Many believers, especially those belonging to a relatively small community, are used to the dynamic of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – used to being the minority, used to making the unpopular choice. We are accustomed to speaking of ‘them’ in the broad sense of ‘the unbelieving world’, a world whose primary objectives we may not share. But this psalm anticipates the dismantling of all such distinction: it celebrates God’s great plan of re-unification for the world.
- [To the chief Musician on Neginoth, A Psalm or Song.]
God be merciful unto us, and bless us;
And cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.
- That thy way may be known upon earth,
Thy saving health among all nations.
- Let the people praise thee, O God;
Let all the people praise thee.
O let the nations be glad and sing for joy:
For thou shalt judge the people righteously,
And govern the nations upon earth. Selah.
- Let the people praise thee, O God;
Let all the people praise thee.
- Then shall the earth yield her increase;
And God, even our own God, shall bless us.
- God shall bless us;
And all the ends of the earth shall fear him.
Before it can get to its theme of reunion the psalm initially differentiates between the current reality of the two groups, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’. The opening of the psalm is all about ‘us,’ emboldened in the psalm text above (‘God be merciful to us, and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us’ v1), and the close is the same (‘our own God shall bless us; God shall bless us’ v6-7). These references to ‘us’ envelope and embrace the many references to ‘them’, the world at large (‘the earth’ x3, ‘the people’ x5, ‘the nations’ x2 – all underlined above in v2-5).
The near and the far
Even this very structure suggests a message. By enveloping the references to the earth with its many peoples and nations in the embrace of the community of believers (the ‘us’) the psalm is suggesting that God intends to care for and ultimately redeem and re-unite the world through the ministrations of the faithful. That this is indeed the correct interpretation is confirmed not only by other passages of scripture but within the psalm itself, in particular in the connection between v1 and v2:
God be merciful to us, and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us…
that (= in order that) Thy way may be known upon earth,
Thy saving health among all nations. (v1-2)
In other words, the psalmist wants God to bless him and his fellow-worshippers so that they may fulfil their divinely appointed function of being witnesses to Him and educators of the nations in matters of salvation. This is a big commission; small wonder that David asks for God’s help! The psalm recognises that God works through people, fallen and mortal though they are, in order to bring His purpose to fruition.
Together at last
There is, however, one exception to the pattern we have seen (the ‘us’ encircling the ‘them’), a crucial one which captures the whole point of the psalm. All the references to ‘us’ are at the beginning and end of the psalm, and all the references to the world are sandwiched between them, with one notable exception right in the last phrase of the psalm. Here a solitary reference to the world pokes through the frame of the community of ‘us’, and it is the most deliberate and extravagant of all the references:
God, even our own God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us;
and all the ends of the earth shall fear him. (v6b-7)
The beginning and ending of the psalm are therefore not the same. The beginning shows the community of faith and the world as separate, but the end of the psalm presents a vision of the future in which they have come together and coalesced. Now even the ends of the earth have come to fear the Lord just as the faithful do.
Who is ‘us’?
In this way the psalm encapsulates the vision of God’s purpose with Israel as it is depicted, for instance, in the books of Deuteronomy or Isaiah: the prayer is that God should be merciful to us (Israel), in order that His ways may be known in a wider circle upon the earth at large – and that His saving health be experienced in the widest sphere. The bringing of the whole world to God is bound up in, and can only be achieved by, the bringing of the Jews. The Jews are the first-fruits, but the culmination is the harvest of the whole world.
As Deuteronomy explains, Israel were to be a kingdom of priests representing God to the world. In the first instance, then, the ‘us’ of the psalm relates to Israel. It is noteworthy in this context that it opens with an echo of the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 (‘…the Lord make His face to shine upon thee…’). We can view the ‘us’ narrowly as the priests representing God to Israel, but the wider remit of the psalm, by incorporating nations and lands across the earth, calls for a wider application to the nation as a whole (see endnote).
But it goes beyond that: wider, even, that just natural Israel. We, too, as believers from all history’s ages and from all nationalities are called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The remit for us to step forward as spokespeople for God is clearly in view here in both its present and future aspects. Seen and used this way in worship services the psalm constitutes a wonderful exhortation in which believers encourage one another to witness for God in what the New Testament calls ‘the ministry of reconciliation’.
A wide scope
It is not merely people and nations who are caught up in the grand vision of the psalm; it is nature too. This comes out in v6 which looks forward (‘then…’) to the day when the earth shall yield her increase, when the curse will be removed, and the priestly blessing will be poured out not just on the priests but on the whole creation. The current fruitfulness of the earth, currently supporting about seven billion people, is only working at a shadow of the potential which will be unlocked. Modern companies may think they have become skilled at productivity improvements, but this will be nothing compared to what the earth, free at last from its constraining curse, will yield. Small wonder, then, the psalm’s glorious refrain (v3,5): ‘Let the people praise thee, O God, let all the people praise thee!’
Note 1: One possible application of the psalm to its initial audience might be to take the ‘us’ as the priests and levites, ‘the people’ as the worshipping congregation of Israelites, and ‘the nations’ as the Gentiles. This is quite an attractive idea in terms of an initial context for the public use of the psalm. However, in its current context the psalm has a wider remit as the article explores.
Note 2: The final two verses of the psalm contain a nice ABBA pattern which shows how God’s blessings will flow out to both all places of the earth and all its peoples:
earth (land) – God will bless – God will bless – earth (people).
Both people and the environment in which they live fall under the scope of God’s great plan.