Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 9, 2022
Psalm 111 Commentary
In a recent sermon commentary on another psalm, I observed that although the poetry of the Psalms and the wisdom literature of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes are distinct in terms of biblical literary genre, there is a lot of crossover between the Books of Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 111 is another example of this with its final verse containing what is also the headline verse for all of Proverbs: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. So as we would do were we reading Proverbs 1, so for Psalm 111, we need to wonder what that line means and then see the rest of Psalm 111 in that light.
What is the fear of the Lord, the fear of “Yahweh,” Israel’s God? To state the merely obvious, it does not per se mean “fear” in the sense of terror or being frightened/scared. Yes, there is an element of trepidation that should attend any mere mortal who would approach an almighty and holy God—a proper awe and due respect—but that is not the main upshot of “fear” in this context. Instead it means reverence, it means knowing Who is who in the cosmic scheme of things and then ordering your life accordingly. It means recognizing that the world was not created for your own private benefit or convenience. It means acknowledging that similarly you are not in a position to re-create or re-cast or re-shape the world as you go along to make things more convenient for you. You cannot make up the rules as you go along to make sure that good old #1 always comes out on top.
The fear of the Lord means that you own up to the fact that God alone is sovereign. He set up the cosmos in certain ways and knowing that means that the wise person seeks to discern what works and what does not work in God’s good design. God, of course, also gave his people the gift of the Law. This is life’s Owner’s Manual. The Do’s and Don’ts of the Law are not arbitrary hoops God likes watching his creatures jump through.
Instead these are laws on the order of the Law of Gravity: the laws reveal the way things are. You can ignore the Law of Gravity if you wish and defy it by stepping off a sheer cliff face but . . . gravity will not be suspended because you want it so. The Law of Gravity is less something you obey and more something you yield to!
Wisdom, however, is less about laws and more about street smarts, savvy, making careful observations of life so you can figure out what’s what and then go with that wise flow. You should not need a rule to tell you it’s dumb to spit into the wind or saw off the branch you’re sitting on. You should not need a law to tell you that as often as not, when you are trying to argue with a genuinely foolish person, you will probably be better off just walking away quietly.
You don’t need a rulebook to discern the truth of the proverb that says “Better a meal of herbs and water where love is than a rich feast where there is hatred.” Just watch your surly Uncle Lloyd ignite a political debate at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table and you will quickly conclude that delicious though Grandma’s turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes are, you wish you had just swung through the Burger King drive-thru and eaten in your car with someone you love. It would have been much more enjoyable!
Or it reminds me of an episode of the TV comedy The Office when Jim and Pam attend a fancy dinner party that goes so horribly wrong—the couple hosting it almost literally come to blows—they cannot wait to get out of the house. Although the meal had featured delectable osso bucco and other fancy cuisine, Jim and Pam stop by a burger joint on the way home and declare the burgers they eat in the front seat of their car to be the tastiest food ever. Better a meal of water and herbs where love is . . .
The fear of the Lord discerns that the world is not random. It’s not a booming buzzing confusion. It’s not some Hamlet-like fool strutting about a stage spouting sound and fury that in the end means nothing. There is order. There is sense to the world. The wise person knows this and so figures some stuff out as he or she goes along.
This cluster of insights from the final verse of Psalm 111 then frames up the first 9 verses. Because this psalmist is celebrating the works of God and how faithful followers of God spend lots of time pondering those works, delighting in those works, rehearsing over and over the splendors of what God has done. And it’s not just the works of God in creation but in also redemption and in God’s having formed a covenant with Israel. These saving and redeeming acts also reveal a lot about God’s character, and those who are devoted to God will savor these things, too. Any God who cares enough for people as to make a covenant with them and intervene on their behalf can surely be trusted to show us the right ways to live.
This is a God, in short, who gives laws and reveals wise insights for one very basic reason: God wants people to flourish. God wants people to avoid those things that might harm them and to engage instead in lifestyles that, by virtue of going with God’s flow, will bring them delight and joy. God doesn’t want people to be perpetually frustrated on account of their fighting against how the world was set up in the first place. Instead God wants people to get into the zone of heeding the way things work so that they will thrive.
Because the psalmist knows—as does the wider wisdom tradition of Scripture—that it is sheer folly to fancy oneself as being a “self-made individual.” It is folly to think you can just move life’s moral boundary fences to more convenient places and not suffer any negative consequences as a result. Ruination and destruction are the end destinations for all those who refuse to acknowledge that there is a God and that this God knows best what works and what fails in life. The beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge both the existence of God and the fact that no one has a better inside track to knowing what leads to delight and flourishing than the God who created the whole shebang in the first place!
So wise up! Get wisdom! Flee folly! Ponder long and hard the things of God and order your life accordingly. Because God really does have your best interests at heart. It only makes sense to figure out as best you can what God’s designs for life in this creation are and then fit yourself into that picture even as you extol God over and over for the marvelous things he has created and done.
As my colleague Stan Mast reminded us in his sermon commentary on Psalm 111 in 2016, it ought not really strike us as odd that something like Psalm 111 calls us over and over to extol the things of God, to get jump-up-and-down excited about God’s works in creation and redemption and the fact that contained in those works are great wonder and power. Anyone who finds it off-putting to be ordered to extol the virtues and works of God should just take a look around at how most people act in the rest of life.
Watch a major league baseball player connect with a pitch and send the ball sailing over the back fence for a home run and what happens? The crowd leaps to their feet and cheers go up as accolades get heaped on the hitter.
When a few years ago Beatles singer Paul McCartney appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late night show. The audience gave McCartney a sustained standing ovation with thunderous clapping and cheering as they extolled the songwriting skills of a man whose music has touched millions for over 50 years now.
It’s not that it’s unusual to suggest people extol someone for their great works of art or other achievements. It’s just that we too often fail to notice what God has done. If we could see more clearly the wondrous works of God, probably no psalmist would need to goad us to extol God for it all. We’d be too busy standing on our feet, clapping, and cheering!
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