The Hallel psalms are psalm of praise—they are Hallelujah psalms. This one also concludes with that exclamation of praise. This is a very brief psalm, and is one that many of you can already sing from memory. But although it is brief, it packs a throw weight that is considerable, and is a psalm of praise that encompasses the entire world.
“O praise the Lord, all ye nations: Praise him, all ye people. For his merciful kindness is great toward us: And the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise ye the Lord” (Psalm 117).
Summary of the Text
The psalm begins with an invitation to “all nations” to render praise to Yahweh, to join together with the Jews in saying hallelujah (v. 1). Praise Him, all you goyim. Praise Him, all you tribes (v. 1). And why should we do this? We should do it because His merciful kindness (hesed) is great toward us. We should do it because the truth (emeth) of Yahweh is something that endures forever (v. 2). This is why we must sing hallelujah.
Minister of the Circumcision
The Gentile world mission, of which Paul was the most notable representative and emissary, was not the point at which God changed His mind about the Jews. Rather, the Gentile world mission was the point at which God fulfilled one of His great promises to the Jews, and at which the Jewish leaders changed their mind about Jehovah. That particular apostasy is one that we need to understand a bit better than we do.
The apostle Paul defends his mission to the Gentiles in Romans 15, and in the course of that defense he quotes our passage. Let’s see how he uses it.
“Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust. Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 15:8–13).
Christ was made a deacon of the circumcision, a servant or a minister of the circumcision. He was born in the tribe of Judah, as a fulfillment of the promise made to David. And Paul says here that Christ was made a deacon in this way in order to confirm the promises made to the fathers (v. 8). Everything that follows supports that, and everything that follows is also about the gathering in of the Gentiles. We do not just have an exhortation to the Gentiles that they ought to praise the Lord, but we know they probably won’t. No, we have a prediction that the Gentiles would in fact glorify God for His mercy (v. 9; see 2 Sam. 22:50; Ps. 18:49). In the next verse (v. 10), we have a command that was issued to the Gentiles in Deuteronomy (Deut. 32:43). And then again, we see the same thing in Paul’s citation of our text (v. 11; Ps. 117:1). And then Isaiah prophesied that the root of Jesse would spring up, and He would rule over the nations, and the Gentiles would hope in Him (v. 12; Is. 11:10). They shall not hurt or destroy in all the holy mountain, and the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:9).
In this context, the Roman Christians (largely Gentiles) had a benediction declared over them, that the God of hope might fill them with joy in believing (all of this), that they might abound in hope, as the power of the Holy Spirit works in them.
Gentiles Were Not the Non-Christians of the Old Testament
We have to distinguish the universalization of the priesthood in the New Testament (which actually happened) and the universalization of salvation (which is not what happened).
We know from the New Testament that Christ is the only way. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And so, as the Westminster Confession puts it, outside the Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
Now if you assume that the Jews were the Christians of the Old Testament, this creates enormous problems. In the Old Testament, salvation was not limited to just one nation. Rather, the priesthood was limited to just one nation.
How could we say that salvation was limited to the Jews? We can say that salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22, ESV), but far too many Gentiles are saved in the Old Testament to simply equate “Gentile” with “unbeliever.” Melchizedek was a Gentile (Heb. 7:3), and Abraham paid tithes to him (Heb. 7:4). When Ezekiel named three of the godliest men he could think of, two of the three were Gentiles (Ez. 14:14). Noah lived before there were any Jews, and Job was an Edomite. The inhabitants of Nineveh repented (Jonah 3:5; Matt. 12:41). Naaman the Syrian became a true worshiper of God (2 Kings 5:17; Luke 4:27). Jethro was a priest in Midian, and a servant of the true God (Ex. 18:1). The Queen of Sheba was taught by Solomon (1 Kings 10:5). (1 Kings 8:60). And Solomon built the Temple with a provision for Gentiles in view (2 Chron. 6:32-33).
So the time of the new covenant is a time when salvation explodes into the world, but this is not something that erases a former boundary. Gentiles can be saved now, but they could always be saved. The glory is that Gentiles can be priests and Levites now (Is. 66:19-21). The priestly nation has been universalized, and that is why the division now is between Christian and unbeliever.
The Covenant Lord
Over the centuries, the Jews had been praising Yahweh, praising Jehovah, the covenant God of Israel. Christ came as a minister of the circumcision in order to confirm His promises to them. Not to abrogate them, but rather to confirm them. When He came—lived His life as a perfect Jew, was crucified, was buried, and raised again—this was a confirmation that He was in fact the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). As a result of all this, the fundamental Christian confession is that Jesus is Yahweh. This means that He is the covenant Lord of Israel. “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered (Joel 2:32). This is quoted in Romans 10:13, using the Greek word kurios for Yahweh. And just a moment before this, Paul told us that the fundamental confession was that “Jesus is Lord” (kurios).
And never forget the fact that because this priesthood is universal, it must of necessity include ethnic Israel. Their disobedience is only temporary, and they will be brought back in again (Rom. 11:23). Anti-Semitism is about the most anti-gospel frame of mind that can be imagined. And among professed worshipers of Jesus ben-David, it is also the silliest.