I have written in the past about why Psalms are appropriate for Advent and Christmas worship (quoting at length from C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms ). Psalms have a long history of being sung during Advent. Before most Advent/Christmas hymns were even penned, churches were singing Psalms to celebrate Christ’s incarnation. Traditional Advent Psalms include (but are certainly not limited to) Psalms 89, 96, 98, and 113. To go back further, the “Advent” hymns in the Gospels are rich in Psalm imagery; Mary’s song in Luke 1, for example, is rich in psalm themes, especially Psalms 89 and 92.
Psalms are chock full of themes that have historically been associated with Christ’s incarnation. These include justice for the poor and oppressed, comfort for the downtrodden, judgment for the wicked, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, and a cosmic rejoicing in God’s mercy and reign. Singing Psalms with these themes helps to balance the sentimentality of some Christmas songs, as well as center us on the magnitude of the incarnation. Indeed, the baby born in a cattle stall 2000+ years ago is the King and Judge of the universe who came to defeat the prince of this world. Granted, on the other hand, if we sing only Psalms during Advent, we’ll miss out on some sublime and strong incarnational hymnody. C.S. Lewis provides some helpful thoughts on Psalm singing and Advent:
“Psalm 110, the psalm assigned to Christmas Day, has nothing about peace and good-will, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem. It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of a war, promising victory…The note is not ‘Peace and good-will’ but ‘Beware. He’s coming’…All this emphasizes an aspect of the Nativity to which our later sentiment about Christmas does less than justice. For those who first read these Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth primarily meant something very militant; the hero, the judge or champion or giant-killer, who was to fight and beat death, hell, and the devil, had at last arrived.”
Since Christmas Day is two days away, I wanted to share one such Psalm that is especially appropriate for Advent: Psalm 98. Psalm 98 is cosmic in scope, calling on all people and all of creation to praise God for his covenant promises, righteous judgment, and imminent coming. Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “Joy to the World” is actually his christological paraphrase of Psalm 98. He published it in 1719 with the title “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” It’s not difficult to see why Psalm 98 and Advent are closely tied, as the ESV Study Bible notes: “The psalm and the hymn have come to be associated with Christmas; like Psalm 96, this is not inappropriate, provided it is clear that the coming of Jesus as the Davidic king who will bring light to the Gentiles is what establishes the connection.”
There are several excellent metrical arrangements of Psalm 98 of which I am aware. My all-time favorite version is from the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing (also included in the Cantus Christi and the forthcoming URC/OPC joint psalter hymnal). This boisterous fuguing tune is called LYGNHAM, published in 1803. This video is from one church’s psalm sing, though I prefer it a touch slower for congregational singing.
My other favorite version has older roots than the British tune above: the Genevan version of Psalm 98. The Genevan Psalms were commissioned by John Calvin in the 1500s and are still frequently sung in Dutch and Canadian Reformed churches. The video below is an excellent Dutch rendition of this song.
Psalm 98 (ESV)
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.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
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.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98A (Book of Psalms for Singing)
O sing a new song to the LORD,
for wonders he has done;
His right hand and His holy arm
the victory have won.
The great salvation wrought by Him
Jehovah has made known.
His justice in the nations’ sight
He openly has shown.
He mindful of His grace and truth
to Isr’el’s house has been.
The great salvation of our God
all ends of earth have seen.
O all the earth, sing to the LORD
and make a joyful sound.
Lift up your voice aloud to Him;
sing psalms! Let joy resound!
With harp make music to the LORD;
with harp a psalm O sing!
With horn and trumpet raise a shout
before the LORD, the King.
Let seas in all their vastness roar,
the world its living horde.
Let rivers clap, let mountains sing
their joy before the LORD!
Because He comes, He surely comes,
the judge of earth to be!
With justice He will judge the world,
all men with equity.