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Missions: The heart of God

Does Psalm 113:3 mean from sunrise to sunset or does it mean from East to West?

"From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised" -- Psalm 113:3, similar wording in Psalm 50:1

Nearly 30 years ago young people came home from a quadrennial Nazarene Youth Conference singing Stephen P. Smith's "From the Rising of the Sun." Watching them putting motions of a rising and setting sun to that musical rendition of Psalm 113:3, I realized they were singing about fulfilling the Great Commission.

The wording of Psalm 113:3 is sometimes taken to mean "from sunrise to sunset." That ignores the context of the verse. Verse 2, which says "now and forevermore," clearly refers to time. To say verse three also refers to time may overlook the phrase "to the place where [the sun] sets." Verse three is saying, as Barnes' classic Notes on the Bible puts it: "From the farthest east to the farthest west." That meaning is even clearer in the wording of Psalm 50:1:
The Mighty One, God, the Lord,
   speaks and summons the earth
   from the rising of the sun to where it sets."

The author of Psalm 113 is not identified in Scripture. Some scholars have suggested it was Moses. If Moses was the author, maybe he wrote those words while thinking about God's call in Exodus 19 for His people to be "a kingdom of priests," a phrase meaning they were to be a people where all seek to bring the rest of humanity into God's presence.

This particular Psalm has long been sung at Jewish Passover commemorations. Therefore, it likely would have been sung by Jesus and His disciples at the Upper Room meal prior to Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. After His Resurrection, Jesus spoke to his disciples about making disciples in "all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20). Is it possible that the idea of "from the farthest east to the farthest west" from Psalm 113:3 was still echoing in the disciples' minds from that Passover celebration as Jesus spoke the words of His Great Commission to them?

Psalm 113:3 as well as the three other passages with similar wording (Psalm 50:12, Isaiah 45:6, and Isaiah 59:19) is phrased as an imperative. It is thus a command. If God is not being praised somewhere from the farthest east to the farthest west, then His people are obligated to do something to change the situation.

In the middle of the 1700s, early Protestant missionaries began leaving their homelands for other parts of the world. At that point in time, Bible scholar John Gill wrote that Psalm 113:3 was definitely about world evangelism. He said the verse looked forward to "Gospel times, when the Gospel should be sent unto all the world, and many should be called from the east and west, from the north and south."

Psalm 113:3 is sung today at Jewish Passover celebrations and by Christians using musical settings composed by Stephen P. Smith, Paul Deming, and others. When those words are sung, they need to be understood by hearers as the expectation that God's people are to get the Good News to every place on earth.

Discussion questions

  1. How does the rest of Psalm 113:3 suggest that the verse should not be interpreted as a reference to daylight hours?
  2. In what ways might the idea of "from the farthest east to the farthest west" influence our understanding of the Great Commission given in Matthew 28:19-20 as well as Jesus' words in Acts 1:8?
  3. Why might it be significant that Psalm 113:3 was sung at Jewish Passover commemorations? How might that tie it to Christ's call to "make disciples in the nations"?
  4. How might understanding Psalm 113:3 as a command affect the actions of believers?

    -- 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, a monthly online magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

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