Sing to the Lord a New Song


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.
Honour 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.

[Psalm 96]


Angels Singing and Playing Music (detail), Jan Van Eyck, 1432.

Cantate Domino canticum novum.” It is a Latin phrase that translates several Bible passages, but most particularly the beginnings of two Psalms (96 and 98), one of which is today’s scripture passage: Sing to the Lord a new song.

But what did it mean to the ancient Hebrews to sing to Yahweh a new song? The Jews of ancient times did not share our modern popular culture’s obsession with novelty. After all, one of their most significant acts of worship preserves a ritual meal that recalls God’s act of freeing His people from bondage in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. I am sure they were not interested in a musical version of Psalm 96 (or any of the other “Cantate Domino” passages) that was new just for the sake of being new, and which would be forgotten next week or next month when another rendition of “Cantate Domino” hit the charts.

But they were concerned, I believe, with saying or singing their Psalms with feeling – not simply reciting them mechanically by rote. Doing so brought a sense of newness they could prize, even while singing the same old words to the same old melody. You have to sing as if you are just making it up on the spot, as if it is a fresh thought that just came to you.

This should be especially true for us today when this passage from Psalm 96 is used as an Advent reading. As we read it (or sing it!), do we capture its joy and exultation? Reflecting upon it, I have been struck by the exuberance of the closing verses (11-13), where

the heavens are glad,

the earth rejoices,

the sea roars,

the field exults,

and the trees of the forest sing for joy,

for Christ “is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.  He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.”

He is coming! Let’s join with all creation in singing for joy!

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