In Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi’s son asked if there were a proper blessing for the tsar. “A blessing for the tsar? Of course. ‘May God bless and keep the tsar—far away from us.”
I imagine someone asked one of the ancient temple singers if there were a proper blessing for the Gentiles. The answer was almost as short, but profoundly different:
“Oh praise the Lord, all you Gentiles! Laud him all you peoples! For his merciful kindness is great toward us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever.” – Psalm 117 (NKJV)
Who are Gentiles? To the ancient Hebrews, the term meant anyone who wasn’t Hebrew. It meant closely related neighbors like Moabites and Edomites. It meant the Canaanites they had displaced. It meant more recent arrivals in the area like the Philistines. It meant Egyptians, from whom they had been freed. It meant distant neighbors such as Assyrians and Babylonians.
In short, over the entire sweep of Old Testament history, Gentiles meant people occasionally seen as allies or subject nations, but more often experienced as adversaries and oppressors.
Mosaic law itself made distinction between Hebrew and Gentile. It mandated that the children of Israel keep themselves separate from Gentiles. When the temple was built, Gentiles were welcome in the outer court, but they were allowed to come only so close to the God of Israel.
The Christian church has often considered itself the spiritual heir of ancient Israel. The church does not and cannot regard itself as separated from God and excluded from the covenant. In Christ, there is a New Covenant. One task of the church is to proclaim that covenant and invite everyone to accept it.
That still leaves plenty of people in the world, Gentiles, who are left out:
- people within the same society as the church, but not the same community: people who may give lip service to Christ but do not participate in church
- people outside the same society as the church who have never heard of Christ
- people of other religions who explicitly reject the claims of Christ
Gentiles, in other words, are outsiders. Despite the universal reach of the New Covenant, the church has long considered these outsiders as outcasts and judged them harshly.
Blessing for the Gentiles
Let’s look more carefully at that psalm now. It calls on the Gentiles—Gentiles of every description—to praise God. Why? “For his merciful kindness is great toward us.”
That little two-letter word at the end, like this shortest of all psalms, is truly huge. Who does the psalmist mean by “us”? Are the Gentiles supposed to praise God because of his kindness to Israel? Certainly not.
When the psalm urges the Gentiles to praise God for his merciful kindness is great toward us, he includes the Gentiles in the blessings of Israel.
The inclusion of everyone in the world under the same love of the same God has two inescapable consequences.
First, God’s people have no right to consider anyone else as outcasts. The plea of the psalm has no meaning as simply a rhetorical exhortation. It means nothing unless it is a real invitation that promises real acceptance and inclusion.
God will keep his part. Will his people?
As the Rembrandt painting at the top suggests, even Peter, the apostle who first advocated preaching to Gentiles, had a hard time wrapping his head around the full significance of this little psalm. In Antioch he was afraid to be seen associating with them (Galatians 2:11-13).
Second, since the Gentiles belong to God, it means that they do not and cannot belong to anyone else. Different people do not have the right to belong to different faiths.
That does not mean, of course, that Christians have any warrant to use coercion to compel people to abandon their own religion. Scripture disapproves of both oppression and strife. History amply demonstrates how the institution of the church ultimately suffers from importing large numbers of people by those means.
It does, however, contradict a sentiment believed by many church people and nearly all outsiders. Just because other societies are historically something other than Christian does not take away the church’s right, no, actually duty to proclaim the name of Jesus to them.
How else are Gentiles—whether Muslims, Hindus, or America’s benighted freedom from religion crowd—supposed to hear the call to become part of us, who praise the living God?
God’s goodness is great, but his truth lasts forever. Psalm 117 is ancient. Parts of Scripture are older still. Even the most recent writings are nearly two millennia old. But the plans and promises they describe stretch to an unimaginable future glory.
And they are as new and fresh when spoken today as they were when they were first uttered. Everyone deserves the chance to hear the invitation and respond.