“… we hear them telling in our own tongues
the mighty works of God.”
(Acts 2:11; Deuteronomy 11:2 RSV)
Sometimes, in the course of a single psalm, the psalmist speaks in more than one tongue. Psalm 98 belongs to a bundle of like-minded songs in which God is seen as a King (see Psalms 93-99). The opening lines are proclaimed through the language of Israel’s story, a tongue frequently spoken in the Psalms. (See Psalms 74, 77, 105, 106, 107.)
Sing to the Lord a new song,
the Lord of wonderful deeds.
Right hand and holy arm
brought victory to God.
God made that victory known,
revealed justice to nations,
remembered a merciful love
loyal to the house of Israel.
(Psalm 98:1-3 ICEL)
This is Exodus-talk: wonderful deeds; right hand and holy arm; a merciful love loyal to the house of Israel. (See “The Song of Moses” in Exodus 15; Psalms 135, 136.)
Music-making is another favourite tongue in the psalms, another way of praying: wind and string, fingers and feet – “Down there for dancing!” – and, of course, the human voice. (Psalms 68:25-28; 126; 137; 150) “Who sings, prays twice!” says St Augustine (354-430 AD).
Sing praise to God with a harp,
with a harp and sound of music.
With sound of trumpet and horn,
shout to the Lord, our king. (Psalm 98:5-6 ICEL)
Long before Augustine, another north African had written, “The whole creation prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray, and bend their knees, and in coming forth from their stalls and lairs look up to heaven, their mouths not idle, making the spirit move in their own fashion….and the birds spread out the cross of their wings.” (Tertullian 160-220 AD) In Psalm 98 also, the creatures of the world speak “in their own fashion.” Creation’s tongue!
Let the sea roar with its creatures,
the world and all that live there!
Let rivers clap their hands,
the hills ring out their joy! (Psalm 98:7-8 ICEL)
A powerful tongue, whatever it might sound like! (Psalms 77:17-18; 96:11-12; 148:7-10)
You may be puzzled by the translation I am using; a strongly inclusive version produced in 1994 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. (ICEL) The effort to avoid the gender bias of some personal pronouns and other common usages, particularly in the English language, has produced a poetry of short staccato phrases that well matches the muscular idiom of the original Hebrew psalms. Psalm 98 in yet another tongue.
In all of this we go attentively. At Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-11) St Paul concludes his list of spiritual gifts: to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. The Spirit helps us, both in speaking and in hearing. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)