Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 1, 2015
Psalm 111 Commentary
You don’t have to read many sermons to notice that at least some pastors are vulnerable to a kind of moralism that focuses on the “do’s” and “do not’s” of the Christian faith. We sometimes want to leap right to what God wants people to do before contemplating who that God is and what God does.
Yet that’s a bit like trying to build a durable house without first laying a solid foundation. Just as a house that has no foundation is vulnerable to all sorts of destructive forces, human character that the Spirit hasn’t constructed on the foundation of God’s character is very fragile. Psalm 111 lays such a solid foundation for the kind of Christian life pastors and teachers want to preach and teach about. It grounds Christians’ faithful response to God’s grace in God’s faithful person, words and works.
Psalm 111 is a poem each of whose lines begins with a successive Hebrew letter of the alphabet. This structure may be a kind of mnemonic device by which the psalmist tries to make it easier to memorize the psalm. In that way it may be a bit like the classic acronym Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge that music teachers once used to teach students the line notes on the staff in the treble cleft.
However, Psalm 111 is no piece of fluff poetry that’s built just on a memorable structure. It is, instead, full-orbed in its theology, calling worshipers’ to join the poet in praising God for what God has done, does, is and says. It insists that full-throated public praise is the most appropriate response to the majesty and glory of God. So Psalm 111 is the kind of psalm that almost begs for something like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing as the psalmist recites it.
This psalm begins literally with a “Hallelu Yah,” an appropriate way to begin any communication. The psalmist then proceeds to explain just why such a public burst of praise is so appropriate. After all, as it reminds us, God’s works, the focus of this psalm, are praiseworthy. They are “great,” “glorious,” “majestic” and unforgettable. God’s works are “faithful” and “just.”
Yet some scholars suggest that all of the praiseworthy works of God the psalmist describes here are either aspects or consequences of God’s one great work that is Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery. If that’s true, God’s “redemption” of God’s people of which the psalmist speaks in verse 9 refers to God’s act of liberating the Hebrew slaves. God’s “covenant” to which verses 5 and 9 refer would then recall the covenant God established with Israel at Mount Sinai. The “food” God provides to those who fear the Lord would, in that understanding, refer to the manna with which God graciously fed Israel in the wilderness. Verse 9’s recall of the gift of the “lands of other nations” would then refer to the land of promise.
Yet faithful teachers and preachers might also want to explore the manifestations of God’s glorious works in other contexts as well. Certainly other things God has done and still does are no less glorious and majestic than God’s activity during the Exodus. So those who explore this psalm might ask what sorts of works of God’s hands are still faithful and just. Clearly those who interpret Psalm 111 in the light of the New Testament can also hardly help but hear faint echoes of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Yet the grace and compassion that God demonstrates in no small part through God’s majestic and glorious works also summon a response from those whom God creates in God’s image. The psalmist certainly recognizes that. He vows to wholeheartedly extol the Lord in the “council of the upright” and “in the assembly.” After all, praise has a public dimension. It’s as much for gatherings of the faithful as it is for the shower or car.
However, because God’s works are so great, they’re also worth “pondering.” While scholars consider this a textually difficult phrase, it seems to suggest a kind of contemplative response to God’s works. In a world that’s increasingly fast-paced, the poet invites those whom God has graciously redeemed to look for ways to slow down enough to carefully reflect on what God has done, is doing and promises to do. Psalm 111 provides, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a wonderful stimulus to such meditation.
Those who recognize the glory and majesty of God’s works then respond with “fear” and “obedience.” God’s redeemed children don’t fear God in the way we may fear environmental catastrophes, wild animals or terrible diseases. Instead we seek to be open to the Spirit’s production in us of a kind of reverential trust in our gracious and compassionate God. That trust, by the power of the Spirit, issues in a commitment to responding to God’s great work with faithful obedience.
A 2011 Gallup survey suggested more than 90% of all Americans claimed to believe in God. Evidence also, however, suggests that they’re deeply confused about this God in whom they claim they believe. Some people seem to think of God largely as a toothless, benign grandparent-type who always gives and never asks. Others perceive God to be a fiery tyrant who does nothing but ruin people’s fun.
Researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina looked carefully at American teenagers’ beliefs about God. In a report entitled, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers, they conclude that most American young adults believe in something the researchers label, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
The researchers identified four pillars of such faith: 1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. 2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Psalm 111 is a wonderful antidote for such confusion. After all, the living God who creates, cares for and is redeeming the heavens, the earth and every created thing is its chief subject. In fact, only the psalm’s very beginning and its end has people as the subject of a sentence. The God whom the psalmist praises and to whom the psalmist devotes so much attention is far more personal and active than at least some of our contemporaries seem to believe.
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