Psalm 112 is one gorgeous piece of poetry about happiness. But there’s one simple problem with it: It just ain’t so. What it says about the happiness of those who fear the Lord doesn’t seem to be true, not for all of us, not all the time, and for some, not at all. At least I think that’s how some people in your church will hear its lovely words.
Psalm 112 certainly is beautiful, a real work of Hebrew poetic art. For one thing, it is a twin to Psalm 111 in many ways. Both are alphabetic acrostics with each Hebrew half line advancing through the alphabet. James Limburg calls them the ABC Psalms. Their respective messages are complementary. Psalm 111 sings the praise of Yahweh for his unfailing righteousness; it is the praise of the upright who fear the Lord. Psalm 112 describes how the fear of that righteous Lord works out in the life of the upright. (Mays)
Structurally, in both Psalms the first and last verses frame the Psalm. In both, the body develops the theme introduced in the first verse, while the closing verses (especially in Psalm 112) add a counterpoint. In both, the main body of 8 verses falls thematically into two halves of 4 verses each, and there are themes that repeat within those halves and even between the two Psalms (compare 111:3-5 with 112:3-5). And the last line of Psalm 111 introduces the subject matter of Psalm 112. There is, in other words, a tightknit symmetry in these two Psalms, which will turn out to be relevant for our final interpretation.
The common theme of the two is righteousness, uprightness, justice. As Brueggemann puts it: “Psalm 112 speaks for the righteous person in a righteous society governed by a righteous God. Everything is all right.” He continues, “In Psalm 111 and 112 God rules the world with moral symmetry. The world works so that persons receive the consequences of their actions (Gal. 6:7); this statement entertains no doubt about it.”
Therein lies the problem with Psalm 112. Things are manifestly not all right in the lives of many of God’s righteous people. In spite of their best efforts to live for God, they do not receive what they deserve. Instead the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. The opening statement, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,” is a reassuring sentiment. However, what follows as a description of that blessing is not only contrary to the experience of many saints, but it is also contrary to the way some other Psalms talk about the lives of the righteous (cf. Psalm 73 as a vivid case in point).
When Psalm 112 says that those who fear the Lord will have happy families, houses full of riches, and an untarnished reputation, many strugglers in our congregations might well say, “Oh, that it were true!” Does fearing the Lord really guarantee us a charmed life, the kind of life promised by the “Health and Wealth Gospel?” Tell that to the Christians killed by ISIS in the Middle East or kidnapped by Boko Horan in Nigeria or hounded by the authorities in China. For such believers Psalm 112 may seem naïve or even false. This sunny picture of the life of God’s people is lovely, but is it true?
A better question is, how is it true? I’m convinced that if it’s in Scripture, it is true. We just need to be sure that we are reading it truly. Two questions will help us identify the truth. First, what does the fear of the Lord amount to? It might be that the reason Psalm 112 doesn’t seem true for some believers is that they don’t truly fear the Lord. We need to be careful with that line of investigation, lest we carelessly attribute people’s trouble to their lack of faith. But a careful study of “the fear of the Lord” may help us understand and appropriate what this lovely Psalm says.
The second question will probe what the Psalmist says about the lives of those who fear the Lord. What does the Psalm promise them? Is it a “health and wealth” gospel promise? For that matter, are these consequences of fearing the Lord really promises? Or are they generally true observations about life (as are common in wisdom literature, of which Psalm 112 seems to be an example)? And quite apart from those larger questions, what exactly do the words of Psalm 112 mean when they talk about the blessings of fearing the Lord?
So what is “the fear of the Lord?” Every preacher knows that it isn’t the terror of the Lord. In English the word “fear” suggests some kind of threat which prompts the reptilian responses of fight or flight. The Hebrew has more of the sense of awe or respect or honor. But Psalm 112 goes to great lengths to show us that the fear of the Lord is not just an attitude or a psychological state.
It is a life lived, a life of obedience that is motivated not by a sense of duty, but by a “great delight in his commands.” Fearing the Lord is not trying to do the right things in an effort to win the Lord’s favor, but trusting the Lord who has redeemed us and delighting to please the one who loves us faithfully. In other words, fearing the Lord is not a grim obligation or a dutiful burden, but a grace-filled, joyful mirroring of the way God lives (as spelled out in Psalm 111—more on that later).
Notice the specific things Psalm 112 says about the one who fears the Lord. She is “gracious and compassionate (vs. 4),” “generous and lends freely (vs.5),” “conducts her affairs with justice (vs. 5),” and “has scattered her gifts abroad to the poor (vs. 9).” As I said earlier, the key word in this description of the God fearer is “righteous.” But the characteristic behaviors listed above show that upright doesn’t mean uptight. The emphasis is not on an exacting adherence to a list of rules. Instead, says Brueggemann, “Virtue is relational. Goodness is not a condition or a property or a state of being, but a set of actions in social relations. Virtue concerns social relations precisely in relation to the distribution of economic justice.” Psalm 112 asserts that “giving life resources away to others in the community is the way of real joy.”
