The simplest psalm (Psalm 117)

Confession: I have usually given Psalm 117 even less time that its two verses merit when reading at a constant rate of words per minute. Not only is it short. It is banal. If you’re given just a few words, just a few seconds, to say something, shouldn’t it be something fresh? Something memorable? Or trenchant? Like a proverb or koan that smacks you upside the head and dazes you? But no. Psalm 117 uses its brief moment to say nothing new, nothing that isn’t seen many times elsewhere in the psalms, at greater length, with great detail and persuasive power. Maybe I have been right to just basically skip over it.

Or maybe not. Maybe it is so short to tell us what is essential, and to invite us to linger over the essential.

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!

Even more concise in Hebrew,  which is maybe worth seeing even if you can’t read the script:

הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־גּוֹיִ֑ם שַׁ֝בְּח֗וּהוּ כָּל־הָאֻמִּֽים׃
כִּ֥י גָ֘בַ֤ר עָלֵ֨ינוּ׀ חַסְדּ֗וֹ וֶֽאֱמֶת־יְהוָ֥ה לְעוֹלָ֗ם הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃

So . . .

The psalm starts and ends with “Praise the Lord.” This is the first thing and the last thing.

At the beginning of the Psalm it’s hallelu et-Adonai. (Well, that’s how my Hebrew teacher taught us [not] to pronounce the Divine Name, YHWH.) At the end, it’s the familiar abbreviated form: hallelu-yah (“hallelujah”).

What makes this phrase so basic that is becomes the first and last utterance you and I, and we together, need to pronounce: in a day, in a life, in a gathering for worship, in a meeting?

First of all, why an imperative? This sentence is, grammatically, a command. To say it is to tell those who hear to do something: I command them to praise the Lord. And how are they to reply? If they answer “Praise the Lord,” they are in turn commanding me to praise the Lord! So instead of doing any actual praising, we get a circus of mutual exhortation to praise. Is this not a strange thing?

There are a couple of ways of explaining this oddity. One is this: when we say “hallelujah” we don’t think we are commanding someone else to praise. We think we are praising! And so we are. It’s a kind of performative utterance. Just to say it is to do it. That’s easy for us English speakers, because we don’t feel “hallelu” as an imperative verb, even if we’ve taken some classes or read a little and know that’s what it is. I wonder whether it was and is the same for native speakers of Hebrew. But even the English phrase “praise the Lord” is the same for us. We don’t necessarily always experience it—either in the saying or in the hearing—only or even mainly as the imperative that it is.

But there is another way of explaining it. Which is: yes, of course it is an imperative, because praise is not properly—when fully mature, fully enacted—a solitary act. It is a corporate act, something done together, responsively or in unison, unanimously (with one life-force, one soul). So we never praise God without urging each other to praise God. To praise God necessarily entails inviting everyone else into the praise of God.

This is why evangelism (telling the good news of God to others) is not an extra, optional component, a distinct practice. Some are more gifted at it and will focus on it more than others. But from the very start: to say “praise the Lord” is to tell others, or at least to imply to others, that there is a Lord, and that this Lord has done and said things that are praiseworthy.

But telling others the good news isn’t the main or even the only implication of the mutual exhortation that is entailed in saying “praise the Lord.” This is a little more difficult but equally important: praise is socially constructed, just as knowledge is socially constructed. As some very astute sociologists taught us in the last century, it is very hard to know anything (in the sense of knowing, and knowing that you know), without being part of a community that also knows the same things. It’s not that no reality exists to be known. But our human way of knowing tends to be social. If no one else around me knows (for example) that the earth circles the sun, my objective discoveries (using empirical observations and reasoning, mathematical calculations) may not suffice to enable even me to know that the earth circles the sun. I will experience dissonance between what I think maybe I know and what all the other people around me think they know, and I could tip either way. This is why it is possible—as we have seen recently with regard to conflicting, and in some cases certifiably insane, interpretations of publicly accessible realities—for many people to “know for sure” things that are objectively false. Social reinforcement can uphold people in knowing things that are true—or in “knowing” things that are false.

Praise is like knowledge in this regard: it is socially constructed. God is really there, and is really worthy of praise, but all around us are many other realities, and in addition our imaginations are also full of sham realities, and we might focus on one of them rather than on God. We might admire, desire, love, hope to gain, hope to achieve intimacy, dedicate our whole being to one or several of those other things. That is to say, we might praise a false god. So we join together to support each other in praising the true God, the God of truth. Your praise reminds me, and my praise may remind you, of who God is, and why we praise. God ordains this socially constructed praise, is pleased with it, and even, we might say (if you’ll allow me to stretch a biblical metaphor to a somewhat playful extent), trusts it enough to risk sitting down on it. (Does not another psalm address God as one who is “enthroned on the praises of Israel”?)

