Essential Business – Psalm 117

YouTube video sermon

Psalm 117:1-2

There’s been a lot of talk about a lot of different things over the last several months.  For example, we’ve heard discussions on everything from the economy, healthcare, and politics to conversations about education, recreation, and faith.  And one of the topics that caught my attention this past week was the language we’ve all been using.

I’m not talking about those 3, 4, and 5-letter words, which, as Christians, shouldn’t be a part of our regular vocabulary in the first place (but often are).  I’m talking about terms like:

  • Social Distancing
  • Epidemic, Pandemic & Outbreak
  • “Flattening the curve”
  • Contact Tracing
  • Quarantine & Self-quarantine
  • Contagious, Infectious, Virus AND
  • Fomite

Okay, I’ll admit, that “fomite” isn’t quite as common, but you get the point.  By the way, a “fomite” is any object (a dish, a doorknob, a piece of furniture, etc.) that may be contaminated with an infectious organism and serve in its transmission.  For you students out there – maybe you could use the word in an assignment this week and see if you get some extra credit.

Anyway, there are two more terms that aren’t new but have certainly taken on new meaning and those are the words “essential” and “non-essential.”  If you’re a business owner or an employee – and most of us are – there’s no denying that you’ve scratched your head at some point over the past several weeks and wondered “Who gets to define that?”  Right?

Essential business versus non-essential business…  Most of us have been told that “essential business” is any business that the public relies on in their day-to-day living.  So, things like hospitals, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations would fall into that category.  And businesses that tend to be related to recreation and social gathering – things like restaurants, bars, sports, concert venues, and so forth – are considered non-essential.

And, on one level, most of us can follow that line of reasoning.  But what if your job or occupation falls into one of the non-essential categories?  I bet if you had a personal conversation with one of those folks (and some of you have), then you’d discover pretty quickly that they tend to think their job is essential – especially if they’re single or their spouse’s job was considered non-essential too.

As we conclude the month of April and this little foray in the Book of Psalms, I want to invite you to take your copy of God’s Word (if you haven’t already) and turn with me to Psalm 117.  This is the shortest psalm in the Psalter.  It’s also the shortest chapter in the entire Bible (only 2 verses and 17 words in Hebrew).  Another little bit of trivia is the fact that Psalm 117 is the middle of the Bible (by chapter, not by verse count).  It’s the 595th chapter, with 594 chapters before and 594 chapters after.

Psalm 117 may be the shortest chapter in the Bible, but it’s big on worship.  Psalm 117 admonishes us to praise the Lord because of His great love and His ever-enduring faithfulness.  Are you read?  Have you found Psalm 117?  Here we go, “Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol Him, all you peoples.  For great is His love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.  Praise the LORD (Psalm 117:1–2).

That’s it.  Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  In fact, some of you husbands (and Music Ministers) out there are already getting a little excited because you’re thinking this is going to be a short sermon.  Well, quoting the words of Jesus to Philip in John 14:9, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you still do not know me?”

Dr. Steve Lawson, in his two-volume commentary on Psalms said this, “It has been called a mighty midget of a psalm, the Tom Thumb of the Psalter.  Nevertheless, this brief song is played in a major key as it contains towering truth on a grand scale.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that British minister known as the Prince of Preachers, wrote, “This psalm, which is very little in its letter, is exceedingly large in its spirit…  The same divine Spirit which [expounds] the 119th psalm, here condenses His utterances into two short verses, but yet the same infinite fullness is present and perceptible.”

And Old Testament scholar, Derek Kidner, said this, “The shortest psalm proves, in fact, to be one of the most potent and one of the most seminal.  It’s great in its faith and its reach is enormous.”

Some of us grew up in and around churches that sang a song written in 1924 by Kittie Suffield titled Little Is Much When God Is in It.  This is certainly true of Psalm 117.  It’s little in length but much in truth, because God is in it.  The author is anonymous, the setting is unknown, but the message is loud and clear: Let all the nations praise God.

There’s another reality that many of us have re-discovered during this season of pandemic, and that’s that those issues we once thought important have been re-prioritized.  That’s one of the characteristics of crisis.  Non-essential matters get put on the back burner.  Now, I’m not suggesting that you (personally) or that your business or job are not essential.  But what I am saying is that crisis has a way of peeling back the outer layers of decoration and ornamentation and exposing our core.

Listen; when a tornado is bearing down on your home, you don’t look in the mirror and ask yourself whether or not what you’re wearing will look good on TV after the storm passes by.  You grab your children and any pets you can put your hands on and find a safe place to shelter.  When the doctor calls the family in because there’s only a few moments left, you don’t stand around discussing the color of the walls.  You utter those three simple words that are at your core: I LOVE YOU.

If you grew up in the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church or were a Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian, then you probably remember memorizing the catechism of your particular denomination – whether it was based on the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, or what have you.  Although I was raised in the Baptist Church, my father’s side of the family was thoroughly Presbyterian and I can still hear Question 1 from the Westminster Shorter Catechism in my ears:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.

That’s what Psalm 117 does.  It seeks to get at one of the core essentials of the Christian faith, which is a call for all mankind to praise the LORD.  In keeping with my usual custom, I want to offer us three lessons, three truths, three principles that we can take away from this passage and apply in our lives this week.  And perhaps, just maybe we could share this chapter and these truths with someone else this week, as we seek to be obedient to the call of God to make disciples of all nations.

