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Marc Zvi Brettler

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2020

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“Praise YHWH All You Nations”: Psalm 117

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https://thetorah.com/article/praise-yhwh-all-you-nations-psalm-117

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Marc Zvi Brettler

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“Praise YHWH All You Nations”: Psalm 117

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TheTorah.com

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2020

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https://thetorah.com/article/praise-yhwh-all-you-nations-psalm-117

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“Praise YHWH All You Nations”: Psalm 117

Short does not mean simple: Psalm 117 is one of the more difficult psalms. It is only two verses long and exhorts non-Israelites to praise YHWH. Why would such a psalm be written? A look at the worldview of the exilic prophet Deutero-Isaiah provides one answer, while reading this psalm together with the beginning of Psalm 118 provides another.

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“Praise YHWH All You Nations”: Psalm 117

Psalm 117, f. 21r in Passover Haggadah, with ritual instructions in French (Bouton Haggadah) Zürich, Braginsky Collection, B315

Psalm 117, the fifth of the Hallel psalms, is comprised of a mere two verses, fewer than twenty words, none especially difficult:[1]

תהלים קיז:א הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־יְ֭־הוָה כָּל־גּוֹיִ֑ם
שַׁ֝בְּח֗וּהוּ כָּל־הָאֻמִּֽים׃
Ps 117:1 Praise YHWH, all you nations;
extol Him, all you peoples,
קיז:ב כִּ֥י גָ֘בַ֤ר עָלֵ֨ינוּ ׀ חַסְדּ֗וֹ
וֶֽאֱמֶת־יְ־הוָ֥ה לְעוֹלָ֗ם
הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃
117:2 for great is His steadfast love toward us;
the faithfulness of YHWH endures forever.
Hallelujah.

How hard can the shortest chapter in the entire Bible be? Well, very hard, once we go beyond the individual words, and ask about the psalm as a whole.

A Psalm Exhorting Non-Israelites to Praise YHWH?

What does the psalm mean? Simply put, it exhorts the nations of the world to praise YHWH for what he did on behalf of Israel. But what Sitz im Leben,[2] social or cultic setting (literally “seat/ situation in life”), can we imagine for someone reciting this psalm? It makes little sense as a private psalm, recited by an individual worshiper, as there would be no one to hear the exhortation.

Imagining it as a public psalm recited at the Jerusalem Temple before large crowds of worshipers hardly solves the problem. Although non-Jews could enter the Temple,[3] it is difficult to imagine a situation where all the nations, or even the representatives of all the nations, would have heard this psalm. Thus, Hans-Peter Mathys of the University of Basel quipped: “It is frequently supposed that this new psalm was used in worship, but no exegete who can be taken seriously claims to know where.”[4]

Exhortations to Non-Jews in Psalms

Yet the situation imagined in Psalm 117 is not unique, since other psalms also include exhortations to non-Israelites to praise YHWH. For example, Psalm 96, whose theme is the importance of proclaiming YHWH among the gentiles, also insists that the nations acclaim the God of Israel:

תהלים צו:ז הָב֣וּ לַ֭י־הוָה מִשְׁפְּח֣וֹת עַמִּ֑ים הָב֥וּ לַ֝י־הוָ֗ה כָּב֥וֹד וָעֹֽז׃ צו:ח הָב֣וּ לַ֭י־הוָה כְּב֣וֹד שְׁמ֑וֹ שְׂאֽוּ־מִ֝נְחָ֗ה וּבֹ֥אוּ לְחַצְרוֹתָֽיו׃
Ps 96:7 Ascribe to YHWH, O families of the peoples, ascribe to YHWH glory and strength. 96:8 Ascribe to YHWH the glory of His name, bring tribute and enter His courts.[5]

Similarly, Psalm 100 opens with הָרִ֥יעוּ לַ֝יהוָ֗ה כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ “Raise a shout for YHWH, all the earth,” and also appears to demand that the nations should praise YHWH because of his relationship with Israel; the same remarkable (if absurd sounding) idea found in our psalm. The two even share some phrases.[6] When read in light of these other psalms, Ps 117 seems less anomalous, even if its precise Sitz im Leben cannot be determined.

