Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 28, 2018

Psalm 111 Commentary

Psalm 111 is the first of several Hallel Psalms, so named because they begin with the Hebrew words, Hallel (praise) and Yah (a shortened version of Yahweh).  Again and again, God’s people are called to praise their covenant making and keeping God.  But there are times in life when the Hallel’s get stuck in your throat and you can’t even call God’s name.

As I write this sermon commentary, I’m in one of those moments because of my grandchildren.  Molly is a sweet, super athletic 14 year old who has just been told that she needs a pacemaker.  Yes, a pacemaker!  It seems that her heart has an electrical problem that will need constant regulation for the rest of her life!!  She is, understandably, sad and frightened and confused.  And in spite of her strong adolescent faith in Christ, she is not exactly shouting, “Hallelujah,” these days.  Neither am I.

Owen is a brilliant, sports loving 12 year old who is currently playing 7th grade basketball.  However, during or after his game last week, some prankster/enemy stole his team warm up jacket.  He is devastated, thinking that he has an enemy who hates him enough to do a mean thing like that, maybe even a whole team that secretly despises him.  He is, understandably, sad and angry and feeling desperately alone.  The thought of praising the Lord hasn’t even crossed his mind this week.  It has crossed mine, but the Hallelujahs are sticking in my throat.

I tell you those two stories not to win your sympathy, but to remind you that your congregation will be full of such stories this Fourth Sunday of the Epiphany season.  They are not seeing the glory of Christ in their lives and the Hallelujahs are stuck in their throats.  Our Psalm for today ends with the joyful exclamation, “To him belongs eternal praise.” But in the everyday struggles of life it can be almost impossible to “extol the Lord with all my heart,” because you find yourself not in “the council of the upright and in the assembly,” but in the sterile coldness of an operating room or in the sweat soaked chaos of a locker room.

Psalm 111 is designed to “tune our hearts to sing [his] praise,” as the old hymn puts it (“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”).  It is carefully constructed so that we can sing again.  That’s true of its form as well as its content.  In form, it is an acrostic, a poem organized by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each half line begins with successive letters of that alphabet.  That sounds kind of artificial, I know, but think of it the way Walter Brueggemann does.  According to Brueggemann, Psalm 111 is one of those Psalms of “Orientation” in which the Psalmist is sure that everything is all right in the world.  “The world is ruled by God with moral symmetry. That symmetry in the world is reflected in the disciplined acrostic structure of Psalm 111.”

That formal way of conveying the message that everything is all right is matched by the actual content of the Psalm.  That content can be summed up in the word “righteousness.”  God is righteous in all he does and “his righteousness endures forever (verse 3).”  It may seem as though everything is all wrong, but Psalm 111 assures us that appearances are not reality.  God is the ultimate reality, and he is altogether righteous.

That kind of simple assertion is not going to help the Mollys and Owens of the world, so the Psalm goes to great lengths to expand our vision of God.  And not just God in some generic sense, but Yahweh, the God who made himself known to Israel and who sent his own Son to the world.  So, Psalm 111 reminds us that Yahweh is not only righteous, but also “gracious and compassionate (verse 4), faithful and just (verse 7), trustworthy (verse 7), holy and awesome (verse 9).”  Now, simply repeating those words to your congregation will not move them to praise the Lord.  You’ll have to define the words carefully, so that they get a sense of the sheer goodness of God.

But defining words will not convince my hurting grandchildren.  I can hear them say, “But how do you know, Grandpa?  How do you know that God is all those things?  It sure doesn’t’ seem that way to us.  I mean, look at the world.  Look at our lives right now.  How do we know that what you are saying is anything more than what you think?”

To that kind of postmodernism skepticism, Psalm 111 replies that its vision of God is not just what the Jews thought.  It is the way God acted in the world.  The focus on Psalm 111 is on the historical actions of Yahweh: “great are the works of Yahweh (verse 2); glorious and majestic are his deeds (verse 3); he caused his wonders to be remembered (verse 4); he provides food for those who fear him (verse 5); he has shown the power of his works, giving his people the lands of the nations (verse 6); he provided redemption for his people (verse 9).”

A careful and creative parsing of those assertions reveals a mini-history of Israel from the Ten Plagues (“works of Yahweh”) to the Exodus (“provided redemption”) to the provision of manna and quail in the wilderness to the conquest of the Promised Land.  All of those historical deeds are rooted in God’s covenant with Israel; “he ordained his covenant forever….”  God kept his covenant promises made long ago to Abraham by acting in history to make a great nation with its own land and a name that is famous.  We know that God is who Psalm 111 says he is, because he has shown himself to be that in his deeds.

