About all I can say after reading Psalm 112 is that it’s one thing to wear rose-colored glasses but quite another to fuse those glasses to your head so you can never take them off! Psalm 112 is by no means the only poem in the Hebrew Psalter to paint a glowing portrait of what the life of the righteous looks like but it has no peers in terms of doubling and tripling down on its claims. I know I have noted it in other sermon commentaries over the years but this is surely one of those times when you quite simply have to thank God that a psalm like this is not the only portrait of life that emerges from the Psalter.
Thanks God there are also those Psalms of Lament that remind us that as a matter of fact, life for the righteous does not always sail along in endless bliss. There are plenty of other poems in this collection that tear the rose-colored glasses off in order to cut loose with some serious tirades about life’s unfairness. The only mistake we can make when reading the psalms is to give in to the temptation to let any one of these 150 songs be the final word on everything. Lament is not necessarily going to be our only experience in life but then again neither is Psalm 112’s lyric claims that those who try to live holy lives for God will ever and only experience success and a never-ending string of blessings for them and for their children.
Even so, honesty compels us to wonder about a psalm like this. Not only does it not square with the reality of the lives of so very many good and honest people we know, it does not even line up terribly well with Jesus’ words in the New Testament that tells the disciples that in this world they are going to experience plenty of trouble. The world that rejected the Master will reject the followers of the Master. And sure enough: in the decades following Jesus’ ascension into heaven after which he put his disciples in charge of things, they were to a person persecuted, roughed up, jailed, and ultimately killed for their attempt to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All of that seems a far cry from Psalm 112’s claims that the world would be our oyster if only we live righteous lives.
That, in turn, undercuts another possible way one could approach Psalm 112. It would be possible, one supposes, to take Psalm 112’s claims at face value and then conclude that if as a matter of fact we do not experience the kind of cascading blessings promised here, then the reason lies with us. We only think we take delight in all of God’s commands and follow them well in our lives but maybe not. Maybe if the experience of us and of our children does not line up with the portrait sketched in Psalm 112—if, as a matter of fact, we not only fear receiving bad news but have actually gotten our share of bad news across the years—it is because we have fallen short of the righteous ideal which, were we to achieve it, actually would result in the blissful existence described by this poet.
But that cannot be quite right either. And it’s a mean-spirited believer who makes a given person’s life worse by as much as saying, “Well, sorry for what you’re going through but if your righteousness were strong, probably all this bad stuff would not be happening to you.” This is the case that Job’s friends tried to make to him, and in the end God told them all to take their tidy theological worldview and take a long hike with it.
OK, but that still leaves us with the conundrum of what to do with Psalm 112’s unstinting claim that the righteous will never have a bad day. Is this a portrait of what life should be like were the world not the fallen place it is? Possibly. Probably. Is this a sneak preview of what the New Creation will be like once God banishes evil for good and returns this universe to what it had been intended to be like in the first place? Possibly. Probably.
But this could also be read as an aspirational portrait. Whether or not life always works out this way for good people—and we know it doesn’t—nevertheless Psalm 112 stands as testament that we should want to delight in God’s commands and follow God’s ways whether it results in more immediate rewards or not. And on this front there are other things in Psalm 112 that point this direction: it is true that the righteous will triumph in the long run (and the fact that even this sunny poem admits that the righteous do have “foes” is telling) and that at the end of the cosmic day they will be remembered, they will continue in God’s presence, their righteousness will be happily embraced and remembered long after the ways of the wicked will be blotted out forever. This is the right way to live because the pattern of righteous living is on an arc of trajectory that will endure in ways that all other arcs will not.
Yes, for now in this world the lives of the wicked sometimes blaze one big, glitzy, impressive-looking trail behind them. The rich and famous surely look like they are heading somewhere great. They sure appear to riding the crest of various waves that we can scarcely imagine ever dissipating. But they will. What will endure, what will go on and on, are the arcs of the humble, are the lives of the quiet and meek people, of the lowly people whom Jesus blessed the most ardently in the Sermon on the Mount and its opening Beatitudes.
Might we all wish that the seemingly simple and sunny portrait painted by Psalm 112 were singularly true for people who try to live in righteous and good ways. But the Psalms of Lament witness to other realities we all know only too well. Still, in the long run and even in the near term what Psalm 112 says is fundamentally right. Goodness is not only its own reward, it will last, it will redound to God’s praise and to the honor of the saints long after the seemingly impressive ways of nasty people have faded away.
[Note: The Lectionary assigned Psalm 112 in Year C not so long ago. If you want to read a slightly different set of angles on this same passage, you can go to a sermon commentary article I posted just last summer in 2019.]
Here is the conclusion of Frederick Buechner’s summary of Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew 5: “Jesus saved for [the last blessing] the ones who side with Heaven even when any fool can see it’s the losing side and all you get for your pains is pain. Looking into the faces of his listeners, he speaks to them directly for the first time. ‘Blessed are you’ he says. You can see them looking back at him. They’re not what you’d call a high-class crowd—peasants and fisherfolk for the most part, on the shabby side, not all that bright. It doesn’t look as if there’s a hero among them. They have their jaws set. Their brows are furrowed with concentration. They are blessed when they are worked over and cursed out on his account he tells them. It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.”
Frederick, Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 19.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 9, 2020
Psalm 112:1-9 (10) Commentary