Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 19, 2018
Psalm 111 Commentary
We almost certainly do not study the works of the Lord enough. Psalm 111 is not one of the better known poems in the Hebrew Psalter but it packs a powerful punch of praise and adoration. Just generally it is a meditation on God’s works in both creation and redemption. It celebrates the mighty things God has done, including for his covenant people of Israel. The psalm begins with a vow to praise and then in verse 2 immediately goes on to celebrate the works of God, works that in the parallel line are said to be a source of great delight to those who “study” those works. Then the psalm ends with a line we read in also several other places in the Bible: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
In my mind that makes Psalm 111 at least in part something of a wisdom psalm as well as a psalm of praise and adoration. Wisdom is, after all, a knack for studying God’s world closely to observe what does and does not work and then the wise person—having observed such things—fits him- or herself into that world accordingly. The wise one sees what happens when you spit into the wind or saw off the branch you are sitting on and then modifies his behavior accordingly to avoid engaging in those foolish activities. The wise observe that sometimes when encountering a foolish person it is a good idea to rebuke that person whereas at other times it is best to walk away quietly. It takes close observation and keen discernment to know which situation is which but the wise are always on the lookout for such things and then behave accordingly. (This is why in the Book of Proverbs it is pretty easy to collect contradictory verses. Of course, they are not really contradictory but the fact is that it takes wisdom to apply wisdom and so you need a lot of different proverbs to cover a whole panoply of differing scenarios that we all encounter in life. Ask Proverbs if you should rebuke a fool or leave him be and the answer comes back “Depends.”)
I once heard the German theologian Juergen Moltmann say that in a sense wisdom is the art of what he called “Geistesgegenwart,” which is one of those really long German words that has no single English translation. But Geistesgegenwart basically means having your spirit present in the moment. It is what Sallie McFague has called “attention epistemology” or the knowledge you can gain about God’s world just by studying it carefully, paying attention, seeing what is going on around you.
In that sense Psalm 111:2 about how God’s works delight those who study them ties in with the last verse about wisdom: our delight increases when we pay attention, take a look, delve deeper into the created wonders that surround us every day. And it is just here in the modern world where probably a lot of us fall short. We are too busy to pay attention to bees and anthills and swaying willow trees or fluttering butterflies. We rush about from place to place and in the last quarter century or so increasingly have our eyes fixated not on the works of the Lord but on screens and other human-made distractions.
But Psalm 111 indicates that maybe our praise of God would increase—and our sense for delight would expand—if we took the time to study the works of the Lord as that is part of the fear of the Lord that leads to wisdom. Paying attention, studying what God has done very simply expands your list of reasons to sing God’s praises along with the psalmist. If we get to church on any given Sunday and discover we are having a hard time finding specific things for which to give God the praise, it may be because we did not take the time to study the works of the Lord in the days gone by.
Small wonder that I recently heard someone observe that if it is a sense of wonder, awe, and delight you are looking for, don’t go to a church. Go to a scientific lab or conference. If you want to find people fairly gob smacked by what they are encountering and studying in the natural world—which we Christians would call God’s Creation—then listen to biologists and geologists and astronomers who very often cannot believe what incredible things they get to look at and uncover. Many of those people are not even Christians and yet they often do a better job at studying what we Christians regard as the works of the Lord than those who believe in and want to praise that God regularly.
Of course, in a sense Psalm 111 is not really a call to pay better attention to God’s works so much as it is a reflection of those who do such things naturally. The psalmist seems to assume some cozy, natural connection between following the God of Israel and having intense interest in studying his works and pursuing the wisdom that comes from paying attention to life in God’s good world. But that, too, may stand in uncomfortable contradiction from how too many of us who have faith actually behave.
A lot of the psalms are recitals of the works of God. Many of these poems are like primers to remind us of the history of salvation, the works of creation, God’s many acts of covenant faithfulness. The psalms rehearse all these things again and again as a reminder that all of us believers are supposed to do the same thing on a regular basis. Worship itself is supposed to be on one level a recapitulation of God’s grand works of creation and redemption, a litany designed to jog our memories as to why we have come together in the assembly of God’s people to praise God in the first place.
We need more often to be reminded than instructed, Samuel Johnson is said to have observed. If so, then Psalm 111 is a grand reminder to get busy studying the works of the Lord and in this way discovering true wisdom and also increased motivation to sing to God with our whole hearts for all that he has done!
Full-time scientists may have the luxury of having a vocation that actually gets devoted to studying the natural world. Most of us do not have that opportunity so readily. But there are times and seasons when we can soak up ocean vistas, mountains, meadows, streams, and other wonders. And when we do—perhaps on vacation or on weekends—we can do our best to study the works of the Lord. Oh, we may not be professional scientists or anything—we may feel like we are at best amateurs. But as Tom Long once pointed out, that’s OK because “amateur” really means in one sense being a lover of something.
The first and great commandment tells us to love the Lord our God with everything we’ve got. We are called to be lovers of God. But when you love someone, you love what that person loves, you are invested in what brings your lover joy. If your spouse is an artist, then you as a lover take a keen interest in your spouse’s artwork, gladly go with that person to art museums and then listen carefully to how your spouse describes the works of art you encounter there. Good lovers take an interest in each other’s work and so listen attentively at the end of any given workday when the events of that day at the office or wherever are described.
We are all called to be amateur students of God’s creation, studying the works of the Lord because the Bible tells us that God himself takes delight in those things. Why would any of us who claim to love the Lord above all take anything other than also a keen delight in all the works of the Lord? And when we do, as Psalm 111 reminds us, we find an ever-expanding list of reasons to praise the Lord our God!
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