Psalm 96 is a call to sing, and it gives us clear explanation of why we are supposed to sing. As we have already seen, the very structure of the psalm gives both calls to sing and reasons for that singing.
So what, then, are the reasons David gives for singing to the Lord?
Worthiness of God
First, we sing because of the worthiness of God. He is worthy of the kinds of expressions described here.
Why is he worthy? Well, his very nature and character are worthy. He is great, and therefore he deserves praise (verse 4). In fact, the pagan gods are worthless compared to him (verse 5) Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary (verse 6). Glory and strength are due his name (verse 8). He is righteous and faithful (verse 13). In other words, God is great, he is majestic, he is glorious and strong, he is righteous and faithful, and therefore he deserves expressions of praise, adoration, fear, trembling, and rejoicing.
But not only is God’s nature and character worthy, he is also worthy because of what he has done, and David lists many of God’s “marvelous works” (verse 3) in this psalm. He saved us (verse 2). He made the heavens (verse 5). He is coming to judge the earth (verse 13). Each of these acts of God deserves our response, and so David proclaims such a response.
But there is also another profound reason we sing beyond the worthiness of God, and it is also at the core of the progression of thought in this psalm. According to David, this singing is not supposed to take place just in isolated conclaves of God’s people. Rather, singing is supposed to take place, according to verse 3, “among the nations … among all the peoples.”
Why? Isn’t it true that this singing is only for the redeemed people of God? Is it not true that only God’s people can worship him? Is it not true that this singing is to God and for God?
Yes, that is true. Only the redeemed people of God can sing these kinds of things, and the primarily audience of this singing is God. But we are to do so among unbelieving peoples. Why?
Well, the reason we are to sing among the nations is not stated in this psalm overtly, but it is expressed by means of the psalm’s development through its three stanzas.
By the way, just as a side note, this is also the mark of a good hymn. A good hymn is not just a loosely connected, disorganized smattering of expressions of worship and theological ideas. A good hymn is carefully composed in such a way that its central ideas aren’t necessarily stated directly in simple propositions but are developed through the course of the hymn, giving what it says richness and depth able to rightly express profound, deep things of God.
So how does this psalm develop through the three stanzas? Notice that this command in the first stanza to sing among the nations and among all the peoples progresses into the second stanza where the command to ascribe glory to the Lord to given to all “the families of the peoples.” There is an expansion from the people of God alone singing to him among the nations to all the nations ascribing glory to him. It progresses from one singular people of God singing his praises to all the peoples of the earth. How does that happen?
It happens because, as God’s people sing to him among the nations—as they bless his name, as they tell of his salvation, as they declare his glory—this serves as a powerful witness to the unbelieving people of the world. It leads to those same people joining in with the praise.
You see, there is nothing more evangelistic than God-centered worship in which we bless his name, we magnify his glory, we delight in his splendor, and we recount his works of creation and salvation.
And notice that this kind of singing in worship is a powerful witness without changing what we sing or how we sing in order to attract or appeal to the unbelievers. In fact, this song explicitly calls the pagan gods worthless—that doesn’t sound very seeker sensitive to me!
No, what is the greatest witness to the unbelieving world is when we faithfully recite the works of the Lord in our worship and respond rightly with our hearts, expressing these things verbally through singing.
So, according to Psalm 96, we sing in worship because it helps us express appropriate heart affection toward God in response to the worthiness of his character and works, which both glorifies him and is a powerful witness to the unbelieving world.