In the world of ancient Israel, nearly everyone was polytheistic – which means they believed in many gods, even if they only worshipped one. This includes the ancient Israelites. This is important to remember whenever we read the Old Testament, because any time there was conflict between two peoples or two nations, it wasn’t just about gold or territory: it was also a competition between their gods, to see which one was stronger and better able to protect their chosen people.
The God of Israel, in their view, had already defeated the Egyptian gods during the exodus, when God liberated the people from slavery and brought them out of Egypt despite Pharaoh’s protests and attempts to keep them. Knowing this, the Israelites praise their God as the conquering King – the one who is above all other gods. Not only is this God their king, who is particularly on their side, but this is also the cosmic King who rules over all of creation (including all those other gods).
This both/and is a regular feature of the psalms – and there are six psalms of praise and thanksgiving that focus specifically on God as king and what that might mean for living as God’s people, and today we’ll hear from just one of them.
Scripture: Psalm 96
O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in holy splendor;
tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.’
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve spent some time in the psalms with some pretty specific questions: what can these poems and songs tell us about who God is and what God asks of us? In Psalm 145, we learned that God tells us a very different story than the one we hear every day – that God is good and provides what we need. In the creation psalms, we learned that we can find something of God in creation – that God’s nature is reflected in the beauty and order of the natural world all around us. In the psalms of lament, we reflected on the ways God is so much bigger than what we can imagine, and can hold everything we would like to throw at God – including our anger, our protests, and our deepest desires.
So today, as we look at the psalms that praise God as the conquering and cosmic King, I want us to wonder together: what kind of king is God, and what kind of kingdom is God leading us towards?
Unlike the kingdoms and nation-states we know, God’s kingdom is not a particular place. There are no borders. You can’t get there on a plane.
Rather, the kingdom of God is a way of being in the world – it’s a particular set of choices and priorities that reflect God’s character and God’s reign.
As Walter Brueggeman puts it: as King, God declares shalom for the world and every people group in it.
Shalom is a Hebrew word that’s often translated ‘peace.’ But that one word doesn’t capture the fullness of what shalom truly means: it’s a positive peace, not simply the absence of full-out conflict. It’s a state of being in which all of creation is thriving and “the world is drawn into a coherent, cosmic whole.”
This is why the heavens are glad and the earth rejoices – the sea roars and all that fills it, the fields exult and everything in it, and the trees of the forest sing for joy.
The establishment of shalom as the law of the land would indeed be cause for that kind of party – because in that sort of world, the Amazon rainforest wouldn’t be burning. There would be no endangered species or extinction rates. There would be no poachers, no need for Humane Societies or wildlife preserves, and both the critters and the humans would get what they need from our vegetable gardens and farms.
This is shalom.
But shalom, on this earth and in this community, takes work. It’s not going to just happen one day. It takes us, working for it in ourselves, in our families, in our work and in our relationships to God, to the earth, and to one another. That’s why it’s not called “God’s dictatorship.” Shalom requires our active participation.
One of the ways we do that is by seeking what the psalmist names righteousness and equity. It’s worth defining those terms, because we tend to assume we know what they mean – but often we wind up with competing definitions.
The Hebrew word that’s translated here as ‘righteousness’ is ‘tsedekah’, which can also be translated as ‘justice.’ It means, in essence, ‘whatever is right.’
And what’s right is decided not by how God is feeling at the moment, or even how we’re feeling at the moment, but by the covenant made between God and the people. The Israelites would’ve looked to the law given at Sinai – the promises made between God and the people with Moses as mediator.
We, on the other hand, look to Jesus. We may not wear our ‘WWJD’ bracelets anymore, but when we want to do the right thing, that’s still the greatest question.
The word translated as ‘equity’, on the other hand, is ‘meshar.’ This word can also mean ‘straight’ (as in the ruler kind, not the sexuality kind), or ‘upright.’ Basically, in this context, it means that God is absolutely even-handed. There is no bias or prejudice in God’s judgment—and so we are called to be similarly even-handed. That means rejecting the idea that any one group of people is destined or designed to rule over another, and rejecting every ‘ism’ we encounter: racism, sexism, ageism.
Usually, God’s judgment is not heard as good news. But for the Israelites, this was absolutely good news. In a polytheistic world where the gods were generally temperamental, angry, violent and prone to mood swings, the idea of a God who was steadfast and caring, who could be relied upon to keep the promises God made, who could look at you and see all of who you are, without any bias or prejudice based on gossip, was amazing.
And in many ways, it still is.
For those who lived under the covenant made at Mt. Sinai – who lived under the Old Testament Law – their choices and ability to follow the laws set forth there was the ruler by which their lives were measured. If you were part of God’s kingdom, then you strove to live by those rules in the same way we generally try to live by the laws of the United States.
They also failed to make good choices and failed to follow the law just about as often as we do – so take that with a grain of salt.
But no matter how much they failed, God’s character never changed. The King praised in this psalm, written thousands of years ago, is the same King we praise today. Most of us probably wouldn’t trace our heritage all the way back to the ancient Israelites. Our ancestors were not at Sinai. But because of the promises made in this psalm, and the resurrection power of Jesus to break down barriers and welcome all peoples, this promise is for us, too.
God’s kingdom is shalom. It is justice and righteousness. It is bravery and kindness. God’s kingdom is equity and truth and mercy and grace. And most of all, it is a gift. We are made part of God’s kingdom by the grace of Jesus – and at the same time, acting like we are already living in that kingdom is a choice we make every day.
This is good news. So let every person and every tribe, in every language under the sun, in every corner of the earth, sing to the Lord a new song.