There’s a meme online that shows three pictures from left to right. The first is a picture of a woman saying “thank you Jesus for helping me find my car keys”; the second, a football player saying “thank you Jesus for letting me throw that touchdown”; and the third, a picture of starving African child (no caption).
The purpose of this atheist meme is to mock basic Christian belief and practice—especially the idea of (seemingly arbitrary) thanksgiving and praise. It’s meant to be harsh and sharp, and it is. It leaves one asking: just what do the suffering, starving, and the dying have to thank God for?
This challenges the attitude of Psalm 67. “Let all the people thank you!” is repeated four times, and readers are encouraged to celebrate and shout with joy (67:4). Who does this? “All the people” (v. 3). To what end? “[S]o that your way becomes known on earth” and “so that your salvation becomes known, among all the nations” (v. 2). Why? “Because you judge the nations fairly and guide all the nations of the earth” (v. 4), and “The earth has yielded its harvest” (v. 6).
But, what about when nations seem to be judged unfairly? What about when there is no harvest? How can one reconcile these grandiose praises with stark exceptions?
First of all, these are sweeping observations. Nations and peoples are broad categories, and “harvest” (or “increase”) refers to general provision (a kind of “common grace,” if you will; cf. Mt 5:45). We must be careful in trying to derive unconditional absolutes applicable to every individual on earth from this kind of context. It’s not as if the Psalmist—or anyone else—is unaware of the darkness, the drought, and death.
Second (relating to the first), it is through both individuals and smaller groups (e.g., Israel among the nations) that God’s character is more specifically known—and this is what invokes praise, not the exceptions. We do not thank God for a starvation of a child in Africa, or for the suffering of a daughter who was recently raped, or for the needless wars overseas. It is a reality of life—and an open concession in Reformed thought—that some people do have more to be thankful than others.
And Israel has a lot to be thankful for. Yes, there is the universal scope in “all the nations” (v. 2) and “let all the ends of the earth revere him” (v. 7), but the use of “us” and the stress “our God” in v. 6 assumes the local. And it is within this scandalously local, other-centered praise that anyone can, in fact, partake without compromising their mind or their conscience. If I’m painfully lying on my death bed and then hear wonderful news about someone else’s life (perhaps of a relationship that’s been reconciled, or of a new birth in the family, etc.), I can genuinely say “Praise God!” –so sincerely in fact, that I may even be able to transcend my own condition, at least for a moment. The sufferers can authentically praise God, and it need not be about their suffering—although they may do so (I have, at times, reflected on dark hours of my past and prayed, “God, this was necessary for me; I am a better person now as a result of this”). But this need not always be the case—as the ending of Psalm 88 reminds us.
The nations surrounding Israel can praise Yahweh not because of any suffering, pain, or judgment they are currently experiencing, but because of what God has done with Israel—and through repentance and faith and the ongoing plan of God, what God can do with them as well. This was, after all, the very purpose of Israel in the first place—to be a blessing to “all the nations.” Hence verse 2 in this Psalm.
Third, it may seem radical (because it is), but absolutely every tiny speck of life and existence on this planet owes it all to the One who brought it to be. That means every breath, every drop of life-giving blood coursing through our veins, every moment of warmth from sunlight, and every free movement throughout our bodies. Even in our dying moments, we are still ultimately drowning in layers of gracious space, life, and consciousness. No human being is ever in a position completely devoid of the ability of giving authentic praise to God.
It nevertheless remains a paradox. And it is most fully expressed on the cross: an innocent person dying the worst of deaths without his friends and in front of his mother. So much room for blame. God in the flesh suffering for the criminal and depraved, and forgiving all with a promise of new life. So much room for praise.