The God Squad: Psalm 117
Our summer vacation reading list is a study guide for the shortest psalms in the Bible. I offer this eventual book as a help for my friends at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We have already studied Psalm 23, 131, and 133. Today we take up Psalm 117.
1 O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.
2 For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise ye the Lord. (KJV)
Welcome to the shortest psalm. In fact, welcome to the shortest chapter in the entire Bible.
The psalm simply urges us to praise God because God has abundantly blessed us. It begins with a clear and unambiguous plural imperative to all people to praise God. The reason for this universalism is that in addition to God’s emancipating the Israelite people from Egyptian bondage, God has emancipated many peoples out of many houses of bondage. Amos 9:7, “Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” This is what we call God’s grace and it is intended for all peoples who sleep in the dust.
The Hebrew word for grace is hesed and it means God’s unmerited love for us. It is a kind of love that we do not deserve because we are not so righteous that our virtue compels God to reward us. We do not deserve God’s love, according to Judaism, because we have strayed from the path of righteousness that God has set before us. According to Christianity, we do not deserve God’s love because the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has stained all humanity with original sin. Either way, we have received so much more from God than we deserve and that spiritual excess is hesed/grace.
So the question now arises after we realize that we are the beneficiaries of Amazing Grace/Hesed, “What do we do about the reality of grace in our lives?” The answer of this psalm is simple and profound and spiritually perfect. We praise God. The Hebrew word for praising God is one of the only words that has made the journey from Hebrew to English. That word is Hallelujah. Hallelujah is the way we say thank you to God. Actually saying the words, thank you, to God seems a little too familiar, a little too human, a little too silly because we are talking to God not the deli guy who just handed us an egg salad sandwich, so we say Hallelujah instead. It is not that saying the words thank you to God is wrong. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt taught, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank You’ it will be enough.” It’s just that the words thank you are not spiritually thick enough to convey our knee bending awe at the unmerited excess of our blessings over our burdens.
Another reason Halleluiah is the perfect word to praise is how it sounds. It is a word that mimics the human breath. We pronounce the word by breathing out, hahhhh—lel-yahhh. This act of breathing out perfectly parallels the meaning of the word. God gives to us blessings, the chief one of which is the breath of our life, and we give back to God the breath of our gratitude. God breathed into Adam the breath of life and we breathe into God the breath of our thankfulness. The word Hallelujah is a song.
The psalms and our sacred histories are filled with hundreds of repetitions of this joyous commandment to praise God. Jesus sang this word/song (Matthew 26:30). Psalm 117 is a part of a group of praising songs called the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) that are recited at all the Jewish holiday liturgies in the synagogue.