A Universal Call to Praise the Lord

  • Nathan Schneider
Wooden Globe

This morning, I opened my Bible not yet knowing what exactly I would be posting today. That happens from time to time—I can’t write about current events every week lest I be mistaken for a political commentator. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that to teach the Bible is the connect the ancient text of Scripture to the present realities of today.

So I opened my Bible and the pages fell upon Psalm 117. I read through this psalm and thought, “Perfect.” It’s perfect for a number of reasons, all of which have to do with God’s providential hand. First off, at two verses in length, this particular psalm happens to be the shortest psalm in the Psalter as well as the shortest chapter in the Bible. But what’s even more interesting is that this psalm happens to be the central chapter in the Bible. Of the 1,189 chapters that comprise the Protestant Bible, Psalm 117 falls dead center.

But what makes providence even more apparent in all this is the message given in this psalm. In just two verses, this anonymous psalmist composes a song that encapsulates both beauty and brevity. It joins past with present and present with future, tying it all together with the enduring loyalty and faithfulness of God.

Last week I highlighted the new “gospel” circling the globe—a vaccine gospel which brings good news to those who have joined the religion of fear. I pointed out that this alternative gospel gives a sense of hope to people desperate to avoid the reality of death which has been put in prominent spotlight by the Coronavirus outbreak. In reality, what’s happened is that the world’s desire for hope has been exposed and they’ve reached out for what seems to offer the best and most convenient form of hope possible to allay their most pressing and urgent fear.

But there’s a positive side to all of this which we can’t lose sight of amidst the alarming events of the present: there is a real hope for the nations. In Psalm 115, the Israelites who returned from Babylon were asked this question: “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” (Ps. 115:2). The nations had watched Jerusalem burn. They had seen the temple crumble. Now Israel was subjugated under Babylon and Persia. All the evidence suggested that Israel’s God was gone. But the psalmist responded this way: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). The nations mocked God’s people. But they don’t know. They don’t understand. God is sovereign. God is perfectly in control. In fact, what happened to his people came from his very hand.

The psalmist then exposes the empty hopes of the nations as he reveals their gods for what they really are: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:4–7). That last statement is especially potent. Those who trust in empty idols—whether they look like statues, or they come in medical syringes—they will become just like the idols they worship. There is no hope in that.

I bring that passage up because Psalms 113–118 form a collection of psalms known as the “Egyptian Hallel,” which has been traditionally sung by the Jewish community during the Passover festival. Before the meal, Psalms 113 and 114 are sung, while the last four psalms are sung following the meal. With this in mind, it is a very real possibility that these psalms are what Matthews references when he notes that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before departing for the Mount of Olives on the night of Jesus’ arrest (Matt. 26:30).

So very likely, the role of the nations in Psalm 115 is a very real and present part of how we understand the transformation that takes place when we get to Psalm 117. In the former psalm, the nations are a source of mockery and derision. They are the blind following the blind, becoming just like that which they worship. But in Psalm 117, an amazing transformation takes place. The nations are called upon to rejoice:

Praise Yahweh, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his loyal love toward us, and the faithfulness of Yahweh endures forever. Praise Yahweh! (Psalm 117)

Why should the nations praise God? Why should they extol him? Why, in the words of Psalm 67:4, should “the nations be glad”? It’s because of a beloved ancient truth about God held dear by the people of God in the post-exilic community. In Exodus 32, while Moses was atop the mountain receiving the stone tablets of the law, the people were committing apostasy. They formed a golden calf and began to worship it as their gods who had saved them out of Egypt. The sin was blatant and awful. It was spit in the face of the God who had just redeemed them by the blood of the Passover lamb.

Yet despite their treachery, God showed amazing amounts of mercy. Through the intercession of Moses, God set forth to renew the covenant that had so quickly been broken by the people, and in so doing he revealed to Moses the essence of his character on display in his own name:

“Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6).

Yahweh is a God of grace and mercy. He is a God overflowing with love which is loyal to the people he has made promises to. He is a God who abounds in his faithfulness to what he has committed to do. The people experienced that abounding loyal love and faithfulness. They should have been destroyed. But God abounds in loyal love and faithfulness. “He had,” as Leslie Allen points out, “once and for all revealed himself to Israel as the covenant God who made promises of grace and kept them. Their history was a monument to the greatness of his loyal love, for it was full of instances of his loving, protecting, delivering, pardoning grace. And just as this grace spanned the past and present, so it could be relied upon to encompass the present and future. At the center of these two enormous arcs of theological time stood the contemporary generation of God’s people, exulting in that love which ‘knows neither measure nor end’” (Allen, Psalms 101-150, 118).

Exodus 34:6, that great, beloved text, is the basis for the psalmist’s invitation for all the nations and all the peoples of the earth to praise God and extol him. If God had shown such enduring love and faithfulness to such an obstinate people, it means there is hope for the nations as well.

How much hope is there for these nations, lost and blind and following lifeless idols as they mock God’s people? Well, enough hope that Christ would sing this song with his disciples the night before he died. Enough hope that Paul would connect Jesus Christ himself with the truth lauded in this verse: “The grace of the Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:14). Enough hope that Paul would cite this psalm as evidence of the universal nature of the gospel:

“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, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written… ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’” (Romans 15:8–9, 11)

The psalmist desired the nations to see and experience the grace of God which he knew and had experienced. He desired to add to the host of Jewish voices a vast and immeasurable choir of peoples who would praise God for his love and faithfulness. As Allen goes on to write, “Rhetorically, they enlisted the aid of the rest of the nations in the world, wishing for ‘a thousand tongues,’ as it were, to help them to sing their ‘great Redeemer’s praise’ (Charles Wesley). Unwittingly they thus let loose in the world an invitation which later enabled Gentiles too to share in this covenant grace (Rom 15:8–12). Israel’s would-be hired choristers were destined eventually to become their partners in faith in the international religion of the NT” (Allen, 118).

So as we’re observing the world and the consequences of unbelief, let’s keep our hearts softened to the plight of the nations. It’s easy to circle up in a defensive formation, comment on the exponential debasement of the culture, watch the world circle the drain and wait in holy smugness for the judgment to come. But that’s not the posture of a people who have experienced the abounding love and faithfulness of God. We need to speak truth. We need to identify sin and unrighteousness. And we need to clarify the false statements of the world in light of the truth of God’s word and the gospel. But the goal of all that is that we might win some to the Lord and add them to the choir of the redeemed. As Steve Lawson has put it, “The greatest incentive in missions around the world is that God might have more worshippers of his supreme majesty” (Steve Lawson, Psalms 76-150, 224).

In the end, we have every confidence that the supreme and sovereign God—the God who is in the heavens and does what he pleases (Ps. 115:3)—can turn the hearts of even the most depraved of sinners. The ones who shout the loudest, “Where is their God?” (Ps. 115:2) might just be the ones whose eyes are opened to see Jesus as Immanuel, God with Us, and sing the loudest, “His loyal love endures forever!” (Ps. 118:1).