You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
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!
Who Are the "Peoples," the Nations?
Let's start with the words "nations" and "peoples." "Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!" A few years ago after I had preached a missions sermon, one of the children of our church asked her mom, "Is peoples a word?" She had learned that the word "people" is already plural and so you don't need to add an "s" to it. But there it is in Psalm 17:1. In fact, it occurs 234 times in the ESV.
The reason is that "people" can be made plural the same way "group" can be made plural. A "group" has people in it. And a "people" has people in it. But a group is a group because something unites the people. And a people is a people because something unites the people. So there can be "groups" and there can be "peoples."
What unites a "people" in the way the Bible uses the term peoples is not mainly location, but culture, including things like language and customs, as well as physical features. "Nations" and "peoples" in the Bible don't refer to political states like America, Spain, Brazil, China, but to ethnic or language or cultural groupings in these political states. For example, if you go to the website "China Source" you will see, for starters, a list of sixty Chinese "peoples" (Dulong, Li, Lisu, Shui, Salar, Yao, etc.). And in the Bible you read about, "the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites" (Genesis 10:16-18).
So when Psalm 17:1 says, "Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!" it means, "Praise the Lord, Baluch of Pakistan! Praise the Lord, Maninka of Guinea! Praise the Lord, Bugis of Indonesia! Praise the Lord, Wa of China! Praise the Lord, Somali and Dakota of Minneapolis!" These are the kinds of groups Jesus was referring to when he said after his resurrection, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (panta ta ethne, same phrase in Psalm 117:1, LXX). These are the groups that Jesus meant when he said, "This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).
So a huge question for followers of Jesus today is - or should be - how many peoples are there and how many of them are still unreached with the gospel of the kingdom? How many still have no church who obey Psalm 117 and praise the Lord?
Let's just take one reliable research effort, the huge Southern Baptist International Missions Board. For their missionary purposes they calculate 11,227 people groups in the world. Of these, 6,614 have less than 2% evangelical Christians. Of these, 68 peoples have populations over 10 million; 433 populations between 1 and 10 million; 1,452 between 100 thousand and 1 million.
If you hear someone say that the day of Western missions is over, you know something is amiss in their head or in their heart. They may not believe that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus is to be praised by all peoples. Or they may not believe that anyone is really perishing without the gospel. Or they may believe that local people can do a better job than Western people (which misunderstands the very issue at stake: there aren't any [or strong enough] local people capable of doing the work: that is the meaning of "unreached"; and nearby reached peoples may be less culturally acceptable than Westerners.). The day of Western Missions is not over. And the day we think it is, will be the day you can write "forsaken" over the door of this church. God means for us to engage with him to bring about Psalm 117: "Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!"
If you have children who don't know that "peoples" is a word, and why it's a word, I suggest that you subscribe to the Global Prayer Digest and read a story to them and pray for a different people group each day. Our boys grew up on stories from the Global Prayer Digest at the breakfast table each day, and now Talitha is. Which is part of the reason why all four sons did missions trips while they were teenagers. Oh, may we be a church where children and youth not only know that "peoples" is a word, but who consider short-term missions as normal as vacations and who consider the dangers and burdens and joys of vocational missions a gift everyone should consider receiving.
Oh, that children and teenagers and adults at Bethlehem would break free from our tiny little worlds of family and friends and church and American culture! Jesus Christ is building his church around the world. We are meant to think and feel and work with him in this cause. Who knows how many of our personal problems are owing to narrowness of thinking and smallness of affections in relation to God's global purposes. May God give us a mind and heart to know and love and reach the peoples of the world for the glory of our Savior!
Let's not be among the number who do not see that the world and the church have changed dramatically in the last 100 years - the greatest missionary century in history. Listen to Andrew Walls from his book, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History:
[The twentieth century] has seen this great recession from the Christian faith in the West, there has been an equally massive accession to that faith in the non-Western world. [At the beginning of the century] well over 80 percent of those who professed Christianity lived in Europe or North America. Now, approaching 60 percent live in the southern continents of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific, and that proportion grows annually. Christianity began the twentieth century as a Western religion, and indeed, the Western religion; it ended the century as a non-Western religion, on track to become progressively more so. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002, pp. 63-64)
We are not at the center. God may or may not be done with us in our self-absorbed prosperity in America. But he certainly is putting others on the Christian map to humble us and call us to confess and rejoice that others may be far more effective in finishing the Great Commission that we are. The dynamics of church and missions will never be the same.
One small example is the way the debate in the Anglican Communion about homosexual clergy is playing out on a global scale. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than in England and America put together. Their bishops are biblically conservative, and they vote. Who would have dreamed just thirty years ago that powerful, liberal Western bishops would be called to account biblically by the churches they planted in Africa?
