Jesus, Just Redeemer King
Preached by Jason Abbott, senior pastor
1 Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
2 For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 117 will be the last psalm we study in our series on God’s kingdom and God’s king in the psalms. (Next week we will look at Psalm 88, but in it we will not deal specifically with the themes of either kingdom or king.)
Psalm 117 is a very short psalm—just two verses. Many suppose that it was used as a kind of conclusion to Psalm 116 or an introduction to Psalm 118. However, in the “best manuscripts it is always separate.”1 So here we will deal with it on its own terms, and we will use it as a kind of benediction to our current study in the Psalms.
In order to begin to crack this little egg, we will ask two questions: (1) how would an original Israelite reader have understood this psalm? And (2) how should a Christian reader today understand this psalm?
1. How would this psalm have been understood originally?
Psalms 113-118 are what are commonly called the Egyptian Hallel psalms. These were praises (or Hallels) of the Lord. Furthermore, “The Egyptian Hallel psalms received a special place in the Passover liturgy, as 113-114 were recited…before and 115-118 after the festive [Passover] meal.”
This is most certainly what both Matthew and Mark were referring to following the Last Supper when they wrote: And when they [Jesus and the disciples] had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). Perhaps it was even this little psalm which they sang.
So, one thing we can safely say about Psalm 117 is that it would have been understood, by its original audience, as a Psalm designed to praise Yahweh specifically for his redemptive work in bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
However, Psalm 117 is peculiar among the Hallel psalms. Why? Well, it’s strange because it directs not the covenant people to praise God for this deliverance but the nations (the non-Israelite peoples) to praise God for his deliverance from Egypt. Isn’t this peculiar?!
There are really only three ways in which I could imagine that an Israelite would have understood this Psalm in the context of the Passover celebration.
a. First, they could have sung the psalm in order to say: Since you can’t beat God you should join God.
During a festival designed to look back on the way in which God had dealt decisively with Pharaoh and Egypt and brought his people out of slavery to Egypt, the Israelites could have sung this song of praise as an invitational warning to all the nations.
If this were the case the psalmist would have been saying something like:
[You better] Praise the Lord, all [you] nations! / [You better] Extol him, all [you] peoples! / For great is his steadfast love toward us [his people, Israel], / and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. / [So you better] Praise the Lord!
This understanding of the psalm would make it something akin to God’s warning to Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron. In a sense, what God offered Pharaoh and Egypt through Moses and Aaron was a way forward by which they could submit to God and thus avoid his wrath.
Yet, Pharaoh would not let God’s people go free, and God’s covenant faithfulness and God’s covenant love for his people therefore compelled him to visit the ten plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people in order that Israel would be set free.
So again, if this is the way to understand Psalm 117 then it is essentially saying: Since you cannot beat God you should join in and worship God!
There is another possibility.
b. Second, they could have sung the psalm in order to say: Praise God because he is going to do something through Israel to bless the nations.
If the first option seeks to compel one to worship through a righteous fear of being found on the wrong side of a battle with the holy God of all creation, then this second option seeks to compel through an awe inspiring contemplation of the mysterious future redemptive plans of God!
If this were the case, the psalmist would have been saying something like:
Praise the Lord, all [you blessed] nations! / Extol him, all [you smiled upon] peoples! / For great is his steadfast love toward us [his people, Israel], / and the faithfulness of the Lord [to all his creation] endures forever. / Praise the Lord [you blessed nations]!
Such an understanding of Psalm 117 would not have been an impossible one for the Israelites in the psalmist’s day. For, they would have had a mysterious understanding of God’s plan to bless the nations through his covenant people.
So we find Old Testament passages in which God promises this very thing:
- Genesis 12:3—God promises Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
- Genesis 26:4—God extends this promise to Isaac: “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed….”
- Genesis 28:14—God reiterates this promise once more to Jacob, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
Consequently, if this is the way to understand Psalm 117 then it is essentially saying: All you nations—Praise God!—because in and through his faithfulness to Israel he is going to bless the peoples of the earth.