There is one more historical act of Yahweh mentioned in Psalm 111, namely, the giving of his Law.  If verses 3-6 focus on the way God kept his promises in history, then verses 7-10 remind us of the precepts God gave his people so that they would know how to live in history.  From our New Testament, and particularly our Pauline, perspective we don’t always remember that God’s law is a tremendous gift.  Paul rails against the misuse of the Torah by those Judaizers who wanted to justify themselves by their works.  But God gave his law as a blessed guide for living in a world that is often confusing, dangerous, and downright wicked.  The mere presence of such a guide for right, fruitful and happy living in this kind of world is a huge blessing.  And even more proof that God is good.

I’m not sure that all of this talk about God’s goodness demonstrated in ancient historical acts and in a set of antiquated precepts will convince my grandchildren and your congregation that they ought to “praise the Lord.”  It will help if you tell the story of Israel’s “redemption” in terms that parallel the situations in their lives today.  For example, being in Egypt was like being trapped by your enemy’s posse.  And receiving the Law was like getting a guide through the dark forest of your confusion.  But in the end, I think you’ll have to put a face on this historical God.  Which, of course, is exactly what God did in Jesus.  God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Cor. 4:6).”

Hurting people don’t become praising people until they are convinced that God is good.  And only God’s gift of Jesus will convince them of that when their lives seem to be hell.  Tell the story of Jesus using the words of Psalm 111.  Jesus redeemed us from slavery to evil.  Jesus performed wonders as he demonstrated that a new kingdom had come.  Jesus is the bread of life who enables us to live forever.  Jesus gives us a whole new place in the world, because all authority has been given to him and we are to claim the whole world for him.  Jesus shows us the way to a life that is true.  Jesus fulfilled all the covenant promises and kept the covenant law.  In him, we are blessed beyond our imagining.  “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).”  If you preach Psalm 111 that way, you’ll give your hurting people a little Epiphany of Christ’s glory, even in their dark times.

One more word calls for comment here, and it might just put the bow on the gift.  Verse 10 talks about the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom.  Whenever we read about the fear of the Lord, we get involved in a discussion about which emotion that is—terror or awe?  We always come down on the side of awe, because our heavenly Father couldn’t want us to be afraid of him, could he?  But Psalm 111 gives us a different take on the fear of the Lord.  The next words in verse 11 are typical Hebrew parallelism; “all who follow his precepts have good understanding.”

What if the fear of the Lord isn’t first of all an emotion, but an action, or a set of actions?  Fearing the Lord means simply living by his precepts, putting his will at the center of our lives and acting accordingly.  Being wise, understanding how to live in the world, begins with being obedient.  Life would be so much simpler, so much richer, so much happier, so much easier if we would just follow Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.

Of course, we can’t do that perfectly; that’s why Jesus died for our sins.  And we can’t do it by ourselves; that’s why Jesus gives us his Spirit.  But there is a way to live that will enable us to “praise the Lord.”  Focus not on the circumstances, but on the Christ.  I know, easy to say, hard to do, especially if you are in Molly or Owen’s shoes.  But at least Psalm 111 gives us a way to shine the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ into the lives of all who live in darkness.

Illustration Ideas

Tim Keller has written another brilliant book titled Making Sense of God.  In my humble opinion, it is the best apologetic for the Christian faith since Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  It doesn’t approach the faith with the same imaginative whimsy as Lewis.  Rather, Keller’s book is a powerful engagement with the cultural currents of our society and the philosophical underpinnings that make it what it is.  He shows that religion in general meets the needs of human beings better than the secular alternatives and, then, that the Christian faith does that better than any other religion, because of the person of Jesus.  I recommend it to everyone, especially to the “cultured despisers.”

But Psalm 111 reminds us of a stern truth.  If people don’t do God’s will, if they stubbornly do their own will, it will be impossible for them to understand the Gospel.  They won’t be wise enough to discern its truth.  Thank God for the strong truth proclaimed in Psalm 111.  The Lord “provides redemption” by breaking into history, by interrupting human sin, by becoming incarnate in Jesus.  And by the foolishness of preaching, he saves many.  So, preach it, sister and brother.  And praise the Lord.


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