Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 16, 2015
Psalm 111 Commentary
Comments and Observations
While God’s modern sons and daughters sometimes seem in a hurry to learn what the Scriptures expect of people, Psalm 111 focuses our attention on the Lord. In fact, only its verses 1 and 10 even directly speak to or about people, while only verse 2 even alludes to them.
That’s certainly appropriate. After all, it’s most proper to always ask first what the Scriptures say about the Lord of heaven and earth. The Scriptures are primarily the inspired testimony to God’s character and actions. Only secondarily do God’s children ask what the Scriptures say about people. Yet even when the Scriptures speak of the Lord, they also speak about people. Human ethics are always shaped, after all, by God’s character and actions.
As it focuses worshipers’ attention on Yahweh, Psalm 111 praises God for God’s faithfulness and enduring righteousness. So while human beings, when we remember to praise God at all, sometimes only praise God for what God has done, this psalm also praises the Lord for who God is, for God’s character and nature. That’s part of the reason why we might say that Psalms 111 and 112 properly belong together. After all, while Psalm 111 praises God for God’s great work, Psalm 112 praises the way of life of those who fear the Lord by imitating some of God’s glorious work.
While in verse 1 the psalmist declares God’s praise, both privately and publicly, she goes on in the rest of the psalm to describe just what’s so praiseworthy about God’s work. Among her list of God’s character’s highlights is God’s enduring righteousness. While human righteousness is spotty and temporary at its best, the poet asserts that God’s righteousness has neither a beginning nor an end. In fact, in light of the New Testament Christians understand that God’s righteousness endures even into the new creation.
When the psalmist asserts that God is gracious and compassionate, worshipers must certainly have heard echoes of God’s description of himself at Sinai in Exodus 34:6-7. There, even in the face of stubborn human rebellion, God speaks of himself as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God.” In verse 9 the psalmist adds that God’s name, God’s character, is holy and awesome. God is, in other words, by nature, radically different from even the human beings whom God created in God’s image.
Yet candidly, the poet spends even more time in Psalm 111 praising God for what God has done than for who God is. However, biblical scholars note that all of God’s memorable works for which the psalmist praises God are either aspects or results of God’s great work freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and leading them through the wilderness into the land of promise. In that exodus God transformed a motley group of Hebrews into God’s sons and daughters whom God equipped to serve as God’s servants. That event is, in fact, the Old Testament’s defining, central event.
From Egyptian slavery, the psalmist remembers, God provided redemption for God’s beleaguered sons and daughters. In the unforgiving desert God provided food for the hungry Israelites and everything that travelled with them. God remembered his covenant there, leading Israel into others’ lands.
The psalmist notes that among God’s memorable and great works are the provision of God’s “precepts.” We, however, don’t naturally think of God’s commands as praiseworthy. We naturally chafe against God’s law. However, the psalmist sees that law as among God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Those precepts, after all, remind worshipers of their desperate need for God’s grace and provide a reliable guide for God’s sons and daughters to responding to God’s grace with their faith.
In using some form of the word “forever” four times in the psalm, the poet provides a perhaps subtle comfort. So much in modern life is, after all, transitory. Everything around and within us seems to be constantly changing. In fact, change sometimes seems to be accelerating. In the face of that sometimes disconcerting change, the poet asserts that God’s righteousness, works, covenant and praise are forever. God is completely reliable in part because God is the same yesterday, today and forever.
The psalmist reminds worshipers that God’s praiseworthy and character invite a faithful response. In fact, God’s works and nature invite a response not just of amazement, but also of faithful obedience. Certainly among the most appropriate responses is that of full-bodied, public worship and praise of God. However, God’s works especially invite a “pondering” of them. To what such pondering precisely refers is unclear, but Richard J. Clifton suggests that it means that God’s works are so great that they stimulate both a study of and generous response to them.
The psalmist adds that those who worship such a great and glorious God also fear that God. Worshipers honor, serve and love the Lord who so faithfully makes and cares for them. God’s sons and daughters also follow God’s precepts, recognizing in them the best guide for a grateful response to God’s countless great and glorious works.
Yet God’s great memorable works also invite worshipers to closely study and meditate on them as well as respond in imitation of them. So for example, as God’s children ponder God’s provision of food for hungry things, they ask themselves how they might be better stewards of their food and drink so that hungry and thirsty living things may flourish. As God’s children meditate on God’s grace and compassion, they not only confess their lack of those attributes but also open themselves to the Spirit’s transformation of them. As worshipers ponder God’s eternal covenantal faithfulness, they ask themselves about their own faithfulness to their promises.
In verse 10 the psalmist asserts that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When describing our first parents’ fall into sin, Genesis 3:6 reports that Eve saw that the “fruit of the tree” was “desirable for gaining wisdom.” She seems to have wanted to be as wise as God. The context seems to suggest that Eve saw in the serpent’s offer to help her “know good and evil” wisdom.
Is there a parallel in some modern searches for wisdom? Is there a kind of arrogance in assumptions that if we just learn enough, we’ll be like God, as wise as God?
The biblical conception of wisdom has little to do with high IQ’s. Biblical wisdom is, instead, an understanding of the way God has ordered the world. It begins with a proper reverence for and awe of God. Biblical wisdom lives itself out in a life ordered by God and shaped by love for God above all and one’s neighbors as oneself.
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