This is the new world we live in. It is the world that God is guiding and shaping for his glory. So let's join him in his great global purpose and not be limited in our thinking and feeling and acting to our local concerns. Let's give ourselves to missions, either as a goer or a sender.
God's Purpose for the Nations, the Peoples
God's purpose for the peoples of the earth is clear in Psalm 117, and that is the second word we turn to. The first word was "peoples" or "nations." Now the second word is "praise" or "extol." Verse 1: "Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!" This is God's purpose: that he be praised by all the peoples - that he be much of; that he be seen and savored and shown to be great.
Missions is a cross-cultural movement aimed at helping people stop making much of themselves and start making much of their Creator. Missions is a cross-cultural effort to transform people's hearts so that God is felt to be more praiseworthy than sport stars or military might or artistic achievements or anything else that God has made. Missions is a cross-cultural endeavor to help people experience God as their Treasure above all earthly treasures forever. It is a life and death struggle to give people eternal life, which consists in knowing and enjoying God forever.
Missions is telling the nations to praise God and then giving them evidences that this is good to do and showing them how God has made a way for sinners to do it because of the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Missionaries don't just say Psalm 117:1, "Praise the LORD, all nations!" They also say Psalm 147:1, "Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting." We don't just say, "Praise the true God, through his Son Jesus!" We give reasons. We explain who he is and what he is like and how he has worked in history and spoken to us in the Bible and in his Son. We give reasons for why praising God is the only safe and satisfying response to God. We make clear: Not to praise is to perish.
Let's face a problem here. Not everyone hears Psalm 117:1 as good news. God's command to praise God sounds really vain to lots of people. For example, Michael Prowse, writing in the London Financial Times March 31, last year said:
Worship is an aspect of religion that I always found difficult to understand. Suppose we postulate an omnipotent being who, for reasons inscrutable to us, decided to create something other than himself. Why should he . . . expect us to worship him? We didn't ask to be created. Our lives are often troubled. We know that human tyrants, puffed up with pride, crave adulation and homage. But a morally perfect God would surely have no character defects. So why are all those people on their knees every Sunday? (Financial Times, March 30/March 31, 2002, p. 2.)
In other words, the only incentive that Prowse can think of for God to demand praise from us is that he has need - a defect. But what if we have the need, and the need is to see infinite beauty and enjoy it so much that is spills over in authentic praise. What if admiration really is the highest pleasure and God is the most admirable being in the universe? If that were the case, wouldn't God's demand that we praise him be a demand for our maximum joy. And do we not call that love? C. S. Lewis struggled with the same thing, and made the great discovery:
But the most obvious fact about praise-whether of God or any thing-strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise-lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game-praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least.…
I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: "Isn't she lovely? Wasn't it glorious? Don't you think that magnificent?" The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958, pp. 93-95)
The reason God seeks our praise is not because he won't be complete until he gets it. He is seeking our praise because we won't be happy until we give it. "Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant" (Psalm 147:1). Therefore when we say that missions is the cross-cultural effort to help the peoples praise God, we mean that missions is love not arrogance.
Missions is calling the world do what they were created to do, namely, to enjoy making much of God forever. If missions does not reach a people with the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ, God will be dishonored and the people will be miserable - for ever. Therefore we are driven by two motives (which turn out to be one): the glory of God, and the good of man. They are one because praise to God is the consummation of pleasure in God.
The Basis of the Peoples' Praise
Finally, notice the basis of the peoples' praise. "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!"
Surprisingly, this basis leads us inevitably to Jesus Christ as the basis of the praise of the nations. How is that? Notice that the basis of the nations' praise is God's love and faithfulness toward Israel! "Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us." God is loving and faithful to Israel! Therefore praise him all nations and all peoples outside Israel!
Why is God's blessing of love and faithfulness to Israel the basis of praise for all nations and all peoples? A summary answer from the Bible goes like this: When God chose Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, he said in Genesis 12:2-3, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." All the families of the earth - all the nations, all the peoples - will be blessed through Abraham.
How? Because the ultimate, decisive seed of Abraham was the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Paul put it this way in Galatians 3:16, "The promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' who is Christ." This Jesus Christ offers himself as the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, not just the sin of Israel (John 1:29). He says that anyone who believes on him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). He holds out his hands to Israel and the nations, and says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). And then he tells his disciples, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20).
So when Psalm 117 says, "Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward [Israel] . . ." it means finally, Praise God all peoples because through Israel a Savior will come into the world. He will take away all your sins. He will fulfill all God's demands on your behalf. He will die for you and rise again and sit down at the right hand of God. And he will come to judge the living and the dead.
And until that time he is gathering his elect from all the peoples of the world by means of the faithful missionary labor of his church. He will one day be praised by every tongue and tribe and people and nation. This is his goal. And he calls all of us to be goers or senders.