Fill the Earth: Do the Psalms Advocate Missions?

Sing praises to the LORD, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds!” (Ps 9:11)

“Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all peoples.” (Ps 96:3)

Verses such as these are often found on banners overhanging fellowship halls at church missions conferences. “Missions is advocated even in the Old Testament!” we are told.

Yet if you’ve read my previous two posts (here and here), you may be scratching your head. If Israel’s mission was centripetal—intended to draw the nations in—what are we to make of these verses that seem to advocate a centrifugal, outgoing mission in the Old Testament?

Read Carefully, Not Quickly

In chapter 6 of Fill the Earth, I spend 20 pages looking at every reference to the nations in the book of Psalms. In that section I seek to show that the missiology advocated in the Psalter is no different than the centripetal missional framework introduced in the calls of Abram and Israel. Despite having the appearance of advocating “missions” as we understand it, these verses were not calling Old Testament Israelites to travel to foreign lands and declare God’s glory and wonderful deeds.

The problem that missions enthusiasts often run into is reading verses like these quickly rather than carefully. We want soundbite support from the Old Testament for the missionary task that we value so much, so we incorporate verses like these without doing the careful work of interpreting them responsibly within their literary contexts.

My hope is that we would read and apply verses like these carefully, paying close attention to the grammar used and the contexts envisioned by the Psalmists. When we do so, we see that, although the Psalmists are not calling Israel to the work of “missions,” they are calling them to an international witness that aligns directly with Israel’s centripetal call to be a light for the nations.

These verses apply to us, therefore, not directly or immediately as we might think upon first glance, but as part of the larger story of God’s mission as relayed throughout the Scriptures. When we approach these texts in this careful manner, we not only reach a more responsible interpretation, but we also receive a richer understanding of how God is executing his mission in this world through His people.

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