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The Whole Psalm

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The Whole Psalm

The shortest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 116 (Hebrew 117) and goes like this:

O Praise the Lord, all you nations,
Acclaim him all you peoples!
Strong is his love for us;
He is faithful for ever.

This is a great little psalm for the childish party trick: ‘I can recite a whole psalm…’ and I remember doing something similar many years ago: ‘I can recite a whole Tennyson poem’:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;—
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

It strikes me now that those two shorties have more than their brevity in common.

Tennyson gives no superfluous detail.  There is no scene setting, no detail of the type of flower.  There is no conjecture about these mysteries that lie beyond him; no development and no resolution.  What Tennyson does give is an opportunity to see the Creator reflected in His creation; then to reflect upon and respond to what you see.  The flower, like the poem, is small and simple, yet in the wonder of its creation it holds secrets which humanity is unable to fathom.   The poem (like the Gloria Patri) is at once tiny and immense.

Psalm 116 is even shorter and so simple that a child could have written it.  It is over in a moment*  – sneeze and you miss it.  And yet, if we do pay it a bit of attention, we soon see that this psalm is anything but tiny.

We sometimes think the Old Testament ‘doesn’t do’ a universal God but this psalm address all you nations, all you peoples in an unequivocal call for everyone to worship God.  The ‘us’ he loves is everyone – everyone without exception and without end, for He is faithful for ever.

So in two verses, the psalm asks that the whole of humanity praise God.  It declares God’s love of the whole of humanity and promises His eternal fidelity.  This is indeed a ‘whole’ psalm, for in its tiny form, it holds a global demand and an eternal promise.

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* and whenever it crops up in Morning Prayer every other Saturday, it follows the rather long canticle of Moses from Exodus 15, so it is tempting to wonder if we are given it by way of temporal compensation!

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