George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 117

This is the shortest psalm, but a very powerful one — as will be seen — for its Gentile emphasis.

1. Hallelujah

Out of the twelve psalms with this “envelope” form — i.e., beginning and ending with Hallelujah (105, 106, 111, 113, 116, 117, 135, and 146 through 150; Psalms Studies, Intro., Part 6) — Psalm 117 is the only one where King James’ men have included the exclamatory O. This is their special effort at accurate translation, an attempt to show that here (in v. 1) there is a difference: Instead of Hallelu-Yah, the Hebrew text has: Hallelu-eth-Y’howah. This particle eth is an untranslatable sign of the objective case. In many places it is omitted where one would expect to see it: e.g., 118:5: “I called upon (... ) the Lord.” Hallelu-(... )-Yah is itself a commonplace example of the omission. Then why is eth included here? Clearly, to make some important distinction of meaning, by emphasizing the subject, or object, of worship. But why the distinction here? For one possible answer, see the notes on v. 1 below.

2. Details

O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. In the phrases “all ye nations” and “all ye people”, it is important to recognize that amim (literally, peoples) is the standard Old Testament word for Israel (twelve “tribes”, hence the plural). There are hundreds of examples of this usage, with maybe a handful of doubtful cases and exceptions. The word for “nations” (goyim) is the regular Old Testament word (again, hundreds of occurrences) for Gentiles. The very few exceptions to this rule make an intriguing study.

Here, then, is a possible explanation of the unexpected variation from the usual Hallelu-Yah. This is the only place in the dozen Hallelujah psalms where Gentiles are explicitly brought in to share in the praise of the Lord; and, more than this, to lead in the praise of the Lord. Over the years many a Jew must have been puzzled to find that in this superb little psalm Gentiles come before Jews.

For the Gentiles praising the Lord, see also Psa. 57:9; 67:2,4; 72:11,17; 96:3,10; 98:2; 108:3; Isa. 11:10; 42:1,6; 49:6; 60:3,5, 11,16; 62:2; 66:19. And see how this variety of peoples — Jews and Gentiles of all classes — is echoed, and even augmented, in Revelation 7:9:

“After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands”.

The preaching of the gospel by Jesus and thereafter by the apostles has demonstrated the rightness and inevitability of this prophetic psalm. But it was not always perceived as right and inevitable (see Par. 3).

Praise him. This “praise” (Hebrew shabach) is a completely different word, meaning to “laud” or “glorify” (s.w. Psa. 63:3; 145:4; 147:12).
For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. The expression “mercy and truth”, so common in the psalms, is a lovely Biblical idiom for God’s Covenants of Promise (see note, Psa. 115:1). The words are often used separately in this sense too — “mercy” because the fulfillment of God’s promises will require the forgiveness of sins, and “truth” because God’s promises are sure and unshakable.

3. Romans 15:11

In a massive effort to persuade Jewish brethren that they should receive their Gentile brethren without scruple, Paul brings together in Romans 15:9-12 an overpowering assembly of proof-texts about the essential share which Gentiles must have in Messiah’s redemption. (Notice how he works both “mercy” and “truth” — v. 2 here — into the context of his argument, in Romans 15:8,9.)

It is noteworthy that, whereas he anticipates the time when Gentiles shall be “with his people”, Psalm 117 puts Gentile believers before Jews. Far from being an afterthought, then, the inclusion of Gentiles in the hope of Abraham was a primary object of God all along! So why did not Paul emphasize this even more in his argument? Would not this point have reinforced considerably his campaign of preaching to the Gentiles? Presumably he omitted this useful emphasis for tactical reasons. If the inference were to be drawn that in his gospel Jews must finally take second place to Gentiles, what a vast amount of psychological damage might result!

But it was right that Paul stress to his fellow Jews, to some extent, the necessity that the gospel be preached to Gentiles. “There has always been a reticence among men to take the Gospel to those outside their immediate sphere. Israel had eyes only for themselves and even when in early New Testament times the disciples were bidden to go into all nations and to preach to all people they were loathe to do so: so much so that God had to press them into action by special miracles, as is seen in the Acts of the Apostles. Even today, when we are involved in preaching to all people, the work is not entirely free from restraints of one kind or another” (C. Tennant).

4. Messiah

Besides merciful kindness and truth (v. 2 above), two other details emphasize the work of Christ:

All ye nations”, “all ye people”: The day of small things will one day be ended. And then the whole wide world will be brought into subjection to Jehovah.
And this will be an abiding redemption: This “truth of the Lord endureth for ever.
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