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 which 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?
-- 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.
Bible passages referring to Great Commission fulfillment Doing missions well: Biographical sketches Fiery global evangelism sayings World missions slogans Ideas shaping world missions today From Genesis to Revelation