1: “O sing unto YHWH a new song!” — The use of this verse as a slogan in the “worship wars” is highly ironic, since Psalm 98 is itself a cento, a poem composed almost entirely of snippets of other poems. And this opening line itself is a formula used also in Isaiah 42:10, and in two other Psalms (96:1 and 149:1).
2: God’s salvation (יְשׁוּעָתוֹ) and his righteousness (צִדְקָתוֹ) are synonymous by the poetic structure of this verse.
Verse 2 develops the initial idea of God’s victory from verse 1 by placing that victory in the context of what I call “covenant theatre”. It is a matter of God’s covenant-faithfulness, his righteousness, that he rescues his people and gives them victory over their enemies. This always involves public action on God’s part. That is why, when he does not save, his people are “put to shame” (cf. Ps. 44:9-19). I am reminded of Andrew Perriman’s excellent statement from The Future of the People of God, asserting that the definition of “God’s righteousness” is not any different in Paul’s letters from the definition at work here in Ps. 98:
“When Paul speaks of the “righteousness of God,” what he has in mind is not an abstract ethical quality which might, for example, be imputed or transferred to the unrighteous, but divine action at critical moments in the history of his people, in keeping with contextually appropriate commitments, interpreted with reference to paradigmatic biblical narratives, by which the God of Israel is publicly vindicated, shown to be in the right”
This keeping of his covenant promises is described as “winning a victory” (הוֹשִׁיעָה) by God’s strength (“right hand…holy arm”). In covenant history, this victory turns out to be the end of the exile as described in Isaiah 62. It also includes the sending of the Messiah in Luke 3:6 (“And all flesh shall see the salvation of God”), in which the words of Isaiah 52:10 (“The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”) are applied to John the Baptist’s announcement of Christ.
3: Structurally, 2a is parallel with 3a:
“The Lord has made known his salvation” (2a)
“He has remembered his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (3a)
And 2b is parallel with 3b:
“His righteousness he has revealed in the sight of the nations” (2b)
“All the ends of earth have seen the salvation of our God.” (3b)
Thus both verses move from what God has publicly done to the consequent beholding of His deeds by the nations in the “covenant theatre”.
4: By calling upon “all the earth” (כָּל־הָאָרֶץ) to “shout joyfully”, the psalmist is able to play upon the ambiguities of the word הָאָרֶץ, which may mean metonymically “the inhabitants of the world” (as in vss. 4-6) or else “the physical features of the world” (as in vss. 7-9).
4b uses triple synonyms: פִּצְחוּ וְרַנְּנוּ וְזַמֵּרוּ — “break forth in song, and rejoice, and sing praises”.
4-5: These verses are woven together using a “terrace” pattern (cf. W. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 208) in which each new clause begins with a catchword that ended the preceding clause:
Burst forth in song and sing (וְזַמֵּרוּ);
Sing (זַמְּרוּ) to the Lord with the lyre (בְּכִנּוֹר);
With the lyre (בְּכִנּוֹר) and the voice of a song.
Yet despite such tightly knit composition, verse 5 is also bound with 6 by another device. To wit…
5-6: These verses are in a chiastic ABBA order, with the verbs (“Sing to the Lord…shout joyfully before the Lord, the King”) bookending a list of the musical instruments by which this song is to be accompanied.
7-8: The actions proper to the inhabitants of be world (roaring, clapping hands, and being joyful) are transferred to the personified physical features of the earth: the sea, rivers, and hills. We are reminded of Jesus’ answer to the indignant Pharisees at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “I tell you that if these [inhabitants] should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.”
9: The poem ends with the joyful expectation of the eschatological reign of YHWH that dawns when He comes “to judge” the earth or the habitable world (הָאָרֶץ/תֵּבֵל). This expectation of the “coming” of YHWH will turn out to be fulfilled in Jesus, so that Paul preaches precisely the same idea in his Acts 17 sermon (“[God] has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained”).
98:9 is identical to 96:13. Both are the last verses of their respective psalms, leaving the worshiping Israelite to finish with a joyful hope in the victorious reign of Israel’s God.