There are some psalms that we as Christians can easily transfer from their Old Testament backgrounds into a New Testament situation. Psalm 23 is an obvious example and we see in it so many truths regarding the way Jesus cares for his people. But there are psalms that we may find it hard to understand because of their calls for war or for destruction of one’s enemies. There are some verses in this psalm that we may wonder about when they call worshippers to put on weapons of war and fight against God’s enemies.
As we can see from the first verse, the composer of the psalm is exhorting God’s people to meet together to praise him. In the original setting the individual may have been a temple official urging the gathered crowds to participate in God’s worship, perhaps on one of the great feast days of Old Testament Israel.
The psalmist mentions the importance of new songs. I don’t think the psalmist was suggesting that on each occasion when worship takes place new songs only should be used. He could have been calling on the people to sing this psalm, which he had just composed perhaps. But if he meant that, then it would not be a new song in this sense for long. So I suspect he means that the songs should new in the sense of being fresh in our experience. We all know what it is like to have stale worship, even when the most profound of songs is used. How often have we sung the wonderful words of Psalm 23 without experiencing a sense of the care of the Good Shepherd! An amazing feature of the psalms is that they can be fresh in our hearts because they are part of God’s Word.
In verses 2-4, the psalmist expands his concept of worship and mentions that God is their Maker and of King. While it is possible that he is referring to God as the creator when describing him as Maker, it is more likely that the psalmist is thinking of God as the maker of the nation of Israel.
In addition to mentioning their origins, the psalmist also reveals why they had remained in existence, and the reason was that the Lord was their king. In fulfilment of this role, God had given a structure for life (his commandments), defence from enemies, and restoration when they repented of their departures from him. So we can see that there were many reasons for Israel rejoicing in their God.
The psalmist therefore urges the Israelites to engage in dancing and in making music. It looks as if he is asking those who use his psalm to imitate what the children of Israel did on the shores of the Red Sea after their Lord had defeated the Egyptians. On that occasion, Miriam had led the female Israelites in dancing and in making music before the Lord. Another occasion that marked such dancing was when David returned in triumph from warfare. The fact that the psalmist calls for such practices indicates that it was common for Israelites to engage in dancing and in making music when they worshipped the Lord.
Moreover, their joy would increase when they recalled how the Lord responds to them. God takes pleasure in his people, they mean something to him that nothing else in the whole creation can provide. But what does it mean for God to be pleased? It means far more than enjoying an experience. When monarchs in the ancient world were pleased with their subjects, they bestowed something on them, perhaps lands or riches. Our God adorns the humble with salvation, and what greater riches or blessings could be given? This is the story of the Christian life, and it will climax in the beauty that God will give to all of them when they are in his presence after the resurrection.
The psalmist then depicts God’s people as a victorious army. We know this was the case literally in the history of Israel (perhaps the march into battle that was led by Jehoshaphat comes to mind). We are reminded here that God's kingdom is engaged in a warfare in which his army will triumph, and we know from the New Testament that we wage war against the powers of darkness through the spread of the gospel.