Finally, there is one more way to potentially understand this psalm.
c. Third, they could have sung this song to say: Praise the Lord because you cannot beat him, and praise the Lord because through his faithfulness to Israel he is going to bless the nations!
This is a “both-and” approach. It would, in my opinion, most fully represent the biblical picture because it recognizes that God is both dangerously holy for sinful, rebellious creatures and that God is compassionately merciful to those same sinful rebels who repent and seek his loving kindness.
It represents that on the last day some will have opposed God and they will be eternally punished, and that others will have turned to God and they will be eternally blessed! It would, thus, warn that God hates evil and will one day judge it eternally, and that God loves repentant sinners and will one day call such repentant sinners—from every tongue, tribe, and nation (Revelation 7:9)—into his glorious presence for eternity.
I like this view best!
This brings us to our second and final question. Considering all this:
2. How should this psalm be understood today?
Perhaps, a better way to put it would be: How should this psalm be understood when viewed through the lens of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection? How should this psalm be viewed through the gospel?
Well, viewing the psalm from two different directions (I think) helps us see. In one sense, we’ll never understand this psalm fully until we view the nations being called to worship from (a) the vantage point of the cross. In another sense, we’ll never understand this psalm rightly until we view it from (b) the vantage point of worship.
Let’s take a look at each briefly.
a. From the vantage point of the cross
Today it is simply impossible to read this psalm without seeing the worship of the nations made possible only in Christ’s cross work! In fact, this is precisely what the Apostle Paul uses this psalm to argue in Romans. So he writes:
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 (15:8-9).
Then in order to substantiate his claim—that Christ came to Israel (the circumcised) so that non-Israelites (the Gentiles) might worship God for his mercy—Paul quotes from Psalm 117. He explains:
…as it is written…“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, / and let all the peoples extol him” (vv. 15:9, 11).
Here, Paul expresses and confirms view number two from above—namely: that the Psalmist in Psalm 117 is exhorting the nations to praise God because of his mercy to be shown them through his divine faithfulness to Israel!
Paul is saying that the gospel work of Christ is the reason the psalmist (whether he knew it or not) was ultimately telling the nations to praise God
Commenting on the relationship between Psalm 117 and Romans 15, one commentator helpfully writes, “In Christ the love of God has been more powerfully demonstrated both to Jews and to Gentiles so that all might praise [God] for his love.”2
Look, in the end, Psalm 117 would remain an eternal mystery without the cross of Jesus Christ. In short, if we weren’t able to see this psalm through the gospel lens then we wouldn’t truly be able to see it at all!
However, to see this psalm in its fullest sense, we must see it from another vantage point as well. We must see it:
b. From the vantage point of worship
I’m willing to bet that you think (as I often do) of worship as something we do for God—like God sits passively in heaven and receives our adoration. However, this view of worship is wrong and is harmful!
Why is it wrong? How is it harmful?
It’s wrong because God is not inactive! God is not passive and impersonal! It is wrong because God does not need our worship!
It’s harmful because it will tend to make us robotic worshipers over time. It will tend to make us into feeling-less minions of some seemingly inactive and impersonal deity in the heavens. It’s harmful because it will cause us to worship something other than the true God!!!
Have you ever felt yourself slipping into this pernicious and destructive view of worship? Don’t let yourself! It is really no worship at all!
In contrast to such a wrong view of worship, true worship “is human response to a gracious God.” Furthermore, “to be properly understood” worship “needs to be placed in this context.”3
- Rather than an inactive God who sits by and demands worship, the Bible tells us that God has acted decisively to save us!
- Rather than a God who expects us to pay for our own sins, the Bible tells us that God himself has paid for our sins in the person of Christ Jesus!
- Rather than limit his love to those in a chosen nation, the Bible tells us that God has worked through that nation to extend his love to all the nations of the earth!
True worship is a response to what God has done and what God is continuing to do into eternity! As Psalm 117 says:
Worship God… / For great is his steadfast love toward us (vv. 1, 2).
- Worship God… / For great is his Kingly Redemptive work toward us.
- Worship God… / For great is his work in Jesus Christ toward us.
- Worship God…