I found about about 80 references to ‘the nations’ in the psalms. (I counted two different Hebrew words for ‘nations’ plus references to specific nations like Cush or Egypt.) Then I tried to work out the key themes. Here are the four categories I found:
God rules the nations
Because God is king over the whole earth, that includes the nations. His kingship is based on two things: he is creator and he is judge. That has a number of out-workings from the political to the social spheres; from setting up laws to caring for the poor. (If you’re interested, the relevant passages are Psalm 9:8, 22:28, 47:8-9, 66:7, 67:4, 96:10, 98:9, 99:2, 110:6, 113:4.)
Defeat of the nations
Something that surprised me was that by far the most common reference to the nations in the Psalms was about their defeat. There are three types of defeat on view: punishment defeat (for example, for pride, oppression, defiling the temple, etc.); because it pleased God (presumably justly); and because it was in Israel’s interests. (References: Psalm 2:8, 9:20, 10:16-18, 18:43, 44:2, 45:5, 68:30, 78:55, 79:1, 80:8, 83, 94:10, 105:44, 111:6, 118:10, 135:8-10, 149:7-9.)
Calls for the nations to praise God
The third category of references to the nations in the Psalms were calls for them to praise God. There were heaps of reasons for this: because he’s king, because of his character, great deeds and treatment of Israel. This category brings a new dimension to God’s attitude to the nations because it shows that he’s interested in their attitude too. He desires their praise! (References: Psalm 22:27, 47:3, 67:4, 68:33-35, 86:9, 99:1-3, 117:2, 126:2, 138:4-7, 148:11.)
Israel among the nations
Finally, the nations came up when Israel praised God or was blessed by him among them the nations. The reasons are pretty similar to the reasons the nations praise God: because he is king and because of his character, deeds and rescue of Israel. While Israel directly benefits from these things as well, the purpose is so that the nations will know God’s salvation and be blessed so you could say that the nations are always on the horizon. (References: Psalm 18:48-49, 57:9-10, 67:1-2, 72:17, 96:4-6, 10, 108:3-4, 105:2.)
So that’s that. But how do the themes relate to one another? Does the category with the most references win? How do you put together the references to the defeat of the nations with the calls for them to praise God? Next we turn to how these references fit within the Psalter as a whole.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.