Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 9, 2016

Psalm 111 Commentary

Psalm 111 introduces a series of Hallel Psalms (111-117), so named because the Hebrew of each Psalm begins with Hallelu Yah, “Praise Yahweh.” Indeed, Psalm 111 and 112 are twin Psalms, almost Siamese twins, because they are connected in so many ways. Any casual reader can see that the last verse of Psalm 111 is directly tied to the first verse of Psalm 112. For a more detailed examination of the connections, see my piece on Psalm 112 in the August 22 Commentary on this website.

The uniting theme of the two Psalms seems to be righteousness. Psalm 111 describes the righteousness of God, while Psalm 112 shows how that righteousness should be reflected in the life of those who fear that righteous God. Although the Lectionary separates these Psalms by almost two months, they would make a great two part series on righteousness.

The focus on God in Psalm 111 is immediately introduced in the first verse. “I will extol the Lord with all my heart in the company of the upright (righteous) and in the assembly.” As is often the case in the Psalter, even the most personal of the Psalms is spoken in a communal setting, first of all in the smaller circle of “the upright” and then in the larger assembly of God’s people. Purely private praise (“just Jesus and me”) is virtually unknown; a solitary believer, “spiritual but not religious,” was an oxymoron in Israel. Who could survive all alone as a child of God in a world filled with challenges to faith? Though a minor point in Psalm 111, this is surely a word worth speaking as you preach on the praise of God.

The NIV uses an interesting word to express praise. “I will extol….” Other version speak simply of “thanks,” but it will pay to focus on “extol” for a moment. Indeed, an entire sermon could be built around that word. We all know how to thank God for his gifts to us. And we know how confess our sins. And we know how to ask God for blessings that will satisfy our needs and wants. But how many of us know how to extol God, to simply praise him for himself? Ask someone to pray a prayer of pure praise and you will always hear instead a prayer of thanksgiving that will lapse into confession and supplication.

Psalm 111 is a primer on praise. It shows us how to praise God because God is worthy of praise, that is, simply because of who God is. It focuses on the attributes of God, primarily his righteousness, but also his grace and compassion, his glory and majesty, his faithfulness and holiness, his awesomeness and power.

But, interestingly, the Psalmist doesn’t attempt to praise God for those attributes in abstraction, as ideas about God arrived at simply by reflection. Rather, those attributes are descriptions of God as God is revealed through historical acts. His attributes are demonstrated in his mighty works on behalf of his people. So, four times the Psalmist praises God for his “works” or “his deeds.” As John Calvin often said, “We do not know God apart from his works.” That is, we come to know God not simply by thinking deeply about God, but even more by reflecting on his actions in history.

On what mighty deeds is the Psalmist focused? Verse 9 gives us a clear clue. “He provided redemption for his people.” Psalm 111 is not a creation Psalm; it is a redemption Psalm. A careful reading reveals that the act of redemption in view here is probably the whole Exodus event, including the wilderness wandering, the giving of the Law, and the conquest of the Promised Land.

The reference to “wonders” in verse 4 could well be an allusion to such miracles as the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. God’s provision of “food” is probably not a general reference to daily bread (as in the Lord’s Prayer), but an acknowledgement of the manna and quail that sustained God’s people for forty years in the wilderness. The trustworthy “precepts” in verse 7 may be a shorthand way of referring to the entire Torah given at Mt. Sinai. And it seems very clear that verse 6 is talking about the conquest of the Promised Land by the power of the Lord. “He has shown his people the power of his works, giving them the lands of other nations.”

Interestingly, all of those mighty deeds are rooted in God’s covenant of grace. The redemption provided for his people was “ordained [in] his covenant.” No matter what happens to his people in history, the Lord “remembers his covenant forever.” Indeed, that emphasis on the reliability of the covenant runs throughout the Psalm. Four times, the Psalmist praises God not only because he has acted in the past, but also because those past actions are rooted in the character and covenant of God. His “righteousness endures forever;” “he remembers his covenant forever;” his works and words “are steadfast forever and ever;” “he ordained his covenant forever.” What God has done for his people is not only “once for all (ala Hebrews), but also once forever.”

In these references to an historical redemption and an everlasting covenant of grace we find legitimate connections to Jesus Christ. In him, Yahweh has “provided redemption for his people.” In him, the covenant of grace has been fulfilled completely. In the Eucharist, he has provided food for his people; indeed, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” It is no wonder that the Western Church has chanted Psalms 111-113 every Sunday evening for hundreds of years. After the mini-cycle of redemption history beginning with the betrayal by Judas on Wednesday and the culmination of salvation in Christ’s resurrection on Sunday morning, the church ends every Sunday praising God for the way he has redeemed his people in Christ.

That is the true source of all praise—God’s mighty deeds of redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, we see God’s glory and majesty, his power and his holiness, his righteousness and justice, his faithfulness and trustworthiness, his grace and compassion. To know God we must focus on Christ. When we do that, we will say, with the Psalmist, “holy and awesome is his name.” And we will “extol the Lord with our whole heart.” One of my favorite old hymns is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second line in that hymn asks God to “tune my heart to sing thy praise.” That is exactly what Psalm 111 is designed to do—tune our hearts to sing God’s praise.

You will be doing your congregation a huge favor by preaching on this Psalm, just because our hearts are so badly out of tune. As I said before, we know how to beg for blessing; we know how to cry out for mercy; we even know how to give thanks for all the gifts. But pure praise is hard to come by.

I wonder if that’s because we don’t do what the NIV translation of verse 2 says. “Great are the works of Yahweh; they are pondered by all who delight in them.” That word “pondered” is a real key. It can mean to reflectively examine and it can mean to seek or respond to. We will not praise God if we don’t ponder (like the Virgin Mary) what the Scripture says about our redemption in Christ and then eagerly seek to live in the light of what God has done for us in Christ. In a world saturated with information and frantic with activity, we will not praise the Lord with our whole heart unless we pause to ponder the works of Yahweh in Christ and then earnestly focus all our efforts on living for Jesus.

Illustration Idea

If we stop to think about it, we do know what it means to extol the attributes of God as revealed in his works on our behalf. We extol the virtues of god-like figures in our society all the time. We praise sports stars for their hitting abilities, for their jump shots, for their speed. We praise entertainment figures for their beauty, for their acting ability, for their voices, for their performances. We even praise preachers once in a while for a good sermon, for compassionate pastoral work, for their leadership ability. We know how to praise mere humans for their performance. We just need to pay more attention to God’s performance in Christ and become as avid in our devotion to Jesus as we are in our adulation of our human heroes.


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