But there is more to think about, namely, why—of all verbs—this verb “praise”? There’s no great cause for wonder about including “the Lord” in the one most basic utterance, but why not some other verb? Why is the first and last word, the watchword, not “Know the Lord!” Or “Love the Lord!” After all, the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And scripture certainly urges us to know the Lord (though it also prophesies a time when no one will need to urge others to know the Lord because all will know the Lord).

Nevertheless, in the communal life of the people of God, the most frequent intro, the most common refrain, the most common conclusion is neither “Know the Lord!” nor even “Love the Lord!” We might also need to remind ourselves at times that it is also not “Claim the Lord, ” “Blame the Lord,” “Hype the Lord,” “Sell the Lord,” “Be smug in the Lord,” “Bash others with the Lord,” Misrepresent the Lord,” or any other thing.

It is “Praise the Lord!”

I think this must mean that somehow, in some respects, praising the Lord is more basic, is prior to, either knowing the Lord or loving the lord. Praising the Lord may be a gateway to knowing and loving the Lord. It may also work the other way around, I think. But we should consider whether it is possible, and if so, what it might mean, to praise the Lord even before reaching a point of feeling that you know the Lord, before reaching a point of feeling that you love the Lord or even have the slightest clue what loving the Lord might mean. All are invited—urged—to praise the Lord.

As we see in the next words of the psalm: “all nations.” In Hebrew this is kol goyim. The “nations” (goyim) are diverse, undefined except in a negative way: they are the people who are not Israel. Christians who are not genetically Hebrew may be tempted to say “that’s us—the new people of God.” But they should not think that the point is that the church replaces Israel as God’s people. This psalm antedates the Christian church by many years. What does it mean when in this psalm and Israelite, surely speaking to other Israelites, says “Praise the Lord, all goyim”?

We can see rather easily by cheating a little, just letting our eyes wander down the page to Psalm 118:2–4: “Let Israel say . . . Let the house of Aaron say . . . Let those who fear the Lord say.” Note the sequence: God’s chosen people, then their leaders in worship, then those who may not be, genetically, God’s people (of any and every or no nation!) but who have become God’s people by virtue of their joining in with the Israelite community of praise. This is clearly signaled throughout scripture, from the call of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations to the promises of the prophets that all nations would flow to Mount Zion to be instructed in the way of God.

For Christians, then, who use the Psalms in worship, what we take from “all nations” (kol-goyim) and in the next line “all peoples” (kol ha-ummim) is not “That means us! We are the gentiles!” No. What we take from it should be the same thing that the Israelites were to take from it: it means those who are not us, those who are other, those not part of our community, because the God whom we praise is ultimately all about the obliteration of barriers between “us” and “them” in favor of the construction of a universal chorus of praise that will unite all peoples, along with the seas, all trees of the forest, all the beasts of field, all the stars in the heavens.

And then in verse 2, despite what I have read out of (or into) verse 1 to the effect that the praise of God may sometimes precede knowledge of God, the psalmist grounds our praise of God not in some decision of our own but in the two fundamental characteristics of God, or better, in two names for the fundamental character of God, namely, God’s chesed and God’s emet. Any reader of the Bible who has learned even just a handful of Hebrew words may know these two. Chesed, often translated “lovingkindness,” or “merciful lovingkindness,” is God’s reliable, abiding disposition towards all those who are bound in covenantal relationship with God. And emet is “truth” and “truthfulness” in a personal sense that makes it possible or necessary sometimes to translate it (as the ESV does here) “faithfulness.” To the extent that we participate frequently and fully in the praise of God, we will find ourselves drawn into knowing and loving God and being assimilated to God’s own character, which means being unfailingly loving and merciful, and also means being unfailingly committed to emet, both in what we believe and say (truth) and in what we do (steadfast loyalty, fidelity, to the one who is truth). Our praise might be prior to our knowledge of God, but God—with God’s merciful lovingkindness, faithfulness, and truthfulness—is prior to our praise.

In his Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms, St. Athanasius of Alexandria conveyed what might have been a commonplace among the Egyptian monks who taught him how to pray: the Psalter contains in itself a perfect summary of every other part of the Bible. I think we could also say: Psalm 117—the shortest and simplest of the Psalms—sums up the entirety of the Psalter, and so in some sense the entirety of the Bible.

If you and I can ever learn to pray this simple psalm perfectly, we will have achieved all that our creator ever meant us to achieve. Psalm 117 says everything.

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