The Great Deliverance of the World in Psalms and Deutero-Isaiah

While the very brief Psalm 117 never explains why the nations should start worshipping Israel’s God, some of these longer psalms do. For instance, the final line of Psalm 96 explains that the world should rejoice before YHWH:

תהלים צו:יג ...כִּ֥י בָא֘ לִשְׁפֹּ֪ט הָ֫אָ֥רֶץ יִשְׁפֹּֽט־תֵּבֵ֥ל בְּצֶ֑דֶק וְ֝עַמִּ֗ים בֶּאֱמוּנָתֽוֹ:
Ps 96:13 …for He is coming to rule the earth; He will rule the world justly, and its peoples in faithfulness.[7]

The idea that YHWH is soon to deliver Israel and the nations must prepare to acknowledge the new world order appears in the words of Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40–55), the anonymous prophet in the Babylonian exile:[8]

ישעיה מא:א הַחֲרִ֤ישׁוּ אֵלַי֙ אִיִּ֔ים
וּלְאֻמִּ֖ים יַחֲלִ֣יפוּ כֹ֑חַ
יִגְּשׁוּ֙ אָ֣ז יְדַבֵּ֔רוּ
יַחְדָּ֖ו לַמִּשְׁפָּ֥ט נִקְרָֽבָה׃
Isa 41:1 Stand silent before Me, coastlands,
And let nations renew their strength.
Let them approach to state their case;
Let us come forward together for argument.
מא:ד רָא֤וּ אִיִּים֙ וְיִירָ֔אוּ
קְצ֥וֹת הָאָ֖רֶץ יֶחֱרָ֑דוּ
קָרְב֖וּ וַיֶּאֱתָיֽוּן׃
Isa 41:4 The coastlands look on in fear,
The ends of earth tremble.
They draw near and come;[9]

Another connection between the thought world of Deutero-Isaiah and Psalm 117 is the term chesed.

Chesed, Truth, and Covenant in Deutero-Isaiah and Psalm 117

Chesed “steadfast love” generally refers to an act of kindness from a more powerful figure in a relationship—in this case God—to a less powerful one.[10] In our psalm, the YHWH’s chesed is used in parallel to his ’emet “faithfulness.” Though in this case they appear in different versets,[11] the two terms are often used together, including in the hendiadys חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת, meaning something like “a reliable act of chesed.”[12] When used of God and Israel, it is often associated with God’s covenant or בְּרִית with Israel, as in Isaiah 54:8–10:

ישעיה נד:ח בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף קֶ֗צֶף הִסְתַּ֨רְתִּי פָנַ֥י רֶ֙גַע֙ מִמֵּ֔ךְ בְחֶ֥סֶד עוֹלָ֖ם רִֽחַמְתִּ֑יךְ אָמַ֥ר גֹּאֲלֵ֖ךְ יְ־הוָֽה׃...
Isa 54:8 In slight anger, I hid My face for a moment from you; But with kindness (chesed) everlasting I will take you back in love—said YHWH your Redeemer.…
נד:י כִּ֤י הֶֽהָרִים֙ יָמ֔וּשׁוּ וְהַגְּבָע֖וֹת תְּמוּטֶ֑נָה
וְחַסְדִּ֞י מֵאִתֵּ֣ךְ לֹֽא־יָמ֗וּשׁ וּבְרִ֤ית שְׁלוֹמִי֙ לֹ֣א תָמ֔וּט אָמַ֥ר מְרַחֲמֵ֖ךְ יְ־הוָֽה׃
54:10 For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken, But my loyalty (chesed) shall never move from you, Nor My covenant (berit) of friendship be shaken—said YHWH, who takes you back in love.

