If you would take your copies of God’s Word in hand and turn with me to the one hundred and seventeenth psalm; Psalm 117. You’ll find that on page 511 in the church Bibles. It’s an interesting little providential quirk, really, that the very center chapter of the Bible, the five-hundred and ninety-fifth chapter of the Bible happens to be Psalm 117. The very middle chapter is the chapter before us. It also happens to be the shortest psalm and the shortest chapter in the whole of the Scriptures. I don’t think there’s any significance to that at all; I just think it’s an interesting little quirk to notice! Noticing that it is the shortest chapter and the shortest psalm may actually generate some hope and expectation on your part that this will also be a short sermon! Let me dash those hopes at the outset! Please don’t get your hopes up in that regard at all! But it is an interesting little fact, nevertheless.
This is the central chapter, the shortest chapter, and the shortest psalm. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from all of that that this must, therefore, be a relatively insignificant psalm. It may be brief, but its message is mighty. One scholar said of Psalm 117, "The shortest of all the psalms is theologically one of the grandest." Another said, "This tiny psalm is great in faith and its reach is enormous. This shortest psalm proves, in fact, to be one of the most potent and most seminal.” If you’ll look at it, you’ll see immediately that it is a straightforward call to adore the Lord; a summons to the whole world to come and worship the true and living God. In Psalm 117, we are taught the priority and the importance of Christian praise.
We’re going to look at it together under three headings. Let me give them to you if you’re taking notes so you can see where we’re going. First of all, we’ll consider the universal duty of praise; the universal duty of praise. Then secondly, the singular object of praise. So, “Who is to worship?” and then, “Who are we to worship?” The universal duty; the singular object. And then thirdly, the unfailing reason for praise. “Who is to worship? Who is to be worshiped? And why are we to worship?” Okay, that’s the outline. Those are the questions that we’re asking of this psalm. Before we get into all of that, however, let’s bow our heads as we pray.
O Lord, we look to You now as hungry children longing to be fed, as prone to wander sheep that go astray, longing that the Good Shepherd, by the scepter of His Word, would His rod and staff, would direct and constrain and lead us to green pastures and still waters. We come to you needy, empty, longing to be filled. Would You draw near to us as we draw near to You? And would You, by the Holy Spirit, open our minds and hearts not only to understand but to receive and rest upon Christ as He comes to us and speaks to us and is offered to us in this portion of His holy Word. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Psalm 117. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!”
Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
The Universal Duty of Praise
For the whole of her working life, my mother was an elementary school teacher and a principal in an elementary school, usually working in some of the toughest, we would call them projects, in urban Glasgow, in my hometown. And I vividly remember as a boy a time when the teachers' unions were preparing to undergo some strike action over a pay dispute with the government. And before they took the final step of actually calling the strike, they required all the union members to do something called “work to rule.” So “work to rule” means that you only do your job description and your hours and nothing more. It’s a particularly obnoxious way to try and get what you want. It really did drive everyone crazy. And I remember, I have to say, a little bit of glee in my mother’s eyes when, at the end of a school day, she would turn and say, “Well, I know there’s a great pile of homework to be marked, but I’m working to rule and I’m not getting paid overtime, and so, you know, headmaster, if you want to do it, you’re going to have to do it! See ya!” And she would turn and walk out! She was “working to rule.”
When we come up against the commands of the Bible, to praise God, for example, as we hear in Psalm 117, there can be a reaction in the human heart, our inner trade unionist – I know this is a “right to work” state, okay, so just stay with me! You have an inner trade unionist, whether you like it or not. He leaps into action, or she leaps into action, and says, “That’s not my job. I’m working to rule. This is extra. This is a work of supererogation. This is above and beyond my basic job description. This is someone else’s job, not mine.” But Psalm 117 is clear, isn’t it, that the praise of the Lord is not an optional extra, an additional requirement, an unspoken expectation over and above the basic job description of the human heart. No, in fact, the praise of the Lord is the basic job description of all people everywhere.
And that is the first thing that I want us to consider together – the universal duty of praise. The universal duty of praise. Look at verse 1. “Praise the Lord” – so there’s the command. It is an imperative; not a mere invitation but an obligation. This is a summons to fulfill a necessary duty incumbent upon all who hear it. And who is to fulfill that duty? Which class or type of people? “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!” It is a universal duty and obligation. The worship of the Lord is the task of all people in all places at all times. The psalmist is actually picking up on language that appears early in the story of God’s dealings with Israel. Language, vocabulary drawn from the promise God made, the covenant promise God made with Abraham at the very root of Israel’s national life. Psalm 117 is, as you will probably know, part of the Jewish hymnbook, the Psalter. The Jewish people sang these words at the temple and in their worship on a regular basis. And so, as a part of this collection of Jewish hymns of praise, it makes sense that we hear language here that connects with the very roots and foundations of the Jewish people.
Except, that the language used here, connecting all the way back to God’s promises to Abraham, points the Jewish people and us well beyond the limits and borders of Israel to all the nations. And so in Genesis chapter 12, God said that through Abraham He would bring blessing to “all the families of the earth.” Genesis 17, He tells Abraham that God would make him “the father of a multitude of nations.” And in Genesis 22, He said that through his seed, through one of his descendants, ultimately through the Lord Jesus Christ, “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” And so when Psalm 117 makes the people of God sing out this summons – to come and praise the Lord – to all the nations, they’re all to come and praise the Lord, it’s echoing that ancient hope, that foundational goal of God’s that the nations, that all peoples, should come and join them in adoring the Lord our Maker and our Redeemer.
And if you will look at the second half of verse 1 for a moment, notice the synonym that is used for praise. The word, “extol.” Do you see that? “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!” That’s interesting because that is not a Hebrew word. The Hebrew word for “the nations” used in the first part of the verse is “goyim.” Sometimes even today you’ll hear Jewish people talk about non-Jewish people as “goyim.” You’re a “goy,” not a guy! A “goy” if you’re not Jewish. And in the second verse – so here’s this fundamentally, quintessentially Hebrew expression for non-Jews, “goyim,” and then in the very next line an Aramaic, rather than a Hebrew word for “praise” is being used. So this is not the native language of the Hebrew people but the language, rather, of the nations that surround Israel. So that in the very vocabulary of the nations, the summons goes forth to come and worship the Lord.
So the worship of God is not optional, is it? It’s not a cultural distinctive of one nation or one people group. It’s not for some, for the good and the clean and the upright. It’s not a pretension adopted by the self-righteous. Neither is it a crutch, desperately clung to by the weak and the hopeless. It is, rather, the duty, the responsibility, of all people and all nations. It is your duty and mine. It is the obligation of your neighbors and your colleagues, whether they are Christians or not, to come and worship the Triune God of holy Scripture – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Of your family and your friends, from the greatest in the land to the lowest of the low. This is the task of children in their earliest days and seniors at the end of their lives. It is the fundamental calling and most basic duty of every human being. “Man’s chief end,” after all, “is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom belongs the glory forever, amen,” Paul says. Our inner trade unionist has no right to say, “This is someone else’s task.” That worship, that coming to be with the people of God on the Lord’s Day is optional. No, this is the work to which you are called, I am called, for which we have been made. “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!” The universal duty of praise.
The Singular Object of Praise
Then secondly notice the singular object of praise. So, “Who is to worship?” Everyone is to worship! “Who is to be worshipped? Who are we to praise?” Notice the psalm’s answer. “Praise the LORD,” verse 1. “For great is his steadfast love towards us” and “the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever,” verse 2. “Praise the LORD,” verse 3. So three times in all caps we're told that "the LORD" is the only object of our worship and our praise. You probably know that when you read the name of God in English translation it appears, at least in our versions, in all caps like this, "the LORD," – Yahweh. It's the name by which God revealed Himself to His people, Israel. You remember Moses' encounter with God in the burning bush in Exodus 3 where Moses is being sent back to Egypt to call out the Hebrews from bondage and he asks God, "Who shall I say has sent me?" And God tells Moses, "Tell them, ‘I AM who I AM. I AM has sent me to you.'" "I AM" is the name of God, "Yahweh," translated in English versions by the word, "LORD" in all caps. He is the one we are to worship. The God who made us and who redeems us. We're not to have any other gods before Him. We are not to make any image, nor to bow down to or to worship them. We're not to take His name in vain. We are to worship the Lord our God.
And yet, Romans 1:25, all the commands of God to worship Him exclusively notwithstanding, Paul says we have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and we have worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever.” So instinctively now, the human heart inclines away from the worship of the Lord and worships instead almost anything else. Supremely among the objects of our worship is the worship of self. We worship self, most of all. Isn’t that true? If we were to adopt a more confessional mode and acknowledge the truth about ourselves, wouldn’t we have to say that the daily battle of our hearts, even as Christian people, is to turn away from the worship of self to come and bend the knee to the Lord who made us and, in Jesus Christ, has rescued us.
There is a great fashion today to say it doesn’t matter who you worship or what you worship, so long as you worship. The contemporary prevailing fashion directly contradicts Psalm 117. Doesn’t it? “It doesn’t matter who you worship or what you worship, so long as you worship. It’s all going to the same place, after all,” we are told. “We are all like the blind men who experience different parts of the elephant.” I’m so tired of that metaphor. Have you heard that metaphor? It’s really getting old. Do you know the story? The little parable, originally, I think it was a Hindu parable when it was first taught. The blind men encounter an elephant and they set about to describe it by touch alone. And so one man is feeling the flank of the elephant. It’s wide and flat. Another the legs. It’s thick and round. And the tail or the trunk is long and flexible. That’s an elephant. And of course, the narrator says, “You know, the truth is, the blind men all have a part of the truth but nobody sees the whole truth. And so we’re all right and we’re all wrong. You know, all religions have a little part of the truth and they’re all in error, but you know, we’re all ultimately dealing with the same elephant!” It sounds marvelously enlightened, doesn’t it? Very tolerant.
I want to say that actually, it is profoundly arrogant. Stop using that if you’ve ever used it. Not only is it wrong, it’s deeply arrogant. Here’s why. The story, in the story we’re all the blind men. Aren’t we? The only person who can really see is the person telling the story. “So you poor, benighted religionists, you can’t really see the whole truth. But I, I stand in a position of superior objectivity and I can see the truth! So let me tell you that you all have missed it! You all got a part of it. You’re nearly there, you know.” It doesn’t matter your religious background, but that ought to be profoundly offensive to you that anyone – usually a western, enlightened elite, is taking the posture of the narrator – that anyone should tell you that “You can’t really see, but I can see, so let me tell you where you’re wrong.” It’s profoundly arrogant, almost without regard to your particular religious conviction. No matter what you believe, that parable is offensive because the truth is, every one of us is blind and groping in the dark by nature. There is no narrator who can step out of the problem and see the truth with clarity. No, we’re all equally blind and groping in the dark for answers. And we all need not someone to come along and tell us how wrong we are. We need new eyes, don’t we? That’s what we need. We need new eyes.
The Unfailing Reason for Praise
And that brings us to the third thing that I want you to see in the psalm. So praise is a universal duty. Praise is to be offered to the LORD God of Scripture, the Triune God, the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ alone and exclusively. But we have a problem. We’re blind and we never will worship this God, not left to ourselves; we worship almost anything else, especially ourselves. We need new eyes, or else we’re left groping in the dark and always will come to wrong conclusions. And so the third thing I want you to see is the unfailing reason for praise, which actually supplies the antidote. The reason for praise here is that God alone intervenes. He doesn’t leave us to fumble around in the darkness of our sin and confusion. He intervenes. He makes us to see. He opens our blind eyes in His great love. The reason for praise.
Look at verse 2. We are to praise the Lord “for great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.” You know, we might simply spend the remainder of our time turning that line over and over and repeating it to ourselves till it sinks in. Some of us have a terribly hard time believing it to be true. “Great is his steadfast love toward us, and his faithfulness endures forever.” Steadfast love there is the Hebrew word, “hesed.” It means loyal love; covenant love. The love that makes promises of deliverance and follows through on those promises every single time. It is the love that finds its highest expression nowhere other than at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so in Romans chapter 15, when Paul is talking about Jesus and why He came, he said He came on a mission to make the Gentiles, the nations, worship God. Jesus came to fulfill the summons of Psalm 117. And to prove it, he quotes our psalm in Romans 15. The steadfast love of the Lord that is the great reason for worship is evidenced and demonstrated, Paul teaches us, in the coming of Jesus Christ who came to make the nations sing. He came to open your heart and to make you adore God. To give you reasons for worship and praise. To go back to our parable of the blind men and the elephant for a moment, we are all blind, even the narrator is really blind. We’re all blind trying to make some sense of the elephant but we can’t and we never will until we get new eyes. And the storyline of holy Scripture is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who gives them to us. “No one has ever seen God,” the apostle John writes in his gospel. We’re all blind. “No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God who is in the Father’s side” – speaking about Jesus – “He has made Him known.” He has made Him known. He shows Him to us at last, you see. Or in Matthew’s gospel, quoting the prophecy of Isaiah in order to explain the meaning of the ministry of Jesus, Matthew says, “At last, people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light. And for those dwelling in the region of the shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” In the coming of Jesus, light dispels darkness at last. In the coming of Jesus, the God for whom we are groping in the darkness, in the blindness of our sin, is made known to us. He gives us new eyes that we might see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ.
His Life for our Sin
You know, before Jesus went to the cross at the last Passover meal that He celebrated with His disciples, Matthew, as he recorded the gospel narrative, makes a small aside in Matthew 26:30. He just mentions this in passing at the Passover celebration on the eve on which Jesus was betrayed. He said, “After they ate, they sang a hymn.” At the Passover, the custom was before dinner you would sing Psalms 113 to 114. And then after dinner, you’d sing Psalms 115 to 118. So think about this. When the steadfast love of the Lord towards sinful, rebel humanity, toward me and you, was about to reach its high water mark, just when the fullest expression of God’s redeeming love was about to be made known to the world through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, right on the brink of the dreadful suffering and the horror of Calvary where Jesus bore our guilt and shame to reconcile us to God, paying our penalty and dying in our room and stead, right then He was singing Psalm 117 about the great steadfast love of the Lord and His enduring faithfulness that is the reason that everyone, everywhere should come and worship. He was singing about Himself. Wasn’t He? He was singing about Himself. “God has demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He came that the Gentiles, that the nations, that all people, everywhere, might glorify God for His mercy. He came to give His life for our sin and guilt, compelled by the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord. He came to take us, groping in the darkness of our sin, hopeless and lost, to give us new eyes that at last we might see, and seeing find our hearts overcome in wonder, love, and praise.
So there is a great universal duty. We’re all summoned to praise the Lord. It is the job description of every single human heart, despite what our inner trade unionist may say to the contrary. There is only one singular object of worship for all people everywhere, no matter what the enlightened, elite narrator might say, assuming his own clarity while we all grope in the dark. No, the truth is, whether we worship every god, any god, no god, or self alone, whoever we are, whatever our background, we are summoned to worship the only God there is – the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. And we never will come to Him, will we, we never will see the truth until first we are given new eyes. Praise God for the great reason for worship – He has Himself come in pursuit of us because of His great love toward us and redeemed us by Himself, stepping onto the scene of human history in the Lord Jesus Christ, and gave Himself for us to make us His. When He takes hold of our hearts, He gives us new eyes that at last we begin to see the truth, and seeing the truth we will not be able to do anything other than to worship the God who has saved us.
Let me ask you this evening if you have new eyes or if you’re still groping around in the dark. You know, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shines only in the face of Jesus. If you want to know God, you need to look there. Jesus has made Him known. Let’s pray together.
God our Father, how we praise You for the Lord Jesus. We never would have come to You, we never would have, except You gave us new eyes. And so as we bow before You, we praise You for Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God who is in the Father's side, He has declared Him, He has made Him known to us. In Jesus, we've come to know You. In Christ, we have met You and You have redeemed us. Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness which endures forever has become to us the ground and reason of our praise. Would You enable us, as we look at the Lord Jesus with a new resolve and singleness of purpose, to devote our lives not only to worshipping You but to summoning the nations to come and join us and fulfill that universal obligation of praise. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
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