Psalm 117: Praise Yahweh, All Nations! By Sean Finnegan

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1 Psalm 117: Praise Yahweh, All Nations! By Sean Finnegan Psalms 117:1-2 1 Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! 2 For great is his steadfast love toward us, And the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD! Psalm 117 is set among a collection of praise psalms known as the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms ). Hallel is simply the Hebrew word for praise, and the Egyptian Hallel was the set of praise psalms typically sung during the Passover meal celebration every year (according to the Babylonian Talmud). In fact, Jesus and the disciples may well have sung them as part of their Passover celebration (Mark 14:26). Even so, rather than focusing on how Psalm 117 was and still is used for worship purposes, I would like to focus attention on its content and how it was later interpreted in the New Testament. Praise psalms like Psalm 117 have a definite structure consisting of at least two parts. The first is a call to praise, and the second either gives reasons for praise or else tells what to say. Psalm 117 begins with a charge, Praise Yahweh, all nations! The inner meaning of the word Hallelujah is praise Yahweh (hallel = praise, jah = shortened form of Yahweh). This is why translations differ on how to put the first line with most

2 of them rendering it as, Praise the LORD, all nations; while others simply write, Hallelujah or Alleluia. Even so, saying Praise the LORD or Hallelujah is not actually praising God; rather, it is telling others to praise Him. In this psalm, the call to praise is very interesting because it invites not just Israel or the righteous, but all nations to praise Him. It is important to remember that at this time Israel was God s only chosen people. In fact, the other nations were populated with Gentiles (non-israelites) who often fought against Israel. In his commentary on the Psalms, John Goldingay writes: Usually the people of God are urged to praise Yhwh, and only here are the nations envisaged as glorifying Yhwh. While other psalms have commissioned the proclaiming of Yhwh s glory among the nations and have urged the whole world to sing for, shout for, and serve Yhwh, only here are the nations themselves urged to do so. (Vol. 3, p. 350) Just imagine the worship leader standing up and declaring Praise Yahweh, all nations from the midst of the congregation gathered in the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem. That might be a bit strange. Still, what is even more extraordinary is the reason why the Gentiles should praise God. We might expect the psalmist to write because God is the creator of all or because God is the provider and sustainer or some other universal blessing that the sovereign Lord bestows on all, but instead the reason given is His great steadfast love and faithfulness to Israel. Why would all the nations, who were, more often than not, enemies of God s chosen people, praise God on account of His

3 covenant love and faithfulness to Israel? In order to answer this question, we must tap into the root of the Abrahamic blessing. God had promised Abraham: Genesis 12:2-3 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." The idea is simple, though it has massive consequences. God chose one family to work with, so that through them He could bring blessings upon all. The Abrahamic people were the ones through whom God would fix what was wrong with the world. The original curses that befell Adam and Eve and their offspring would need to be rectified, and it is only fitting that Yahweh would begin this process by calling out one faithful couple (Abraham and Sarah) and blessing them along with their descendants. But, what exactly did God have in mind? What shape would these blessings take? Many years later, God painted a portrait of the bright future in a vision written down by the great prophet Isaiah: Isaiah 2:2-4 2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD

4 shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. The central idea of this spectacular vision of the future is that God will work through Abraham s descendants, the nation of Israel, to instruct and establish justice among the nations. The peoples of the world will one day eagerly travel to Zion, the heart of Israel, to learn how to live. This teaching will be so effective at settling disputes that nations will no longer fight each other or

5 even train for war. Such a vision throbs in the heart our psalmist so intensely that he or she has, as it were, already written the song to accompany this grand moment when God fulfills the promises to Abraham and all the nations find Israel the supreme agent of God s blessing. For then, on that day, Israel will boldly sing: Psalms 117:1-2 1 Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! 2 For great is his steadfast love toward us, And the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD! Centuries after Psalm 117 was penned, the ex-pharisee Paul came to see the beginning of this process when he arrived in Antioch: Acts 11: Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists [Greeks] also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul [a.k.a Paul], 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the

6 church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. Though there had been isolated incidents of Gentiles joining the messianic movement (i.e. Christianity) like the treasurer of Ethiopia and the centurion Cornelius Barnabas and Paul found themselves at the center of a mixed community where Jews and Greeks were worshipping together. In Christ, something amazing had happened: people from the nations were suddenly attracted to the true God and the way of life He prescribed. The Apostle Paul later wrote: Romans 15: For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name." [Ps 18:49] 10 And again it is said, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people." [Deut 32:43] 11 And again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him." [Ps 117:1] 12 And again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope." [Is 11:10] Christ serves the Jews in order to confirm the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Of course, one of

7 those promises was in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen 22:17). In Christ this promise has been confirmed and will find total fulfillment when he returns to accomplish what was prophesied. Still, even before the Son of Man comes back and establishes God s eternal Kingdom, the Gentiles are already being grafted into the tree of faith (Rom 11:17-24). To make his point, Paul quotes from Psalms 117:1, among other Scriptures, showing that the inclusion of the Gentiles was foreordained by God long ago. Because God has demonstrated steadfast love to Israel and faithfulness to His promises, which He has now achieved through one representative Israelite Jesus of Nazareth all the Gentiles should glorify God. They now have reason to sing the psalms along with natural Israel, and as the Jews hear the Gentiles praising God, they find themselves singing: Psalms 117:1-2 1 Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! 2 For great is his steadfast love toward us, And the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD!

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