Keeping track of everyone

Missions: The heart of God

"The Lord will write in the register of the peoples. . ." -- Psalm 87:6

In Luke 12:7 Jesus says God knows us so well that He's counted every hair on our heads. Psalm 87:6 mentions something else that God keeps track of -- Our ethnicity. The picture Psalm 87:6 paints according to some modern English translations1, is that of a list of the world's tribal and people groups into which God is entering the names of redeemed people. Three modern English translations2 of Psalm 87:6 speak of the Book of Nations.

At least two other Old Testament passages, Exodus 32:32 and Psalm 69:28, mention a divine record book. In half a dozen places, Revelation speaks of a registry that John calls "The Book of Life." What stands out in the Psalm 87:6 description of the registry is that it identifies the tribal or people group affiliation of those whose names appear in it.

Such a database -- whatever its actual form -- would show the progress of proclaiming the Good News of salvation "among all peoples" (1 Chronicles 16:24). Indeed, Jerry Rankin says that, from that carefully kept register, "God is tracking the progress of global evangelism and noting which groups have representatives in His Kingdom." Perhaps one reason God does this is that He has His eye on fulfilling Matthew 24:14: "This gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." (More on Matthew 24:14

One fairly common assumption about Old Testament times is that, during that long period of time, God's attention was focused exclusively on His relationship with the Jewish people. Not so. Verse 4 of Psalm 87 names specific people groups who were Israelite enemies and notes that there were some individuals in those hated people groups who had become members of Yahweh's Kingdom.

In the mid-twentieth century, missionary leaders like Cameron Townsend, Donald McGavran, and Ralph Winter began calling the Church to identify all the as-yet-unreached people groups and to pour energy and resources into getting the Gospel to them. Toward that end, the Joshua Project maintains a database of the world's current people groups with information as to if and how well each one has been reached with the gospel. Naturally, the work of the Joshua Project will not be as precise as God's "register of the peoples." Nonetheless, it does help those involved in world evangelism see what needs to be done to bring to fruition the Apostle John's vision of people "from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the Throne" (Revelation 7:9).

In the light of the "register of the peoples" described in Psalm 87:6, we must answer the question: Does whatever we are doing for the Kingdom contribute to God writing the names of people from more and more cultural and ethnic groups in His register or book? How strongly do our hearts resonate with God's burden for sharing the gospel with each and every one of the people groups on His master list?

Discussion questions

  1. How might we describe the significance of the "register of the peoples" mentioned in Psalm 87:6?? How does it relate to the Church's mission to share the gospel with all nations?
  2. How does Psalm 87 challenge the assumption that God was focused exclusively on the Jewish people in Old Testament times? How does Psalm 87:6 enrich our understanding of God's heart for all nations?
  3. What role can databases, such as the Joshua Project, play in helping the Church identify and reach people groups that have had virtually no contact with the Gospel message?
  4. How does the concept of the "register of the peoples" impact our personal commitment to sharing the gospel with people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds?
  5. How can we contribute to creating a heart for all nations in our local churches?

    -- Howard Culbertson,


This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

Afterword -- Other Perspectives

In this essay the "register of the peoples" in Psalm 87 is seen as suggesting that God's desire is for all nations to be included in His kingdom. That interpretatoin evokes a call to world missions activity that will get the message of God's love and salvation to all corners of the world.

Other perspectives on the "register of the peoples" include:

  1. Historical Interpretation: In ancient times, each nation or people group was often thought to have its own divine patron or god. In that sense, the "register of the peoples" would simply refer to God's divine oversight or knowledge of all nations. No inference is drawn as to God's desire that all have a relationship with Him.
  2. Eschatological Interpretation: Others think the "register of the peoples" refers to a future time when all ethnolinguistic people groups will be accounted for in God's divine plan, perhaps during a time of judgment or reconciliation.
  3. Universalism: Some interpretations take a universalist approach, suggesting that the "register of the peoples" signifies that none will perish and that all nations will eventually be saved. This interpretation emphasizes the inclusive nature of God's salvation in a way that it will extend to all because He alone is sovereign.
  4. Unity of Humanity: Other interpretations emphasize the unity of humanity under God's care and sovereignty. In this view, the "register of the peoples" signifies God's recognition and concern for all peoples. The central idea is the interconnectedness of humanity despite surface differences in culture, language, or nationality.
  5. Jewish Interpretation: In a Jewish understanding, the "register of the peoples" could refer to the enumeration of nations during the future Messianic era which will be a time when all nations will recognize the sovereignty of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

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