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Occasional Letters: Much in Little

D Newell, Glasgow

I am told that the motto of Rutland, the smallest historic county in England, is multum in parvo, the Latin for 'much in little'. Though many people think 'bigger is better', there is a great deal to be said for brevity. The shortest Psalm, and indeed the shortest chapter in the Bible, is Psalm 117, which tends to be overshadowed by its next door neighbour but one, the lengthiest poem in the Psalter. Its message nonetheless is pithy and plain: "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."

What may we learn from this compact poem of praise? First, we should not overlook the simple fact of its size. It is possible to say something of value in a small space. Paul thought Psalm 117 significant enough to quote half of it in Romans 15, where he taught that it has always been God's purpose to go out in grace to Gentiles:

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 (Rom 15.8-11).

Having summarised the Saviour's earthly ministry as a fulfilment of Old Testament promises to Israel, Paul moves on to show that God's grace was not restricted to Jews. He does this by stringing together, almost in the manner of Daily Light, a series of citations from the Psalms and the Pentateuch (Ps 18.49; Deut 32.43; Ps 117.1). What these quotations have in common is an atmosphere of jubilant worship in which non-Jews join zestfully with God's chosen people in glorifying Him for His amazing large-heartedness: "sing … rejoice … praise". Psalm 117 is but one of many testimonies to the expansiveness of divine grace. Its crispness reminds us that neither preaching nor public praying have to be long-winded. Young men, perhaps intimidated by the twenty-minute prayers of older brethren, have no need to retreat into silence in the local assembly. A few choice words can express genuine worship as well as the most eloquent of expositions. We do well to recall Paul's confession that in the assembly he would rather "speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (1 Cor 14.19). Five plain words can be powerful: "Christ died for the ungodly"; "The Lord is my shepherd"; "In the beginning God created".

The next feature to note is its shape. The Psalm is circular, in that it begins and ends with praise. The lesson is that it is never wrong to praise the Lord. Assembly gatherings may be convened for specific purposes (teaching, prayer, evangelism, fellowship), but worship is the fitting accompaniment to them all. One of the reasons God's kindness embraces Gentile outsiders is that they might join in His praise. Paul again is the example. Imprisoned in Philippi he not only engaged, with Silas, in prayer (which we can well understand), but lifted his voice in adoration: "at midnight Paul and Silas, in praying, were praising God with singing, and the prisoners listened to them" (Acts 16.25, JND¹). To give God His place in worship is to recognise that His glory must always take priority over our blessing. The angels at the incarnation announced "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Lk 2.14). The order (in English at least) is both alphabetical and logical; God's glory must precede our good.

The third feature is sense. Even this tiny poem includes a logical connective ("for") linking the two verses, so that an exhortation ("praise") is followed by an explanation ("For his merciful kindness is great"). Little words can be so important because they act as vital signals, directing the reader towards a proper grasp of the meaning. There is nothing irrational about God's Book; it all makes perfect sense, according to the normal rules of reading. Once we allow the existence of a sovereign, all-powerful God, who created the universe for His glory, everything from Genesis 1.1 onwards falls neatly into place. Another principle follows from this: we must allow Scripture to speak for itself. As a child, I envied my little friends who had been given bendy toys for their birthdays. I yearned for one of those playthings, then all the rage, which one could bend to one's will, contorting its body into the most grotesque and unnatural shapes. Alas, some people treat the Bible like this. They take a passage or verse and twist it to suit their preconceived fancy, or to support their preferred doctrine. But our duty to God's inspired Word is to let it say what it says, not what we think it ought to say. Peter's second letter offers tough warnings to 'Scripture stretchers' (2 Pet 3.16).

The fourth feature of interest is the speaker. Psalm 117 has no authorial superscript, nor does it contain any clues as to the writer. But there is one significant pronoun – "us". The first verse addresses Gentiles ("ye nations … ye people"), so it is reasonable to assume that the speaker is an Israelite. The reason for Israel's calling was that they might be "my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen" (Isa 43.10). An oasis of monotheism in a world given over to idolatry, Israel was to testify to the true God so that others might long to know Him. The story of Jonah demonstrates that, because of religious pride and xenophobic nationalism, this was not always the case. In the Millennium, however, God's purpose will be fulfilled, for "many people and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord" (Zech 8.22). The application is simple: just as Israel was to testify to God, so are we. Writes Paul, "Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world" (Phil 2.14-16). Only when people are saved by grace can they unite with us in worshipping the living God for His great mercy and His eternal truthfulness.

The final feature is what we might call the spotlight, the main focus of the Psalm. This, I suggest, is the collocation of divine attributes in verse two: "merciful kindness" and "truth". These are not trivial words. The first, often translated 'lovingkindness', 'mercy', or (in more recent versions) 'steadfast love', appears some 250 times in the Old Testament, and expresses God's practical tenderness towards the helpless. Its first and last appearances are interesting. It is used by a grateful Lot to confess that God has "magnified thy mercy … in saving my life" (Gen 19.19), but is last used by Jehovah Himself to describe what He required of Israel: "Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother" (Zech 7.9). The second word appears first on the lips of Abraham's servant: "Blessed be the Lord God … who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth" (Gen 24.27). Its final mention is in an idealised portrait of Levi, the priestly tribe: "The law of truth was in his mouth" (Mal 2.6). Both words, we notice, are used first of Jehovah and then of His people. The challenge is this: God's kindness and trustworthiness are meant to be reflected in some measure in those He has redeemed. The trouble is, Israel failed – and we fail. Yet these marvellous divine attributes were found perfectly displayed in the Son of God incarnate, for "grace [lovingkindness] and truth came by Jesus Christ" (Jn 1.17). From Him radiates all the glory of deity. Yes, there's a good deal in Psalm 117. Don't miss out on the truths that Scripture can pack into just a few words.

¹ J N Darby, The Holy Scriptures - A New Translation from the Original Languages.

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