Worship in Words and Works (Psalm 111)
One of the unusual things about preaching in various different churches is that I find myself having to preach under a title and on a passage I didn’t choose. Sometimes when I begin my preparation, I get a wobble of thinking there won’t be anything helpful for me to draw out of this obscure story or lesser-known psalm. I really must stop that, though, as invariably when I get started in earnest I find more in there than I can fit into a single sermon. That’s certainly the case with Psalm 111, which is my assigned passage for this coming Sunday in Belfast Chinese Christian Church. I still have the challenge of working out how to preach by translation into Mandarin (morning) and Cantonese (afternoon) but I’m not short of material and I’m feeling challenged by the passage myself, which is always the best place to preach from.
Psalm 111 is an acrostic poem, meaning that each line begins with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet (already a challenge to explain in a non-alphabetic language like Chinese!) It has been carefully structured to explain why we should do what its opening words call us to – “Praise the Lord” and “give thanks to the Lord”. The writer gives us two reasons, captured in two sections that start and end with the same idea. Verses 2 to 7a are about God’s works (the repeated word in the opening and closing lines of the section) and verses 7b to 10a are about His words (references to God’s “precepts” top and tail this section in the NIV). As I have dug into the psalm, I can see three major thoughts in it (is it because I’m a preacher that I often find threes or because there are often threes that I preach that way?). I hope you enjoy them. Thought 1 – God does what He says and says what He does Near the centre of each of the two sections is the word covenant (v5 and v9). This is, of course, a key word in Scripture. The God of Scripture is a covenant-making God. He binds Himself to His people in a covenant, which is a relationship based on promises and sealed with a sign. God made His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15,17,22) and restored it with the nation of Israel through Moses (Exodus 19), promising a nation, a land and a blessing, and sealing it with circumcision. We Christians are a covenant people too. God made His new covenant with us through Christ, promising intimate knowledge of Him, transformed hearts and minds, and sins forgiven (Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8).
A covenant is a form of words. Returning to Psalm 111, we learn that God ordained His covenant forever in words (v9). His words are trustworthy (v7b), which means we can depend on them. They are certain (“established for ever and ever”, v8), meaning we can rely on them. They are wise too (v10), so they will give us “good understanding”, guiding us in skilful living and leading to good results. We have a great deal to praise God for.
But the covenant that is ordained in words (v9) is remembered by God forever in His works (v5). God does what He says. He follows through on His promises. This is a wonderful truth and I’ll return to it in my second point. But stop for a moment to reverse that statement. God does what He says, yes, but God also says what he does. By that I mean that God doesn’t only act in our world, He tells us what He is doing and what it means. That is true in history – He gave the words of Scripture to explain what happened and why – and in our present experience – He acts in our lives by His Spirit and His Word in Scripture clarifies what the Spirit is doing and why. Imagine if God had not done this? If He had simply acted to save us without telling us what it meant.
Of course, at one level this is a silly exercise because most of the things God did in history were actually achieved through human agents who were obeying God’s words. From Noah building his ark to Abraham leaving his home. From Moses raising his staff to Solomon building his temple. From Elijah confronting Ahab to Isaiah writing his scrolls. Only a minority of God’s actions were done without any human instrument. And when we come to Jesus, we see the words and works of God together in perfect harmony as the incarnate Word lives, dies and rises again.
God says what he does, and we have his words recorded for us in the Bible. This is vitally important, because words are the stuff through which relationships are forged. Word are an extension of oneself. To trust a person’s words is to trust him and to trust him is to trust his words. God speaks about what he has done to commend these truths to us, calling us to believe and to trust. Whenever the gospel is proclaimed or the Scriptures are preached, God speaks. As we respond in faith, God works. The Holy Spirit works a new creation in us, opening our eyes to what is truth, transforming us into the image of Jesus, moving and empowering us to serve God.
The words and works of God belong together. Psalm 111 uses several words to describe works that God has done. I think we can see three distinct things here. Firstly, the word translated “works” in verses 2 and 7 (maasei) is generally used in the Psalms to describe creation. God’s works in this planet with its abundance of lifeforms and landscapes and in the vast universe are truly astounding. Secondly, however, the words “deeds” (paolov) and “wonders” (lenifleotav) in verses 3 and 4 tend to refer in Psalms to the events of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. God’s works in saving His people – supremely in the Old Testament the rescue from Pharaoh’s dominion but all the more so through Jesus – are marvellous beyond description. This idea becomes explicit in verse 9 as the psalmist praises God for “redemption”. He pays the price to set His people free from slavery. Thirdly, verses 5 and 6 speak of God providing food and giving a land to Israel. The two are related, of course, since the food comes from the land. Taken together, these three aspects of God’s works tell us how comprehensive God’s works are. He created us, redeemed us and provides for us. How awesome!
