Today we continue our ongoing series of Psalms Greatest Hits, with a look at the One-Hundred and Seventeenth Psalm.
Psalm 117 is directly in the middle of the Bible with 594 chapters preceding it and 594 chapters following it. It’s the shortest chapter in all of scripture and while we don’t specifically know who wrote it, many attribute it to David penning it down, but some scholars think this was likely a hymn that predated him. This Psalm is a Messianic Psalm and part of a group of Psalms (113-118) known as Hallel (Praise) Psalms. These have Hebrew roots stemming from the captivity in Egypt, and were likely sung in Jesus’ day as was the tradition during the Jewish Passover celebration (Matthew 26:30). Seen from the vantage point of the passion, this Psalm takes on a new layer of depth as the fulfillment of hundreds of years of Jewish longing and waiting.
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!
ַה ְללוּ (ellu) means to praise or worship. Since this is in the plural form, the invitation is corporate not merely personal. The object of this praise is to be ְיהָוה (YHWH, or what many would say Yahweh). Now this is not just a tribal appeal to the God of a particular religion. We have to understand what they meant by this name for God which was not pronounced. The Hebrew Shema (hearing) states:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
This is important because this Psalm (and many like it) are not driving merely to a “my God can beat up your god.” monotheism, but one as in ‘oneness’, integration, convergence. Thus any tradition that strives to find the God before and above all gods, is essentially seeking that convergence of all things, that oneness. Verse 5 of the above passage in Deuteronomy is quoted by Jesus as the greatest commandment of all religion, meaning, if you get this one right, you get all of religion right, if you miss it, you miss the heart of all systems of faith. Thus the invitation of Psalm 117 to praise the One, YHWH, is the invitation past any religious system unto that which is Beyond Everything.
The corporate invitation extends beyond our tribal and religious systems by emphasizing גִּים (guim-Nations) and ָה ֻא ִמּים (amin-clans). This is the calling together of everyone regardless of where we are from, or what status we possess in our life. Too often we read scripture from within a religious frame or tradition and it’s really hard to extract the text beyond the walls of our temples. If this Psalm does originate from the slavery and captivity of the children of Israel (Jacob), then it predates the Law and Judaism/Christianity/Islam/Hinduism as any of us would know them. The trajectory is for all people, of all times, in all traditions, to exalt or worship our Maker. This means the intended audience cannot be larger.
To give a proper explanation of the Hebrew word ַח ְסדּ (Chsd, or Chesed) would be too vast of an undertaking. Suffice it to say that Chesed is what we know as unmerited grace, divine kindness, ongoing or unceasing compassion or love. It’s used in the Psalms, and in the prophetic writings of Genesis, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Hosea. It’s on display in countless other texts of which I have identified at least 130+. The loving kindness of God means that we are not condemned by retributive justice, but grace is given by restorative justice. Not because of our religious obedience or spiritual success, nor superior morality, but because God loves us and chooses to reveal himself/herself to us as this kind of God.
Chesed (The grace or loving kindness of God) is why this is a Messianic (anointed) Psalm. The Hebrew tradition is an advent for the kind of society that is governed by Chesed, and not the kings placed over man (1 Samuel 8:5-7). It’s an alternative type of leadership, which frees its people and they live in peace and justice (restorative). Throughout Hebrew scripture the hope and promise of this anointed one (which means Christ or Messiah) would bring about a new world. Jesus, who has fulfilled literally hundreds of Hebrew prophesies, and who claimed to be this Christ, demonstrated with accompanying works, subverted the institutional powers of religion and State and restored the faith of people back to that of their forefathers (Abraham, Moses, Elijah). This Good News is a return to faith, and not unto religion.
This context opens up why this chapter is the jewel at the centerpiece of scripture. All people, all nations, all tribes, tongues, and perspectives, are invited to come, to liberate from religious and political and economic oppression and experience the unmerited, never ending ְלע ָלם (for eons), grace and loving kindness and faithfulness of God.
How can we each experience Chesed (grace)? My suggestion is to take whatever framework for spirituality that you possess and follow it as far back as you can. At some point everyone of us must “let go” (exalt) become free of that framework once we realize that it is too small and too late in human history to get behind the love of God which preceded them all. At some point we find ourselves without a guide, without a history, a tradition, or a religion. It’s just “us”, at one with our Maker.
There, if we have an inner posture which bows, we will meet Grace. There we will meet the anointed one who does not hold our sins against us. And that is the foundation of a New world.