשָׂה:
(ו) הוֹד וְהָדָר לְפָנָיו עֹז וְתִפְאֶרֶת בְּמִקְדָּשׁוֹ:
(ז) הָבוּ לַיהֹוָה מִשְׁפְּחוֹת עַמִּים הָבוּ לַיהֹוָה כָּבוֹד וָעֹז:
(ח) הָבוּ לַיהֹוָה כְּבוֹד שְׁמוֹ שְׂאוּ מִנְחָה וּבֹאוּ לְחַצְרוֹתָיו:
(ט) הִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַיהֹוָה בְּהַדְרַת קֹדֶשׁ חִילוּ מִפָּנָיו כָּל הָאָרֶץ:
(י) אִמְרוּ בַגּוֹיִם יְהֹוָה מָלָךְ אַף תִּכּוֹן תֵּבֵל בַּל תִּמּוֹט יָדִין עַמִּים בְּמֵישָׁרִים:
(יא) יִשְׂמְחוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְתָגֵל הָאָרֶץ יִרְעַם הַיָּם וּמְלֹאוֹ:
(יב) יַעֲלֹז שָׂדַי וְכָל אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ אָז יְרַנְּנוּ כָּל עֲצֵי יָעַר:
(יג) לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה כִּי בָא כִּי בָא לִשְׁפֹּט הָאָרֶץ יִשְׁפֹּט תֵּבֵל בְּצֶדֶק וְעַמִּים בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ: