By Pastor Glenn Pease
If you think Psalm 117 is a short chapter, you are right, for it is the shortest in all the Bible. But it is twice as long in English as it is in the original Hebrew. It is 33 words in English, but only 17 in the Hebrew. And it is another of the many paradoxes of the Bible, for small as it is, it deals with the largest subject in the Bible. All the people's of the world, more even than the United Nations, for it is absolutely universal. It also deals with the universal love of God and His everlasting faithfulness. So as small as it is, it is a door that leads us into a Cathedral of praise that is infinite.
I must confess that I have never given it a lot of thought, for it is so short that it seems irrelevant, but we need to see that it is like a modern day chorus. It is very short compared to a hymn, yet, it can be a powerful tool for praise. Length does not mean strength. William Graham Scroggie wrote, "Here, indeed, is a gem, likely to be overlooked because of its minuteness." It is clearly overlooked, for there are many commentaries and books of sermons on the Psalms that just skip Psa. 117, for it seems to small to bother with. The assumption is that it cannot be very important if there are only two verses. The Psalm before it has 19 verses, and the Psalm after it has 29 verses. So the theory seems to be that more is better, and so a measly 17 words cannot be very significant.
How God must laugh at us, like we do the little child, who goes for the big nickel and leaves the little dime unclaimed. Most Christians will go through life and never once claim this little gem as a precious part of God's Word. The Interpreter's Bible says, this little Psalm exhibits ideas that are among the loftiest of the Old Testament." The basis for world missions is found in this little chorus.
Do you think it is mere coincidence that Psa. 117, 118, and 119 are all located together? Psa. 117 is very small, Psa. 118 is medium size, and 119 is the longest in the Bible. The shortest and the longest chapters of the Bible are separated by an average size chapter: Small, medium, and large, in that order. The very structure of the Bible has a message. God uses all sizes for His glory. The size of a song, or anything else, is not an issue. The issue is, does it help us worship God in spirit and in truth? The child, the teen, and the adult are all tools that can be used for God's glory. The small church, the medium size church, and the large church are all part of God's plan. Size does not matter to God, for His Word is composed of songs of all sizes, and we want to see how even the smallest of them can convey a big and vital message.
I. THE UNIVERSAL INVITATION TO PRAISE v. 1.
This Psalm seems to be going the wrong way on a one way street. All around it the Psalms are focused on Israel. Psa. 116 ends with a focus on God's chosen people, and the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. Psa. 118 is also a narrow focus on Israel with the nations as enemies. In verse 10 we read, "All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I cut them off." The theme is about Israel as the object of God's salvation.
Now we come to Psa. 117, and it makes me think of an amusing incident that happened in New York City during a transportation strike. Certain heavily traveled streets were made one-way. Madison Ave. was one of these, and a man who was not in full possession of his faculties was stopped by an officer when he was caught going the wrong way. "Where are you going," the officer asked? The befuddled man responded, "I don't know, but I must be late, everybody else is coming back."
This is the feeling you get in reading Psa. 117, and trying to fit it into the context of the Jewish hymnal. It is going against the grain, and swimming up stream. There is no hint of Jewish exclusiveness here at all. It is so totally inclusive that universal is the only appropriate word. From the temple in Jerusalem, the very heart of Judaism, this universal invitation goes out to all the world to praise Jehovah, because the God of the Jews is equally the God of all people, and He loves them just as He does the Jews. This is radical theology that many Jews never really grasped. They could sing this little song, and then go out and live with prejudice against these very people they just invited to be one with them in their praise to God. This is true of Christians too, and we can sing theology that is far above the level where we actually live.
"Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee," is a good example. Listen to the third verse: "Take my lips and let them be filled with messages for Thee: Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold-not a mite would I withhold." After we sing this we go and use our mouth and our money for that which does not glorify God at all. There is no ground for finger pointing at the Jews. They fell short of the glory of God. They sang beautiful things that they did not let influence their lives and thinking.
Nevertheless, it was a God inspired song, and was true, even if God's people did not take it to heart. The invitation still stands, and all people of the world are invited to praise God, for they are included in His plan. God so loved the world-that is all the nations and all the people of the world. That is the New Testament expanded version of Psa. 117. There has never been a time when God's plan was not universal. The idea that there are some people that God does not love is heretical. A study of the most hated peoples of the Bible reveals that they are included in God's plan of salvation.
This very Psalm could have been the last song Jesus sang before He went to the cross to die for the sins of the whole world. Let me explain: Psa. 113-118 are called the Hellel Psalms, or the Hymns of Praise. The Jews had a tradition of singing Psa. 113 and 114 before the Passover, and then after the Passover meal they sang Psa. 115-118. We read in Matt. 26:30 that following the Passover meal of Jesus and His disciples they kept this tradition and it says, "When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mt. of Olives." This Psalm was likely a part of that hymn. Jesus sang this universal invitation just before He made it possible for all people's of the world to be saved because of His sacrifice for all sin.
Most of the Psalms never get mentioned in the New Testament. But this, the shortest of them all, is used by the Apostle Paul to prove an important point in his letter the Romans. In Rom. 15:11 Paul quotes this first verse-"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and sing praises to Him, all you peoples." He uses this text to show that it has always been God's plan that the Gentiles would be one with the Jews as His people, and as one they would praise Him. This is what the New Testament church is to confirm and demonstrate as Jews and Gentiles unite in Christ to glorify God the Father.
The littlest Psalm plays a big role in conveying the universal plan of God. The nations did not really respond to this invitation until Jesus sent His church into all the world with the Gospel. But we do have some examples even in the Old Testament of pagan peoples who praised the God of Israel. Darius the Mede, Queen of Sheba, Naaman, are just a few. We can't look at them all, but let me share a couple of examples.
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, so famous he is studied by most children in schools as the builder of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world-the hanging gardens of Babylon. Few know that he became a convert to Jehovah, and we have every reason to believe he will be in heaven. We have his personal testimony in Dan. 4:35. "At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified Him who lives forever."
Can a pagan glorify the God of the Bible? If he becomes a believer, he certainly can. This invitation of Psa. 117 is authentic when it says whosoever will may come, and praise the God who is the God of all peoples. Jonah wanted to keep Jehovah as the God of Israelites only, but when he preached that the great city of Nineveh was going to be destroyed in 40 days we read in Jonah 3:5, "The Ninevites believed God." They repented of their evil ways, and God had compassion on them. Hundreds of thousands of pagans were spared. It made Jonah mad, and he wanted to die because God would not be exclusively the God of Israel. But the Ninevites could rejoice, for they discovered the message of Psa. 117-that the God of Israel is the God of all nations, and loves all people.
In Psa. 138:4-5 we read of another universal call for royalty to praise God. We see a hint of what the Jews were chosen to do, but which they did not do, and that was to take the Word of God to all the world. It says, "May all the kings of the earth praise you, O Lord, when they hear the words of your mouth. May they sing of the ways of the Lord, for the glory of the Lord is great." Judaism was to be a missionary faith carrying the good news of Jehovah's love to all the world. They didn't do it, but they did sing about it as an ideal. Psa. 67 is another song about a universal outreach. Listen to verses 2-4: "May your ways be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth.
The reason Jesus gave the church the great commission to go into all the world is because this has always been God's plan. The Old Testament saints failed, but it was always God's plan, and Jesus built His church out of both Jews and Gentiles to fulfill this plan which will succeed, for heaven will be filled with the praises of people from every nation and language. The universal invitation to praise God of Psa. 117 will be answered by all peoples.
The book of Revelation assures us that there will be people of every tribe and nation and language singing the praises of Jesus. This means an investment in missions is a sure thing. It will pay eternal dividends to get the Gospel to all the world. Darlene Bee wrote:
Two thousand tribes without God's Word
In their own native tongue,
Two thousand tribes who've never heard
The praise of Jesus sung.
Oh, come ye saints; lift up your hands,
The Word you've long possessed-
But there are those in many lands
Who have not thus been blessed.
Take up thy pen! Translate the Word!
Complete the task begun!
'Till o'er the earth the Word is heard
In every mortal tongue.
These hungry souls with living bread,
Ye saints of God, now feed-
That they may know our Glorious Head,
And all His precepts heed.
Into the darkness shine the light,
Reveal God's saving grace-
That in dawn of glory bright,
They too may see His face.
Around the Throne a mighty band
Join as God's praise is sung,
From every kindred, tribe and land,
Each in his native tongue.
The universal invitation to praise God will be received and responded to by all the peoples of the world. The second thing we want to look at is-
II. THE UNIVERSAL INSPIRATION FOR PRAISE. v.2
The Jews were often prejudiced against the Gentile nations of the world. They had a hard-nosed attitude of superiority as the chosen people of God. But this song they sang rose above their narrow mindedness. This song reveals that at the heart of Judaism there is a universal inspiration for praise. All the nations of the world came from the three sons of Noah. At that time everybody in the world worshipped Jehovah. All peoples on the planet descended from this family, and the goal of God has always been to bring all people back to their roots where they will again be one in praising Him. He selected Abraham to be the father of the people He would use to accomplish this goal. The Jews were chosen, not so they could be the only people to experience the love of God, but that God might have an instrument to convey His love to all peoples.
This Psalm makes it clear that God's love is universal. This Psalm is actually the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. Christ is not yet in this picture, but He is implied, for if God loves all people, and He is ever faithful in that love, then He will find a way to provide a salvation that makes it possible for all peoples to be a part of His eternal family. The full Gospel is here in seed form, but from the Old Testament point of view it says all that can be said to inspire universal praise. God is not miserly in His mercy, granting it to just a few. He is magnanimous, extending it to all peoples.
This shortest song has a message so long that it reaches out to all the earth. It is like our doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below." God's love is universal, therefore, it is a universal inspiration for praise. Spurgeon said, "This Psalm, which is very little in its letter, is exceedingly large in its spirit, for, bursting beyond all bounds of race or nationality, it calls upon all mankind to praise the name of the Lord."
There is no person on earth who cannot be inspired to praise God if they can be made to grasp that He loves them. Here is the Old Testament on a par with the New Testament in this essential truth: The God of the Bible loves all people. Usually when something is abundant it loses its value. Leaves and snowflakes have no economic value to most of us because nobody will pay for what they can have free. But this law does not hold true in the realm of spirit values. God's love is abundant beyond calculation, for it is universal. Yet, it is of greater value than diamonds or gold. There are some things that do not lose their value by being abundant. Praise is another reality that does not diminish with abundance. God does not say when 50% of the people of the world praise Him, He will put a halt to the Gospel of His love. His aim is for all people to praise Him, for its value is not diminished by abundance.
Man cannot get too much of God's love, and God cannot get too much of man's praise. That is why we have a Bible song that sets no limits on either. The universal love of God inspires the universal praise of man. Spiritual things are just the opposite of economic things. If God only loved a few, then His love would be of no value to most of mankind. It would, in fact, be worthless to all but the few. But being that God's love is for all, this makes it of infinite worth to all, for all can have the highest value this universe offers-God's love.
Because of the truth of this Psalm, all racism, all prejudice, all pride of class, and all perspectives which limit the universal love of God to any specific people, are not only sub-Christian, they are sub-Judaism. In other words, they are pagan perspectives. They are offensive to God, for His goal is to communicate His universal love that there might be universal praise. God desires praise, and He deserves praise from all people. That is why we send and support missionaries.
David in Psa. 68:31-32 wrote, "Ethiopia will stretch out her hands to God in adoration. Sing to the Lord, O kingdoms of the earth-sing praises to the Lord." Ethiopia and Ethiopian are referred to 40 times in the Bible. It is a major Bible land. Phillip was the first missionary to the Ethiopians as he led the Ethiopian to Christ in Acts 8. There is a tradition of Christianity in Ethiopia from this one convert, but it was not until 1866 that Swedish missionaries planted the first permanent Protestant work in Ethiopia. Later the Sudan Interior Mission became strong in Ethiopia and founded 500 churches there.
The modern history of Ethiopia started with Menelik who claimed to be descended from Solomon. His favorite General had a son Halie Salassie who became the most famous Emporor in the history of Ethiopia. His full title was, "His Imperial Majesty, Halie Salassie, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and King of Kings of Ethiopia." Christianity thrived under his reign. This land, and these people, are just one of many examples around the world of how God is seeing this Psalm fulfilled by universal praise.