The Herald Weekly Vol XVI : 28


“O praise the LORD, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the LORD endureth for ever. Praise ye the LORD.” (Psalm 117)

If you ever have an opportunity to participate in a game of Bible trivia one question you should be prepared to answer is, “Which is the shortest chapter in the Bible?” The answer is Psalm 117. Many have wondered why this psalm is so short – 33 words in English and only 17 words in Hebrew. Another question you may be asked is, “Which is the middle chapter of the Bible?” The answer is also Psalm 117. There are exactly 594 chapters before it, and 594 chapters after it.

That makes this psalm very unique. Since we believe that nothing ever happens by chance, there must be some special purpose for the unique size and location of Psalm 117. And that purpose must be found in what it teaches.

A Psalm of Praise

The first thing you will notice is that it is obviously a psalm of praise. The word ‘praise’ is found three times. The first verse gives the call to praise and the second verse provides the cause for the praise. This makes the psalm similar to many other psalms of praise.

In fact Psalm 117 is part of a set of six psalms (113-118) which were sung to praise God during the feast of the Passover. At the Temple service the Levitical singers would sing these six psalms line by line and the congregation would join in when they reached the “Hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “praise ye the Lord.”

It is also very likely that the hymn that Jesus and His disciples sang at the end of the Last Supper which was actually a Passover meal was this set of psalms (Matthew 26:30). And these six psalms were most appropriate for the Passover because of their themes of salvation and messianic expectation.

But the Passover was generally regarded as a very Jewish event – to remember how God mercifully rescued their forefathers out of their slavery in Egypt. Gentiles were therefore excluded from the Passover. Till today, all other Jewish feasts are open for Gentiles to participate. But no Gentile can be invited to join in the Passover meal unless he first converts to Judaism, because of the prohibition in Exodus 12:43-48.

And yet one of the psalms which was sung at each Passover speaks of a time that is coming when Gentiles and Jews will praise God together – Psalm 117. This is seen in v.1 – “O praise the LORD, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.” This was sung by Jews at every Passover meal, calling on all Gentiles to praise the Lord with them. And what were they to praise the Lord for? Verse 2 reveals that it was for the merciful kindness of God which is great toward us.

Here is something quite different from the Passover – Instead of praising God for being merciful to Israel alone, this psalm invites all Gentiles to praise God for being merciful toward ‘us’ which refers both to Israel and to all Gentiles as well. This must have puzzled many Jews who sang this psalm at each Passover. In their narrow-minded thinking only the Jews had the privilege of being in a covenant relationship with God. So how can Gentiles and Jews be fellow recipients of God’s merciful kindness? It is because this psalm isn’t just a praise psalm…

A Prophetic Psalm

This is the key to understanding the uniqueness of Psalm 117. In Romans 15:11 Paul quoted Psalm 117 as one of the Old Testament prophecies that God’s plan of salvation would include Gentiles. It looked forward to a glorious time when Gentiles of all nations will be able to praise God together with the Jews for God’s merciful kindness and eternal truth. And that time came when Jesus died on the cross as the Saviour of the world – not for the Jews only, but for us Gentiles as well.

Therefore in Christ the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile is broken down (Ephesians 2:14) and God’s grace is now extended to people of every race, tribe, tongue and nation. Through Christ salvation is freely bestowed on everyone without distinction so that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Today Gentile Christians and Messianic Jews can praise God together for the wonderful grace of Jesus Christ.

But the best is yet to be. The praise which Psalm 117 foretells will be completely fulfilled only in Heaven when all the nations and peoples of the world will be represented before the throne of Christ in the most glorious worship and praise service that we can ever imagine. Revelation 5:9-10 – “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.”

Can you see now why psalm 117 is so unique even though it is the shortest of all psalms? It foretells the glorious ultimate climax of God’s redemptive work in all history. But that is not all that it does.

A Precious Psalm

Besides being a praise psalm and a prophetic psalm, Psalm 117 is also a precious psalm. One writer has called it ‘a little jewel’. The beauty of this jewel is found in verse 2 in what is mentioned as the cause of the praise which all the nations and all the people will give to God.

The first part of verse 2 says “For His merciful kindness is great toward us.” The words ‘merciful kindness’ are translated from one Hebrew word – chesed. This word designates God’s love for His covenant people. And what evokes praise is the fact that His love is “great towards us.” This word was also used to describe the waters of the great flood which covered the whole earth in the days of Noah. In other words God’s love is so abundant that it goes beyond all limits and even covers the entire world. This shows the infinite breadth of God’s love. In the great flood the world’s highest mountains and deepest valleys were all underwater. That illustrates the infinite height and the infinite depth of God’s love.

And as we meditate on how God loves sinners of every nation so much that He would condescend even to die for them, surely our praise for Him should not be anything less than the best! Such superlative love surely deserves superlative praise – Praise that comes not from Israel alone, but from people of every tribe, tongue, race and nation on the face of this planet! All of them ought to combine their hearts and voices together into one powerful expression of praise to God.

And this praise will become even more glorious when it is fuelled by the latter part of the cause of praise in verse 2 – “the truth of the LORD endureth for ever.” The truth here refers to God’s unchanging promises. None of them will ever fail. Throughout all ages and generations these promises of God stand as the firmest foundation that God’s people can ever rest upon. What God had said to Abraham over four thousand years ago still stands true today, including His promise that in Abraham’s seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (Genesis 22:18). This has been gloriously fulfilled in Christ.

And what evokes praise about God’s truth is the fact that it endures for ever. The three words ‘endureth for ever’ are translated from only one word in Hebrew – le’olam. This is the same word that is used to describe God’s eternal existence. Earlier on we had seen that God’s love is unlimited in its breadth, height and depth. Now we see that God’s truth is unlimited in its duration. And so when these two are put together – God’s great love and God’s eternal truth – they give such an immense cause for praise from people of all nations, that eternity itself would not provide sufficient time to finish all their praises to Him!

I am sure that you will agree with me that this shortest psalm, this shortest chapter in the Bible, this central chapter of Scripture deserves a central place in our meditations. May we Gentiles join Israel in praising our Lord and Saviour “for his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the LORD endureth for ever.”

Rev Charles Seet
Life B-P Church, Weekly 24 Jun 2018

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