Psalm 117 – A Witness to Universal Aspiration
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. Praise the LORD, all nations; extol Him, all the peoples,
2. for his steadfast love overwhelms us, and the faithfulness of the LORD is eternal.
“One of the grandest” psalms (Kirkpatrick), exhibiting “ideas that are among the loftiest” in the Bible (McCullough, Interpreters’ Bible), Psalm 117, the shortest chapter in the Bible, is widely appreciated. Its two verses are readily divided into three parts: the call to praise, the international audience that it addresses, and the justification. The model is frequently cited as the quintessence of psalms of praise.
The international orientation of the first verse is unmistakable. This is by no means unique in the Bible, whose monotheism by its very nature includes both the special relationship with
and God’s dominion over the whole world. (See by way of example my comments on Psalm 47.) However, non-Israelite worship of the Lord is more often seen as a future phenomenon (see, for instance, Psalm 68:32). Psalm 117 stands out for the exclusivity and immediacy of its address. It is a ringing affirmation of God’s universal sway. (Among psalms cited by commentators who draw attention to the universal scope of Psalms are 18, 47, 66, 68, 97, 98, 100, 105, 108, and 148.) Israel
The immediate motivation for this call, however, is less clear and depends to a large extent on the interpretation of “us” in verse 2. If “us” refers to
, then the call to other nations is a summons to celebrate God’s particularistic beneficence. If “us” incorporates others in worship (as is a possibility in the last verse of Psalm 47), this is perhaps the most immediate of “international” psalms. In the Talmud (Pesahim 118b), one rabbi clearly argues that the “us” of verse 2 implies beneficence to other nations. Some interpreters suggest that “us” is indeed everyone, but add a presumed qualification that the psalm is therefore messianic in its orientation. Israel
It seems to me that the ambiguity is quite purposeful. It is possibly the author’s goal that the reader consider the relation of God to non-Israelite nations. In any case, the inclusiveness is evident. Hence A. Cohen calls this psalm a “witness to… universal aspiration.”
The beginning of verse 2 is particularly picturesque, and “overwhelms” is too often mistranslated as, “great is His steadfast love.” The verb used clearly implies victory and overcoming, which befits the core meaning of “steadfast love” as “grace.” The terminology implies that despite human resistance (of one sort or another), God is gracious.
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Picking up on the international tone of Psalm 117, Paul cites it as one of the justifications for his approach to non-Jewish nations (Romans ).
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) הַלְלוּ אֶת יְהֹוָה כָּל גּוֹיִם שַׁבְּחוּהוּ כָּל הָאֻמִּים:
(ב) כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ חַסְדּוֹ וֶאֱמֶת יְהֹוָה לְעוֹלָם הַלְלוּיָהּ: