The Call to the Nations
It’s easy for us to get narrow-minded and focused on our own little worlds, but God is not like us. He has a wider, more inclusive call to the whole earth, to worship Him among the nations.
Psalms 73-150 (Kidner Classic Commentaries), Derek Kidner
This is the weekend of our REACH conference here at Citylight, so named because God calls us to reach all the peoples of the earth with His good news. Our Manayunk and Delco congregations already held prayer and worship gatherings this past week, we held a seminar yesterday focusing on what God is doing among the nations, and tonight we here at Citylight Center City will gather again for worship and prayer for the nations. This morning we’re continuing our series in the book of Psalms, but we’re going a bit out of order to hit a Psalm that speaks to this biblical theme of God’s call to the nations. It’s easy for any human, Christians included, to become narrow minded and focused only on our own little worlds. But God is not like us. He has an expansive, inclusive call to the whole world, including us who are here today. The call is to Worship the LORD among the nations. So we’ll look first specifically at that call, then the reason for it, and then we’ll look at the end to which the whole world is heading.
Our passage begins with this command to sing to the LORD a new song, and the command to sing to the LORD is addressed to all the earth. We often use this passage to call us to worship when we gather on Sundays, and it’s always worth noticing that this is issued as a command. It’s not, “Sing if you feel like it, and if not, you do whatever you’ve got to do today,” or, “However you feel like worshiping today, go for it.” If you dwell on earth, God commands you to sing. And then there are other related activities involved in worship: Telling of his salvation (v. 2), declaring His glory (v. 3), ascribing to the LORD glory and strength (v. 7), saying among the nations the LORD reigns (v. 10). All the earth is called to worship. Verse 7 uses the language of the “families of the peoples” instead of the more general “all the earth.” In Hebrew this word had a broader connotation than the nuclear family and is something more like what we’d mean by a tribe. It harkens back to Genesis 12, when God promised Abraham that in him and his offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed. Now all the families of the earth in this Psalm are called to worship Abraham’s God.
Not only that, but those who respond to the call are told to do so among the nations in verse 3: Declare his glory among the nations. Nations is not identical to “families of the peoples,” but it’s also definitely not identical to geopolitical nations as we think of them today, which is a concept only a few hundred years old. If you put the two concepts together though, you get something like what we call “people groups” today, or what the New Testament Greek calls ethne, a group of people united by closer lines of descent, often characterized by similarities in appearance, language, and culture. Classifying these is an inexact science, but in America for example we have Anglo-American peoples, Afro-American peoples, North American indigenous peoples, and so forth. In the Middle East and North Africa we have Arabic peoples, Beaudoin peoples, Berber peoples, and so forth, and these are all broken down into smaller people groups too. The idea here, then, is that all the people groups of the earth are commanded to sing God’s praises among all the people groups of the earth.
Immediately, then, we encounter a common objection, because what is the Psalm doing? It’s commanding all the diverse peoples of the earth to worship the same God. So people today say, “This is what’s wrong with you Christians. If you want to be a Christian, that’s fine, but why do you have to force everyone else to become like you?” If you feel that way today, you certainly aren’t alone. But let me try to address that concern. First, notice that there is no authorization of force given in this passage. In it we are commanded to declare God’s glory among the nations and the nations are called to worship, but we are not told to force the nations to sing to the LORD at gunpoint. Where Christians have done things like that in the history of the church, they’ve done so in disobedience to Scripture, and other Christians have typically been present even at those times calling on them to repent.
Furthermore, the person raising the objection wants everyone to become like them. Here’s the fact that we have to face: Everyone has some sense of what a perfect world looks like. For Christians, for reasons we’ll see in a moment, the perfect world is one in which God receives the glory due His name, for Christian Nationalists, the perfect world is one in which America looks basically like it did in 1776 but with better technology, more money, and more dominance. For our hypothetical objector and many of our neighbors in Philadelphia today, the perfect world is one in which everyone is free to determine who they are for themselves and everyone else affirms them. So by telling Christians not to engage in missions, what are they doing? They’re telling Christians to become like them, to adopt their view of the perfect world. And they too are doing this among the nations as they export Western notions of human rights to other nations. We all call the nations to something; the fact that Christians do too is no legitimate criticism of Christianity, and Christianity even leaves the truly good and glorious elements of diversity in place. This passage calls all the earth to sing, but it doesn’t tell them what tune to use. Throughout the world you will find diverse peoples obeying this command in ways that redeem their culture, not assimilate it. Nonetheless, the thing the Bible does call nations to do is to worship the same God. Why? It’s not because of who we are, because of some innate desire for sameness; it’s because of who God is.
Look at verse 4; here’s the reason the Bible gives: For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised. He is actually great, and therefore the praise He receives should be great. He is to be feared above all gods, which is another word for worship or reverence, verse 4 goes on to say, and then again we have the reason: All the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. The idea of “worthless idols” is something without substance, without power, without greatness, and something man-made. But the LORD is the one who made the heavens, and He is not worthless. Far to the contrary, He is resplendent and majestic, and strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. His sanctuary in the original setting of the Psalm would have been the tabernacle, an ornate tent in which the ark of the covenant was kept, through which God revealed His strength and beauty in its majestic and beautiful design.
The assumption at play here, then, is that all the peoples of the earth do in fact worship some god, but there is only one God who made the heavens, who is truly resplendent, majestic, strong, and beautiful. The other gods, for all their apparent might, are merely the creation of man, and powerless to satisfy. And every people group has them. They may be material: Many people groups of the world today still pay homage to statues and images. At the Buddhist temple just blocks from here people still leave money or food on one of the statues in front of the temple. But since idols are things we make, they may also be immaterial, anything that becomes sacred to a people group, that is received by faith, to which the members of that group must bow. Again, for Christian Nationalists their vision of America becomes sacred, and it can’t be accused of sin, nor can it be changed for the better unless to restore it to its former glory, to make it great again. More commonly in a place like Philadelphia affirmation is sacred: It’s assumed by faith that everyone should affirm everyone else, and if you don’t, you’ll be canceled. As we cast our eyes to the nations, many of our international workers with Citylight work among Arab peoples, and the god of those peoples is more obvious: The god of Islam, who is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet one of our international workers reports that they, like we, also worship some of the less obvious gods: Family honor, success, wealth, and self-righteousness through the observance of the 5 pillars of Islam. Another person from Citylight who serves Latin American peoples has shared that these gods of wealth and family can be co-mingled even with the appearance of Christianity in those cultures.
But all of these gods of the peoples are worthless idols. And if you’re here today and you worship one of those gods, I know that may be hard to hear, but consider it further: Have they really delivered all that they’ve promised? Can they really deliver hope and happiness, significance and security? America’s been flawed from the beginning and will one day end; the LORD reigns forever, and judges with equity. He is to be feared above Christian Nationalism. You will never find enough people to give you the affirmation you crave. The LORD doesn’t affirm; He convicts of sin, but then accepts us as sinners, and makes us righteous. He makes us better than we already are, and that is greater than just affirming who we already are. He is to be feared above affirmation.
And here’s how one of our international workers described the greatness of the LORD in comparison to the God of Islam: “The LORD is better than the god of Islam because of Jesus! The god of Islam would never dream of taking on the form of a sinful human, but Jesus humbled himself and came as a helpless baby. The god of Islam spends his time weighing your good deeds vs your bad deeds but Jesus came to earth to live a perfect life in our place. The god of Islam does not offer assurance of salvation but we have assurance through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The god of Islam offers no words of compassion or encouragement for the downcast, but Jesus tells us to lay our burdens on Him. The god of Islam calls his people to advance Islam through conquest, but Jesus calls us to advance the gospel through love and suffering.” The LORD is to be feared above the god of Islam. He is great, and therefore He is worthy of great praise. So whoever you are, worship Him among the nations.
Verse 10 transitions us to the end of the passage, and with it, to the end to which the world is heading. It tells us again what we are to say among the nations, that the LORD reigns, and the world is established because a day is coming when He will judge the peoples with equity. All is not chaotic, because a day is coming when God will make all things right. Because of this, verse 11 calls even the heavens to be glad, the earth to rejoice, the seas roar, and all that fills it, the field exult, and everything in it, and then it says the trees of forest will sing for joy! The end to which the world is heading is one in which even the trees worship! Not only are all nations called to worship, the whole cosmos is called to worship! And they’re called to a joyful worship! Rejoice, be glad, nations, cosmos! Why?
Because the LORD comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness. What? Why should everyone rejoice that judgment is coming? Well think about it: How often in our world does abuse occur and get covered up? How often do the powerful oppress the weak and get away with it, precisely because they are powerful? How often are police officers and judges bribed, the criminal who can afford the best lawyer gets off, systemic injustice never get corrected because the powerful benefit from them?
Rejoice. A day is coming when the LORD will come, and He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness. He can’t be bribed, and with Him there is no partiality. If this day is not coming, what hope is there for the world? But if this day is coming, what hope is there for you? The heavens, the earth, the sea, the field, the trees, they can rejoice, because they haven’t sinned against the judge. But how can we rejoice when we know we have? None of us are purely innocent victims, though some of us have suffered far worse than others. We all must admit that we have been among the peoples who worship other gods. Whether the god of Islam, the god of America, the god of affirmation, or the host of other gods we invent, we have all worshiped other gods, and they are worthless to save us.
But the LORD who made the heavens is also the LORD who saves, and before He came to judge the world, He came to save it. Verse 8 makes clear that for our worship to be acceptable to God we must “bring an offering” and “come into His courts.” But what offering could really make our worship acceptable to God? Only a perfect one. So God left His courts and came to us. He became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ. As a human, God the Son worshiped and served the LORD only, to the point of offering Himself as a perfect sacrifice on our behalf on the cross. God accepted His offering, rose Him from the dead, and He then entered into the heavenly courts on our behalf, where He intercedes for us now and where the souls of those who have gone before us worship Him forever. Through Him, our worship, imperfect though we are, imperfect as it is, is now acceptable to God, and only through Him. The only way you can worship the LORD among the nations is by worshiping Him through faith in Jesus. And the only way you can rejoice that the day of judgment is coming is if you trust that Jesus has borne your judgment.
Let me close, then, by mentioning briefly some implications of this for our worship and for our mission to the world. Looking briefly at verse 8 again, we see that God calls us to worship Him with an offering, in the location of His courts, and “in the splendor of holiness,” trembling before Him. Now that Christ has offered Himself on our behalf, He is the only offering that must accompany the offering of worship for it to be acceptable to God. Now that He has entered into the heavenly courts, that is the location of our worship, and the place on earth where we join that heavenly assembly is in the assembly that the Bible calls the church. So now it’s not in a certain physical space that God’s glory is manifested, but wherever two or three gather in His name. And the thing that should actually be heightened in our worship now is that splendor of holiness, that trembling, what Hebrews 12, the New Testament passage with which we opened our service today, calls “reverence and awe,” when it called us to offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. To worship the LORD among the nations today, then, means worshiping Him through faith in Christ, in the assembly of a church, with reverence and awe. This is what we do when we gather for worship every Sunday, and God calls you to it. It doesn’t mean you have to do it with us; there are other churches, but you do have to actually leave your house unless you’re hosting a church service there. We had good reasons to suspend gathering for a time over the past year, and I know it can be hard to get back into it, but declaring God’s glory among the nations is something we must do together.
Finally, some implications for our mission efforts. First, we should invite unbelieving people to church. This text suggests that seeing the assembly and hearing them sing with reverence and awe is one of the ways God reveals His glory to the nations. And you should come to church assuming that unbelieving people are present among us, as I assume there are today, and sing so that they can hear us. No nations will hear you sing if you’re only ever singing from the privacy of your home. And now that there isn’t one location on earth to which all nations must come, Christ has commissioned us to go. Someone must go and call the nations to worship, as the Psalmist does here. And someone must share with them the good news of Jesus, so they might come through faith in His offering. There are literally thousands of peoples groups in the world with no church among them, no neighbor who even knows this good news, let alone who will share it with them. This is why we send international workers. Why couldn’t that be you? Even if it’s not, might I at least encourage you to consider filling out that REACH card on your chair and dropping it in the Orange Box so you can learn about ways to get involved in what God is doing through our church to send international workers? And finally, this text shows us what our goal in missions should be: Not merely to alleviate poverty or heal disease, good and glorious as those things are. Our goal is not merely even to win individual converts. Our goal is to see new churches planted, new earthly outcroppings of that heavenly assembly, among all the peoples of the earth.
So sing to the LORD among the nations, tell of His salvation day to day, for He is great, and greatly to be praised. We all worship something, and all the nations of the earth worship something. But the LORD is the one being truly worthy of worship, and the one object of our worship that will not prove itself worthless in the end. For the glory due His name and for the joy of all the peoples of the earth, let us assemble for worship through faith in Christ and sing His praises with reverence and awe. Let us go to the nations to call them to worship, and through us may the LORD grow churches among all the peoples of the earth.