In his book Reflections on the Psalms, C S Lewis comments on the joy and delight in God that we encounter whenever we turn to the psalms. He uses the word ‘gusto’ to capture the zestful mood in which the psalmists worshipped God and urged others to do so.1 One commentator writes:
The psalmists praised God with sensuous abandon … “Sing for joy! Shout aloud!” they command. Musical instruments … included cymbals, tambourines, trumpets, rams’ horns, harps and lyres … The world, in the psalmist’s imagination, cannot contain the delight God inspires. A new song breaks out: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth; burst into jubilant song” (98: 4). Nature itself joins in: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains sing together for joy” (98: 8) … Praise, for them, was joy expressing itself in song and speech, an “inner health made audible.”2
Psalm 98 is one such psalm. In verses 1–3, the mighty deeds of God as Saviour are in view. Then the nations are invited to join in celebrating God’s reign as King: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” (Psalm 98:4). The expression break forth suggests such a spontaneous outburst of delight in God that it cannot be contained. There is also a call for instrumental accompaniment, with both stringed and brass instruments:
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! (Psalm 98:5–6)
In verses 7–9, the final section of the psalm, all of creation is invited to join in celebrating God:
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before theLord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
The reason for all creation’s rejoicing lies yet in the future. Verse 9 implicitly recognizes that the creation is somehow marred, or out of joint; no longer does it perfectly reflect the glory of God. Anyone who has seen David Attenborough’s nature documentaries will have noticed, for instance, the predatory behaviour of some carnivorous animals. Nature as we know it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ The Apostle Paul describes the creation in its present state as being in “bondage to corruption” and “groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:21–22).
But the psalmist finds comfort and joy in the knowledge that “the Lord … comes to judge the earth … with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:9). God is to be praised not only for the marvellous things He has done but also for what He is coming to do. His righteous reign will be a welcome relief for a creation that has suffered the tragic consequences of human sin and rebellion.
He will also judge the peoples with equity. In the ancient world, many who were powerless and lacking in influence couldn’t get their cases heard in court unless they bribed the judge (and maybe one or two of his cronies). But when God comes to judge, wrongs will be made right; victims of injustice will have redress. In the words of the seventeenth-century English poet John Milton, ‘Paradise Lost’ will become ‘Paradise Regained’.
C S Lewis’s famous children’s novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, picks up this theme. Narnia is under the power of the White Witch, who has kept the land frozen in perpetual winter. Spring never comes. But when the great lion Aslan returns after a long absence, things begin to change. After sacrificing himself to spare the life of one of the children, Aslan rises from the dead. The ice begins to melt, flowers come into bloom, and the trees grow leaves. The White Witch and all her forces are eventually defeated in battle, and the children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia.
The restoration of nature that Lewis describes is no storybook fantasy. The creation will be transformed: the rivers will clap their hands, and all heaven and nature will sing. The hills will be alive with the sound of music!
Now I can hear the skeptic say, “That’s all well and good, but that’s not the world I live in. Aren’t you Christians just whistling in the dark?”
Good question! Let me take you back to Paul’s famous address to the intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:22–34). Taking as his starting point an altar with the inscription AGNOSTO THEO (“to an unknown God”), Paul tells them in polite language that they are ignorant idolaters. Then he tells them of the God who has revealed Himself in creation and providence—the very God whose offspring all human beings are. He concludes by affirming:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:30–31).
Paul sets forth the Resurrection of Jesus—one of the best-attested events in ancient history—as the assurance that there will be an accounting, and it will involve every one of us. No, Mr. Skeptic, Christians are not whistling in the dark when they affirm what the psalmist celebrates: namely, that the Lord “will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:9).
The psalmist lives in faith between God’s mighty deeds in the past and the promise of God’s righteous reign on earth in the future—a reign in which all creation will rejoice. This is our calling as well—to live in faith between God’s great saving act through Christ and the certain hope of Christ’s return to establish His kingdom in all its fullness. Now that is surely something worth celebrating—and worth living for!