A Short Psalm with a Big Passion (Psalm 117:1–2)

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We might call Psalm 117 the Baby Jake1 Psalm: It’s small but it packs a punch! As Derek Kidner notes, “This tiny psalm is great in faith, and its reach is enormous.”2

It is the shortest of the psalms and the shortest chapter in the Bible. It is also, by some reckonings, the middle chapter of the Bible. Remarkably, this chapter sums up the entire corpus of the 66 books of the Bible: praise to God for so great salvation.

The psalm can be divided into three sections.

The Universal Command

Verse 1 is both a command and a prophecy: “Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples!”

This psalm can be properly labelled universal as far as its scope. Though there is obviously an unbiblical and even heretical universalism (which teaches that everyone will be saved), nevertheless this short psalm does envision the universal conquest of the gospel. It is for this reason that the writer anticipates and admonishes all the nations to praise the Lord.

Of course, this psalm is the penultimate of the “Hallel Psalms” (Psalms 113–118), which attended the Jewish feast of Passover. We will come back to this point later.

Most commentators date this psalm as postexilic. If that is the case, then this adds an interesting note to the song. After all, having been in exile for so long, the Jews would have rubbed shoulders very closely with Gentile peoples. Some of those in exile, of course, had had a profound effect upon some of these peoples. Think, for instance, of Daniel and his three friends, as well as Mordecai and Esther.

As we have seen in our study of Ephesians 2, throughout the centuries there was much perverse hostility between Jew and Gentile. Not a small amount of this was contributed and provoked by the Jews.

Yet this psalm reminds us that, throughout history, there were also Jewish people who defied the majority as they focused on the faithfulness of God and His universal promise to bless all the nations through Israel (Genesis 12:1–3). Whoever wrote this psalm was of that ilk. Leupold agrees as he writes,

This psalm manifests a breadth of outlook and a depth of insight that is amazing. It seems that Israel never forgot its mission to be the mediator of saving truth to the other nations on the face of earth. At times this mission became submerged. Sometimes it was more clearly set forth. Our psalm is one of the outstanding instances of the latter type.3

It will be helpful at this point to pause a moment before the exposition to note the principle that God blesses people in order for them to be a blessing. “Blessed to be a blessing” is a wonderful motto by which we should both live and give.

Sinfully, and therefore sadly, the nation of Israel largely lost sight of this reality. Because she failed in her stewardship of the gospel blessings, she lost her stewardship (Matthew 21:42–44). It was taken from her. If only they had taken to heart the words of this short song, perhaps they would not have been so negligent of their privileged responsibility. Perhaps they would not have been so sinfully ethnocentric.

Recently, our church joined thousands of churches across the world on one Sunday in congregationally singing a missions-themed hymn titled Facing a Task Unfinished. I trust that, having done so, we will take the words of that song seriously. The lyrics are very much in line with the burden of Psalm 117.

The nations, as yet, are not joining as they should in praise and laud to the Lord. Yet we have the scriptural encouragement that, one day, they will (Revelation 5:9; 7:9–10).

As local churches, we face the same temptation as Israel didlong ago: the temptation to be irresponsible stewards of gospel blessings. With our World Outreach Celebration just around the corner, this psalm is of particular relevance to us as a congregation. Will we merely sing this psalm, or will we serve and send and sacrifice in order to see it fulfilled? It will come to pass. May we have a large part in seeing this yet unfinished task come to glorious completion.

It is estimated that some 4,300 local churches joined together to sing this missions hymn. That is wonderful, yet there is much more work to be done. And when it is completed—when the task is finished—we will join hands with peoples from every people group around the throne of the Lord to praise Him for “His merciful kindness … toward us” (v. 2). Perhaps we will sing a version of Psalm 117.

“Praise the Lord” is a translation of the Hebrew word from which we derive our English word “hallelujah.” This is to be a universal response to God.

What follows from this opening exhortation perhaps would be surprising for some who had narrowed their focus to us-four-and-no-more.

“Gentiles” is a reference to the nations—non-Jewish nations. All the nations, each on of them, must be brought to praise the Lord with Israel.

These Hallel Psalms were to be sung by the Jews. They still are in some Jewish circles. Yet most had missed the point; they had missed the message. Again, this is a missionary message. Boice says, “This is a profound missionary psalm, for it is calling on people everywhere to praise God.”4

The word “laud” literally means “to soothe with praises.” The root word applies to the calming of turbulent waters. This provides a word picture of God’s wrath towards ungodly peoples being soothed or assuaged; and, of course, the means of such assuaging is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, who endured that wrath on our behalf.