The Call to Praise

That’s what verse one is.  It’s a call.  It’s an invitation.  It’s an imperative statement.  Some of you have gotten reacquainted with grammar and English and academic things these past several weeks.  An imperative statement is one that issues a command: Do this!  Praise the LORD.  It’s a call to magnify the greatness of God.  It’s a call to extol His greatness, and to give glory and honor to God.

The first word is “praise.”  That word in the Hebrew is the word hallel.  It means “to shine” or “to boast.”  We’re called to point the spotlight on God, to boast in God.  Our lives ought to shine forth God’s goodness and grace and mercy and love.  Interesting little side note here; Psalms 113-118 are collectively referred to as the Hallel Psalms.  They were recited as a complete unit on joyous occasions, most specifically on Jewish holy days.

You might even recall that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room, both Matthew 26 and Mark 14 say that “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Scholars are quite certain that the hymn they sang would have been one of these.  And one more note to consider.  When you put this word hallel next to the word LORD, that’s what gives us the English word “hallelujah.”  Hallel (praise) and Yah (shortened version of Yahweh).  So, in a very real way, when you say or sing the word Hallelujah, you’re actually saying the phrase “Praise the Lord.”  That’s what the word hallelujah means.

And notice that this isn’t just for the Israelites.  This wasn’t just a command given to the Jews.  It goes out to the ends of the earth.  It’s a call to all mankind, to all nations, to all peoples, to bring their praise to God.  Every living person on the planet is instructed and directed to give adoration, words of exaltation, glory and praise to the one true God.  In fact, the Hebrew word for “nations” here is the word goyim, which is the word that is translated as Gentiles.  If you’re reading the old King James Version that’s how it translates this verse.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, in chapter 15, he’s making the argument that Jesus – who is Himself, God – came not only to confirm the promises given to the people of the Old Testament, but that through Him (that is, through Jesus) the Gentiles might give glory to God as well.  And Paul actually uses this psalm, along with other Old Testament texts to makes his argument.

So, this call, this command, this invitation is given that all nations and all people groups would praise and extol the Lord.  This is the Great Commission of the New Testament tucked into the words of the Old Testament.  May this be a reminder to us today.  May this be a challenge to us in this unique season of history to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with everyone we know.  May we invite family and friends, neighbors and strangers to join us as we “Praise the LORD

The Causes for Praise

Praise has its reasons.  We don’t simply praise God because we’re told to (although that would be and probably should be sufficient).  We have good reason to praise God.  And this psalm gives us two of them: His steadfast love and faithfulness, or perhaps your translation has merciful kindness and truth.

When you consider all of the attributes of God (and there are many): His holiness, His sovereignty, His grace, His mercy, His justice, His righteousness, that He’s omniscient, that He’s omnipresent, that He’s omnipotent, and on and on we could go.  Of all God’s attributes, of all the characteristics that describe God’s nature, these two are most often coupled together.

The Hebrew words are hesed and emeth, respectively.  Both of these words are what theologians call “loaded” or “rich” terms.  There’s more nuance and meaning and significance in these original Hebrew words than can be captured in a single English word.  The word hesed is used 247 times in the Old Testament.  It speaks of God’s covenant loyalty, His goodness, His favor, His affection for His own.  The word emeth is used 127 times and refers to God’s reliability, His sureness, His stability, His truth and faithfulness.

Once again, the Apostle Paul picked up on this and wrote about it in Romans 8:38-39 when he said, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  God’s faithful love towards His chosen ones will never come to an end.

Therefore, these two attributes of God should always stimulate and provoke the hearts of God’s people to praise Him.

The Crescendo of Praise

This miniature psalm ends the way it began; “Praise the LORD.”  Now, some of you are wondering what makes this declaration any different from the first one.  And the truth of the matter is that grammatically-speaking there’s absolutely no difference.  The meaning, the force, the emphasis is just as it was when the psalmist started.  There’s no hidden Hebrew meaning in this verbal praise that wasn’t present earlier.  So why did I label this last point The Crescendo of Praise (besides the fact that I’m a sucker for alliteration)?  Well, there’s something to be said for repetition.

Think about it for a second.  Wives, how many of you, when you call for your husbands to help you in the kitchen or in the bedroom have a man like your pastor who immediately drops what he’s doing and runs to your aid?  (Melissa probably just spit out her morning coffee in laughter…)  Come on, I know the answer to that question.  You probably have to call him several times before he pauses that ballgame on TV and gets out of the recliner, right?  You have to repeat yourself in order to actually get his attention.

Guys, how many of you have taken your wives out for a night on the town and told your sweethearts how pretty they looked only for them to say, “No I don’t.  This dress just doesn’t suit me.”  Don’t you find that you sometimes have to tell her multiple times before she really believes you.

Think about the music we listen to.  Almost every song that’s ever been written – whether sung or just instrumental – includes repeated phrases and measures as part of its composition.  It’s that repetition that helps us learn the music.

The important thing to remember, whether large or small, is that Scripture isn’t repeated by accident.  It didn’t come about because God had a lazy streak as a writer.  No, the Bible contains repeated text because repetition serves a purpose.

In this case, repeating the words “Praise the LORD isn’t there because we have to get God’s attention (ladies), or because He doesn’t believe it the first time (guys).  It’s not even there as a learning tool.  Rather, it’s much like uttering those other three words: I LOVE YOU.  Whether we express it using “Praise the LORD or we prefer the Hebrew Hallelujah, the fact remains; it’s essential business in our worship of God.  Would we raise a hallelujah today?