A Call to Praise
Psalm 117:1–2 – “Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD.” (NIV)
An atom is a tiny thing, so small we can’t see it with the naked eye. Yet when it’s split open, what a tremendous amount of energy it releases! In a similar way, Ps. 117 is small and easily overlooked—the whole thing is just two verses long. Yet when it’s split open through study, what a tremendous amount of truth it releases!
First, what kind of psalm is this? The book of Psalms covers a range of emotions and responses to God, from celebration to cries for help to complaining. We learn this psalm’s purpose from the fact that it begins and ends with a call to praise: “Praise the LORD.” The Hebrew behind this phrase has given us the English word “Hallelujah” (also spelled “Alleluia”). It’s the same line that bookends Ps. 113, the first psalm of the Egyptian Hallel, and that concludes Psalms 115 and 116. This brief psalm, then, sums up the whole point of the Egyptian Hallel: to praise the LORD, the God of Israel. May your whole life from start to finish, as well as each day from sunrise to sunset, be bracketed by praising God!
Second, whom should be praised? Three times the psalm rings out the answer: “the LORD . . . the LORD . . . the LORD” (all quotes NIV). When our English translations of the Old Testament have the word “lord” in all capital letters, it signals that the Hebrew original has the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3), the name that faithful Jews do not say out of reverence. Nowadays we sometimes hear it pronounced “Yahweh.” Traditionally it was (mis)pronounced “Jehovah.” By revealing his sacred name to Moses, God was distinguishing himself from the many gods of Egypt and the other nations around. He was not one of the false gods worshiped through idolatry, a personification of the forces of nature and culture, a prop for the status quo of powerful oppressor over desperate oppressed. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was the invisible God who could not be tied to just one aspect of the world, least of all an idol. He was the sovereign God who did new things by creating the heavens and the earth, by calling Abraham to leave the security of his family and city for an unknown land, and by freeing a nation of slaves to be his own holy people. He was the mysterious God whose Word and Spirit were somehow both distinct from him and yet one with him. May you praise the name of the one true God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
Third, who should do the praising? Verse 1 tells us: “all you nations; . . . all you peoples.” Even though the LORD is distinctively Israel’s God, everyone else receives an invitation to praise him, too. After all, Israel understood that their God had created the whole world and all nations. If all of them are supposed to praise the Lord, then his judgments on particular people groups can’t be the final word on God’s attitude toward them. God may punish in order to restrain the increase of evil, but his ultimate goal is for all peoples to come to know him, repent of their false worship, and give him praise as the Creator, Judge, and Savior of the world. May you praise the God who summons to himself Jews and Greeks, Egyptians and Babylonians, Chileans and Chinese, blacks and whites, Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and Croats and Kosovars, Arabs and Turks and Kurds!
Lastly, why should we praise? The Israelite psalmist calls all nations to praise because of God’s faithful love toward “us”—that is, toward Israel. At first this sounds as if it would make the other nations more inclined to envy than praise. It’s like young Joseph bragging to his brothers about how he’s the favored son (Gen. 37). But Israel wasn’t God’s “pet people.” Instead, Israel was God’s launch pad for spreading his salvation throughout the world. The faithful love he showed to Israel was meant to be exported. That faithful love narrowed down from Israel as a whole to a single Israelite, Jesus, who embodied God’s faithful love through his life, death, and resurrection. He atoned for the sin of the entire world, then commissioned his followers to spread the good news to all the nations. May you praise the God whose faithful love delivers us from our sins and restores us to fellowship with himself!