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A Short Praise

by Tim O'Hearn

We are told that good things come in small packages. That may be an overgeneralization. There are some good things that won’t fit in small packages, and some pretty poor things that do. Nevertheless, on the television game show Let’s Make a Deal, quite often it is true. When given a choice between a small envelope and a large box, sometimes it is best to pick the envelope. Inside may be notification of a trip, as opposed to a booby prize (called a zonk on the show) in the box. Obviously this is not always the case, or everyone would pick the smaller box or envelope. It is true sufficiently to prove the maxim. In the Bible this saying may also be true. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, and contains a lot of good things. (See "But It’s So Long” in the June 2008 Minutes With Messiah.) Just two psalms earlier, however, is the shortest chapter in the Bible, being only two verses in length. True to the nature of the Bible, good things come in that small package.

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.

Unlike many of the other psalms, this is purely a song of praise. David has other songs of praise that are longer, so you can read nothing into the length. However, in many public prayers today there is not much more praise, often less. Every now and then it would be good to follow the psalmist’s example and just say a prayer of praise, even if it is only two sentences long. (But you could probably come up with much more than two sentences.)

The psalmist begins with a typical Hebrew couplet. “Praise the Lord, nations/Praise him people.” If you examine many of the psalms or proverbs, you will find that this is the Hebrew equivalent of English rhyme for poetry. The Hebrew word for nations in the first phrase (goy) could be translated exactly the same as that in the second phrase (uma). Both refer to nations. The origins of the words do reveal a subtle difference; the first means a body or group while the second comes from a word for mother. Thus, the first phrase may tell the entire body of people in the world to praise God, while the second refers to a specific heritage. On the other hand, we are all of the heritage of Mother Eve. Another distinction is made in actual usage. Even to this day, goy refers to non-Jewish people. So the psalmist may be telling Gentiles to praise God, just as Jewish people praise God. In other words, let everybody praise Him.

The next verse is also a couplet. It contrasts God’s chesed, His mercy, with God’s emet, truth. These are two of the foundational concepts in Jewish ethics. Because God is merciful, we should show mercy. Because God cannot lie, he hates false witnesses. In fact, the psalmist is saying that mercy and truth may be the same. God’s mercy is great toward us, and that is a truth that lasts through eternity.

Finally, the psalmist repeats “Praise the Lord.” He gives a command, he explains why we should praise. Then he repeats the command for emphasis. Because God is truly merciful, it is our obligation to praise Him.