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Biblical Themes :
Psalm 117

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Psalm 117
The Middle of the Bible 

Any one for a spot of hill-walking? Let's all go together; but first, this. Do any of you remember being encouraged when you were young to read a chapter of the Bible every day? 

I'm ashamed to say my favourite was Psalm 117. It has only two verses, but it counted as a chapter all the same! 

Later, when I was older, I discovered a curious thing about my chapter. It is the middle chapter of the Bible as well as the shortest. There are 1,189 chapters altogether, and it is the 595th.  

The traditional division of chapters used to be ascribed to a little-known man, Hugh of St Cher, and dated to about 1262. Now it is attributed to Stephen Langton, a lecturer at the University of Paris and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1228.  

It is only by a kind of chance that Psalm 117 is the middle chapter. But it is a kindly chance: it deserves the place. Look at it for a moment and you will see why. 

It gives us a concise description of God's love which it says is faithful, sure and enduring. In the New Revised Standard Version, which is the version of the pew Bibles in the church, it reads: 

  1. 'Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him all you peoples!  
  2. For great is his steadfast love towards us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever. Praise the Lord!'  

It is at this point that we return to our hill-walking. It is marvellous to climb to the summit of a hill, and see the countryside laid out beneath you. This psalm, the middle chapter, is like the central ridge, the highest peak of the Bible.

We climb up from Genesis on the one side, so to speak, or from Revelation on the other, and when we reach the top we look before and after, and all round, north, south, east, and west - and what do we see? Nothing but the love of God! 'Great is his steadfast love towards us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.' It's a wonderful sight, and all the more wonderful because we know it is not a mirage, but is real, solid, and permanent.   

This great love of God for us calls forth our praise. This psalm, tiny though it is, begins and ends with a call to praise God, almost as though it were suggesting that praise is our first and last duty to God.  

Oh, I know: life can be sore and wounding, and we can become disgruntled and querulous; but why should we always fix on the disadvantages and difficulties?  

A friend in trouble once wrote to Charles Lamb that his world seemed 'drained of its sweets'. To which Lamb replied, 'Drained of sweets? I don't know what you mean. Are there not roses and violets still in the earth, and the sun and moon still reigning in heaven?'  

When the low mood comes, we should fix on the mercies, for they are always there; and when it is difficult to be brave, then that is the very time to praise God. And the very act of praise will lift our souls and bring us right back into life's firing -line again. 

And more than that. Praise is contagious, it is catching. The spark of praise leaps from heart to heart. Our song may start others singing who would never have thought of raising the song themselves. 

One of his own contemporaries said of Francis Xavier, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), that if ever any of the brothers were sad, the way they took to be happy was just to go and look at him.  

That is how our praise can help. If we keep sounding the note of praise, others may face life more gallantly because of us, even if we don't know it.  

So let's take the Psalm to heart, and 'Praise the Lord!' 

Rev Charles Robertson, February 2008


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