The Meaning of the Term “New Song” - Rev. Dr. R. Dean Anderson

A short excerpt from SINGING IN THE CORPORATE WORSHIP OF THE CHURCH


The term “new song” is used seven times in the Old Testament (Pss 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; and Isa 42:10) and twice in the New Testament (Rev 5:9; 14:3).

What significance does this term have for the content of singing in public worship?

The term in the psalms occurs in two distinct contexts; i) as an appeal that the LORD enable the
psalmist to sing a new song, and ii) as an imperatival shout calling one and all to sing a (this?) new song. On examining these usages more closely we shall see that the term “new song” is used to refer to the replacement of a cry for help (when afflicted by enemies) by the proclamation of the LORD’s victory and consequent praise.

When we turn to Ps 40 we immediately encounter a problem of interpretation, namely, how this psalm should be divided. It is clear that there are two principle divisions. The psalm begins with thankfulness to God for a certain deliverance.53

Yet at a particular point the psalmist moves over to a new difficulty in which he needs a further deliverance from the Lord (vs.12ff). Where precisely should this division be made? The latest possibility would be at v.12 (as, e.g., J. Ridderbos), but it should probably be earlier.

At least v.9 seems quite clearly to be referring to the foregoing proclamation of the Lord’s deliverance and goodness. This then forms the basis of the new cry for help (cf. v.11).54

In any event the precise division of the psalm is of no relevance to the meaning of the term “new song” here. The term appears in v.3 as part of a series of parallelisms in the first three verses. They appear as follows:

he inclined to me / heard my cry
out of the pit of destruction / out of the miry clay
set my feet upon a rock / making my footsteps firm
a new song in my mouth / a song of praise to our God

Thus “new song” is equivalent to a “song of praise” (tehillah). That God put a new song in the mouth of the psalmist is a poetic way of saying that he changed the song of lamentation (and thus cry for help) into a song of praise and thankfulness, cf. Ps 30:11.

Ps 33 is a psalm which calls upon the Levitical singers and instrumentalists to sing a new song to the LORD (vs. 1-3). The ensuing verses motivate this call by speaking of the righteousness, power and lovingkindness of the LORD, particularly in granting deliverance from the enemies of Israel (peoples around about v.10).

We may posit that this psalm was sung by the king after a military victory. The use of the first person plural in verses 20-22 suggests that at this point Levitical choir sings in acceptance of the summons to praise God with a new victory song. The old song of lament and cry for help is no longer necessary.

In this connection it is important to note that vs. 10, 13-14, 20a, and 21b should be translated in the perfect tense (as they are in Hebrew).55 The psalmist is recording what God at a particular point in time has done and is not in these verses concerned with habitual characteristics of God.

Pss 96 and 98 fall into a group of nine psalms collected together (pss 91-99) of which the last eight (pss 92-99) celebrate the military victories over Israel’s enemies, and thus the kingship of Yahweh over the nations.56

In this context it is therefore not surprising that two of these psalms begin with the acclamation
“Sing to the LORD a new song.” His deliverance is celebrated. The plaintive entreaties have been answered. Therefore a new (kind of) song is called for, namely, a victory psalm of praise.

Again the context of Ps 149 is the praise of Yahweh for military (cf. v.6ff) deliverance from affliction (v.4b) caused by the nations (v.7ff). Thus again His kingship is celebrated (v.2b) and a new (kind of) song is sung.

The same is true of Ps 144. Here the Psalmist is in need of the Lord’s help to win a battle (cf. v.1) against his enemies (vs. 7-8, 11). He asks the Lord to rescue him and implores the Lord that he might be able to sing a new song to Him (note the cohortative form, lit. “oh let me sing”). The implication is that ifthe Lord does indeed grant salvation (v.10) then David will be able to sing a new song, i.e., a song of praise instead of a cry for help.

Isa 42:10-13 has many points of contact with the group of psalms 92-99 and should probably be
considered another example of the same genre. It again celebrates Yahweh’s victory over Israel’s enemies, and is thus in form a new song (i.e., a song of praise for deliverance).57

It is interesting to note that the book of Revelation uses the term “new song” in precisely the same way as the Old Testament. In Rev 5 there is first weeping because no one is found worthy to open the book and to break its seals. But then the Lamb appears who has overcome and is thus worthy to break the seals. This is the reason for the new song of vs. 9-10. Again, the point of the term “new song” is to indicate a change in mood: no longer weeping, but celebration that the Lamb is indeed worthy.

In Rev 14 the 144,000 are pictured in heaven (lit. on Mt Zion, note also that they are standing before the four living creatures and the elders who are placed in the throne room of heaven, chaps 4-5) singing a new song. The 144,000 were those sealed on their foreheads by an angel (7:2ff) as followers of the Lamb to be purchased by Him (14:4-5). They are the martyrs. Already in 6:9-11 we read of the cry for vengeance of some of them who are told to wait until their number is complete.

Thus when they finally all stand in the throne room of God in chapter 14, they are enabled to sing a new song (i.e., a new kind of song), a song which nobody but they are able to learn. They have the victory through the Lamb.

Judgment and vengeance upon the worshippers of the beast is to follow (14:6-11). Their plea for vengeance has been changed into a song of victory.58

As far as the biblical usage of the term “new song” is concerned, there are therefore no direct
implications for the question of (prophetic) psalmody. The presence of the term indicates the singing of a new kind of song in a particular context. It does not in and of itself designate a new literary production as such.

53 Probably caused by enemies, cf. v.4 & N. H. Ridderbos, n.d., Psalmen, 433, J. Ridderbos, 1955, Psalmen, 1.349.

54 Many commentators (e.g., N. H. Ridderbos, NASB) hold that the second division begins already at v.6. This is because they see vs. 1-3 as the original thanksgiving for a past deliverance, and then vs. 4-5 as the “new song“ mentioned in v.3. At v.6 the sphere seems to change. It is more personal, unrelated to the song of thankfulness. But it is also direct address to God, and therefore not a resumption of the third person reference to God of vs. 1-3. Therefore it is considered that the second part begins here.

It seems unlikely to me that vs. 4-5 form the content of the new song. There is also the problem that the addressee in v.4 is different to that in v.5. Furthermore, there is no indication in the text that such a song is to follow (contrast Ps 78:1-4). Possibly the whole first section of the psalm could be seen as the new song (J. Ridderbos, 1955, Psalmen, 1.351), but the term is not necessarily referring to a particular song anyway (see below).

There is, however, another possibility. A division can also be made on the basis of addressee. Then vs. 1-4 would form the first unit (third person reference to God). The content of the “new song“ would not be indicated. In v.5 a prayer begins (here God is addressed directly). It is still basically a prayer of thankfulness connected to the deliverance of vs. 1-4. In v.9 a new section clearly begins where David reminds the Lord that he has indeed proclaimed God’s righteousness (i.e., deliverance) to the people of God (the great congregation) as witnessed in the preceding verses—note the plurals in v.3 (“our God,“ “many“), v.5 (“toward us“).

55 The NASB (as more frequently in the psalms) is incorrect here.

56 See R. D. Anderson, 1994, “Division,“ 27-29.

57 I do not discuss here the purpose of Isaiah’s placement of an otherwise unknown psalm within his prophecies at this point, cf. my discussion of the origin of the Psalter.

58 It is interesting to note that a large portion of the text witness here reads “as if a new song.“