Psalm 111 tells us about the qualities of God’s words as well. Firstly, they are trustworthy (v7). God does not deceive us or distort truth. He speaks what is true and we can trust that His words reveal His true desires and intentions. Secondly, God’s words are trustworthy because they have been firmly and eternally established (v8). Not only does God always speak the truth, He also never wavers from what He has said. It isn’t one thing today and another tomorrow. God’s word endures and it is certain. Thirdly, God’s words are effective. They accomplish what he intended. We see this in creation as God speaks things into being (Genesis 1), but it’s also true in our lives. God’s word creates understanding in our minds, wisdom in our choices and faithfulness in our actions. This is the conclusion the psalmist reaches in verse 10. Thought 2 – God says and does what He is So far, I have spoken about the words and works of God, but the psalm doesn’t call us to praise God’s works or words. Rather, it is a call to praise Him. And the psalmist doesn’t want us simply to speak words of praise, but to give thanks from our hearts and with our whole hearts (v2). The heart response he expects us to have, stated twice in this psalm, is to fear God (v5, 10). Now, this might sound troubling to us. Should we be afraid of God? Are we not meant to love God and feel nice about His love for us? Well, the truth of Scripture is that our response to God should include fear.
That is not the same as saying we should be afraid of God. We are afraid of things that are unpredictable, that are likely to cause us harm, or both. But God is not like that. We have seen that His words are certain and He has told us what He desires and what is right. So, He is not unpredictable. And He calls us through His words into a trusting relationship with Him within which we can know His love. So, He is not out to harm us unless we reject Him and carry on in our own rebellious way.
We need not be afraid of God, but we should fear Him. We should be in awe of Him, wondering at His majesty, understanding His power to destroy us, marvelling at our puniness by comparison to His might. It is only when we grasp this that we can be set free from the lesser fears that might keep us from God – fear of rejection by others and fear of missing out. Fear of God is the gateway into trusting God. There is no point in trusting a god you would not fear. Such a god is either disinterested in you or powerless to help you. The God who made you is neither!
Psalm 111 tells us that God can be feared and trusted. Why? There are two reasons, to do again with His words and His works. On one hand, His words are faithful. He never lies to us, and He never changes His mind. You cannot trust someone who lies or who is unstable in his opinion. You can trust God because He always speaks the truth and always sticks to the truth. On the other hand, God’s works are powerful. He never lacks the power to do what He says He will do. He never runs out of resources to fulfil His promises. You should not trust someone who is sincere and honest but who over-promises. And you would not fear someone who warned you that they will punish you if you do something but then turns out to be unable to do so. God is not like that, so you should fear His warnings and trust His promises.
This psalm also tells us why God should be feared and trusted and, again, it does so in relation to both His words and His works. At the heart of the question of trusting God is His character. Who is this God who speaks and acts? What is He like? The psalm tells us about two dimensions of God’s character. I won’t describe these with the “one hand” and “the other hand” language because that sounds like they are sides of God’s character, as if He can shift between them. They are, rather, fully and perfectly integrated in His person. The first set of words includes “righteousness” (v3) and “holy” (v8-9). These words tell us that God always does and says what is right. He never sins. He cannot lie or change His mind because such things are wrong and there is no wrong in Him. The other set of words include “gracious and compassionate” (v4). These words tell us that God always does and says what is loving and kind.
God does and says what is right and good because God is right and good. There is no gap between God’s character and His words and works. God says and does what He is. And that’s exactly why you should fear God and trust Him. Thought 3 – God wants us to say and do what He says and does Psalm 111 opens and ends with a call to praise God. We may think immediately about singing. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is thoroughly biblical to lift our voices to sing words of praise to God and about God. It’s not the only way to praise Him. We can do it in words that are spoken or even written rather than sung. But praise always entails words. The context of the psalmist’s praise is also revealed in verse 2. It is in the company of God’s people as they are assembled together. For us, that would mean the church. So, there we have it. The response this psalm expects from us is that we sing and speak about God in church.
That’s right and it’s wrong. It’s right because church is one of the places we should praise God and because praise is part of the response God wants. But it’s wrong if it limits our response to words alone and its context to the church alone. Worship begins as a work of God in the heart of a person who responds in fear and trust to God’s words. From the responsive heart, it flows out in words of praise among others who have similarly responded. But it is not complete if it results in words alone. It also leads to works of obedience to the God who is feared and trusted. And those words and actions cannot be contained to the gathering of God’s people either. They will expand to fill the person’s whole life. If you doubt me, read on into the next psalm.
Psalm 112 is also an acrostic (each line starting with a different Hebrew letter in alphabetical order) poem and it has clearly been intentionally placed alongside Psalm 111. This is clear when you compare the content. Both psalms open with an exhortation to praise. Nothing too unusual about that in Psalms, but they both speak of the fear of the Lord. It is the closing thought of Psalm 111 and the opening thought of Psalm 112, suggesting that the ordering is not coincidental. Indeed, we might think of the second psalm as a sequel to or application of the first. This is clearest in another phrase that appears in both: “gracious and compassionate”. As we have seen, in Psalm 111 (v4) this describes the character of God. Amazingly, in Psalm 112 (v4), it refers to the people of God. In other words, those who fear God become like God. The rest of Psalm 112 tells us what that looks like and it includes being generous and lending freely, conducting their affairs with justice, and freely scattering gifts to the poor (v5,9).
As a response to who He is, God wants us to do and say what He says and does. This is the essence of worship. It begins in the heart, flows to the lips and moves through the whole body until our feet take us where He would have us go and our hands do what He would have us do. The person who truly worships God will say and do what is right (true and just) and good (compassionate and gracious). She will do this because that is who she is becoming because we become what we worship.