Theme: Calling Everyone to Praise God
In this week’s lessons, we are reminded of the need to praise the Lord for his enduring love and faithfulness toward us.
Scripture: Psalm 117:1, 2
This is the shortest psalm in the Psalter, but, as Derek Kidner notes, its faith is “great” and “its reach is enormous.”1
Over the years I have been impressed with how much teaching the Holy Spirit is able to pack into a small space, and sometimes I have been able to demonstrate it by my expositions. I remember teaching John 11:35. That verse is the shortest in the Bible. It contains only two words: “Jesus wept.” But when I got to it I explained it on four separate Sundays, showing: 1) what it teaches about God (he sympathizes with us in our struggles); 2) what it teaches about Jesus (he was fully man as well as fully God); 3) what it teaches about ourselves (we have gotten into such a state by our sin that even God weeps over us); and 4) what it teaches about ourselves and other people (we should weep with those who weep as well as rejoice with those who rejoice). All that is in just two words.
Psalm 117 is not as short as that. It has two verses instead of two words. But it is short, the shortest chapter in the Bible and the shortest of the psalms, as I said. And it does contain an enormous amount of teaching. In his massive The Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon cites a writer who found five great doctrines in this chapter: 1) the calling of the Gentiles; 2) a summary of the gospel; 3) the end and goal of such blessing; 4) the duties of God’s people; and 5) their privileges.2
Even more remarkable is the treatment of Psalm 117 by Martin Luther. Luther gave thirty-six pages to this psalm, expounding it in four important categories: 1) prophecy (the Gentiles will participate in gospel blessings); 2) revelation (the kingdom of Christ is not earthly and temporal but rather heavenly and eternal); 3) instruction (we are saved by faith alone and not by works, wisdom or holiness); and 4) admonition (we should praise God for such a great salvation).3 Luther’s treatment of Psalm 117 is a masterpiece of exposition and well worth a very careful reading.
There is so much in this short psalm that Derek Kidner is quite right when he summarizes, “The shortest psalm proves, in fact, to be one of the most potent and most seminal.”4
The first striking feature of this psalm is that it calls upon all nations and all peoples to praise God. “Nations” is the Hebrew word goyim, often translated “gentiles,” though it does mean nations strictly speaking. It is sometimes used even for Israel itself. “Peoples” is a rare plural form of the word am, which has to do with the wide diversity found in national and ethnic groupings. Together the words mean all peoples everywhere, precisely the sense present in Revelation 7:9, where John speaks of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”
Here then is a true Christian universalism, not that all people will be saved regardless of the god they believe in, but rather that all people may be saved through Jesus Christ. To put it in other words, this is a profound missionary psalm, for it is calling on people everywhere to praise God.
We are always in danger of rejecting or restricting this universalism and forgetting our calling to be a missionary people, because we tend to be self-satisfied and look down on others. This was true of the Jews at the time of the early Christian mission. At the very beginning of the Bible God taught that the gospel was to be for all people, since he told Abraham, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). But the Jews forgot that, just as we do. They were willing for Gentiles to become Jews, if they did not do it in too great numbers and if they respected the Jewish traditions and customs. But they were not willing to have the Gentiles remain Gentiles and become the people of God, too. This was the battle Paul had to fight at the first church council, when he argued that Gentile believers had been accepted by God even though they were not circumcised and did not keep the traditional Jewish laws.
Christians have been guilty of exactly the same thing. They have been so in love with their own ways of being Christians that they have rejected or been suspicious of believers who are different, and sometimes they have been so resistant to having anyone else become part of their own precious inner circle that they have neglected their missionary responsibility entirely, even to people in their own cities or neighborhoods. We should be ashamed of any such narrow exclusivism.
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 411.
2Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 3a, Psalms 88-119 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), p. 98. The doctrines are from a writer named Mollerus.
3Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 14, Selected Psalms III, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Daniel E. Poellot (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), pp. 4-39.
4Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms, p. 412.
What five doctrines does the writer in Spurgeon’s study find in Psalm 117? Into what four categories does Martin Luther place this psalm?
How is this psalm missionary-oriented?
Define a true Christian universalism.
How did Jewish dogma attempt to limit the gospel? How do contemporary Christians do the same thing?
Reflection: Analyze your own thoughts and possible prejudices against Christians who are different. Are you guilty of narrow exclusivism?
Prayer: Pray for an opportunity to share Christian teachings with a nonbeliever.
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