These verses from Deutero-Isaiah show that the return from exile was understood by some as an act of God’s chesed on behalf of Israel. Accordingly, this may be the meaning of chesed in Psalm 117 as well. In fact, the traditional commentator Radak (R. David Kimchi, ca. 1160–1235), in his gloss on the word אמת “faithfulness” or “truth” in Ps 117:2, understood that the Psalm should be associated with the return of Jews from exile:

אמת שקיימת מה שאמרת וזכרתי את בריתי יעקב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכור והארץ אזכור.
The “faithfulness” that you fulfilled bears out what you said (Lev 26:42): “then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.”

To offer this interpretation, Radak needed to explain Ps 117 as prophetic (since if David was the author, the psalm would have been written before the exile). Modern critical scholars, however, can simply accept that the psalm should be dated to the exilic period or later.

In light of these connections, it would seem that Psalm 117 was influenced by the world view, or perhaps even the book-scroll, of Deutero-Isaiah, and was composed in the exilic or post-exilic period, after Deutero-Isaiah.[13]

Aramaisms: A Psalm with Late Biblical Hebrew

The likelihood that Psalm 117 was influenced by Deutero-Isaiah is supported by the signs of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) that we find in the psalm, namely, the Aramaisms in verse 1.[14]

  • שַׁבְּחוּהוּ “extol him”—The root ש.ב.ח is frequent in Aramaic, including in Biblical Aramaic (e.g. Dan 2:23).
  • הָאֻמִּֽים “nations”—The unusual plural of the last word of v. 1, הָאֻמִּֽים, is a late form.[15] Its singular is אֻמָּה, a feminine noun, and in the Bible, it typically takes a feminine singular plural form, אֻמּוֹת (e.g. Num 25:15). In Aramaic however, it takes the masculine plural form אוּמִין (e.g. Daniel 3:4).

Aramaisms are typical indications of exilic or postexilic composition.[16] Thus, linguistic evidence supports the placing of the composition of this psalm in an exilic or postexilic composition context. This explains its imagined universalized worship, which typifies exilic and especially post-exilic texts.[17]

Psalm 117’s Poetic Structure

While the psalm is understandable as a reflection of Deutero-Isaiah’s perspective, the psalm’s unusual brevity is still difficult to explain. In fact, the psalm is really just one sentence, with v. 1 demanding praise from the nations, and v. 2 explaining why they should praise YHWH. To understand this point, let’s look at how the poem’s two verses are structured.

Biblical verses tend to use binary structures typically called parallelism,[18] a term coined in 1753 by Robert Lowth, the Anglican bishop and Oxford Professor of Poetry, in his De Sacri Poesi Hebraeoroum.[19] The two verses of Psalm 117 are well-balanced metrically, and may be scanned with three beats in the first part, and two in the second.[20] But the verses are quite different from each other in other respects.

Verse 1 uses synonymous parallelism, where the second verset mirrors[21] the first half in word-choice (semantics) and syntax. Let’s illustrate this with a literal translation:

הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־יְ֭־הוָה כָּל־ גּוֹיִ֑ם
שַׁ֝בְּח֗וּ הוּ כָּל־הָאֻמִּֽים׃
Praise YHWH, all nations;
extol Him, all the peoples,[22]

Both parts begin with a pi‘el imperative from the same semantic field: הַלְלוּ “praise” and שַׁבְּחוּ “extol,”[23] followed by a direct object referring to YHWH: אֶת־יְ־הוָה “YHWH” and הוּ “him.”[24] Next come the groups called upon to praise/extol YHWH, גּוֹיִם/אֻמִּים “nations/peoples”[25] each of which is introduced with the word כָּל “all.”[26]

The second verse—with the exception of the final word, hallelujah, which I discuss later, explains why the nations should praise YHWH:

כִּ֥י גָ֘בַ֤ר עָלֵ֨ינוּ ׀ חַסְדּ֗וֹ
וֶֽאֱמֶת־יְ־הוָ֥ה לְעוֹלָ֗ם
for great is His steadfast love toward us;
the faithfulness of YHWH endures forever.

The two versets do not share the same syntax, and thus do not fit the typical pattern of Lowth’s synonymous parallelism, though, as noted above, they have some semantic parallelism: חֶסֶד “steadfast love” and אֱמֶת “faithfulness” are from the same semantic field. Also, both words have God as their subject: the first through a pronoun (חַסְדּ֗וֹ), and the second explicitly, since it is followed by the tetragrammaton.[27]

The two verses are connected by the use of the common particle כִּ֥י for (or because) to open v. 2: the first verse demands twice that God should be praised, while the second offers a reason, given twice, why they should offer such praise. Thus, the psalm could be read as one long independent sentence. Though this is possible,[28] many scholars to speculate that Psalm 117 is part of another psalm, either the end of psalm 116 or the beginning of psalm 118.

Chapter Divisions

Often, the chapter divisions in Psalms can be relied upon to indicate the division between distinct units. Medieval Hebrew manuscripts of Psalms (and even the much earlier Dead Sea Scrolls[29]) were already divided into units resembling chapters; these were not numbered, but were indicated by skipped lines or other signs between the units. When Stephen Langton, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, first divided the Bible (for him, the Latin Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin Bible translation) into chapters in the thirteenth century,[30] he divided the book of Psalms into 150 individual psalms based on the manuscript tradition that he knew.[31]

Nevertheless, the division does not necessarily reflect the original literary units of the book. Some chapters may contain more than one psalm,[32] while in other cases, a single composition has been broken up into two psalms.[33] For Psalm 117,[34] the manuscript evidence points to multiple possibilities. In most manuscripts, it is its own unit. In some manuscripts, however, Psalm 117 is the last two verses of Psalm 116,[35] while in others, it is part of Psalm 118, introducing it.

The Redactional Hallelujah

Before evaluating whether Psalm 117 makes sense as part of either 116 or 118, we must first address another issue that would seem to prevent attaching it to one of its neighboring psalms. Both psalm 116 and 117 end with the word הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ “hallelujah,” a typical divider between psalms. If we take the existence of a hallelujah as hard evidence for the division between literary units, then Psalm 117 must be read independently.

Nevertheless, the dividing hallelujahs in Psalms are likely not part of the poetic content of the individual compositions, but a redactional insertion. This explains why MT and LXX sometimes differ in its placement in various psalms, one placing it at a psalm’s end, the other at its beginning.[36]

In other words, hallelujah is an editor’s mark for a formal division between adjacent psalms. It derives from an era before chapter numbers were marked or before skipping lines between separate compositions was consistently utilized. As this division post-dated the inclusion of the psalms in the Psalter, we are free to put the word aside and try to see whether Psalm 117 does, in fact, read better as part of an adjacent psalm.

The End of Psalm 116?

Although advocated by some modern scholars, reading Ps 117 as the conclusion of Psalm 116 has little to recommend it: the flow is poor, especially the transition from the singular perspective of 116 to the plural call of praise in 117.

Furthermore, toward the conclusion of Ps 116, the person praying offers a vow to God (v. 18): נְ֭דָרַי לַי־הוָ֣ה אֲשַׁלֵּ֑ם נֶגְדָה־נָּ֝֗א לְכָל־עַמּֽוֹ׃ “I will pay my vows to YHWH, in the presence of all His people.” This declaration is a good conclusion, and similar formulae are found at or toward the conclusion of other psalms (see esp. 56:13; 61:9); following this concluding formula with Ps 117 makes little sense. A modified form of the alternative option, however, has much to recommend it.

The Opening of Psalm 118

Psalm 117 reads well as an introduction to a psalm comprised of 117:1–118:4.[37] In fact, in many traditions, when the Hallel is sung in the synagogue, 117:1–118:4 are sung together, often to the same tune. The following highlights the many literary connections between the psalms—imperatives or jussives (“let…”—the third person equivalent of the imperative) are marked in red, כִּי “because”/for” in blue, לְעוֹלָם “forever, eternal” is in purple, and “his chesed” in green:

תהלים קיז:אהַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־יְ֭־הוָה כָּל־גּוֹיִ֑ם
שַׁ֝בְּח֗וּהוּ כָּל־הָאֻמִּֽים׃
Ps 117:1 Praise YHWH, all you nations;
extol Him, all you peoples,
קיז:בכִּ֥י גָ֘בַ֤ר עָלֵ֨ינוּ ׀ חַסְדּ֗וֹ וֶֽאֱמֶת־יְ־הוָ֥ה לְעוֹלָ֗ם הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃
117:2 for great is His steadfast love toward us;
the faithfulness of YHWH endures forever. Hallelujah.
קיח:אהוֹד֣וּ לַי־הוָ֣ה כִּי־ט֑וֹב
כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
118:1 Praise YHWH, for He is good,
for His steadfast love is eternal.”[38]
קיח:ביֹֽאמַר־נָ֥א יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
118:2 Let Israel declare,
for His steadfast love is eternal.”)
קיח:גיֹֽאמְרוּ־נָ֥א בֵֽית־אַהֲרֹ֑ן
כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
118:3 Let the house of Aaron declare,
for His steadfast love is eternal.”)
קיח:דיֹֽאמְרוּ־נָ֭א יִרְאֵ֣י יְ־הוָ֑ה
כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
118:4 Let those who fear YHWH declare,
for His steadfast love is eternal.”)

Combing Psalm 117 with the following four verses yields an aesthetically pleasing psalm that reads well:

  • The plural הוֹד֣וּ, “praise” of 118:1 is consistent with הַֽלְל֣וּ, “praise” of 117:1.
  • The two psalms combined would scan metrically as 3:2.[39]
  • The words חַסְדּֽוֹ, “His chesed” and לְעוֹלָם “forever, eternal” connect Pss 117 and 118:1–4.
  • It progresses through different groups of people, presented in concentric circles from largest (כָּל־גּוֹיִ֑ם כָּל־הָאֻמִּֽים “all the nations/peoples”) to smallest (יִרְאֵ֣י יְ־הוָ֑ה “those who fear the LORD”) called upon to praise God. Specifically, the progression would be nations>Israel>house of Aaron>God-fearers.[40]
  • 117:1–2, with an imperative followed by כִּי (“for”) is matched syntactically by each of the following four verses which have an imperative or jussive followed by כִּי (“for”).

The symmetry is not perfect, since this imperative/jussive + כִּי unit in Ps 117:1–2 comprises two verses, but is only one verse long in 118:1–4. Perhaps the oddity of v. 1, where the nations are compelled to praise YHWH, demanded more space.

The creation of this new psalm solves the problem of the addressee in 117:1—the nations are the initial imagined addressees (perhaps under the influence of Deutero-Isaiah), but this is really a Temple psalm, and the Israelites, Aaronide priests, and those who fear God are the true addressees.

Synthesis

Even though all the words of Psalm 117 are clear, its meaning is not, and it can be interpreted in at least two very different ways. If it is a self-standing psalm, as it appears in many, but not all biblical manuscripts, it should be related to Deutero-Isaiah and seen as an imaginative call for the nations to applaud all that God is doing for Israel—in this case, liberating them from Babylon.

Alternately, if Psalm 117 is part of a larger original composition of Ps 117:1-118:4, which accidentally got separated into its own composition in many biblical manuscripts, it can be seen as an introduction to a Temple psalm for different Israelite groups to praise God. One psalm—two contexts—and two very different meanings.

Published

May 28, 2020

|

Last Updated

November 7, 2020

Footnotes

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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.