“Peoples” is another word for the Gentiles (see Genesis 25:16; Numbers 25:15).

It may be helpful to consider that this psalm is quoted many hundreds of years later in the New Testament by the apostle Paul. In writing to the church at Rome, Paul exhorts the believers there to “receive one another” (15:7) in the face of cultural and preferential differences. He reinforces his exhortation for considerate and practical unity by the quotation of several Old Testament texts (Psalm 18:49 in v. 9; Deuteronomy 32:43 in v. 10; Isaiah 11:10 in v. 11). In v. 11, Paul quotes Psalm 117:1. This is significant, for it undergirds the thesis that Paul understood the missionary nature of the Jewish nation. This is clear from Romans 15:7–8 where he speaks of Jesus coming through and for the Jews for the wider purpose of saving the nations (v. 9a).

Paul, who was a self-confessed Pharisee of Pharisees, was called to be a missionary of missionaries to the nations. And clearly Psalm 117 was a motivational means towards that end.

This command is prophetic, and like all of God’s prophecies, it will be fulfilled. We should be encouraged by this psalm to have both great appreciation concerning what God has done and great expectations of what God will yet do. Kidner so helpfully captures the spirit of this psalm: “In singing this song, we too are challenged not to measure God’s Kingship by His ‘little flock,’ not to accept the idea that different peoples have a right to different faiths.”5

But further, in addition to great anticipation, and great expectation, we should also commit to great participation in singing and in seeing this psalm come to pass.

Let me pause to make some important observations before moving on.

First, let us be convinced that missions matters. Missions matters because worship of the one true God matters. All nations need to be brought to worship the true God. Missions is indeed what true worship wars are all about.

This is why, at our church, our annual World Outreach Celebration (missions conference) is the highlight of our church calendar. We want to impress continually on our own hearts the importance of the local church being obedient to the Great Commission.

Second, let us understand what it will take for the nations to obey the command.

It will take supplication (Matthew 9:37–38). We must pray that the Lord of the harvest will send labourers into His field. This means that it will take a passion for God. This is not to be merely a project; it is to be a God-centred passion.

It will take serving. We will never be effective as a church on the mission field if we are not actively making disciples at home. An outreach ministry will only be as strong as its home base. We must, therefore, be committed to being equipped for the work of the ministry at home (Ephesians 4:11–16) if we will make a difference on the field.

It will take sending—and not just anyone, but our best. I dearly miss the ministry of the missionaries that we have sent to the field over the years. Our church has felt it, but it is important that we send our best where God wants them sent—even if the best happen to be our own children.

It will take sacrifice in order to supply the labourers. As noted above, the church always feels it when it sends its best to the field, but the sacrifice is worth it because the Lord Jesus is worth it.

In the end, it will take faith—and this, as we will see, is what v. 2 provides.

Kirkpatrick summarises it well when he writes of v. 1, “Its invitation to all nations to join in praising Jehovah for His goodness to Israel is virtually a recognition that the ultimate object of Israel’s calling was the salvation of the world.”6 I concur.

So, why did Israel lose sight of this? Because she took her privileges for granted. She became consumed with her blessings rather than with the one who provided them.

This is important to understand, because this is the very reason why we lose sight of and passion for God’s passion. And this has dire consequences, for we end up getting pretty much what we see today in evangelicalism: self-absorbed living.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the carefree—even careless—attitude of many who are church members when it comes to gathering and serving. We hear all manner of excuses as to why people can’t serve: they are “too busy”; their kids are too tired; they are too tired; someone hurt their feelings; etc.

Let us make sure that we are guarding our hearts and seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. That is a sure way for passionate and productive Christian living. And I might add that is the ultimate object of the church: to be the means that God uses to save the world for His everlasting glory.

The Unshakeable Cause

In v. 2a, the psalmist shows us that the unshakeable cause of the nations coming to worship Yahweh is His unbreakable covenant: “For His merciful kindness is great toward us, and the truth of the LORD endures forever.”

“Merciful kindness” translates the Hebrew word chesed. It speaks of God’s steadfast love, His covenantal love, which is undergirded by the statement that follows: “and the truth [faithfulness] of the LORD endures forever.” It is because God is true to His Word that He is esteemed and exalted as being faithful.

The phrase “is great toward us” is rich with meaning.

The word translated “great” is often translated in the Old Testament as “prevails.” It carries the meaning of being “vigorous” and is used sometimes in the context of the stronger side of the battle. In other words, the idea here is that God’s lovingkindness perseveres; it overcomes opposition and obstacles; it accomplishes its purpose. And therefore the nations should praise God for it.