In other words, fearing the Lord in that way is itself the source of a happy life, quite apart from the state of our family, our finances or our physical fitness. That observation leads directly to our second question. What does Psalm 112 promise those who fear the Lord? The central thing is being “blessed,” which might be loosely translated “happy” or more accurately “content.” Those who fear the Lord will be content. One thinks of Paul’s famous, “I have learned to be content no matter what my circumstances (Phil 4:11ff).”
That gets close to the meaning of Psalm 112, but the literal sense of the Hebrew, asre, reveals the heart of this blessedness/happiness/contentment. The Hebrew word means “to advance, to walk straight, or to follow the track.” Those who fear the Lord will follow the Lord’s will, walking straight, advancing toward the kind of life God himself lives. By doing that, they will be content, blessed, happy.
Everything that follows in Psalm 112 must be seen in that context. Verse 2, then, is not a promise of a large happy family, but an observation that those who fear the Lord raise families that are a mighty force for Yahweh and enjoy the blessing of Yahweh. Similarly, verse 3 is not a promise of wealth, but an observation that God often blesses the obedient with wealth (e.g., Abraham, Job, David, and Solomon) and a subtle admonition that such wealth must be used righteously. That understanding of verse 3 is validated by the twin observations that fearing the Lord means being generous and lending freely (verse 5) and scattering abroad gifts to the poor (verse 9). While the God fearing might hope that God will make them rich, they should expect to use their wealth to help others.
This more realistic reading of the “blessings” of the God fearing is borne out by other verses. Verse 4 says, “Even in darkness light dawns for the upright.” There will be dark times in the lives of even the most trusting and obedient. But the light of Yahweh will always break through and triumph. Verse 6 asserts, “Surely he will never be shaken….” Earthquakes of various kinds may shake the earth around him, but the righteous will not be shaken in his heart. Verses 7 and 8 continue in that vein. “He will have no fear of bad news….” Bad news will undoubtedly come, but he will not live in fear of such news, because “his heart is steadfast, trusting the Lord….” He may encounter enemies in his life, but “in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.”
Overall, the “blessing” of “fearing the Lord” is righteousness. Through the dark times, the earthquakes, the bad news and the battles, the God fearing person is able to follow God’s will, walking straight, advancing toward the kind of life that God himself lives as explained in Psalm 111. Thus, a righteous person will be remembered forever; his righteousness endures forever; indeed, his horn will be lifted high in heaven. Living righteously is its own blessing. It is simply the best way to live, because it is the way God lives.
Indeed, the conjunction of Psalm 111 and 112 emphasizes that the truly happy life is a life of partnership with God; “the content person of Psalm 112 partners with the God of Psalm 111 working together to achieve righteousness—right living, correct order, truth and justice—in this world.” (Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford) We solve the riddle of the “health and wealth” verses by focusing on what Psalm 112 says the righteous should do, rather than on what it says will result. What these twin Psalm tell us is that our lives and our futures are shaped by the way we mirror the deeds of our Lord. Or to put it more simply, in the words of an old hymn: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”
That hymn points to one final question. How do we preach a uniquely Christian sermon on this poetic slice of Jewish wisdom? The central message of the early Christian church in the face of both Roman and Jewish opposition was, “Jesus is Lord.” The Lord we should fear is Jesus, who didn’t just lay down the law to be obeyed, but also laid down his own life to be received in faith. Living righteously as Psalm 112 directs us to do is not the way to be saved; it is the way saved people follow the Lord Jesus.
Jesus was very clear about that when he gave the church its marching orders for the rest of history. “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you….” Teach people to follow me in a straight line, advancing always toward the Kingdom I have established, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”
In America’s “Declaration of Independence” there is a stunning assertion. All human beings have an inalienable, God-given right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” No wonder people flock to the U.S. from all over the world. To be free to pursue happiness in any way you choose is a privilege billions can’t imagine. But how many of us actually find the happiness for which all humans long? How many will end up disappointed, like those who are described in the last line of Psalm 112; “the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.” In the light of that conclusion, what a privilege it is to know the path to true happiness. While “the fear of the Lord” may sound onerous to many people, it is the way to pursue happiness and actually find it for time and eternity. Let’s be sure to preach it as a blessing of God’s grace.
I can’t read about fearing the Lord without recalling that famous interchange in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children have entered Narnia through the wardrobe. Mr. Beaver is telling them about Aslan, the main character who represents Christ throughout the “Chronicles of Narnia.” I know that this quote has been used so often that it may have lost its power for some. But for those who’ve never heard it, it still strikes the right chord as we approach Psalm 112.
“Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the Great Lion.” “Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous meeting a lion….” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “who said anything about being safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 28, 2016
Psalm 112 Commentary