Danny Quanstrom | Pastor, Hastings Church of the Nazarene
This Psalm is either an undisputed Davidic Psalm or is blatant plagiarism! Seriously. Without explicit authorship or references, Psalm 96 would certainly not be published today. It is taken directly from 1 Chronicles 16. Take a look at Psalm 96 (left) paired next to 1 Chronicles 16:23-34 (right). The differences between the psalms are in bold.
In order for us to employ this passage for today we have to peel back a few layers; we need to see how this Psalm functioned in 1 Chronicles, see how it function in Psalm 96, then how it fits into our Christmas Eve celebrations.
How this Psalm functions in 1 Chronicles.
To see how this Psalm originally functioned you need to go back multiple chapters in 1 Chronicles; to understand the narrative of David’s kingly ascent. Chronicles is often a difficult read as it is filled with genealogies and lists of names that are tediously foreign. But the general storyline goes something like this:
King Saul is overtaken by the Philistines. In order to avoid torture by the “uncircumcised” Saul, his sword-bearers, and 3 sons all kill themselves. Saul is declared unfaithful. (chapter 10)
David is anointed as King over Israel at Hebron, NOT Jerusalem. Jerusalem was under Jebusite control. David and his warriors march on Jerusalem taking the city renaming it “The City of David.” (Chapter 11)
All Israelite peoples – even those in wilderness and those once loyal to Saul – pledge allegiance to David as King. (Chapter 12)
David calls the the ark of the covenant to be brought back into the people but Uzzah is struck dead when he touches the ark. David doesn’t bring the ark back into the City of David out of fear. (Chapter 13)
David is then established as King over Jerusalem. The Philistines don’t like this… They plot to besiege the city. The Philistine raid is thwarted and David strikes them down. (Chapter 14)
Once established as king and with foreign armies defeated, David calls for the ark to be brought into Jerusalem. Only Levites were to carry the ark. (Chapter 15)
The ark was established in the City of David and placed in a special tent pitched for it. With the establishment of the ark David offers a Psalm of thanksgiving; the Psalm that will be recorded in Psalm 96 (Chapter 16)
This (incredibly abridged) history gives us important context. This Psalm was originally given as thanksgiving to YHWH for establishing David as King over Israel and for keeping the Hebrew covenant. The ark served as this ultimate symbol of YHWH’s blessing and favor. It is the ark of the COVENANT, after all.
This Psalm, then, serves as thanksgiving for the establishment of the Davidic Kingdom; a season of prosperity and peace in Israel’s history. This Psalm serves as an acknowledgement of YHWH’s glory and worthiness to be praised; as evidenced by the establishment of this kingdom. This will be a time longed for by future generations.
How this Psalm Functions in Psalm 96
It could very well be that the editor of the Psalms was simply compiling Davidic Psalms and included this one from 1 Chronicles. This is simply a retelling of David’s celebratory Psalm about YHWH’s reception of the Davidic Kingdom.
I’m not inclined towards this. If you look at the record in Psalm 96 there are some important literary distinctions. First worth noting is the introductory line: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” This line appears a few other times in Scripture, notably Christmas Day’s Psalm 98 about the judgment of God. It shows up earlier in Psalm 40. It will appear again in Isaiah 42:10. Then in the New Testament we see it in Revelation 5:9 and 14:3.
This singing a new song carries with it connotations of judgment and eschatological deliverance.
Connected with this future deliverance, Psalm 96 edits the Chronicles’ version in slight, but important, ways; it includes the phrase “ He will judge the peoples with equity” and changes the ending from “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever” to “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” This changes the Psalm from mere thanksgiving to eschatological judgment.
Note also the change in tense. What was present tense in Chronicles is now future tense in Psalm 96. “He comes” changes to “He is coming.”
This leads me to believe that this Psalm was recomposed at a later time in Israel’s history as a way to remember the favor YHWH showed with the Davidic Kingdom with the anticipation of a day when that Kingdom will be reestablished; perhaps with eschatological and eternal import.
Why Psalm 96 on Christmas Eve
The above context is important in our understanding why this Psalm is appropriate for Christmas Eve. We need to recognize that this Psalm originally served as a recognition of God’s favor on the Israelites with the establishment of the Davidic Kingdom. Then in Psalm 96 the focus shifts from present favor to future deliverance.
On Christmas eve we also read from Luke 2; a passage I can’t help but hear spoken in King James’ English by Linus. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Psalm 96 celebrates the establishment of the City of David. On this night we celebrate the birth of Christ in the city of David. As we all know, there is this obvious connection between David and Christ. Not only is Christ born in the City of David, but he comes to establish a Kingdom. His Kingdom will be misunderstood. Many will think Christ came to reestablish David’s glory. Christ comes to bring the glory of God in full.
The reading of this Psalm on Christmas Eve is a brilliant choice by the lectionary composers. This Psalm connects us to God’s historic faithfulness; from the creation of the heavens and the earth, from the establishing of God’s people through the Abrahamic covenant, from the giving of the commandments through Moses, from setting up the Davidic Kingdom to the coming of Christ in the city of David as a sign that God has established his eternal Kingdom! Christ comes and brings about the once anticipated Kingdom; only it’s not just a Kingdom for Jerusalem or Israel – like the Davidic Kingdom; it’s not just a Kingdom of the present, but is an eternal eschatological Kingdom breaking into our present.
All of this is realized through the birth of the Christ child.
For this we say with the Psalmist:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice