From farthest East to farthest West

Howard Culbertson
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

“From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised,” – Psalm 113:3

Nearly 20 years ago young people came home from Nazarene Youth Conference singing Stephen P. Smith’s “From the Rising of the Sun.” Watching them put 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 risen Christ's invitation to all believers to spread His story worldwide.

To be sure, not everyone sees the song that way. That is because some see Psalms 113:3 as meaning the period from sunrise to sunset (and thus “all day long”).  Such an interpretation, however, runs contrary to the context of the passage. The words “now and forever” in the previous verse do obviously refer to time. Still, to say verse three also refers to time overlooks the phrase “to the place where [the sun] sets.” Verse three is saying, as Albert Barnes’ classic Notes on the Bible puts it: “From the farthest east to the farthest west.”

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We do not know who wrote Psalm 113. Some scholars have suggested it was Moses. If Moses was the author, maybe he wrote it thinking about God’s call in Exodus 19. That’s where God says His people are 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. It therefore would have been sung by Jesus and His disciples at the Upper Room meal prior to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. The resurrected Christ spoke to His disciples about making disciples in “all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Is it possible when Jesus gave those instructions we now call the Great Commission that it evoked memories of their having sung about “from the farthest east to the farthest west” at the Last Supper?

Psalm 113:3 – as well as Psalm 50:12, Isaiah 45:6 and 59:19 which have similar wording – is phrased as an imperative. It is thus a command. So, if the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not being praised somewhere from the farthest east to the farthest west, His people are obligated to do something to change the situation.

In the middle of the 1700s, as the first Protestant missionaries began going out, John Gill wrote that Psalm 113:3 was clearly 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, and fear the Lord and worship Him.”

The words of Psalm 113 are sung today by both Jews and Christians. As we listen to this Psalm, we must hear its expectation that God’s people will get the Good News to every place on earth.

-- Howard Culbertson is professor of missions and world evangelism at Southern Nazarene University, in Bethany, Oklahoma, U.S. Culbertson, who formerly served as a missionary in Italy and Haiti, has published numerous articles, books, and chapters in books on missions. To access his many resources on mission, visit http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/.