Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 28, 2024
Psalm 111 Commentary
You have to like the fact that a psalm that claims God has worked to make sure his deeds are remembered is itself written as an acrostic in the original Hebrew precisely as an aid to memorizing the psalm! Beginning each of the 22 lines of this poem with successive letters in the Hebrew alphabet was a way to jog people’s memories in a day when written materials basically did not exist for the average person. You could not look up Psalm 111—you had to know it.
If a person did have Psalm 111 committed to memory, then this person would have a good, concise primer on the nature of Israel’s God. The psalm begins with the command statement hallelu yah as a reminder that Israel’s God alone deserves to be and needs to be praised by God’s people. The covenant originally made with Abraham figures large in this poem. Two times we are assured that this covenant is “forever.”
The works of God are remembered, and here we probably focus primarily on God’s works in creation. Then the deeds of God are remembered, and these deeds range from all God did to save Israel and to all God continues to do in God’s providence to sustain all creation and God’s people within that creation. Next up are the precepts of God, and this surely includes God’s Law and all the life-giving, life-saving stipulations in God’s Law. Finally the psalm wraps up with a nod to also the Wisdom tradition in Israel and how the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (and one could say by way of extension that this reverent honor for God is the end of all wisdom as well).
That is an impressive covering of the theological waterfront in a psalm of 22 lines that clocks in at around just 70 words in the original Hebrew! A person who memorized and internalized this short poem would carry a lot of solid theology around in his or her heart. And just that was the point. It is also the point of other things the church went on to develop by way of creeds and confessions. These were condensed versions of a larger biblical theology designed to be internalized by believers. A creed like the Athanasian Creed—which granted is a bit on the long side—seems to have been developed to be a touchstone for especially preachers and teachers in the Church so they could make sure their sermons and such lined up with the orthodox views on Trinity, incarnation, and atonement.
We memorize such things as a way to put up guardrails on our hearts and minds. Yes, we also do it to provide comfort as we can recall these truths about God’s love and faithfulness in moments of uncertainty or fear. How often don’t we pastors hear from parishioners who say that what kept them calm while lying in the MRI tube was recalling the lyrics of grand old hymns or Bible passages they had committed to memory?
It seems like today the need to memorize and hence the ability to recall core truths is more needed than ever. Too often it seems like Christians, same as altogether too many other people in society, both gather “information” willy-nilly off the internet (from not always very reliable sources) and then they go off half-cocked in the shoot-from-the-hip improvisational way people post things on social media and the like. Too many folks in also the church today have neither guardrails on their thinking nor the touchstones they need to keep themselves centered. To riff on the refrain from the Book of Judges: each person believes what is right in their own eyes.
Psalm 111 says God has caused his works and deeds to be remembered. The acrostic nature of this poem could be seen as one way God has done that. But beyond that we can look to other ways by which God causes this remembrance of all that. God ordains teachers and preachers, priests and prophets to bring to mind the things of God. God inspired the inscripturation of God’s own Word. God gives children believing parents who—and here we can recall especially the Book of Deuteronomy—talk about these vital matters with their children at dinner tables and at bedtimes. God inspires God’s people to gather for worship where hymns rehearse the things of God and where sermons remind and instruct the faithful.
They say that those who do not remember or learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. If so, perhaps the opposite is also true: those who remember, celebrate, and rehearse the past realize that the present moment is also infused with the goodness and faithfulness of God. But we see this best when we accurately remember how God has revealed Godself to us and brings all that to remembrance. Preachers in the church are a key to all of that. May we take that responsibility with all the due reverence and seriousness it entails.
Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2024 Year B Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
From my former CEP co-writer Stan Mast comes this observation stemming from Psalm 111’s call to praise God for his works and deeds.
“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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