Boice comments: “The Egyptian Hallel would have focused their thoughts on the greatness of the love of God that had preserved them as a nation in spite of their great sin.”7 In the face of great obstacles and opposition to God’s purposes and God’s people, the Lord nevertheless prevailed. He always does. He always saves His people. Kirkpatrick captures the meaning of this phrase well when he writes, “Mighty as Israel’s transgressions have been, God’s mercy has been mightier.”8 The truth of this statement is borne out in several texts in Scripture:

Psalm 65:3—Iniquities prevail against me; as for our transgressions, You will provide atonement for them.

Psalm 103:11–12—For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

Romans 5:20—Moreover the law entered that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.

1 Timothy 1:14—And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

The author says that God’s chesed is “great toward us,” and therefore the nations should praise and exalt the Lord for this.  How should we interpret this?

No doubt the writer is referring initially to Israel as a people. The thought, therefore, is that all nations should join Israel in praising God for His lovingkindness to them. As the nations witness God’s grace to Israel, they too will bow the knee to Him.

This is somewhat like what Paul says in Philippians 2:9–11. It may also be akin to what he writes in Ephesians 1:4–7 and 3:8–11. The idea is that everyone one day will be confronted with the indisputable evidence of God’s faithfulness to His people.

No doubt there is much truth to this, but I believe that there is more to “us” than that. The “us” is most likely inclusive of all of us who will experience God’s prevailing, persevering and preserving covenantal love in saving all of us from our sins. Kidner captures the essence when he writes, “It may also be that the ‘us’ of verse 2 has already found room for the ‘you’ implied in verse 1, by seeing Israelites and Gentiles as one people under God.”9 In other words, the Gentiles of v. 1 have joined the “us” of v. 2 in offering worship to Yahweh.

The truth of this is seen elsewhere in the Old Testament. Moses sang, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.” And why should the Gentiles do this? Because “He will avenge the blood of His servants and render vengeance to His adversaries; He will provide atonement for His land and for His people” (Deuteronomy 34:43). Moses was saying that God’s covenantal faithfulness to His chosen people assures us of His covenantal and loving faithfulness to all His people—to all His people from all the nations.

But if this phrase does not provide enough encouragement for us, then take note of the parallel statement that follows: “And the truth of the LORD endures forever.” The word translated “truth” is the word amen, which connotes faithfulness to one’s word. Hence, in some translations, it is translated as “faithfulness.” The idea, in either case, is that the Lord is truthful, which means that He is faithful to keep His covenant. His covenantal cause is unshakeable. He will save His people.

These parallel statements in v. 2 provide every confidence that we need concerning God’s cause to save the nations. Boice notes, “Since the terms are parallel we can as easily say that the love of God endues forever and the faithfulness of God prevails. In fact, it is because God is the faithful God, who does not lie in his words or vary in his commitments, that his love prevails; and it is because his love does not vary that he can be trusted.”10

God is faithful to save His people, and for this reason He is to be praised. And since His people are comprised of all nations, He will prove faithful to each of them. In return, all will praise God for His faithfulness. It is this unshakeable covenantal faithfulness of God that really is the overarching theme of the Bible. And this fuels our faith, enflaming our worship, and sets us on fire for God’s mission.

This theme provides hope for us. Someone sent me a timely and kindly word earlier this week via SMS: “The gospel of Christ will prevail forever no matter what happens. ____ and I were just talking about that this morning.” That is something that we must be constantly talking about.

The Unending Chorus

The psalm closes with the unending chorus: “Praise the LORD!” (v. 2b). Psalm 118 shows us how God covenantally and faithfully brings the theme of Psalm 117 to pass, for what is prophesied in Psalm 117 is procured in Psalm 118.

But as we bring this brief study to a close, let me exhort each of us to not only sing this psalm and to pray this psalm but to do all we can to try and bring the prophecy of this psalm to pass. As someone has well said, “The summons therefore recoils on those who use it, with the obligation to make its invitation heard beyond their walls and their immediate circle.”9

Let us preach the gospel, trusting God to expand the choir to sing more loudly this never-ending chorus, “Praise the LORD.”

Show 11 footnotes

  1. Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala was a South African flyweight boxer who, at 1.47m, was short, but who won 53 of his 64 fights—26 by knockout.
  2. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 411.
  3. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 809.
  4. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 3:949.
  5. Kidner, Psalms, 411.
  6. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 691.
  7. Boice, Psalms, 3:951.
  8. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 692.
  9. Kidner, Psalms, 412.
  10. Boice, Psalms, 3:954.
  11. Kidner, Psalms, 412.