Charles Spurgeon once said, “The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.” Cottoning onto Spurgeon’s words, James Montgomery Boice writes, “He argued that thinking about God improves the mind and expands it. Spurgeon was right. No people ever rise higher than their idea of God.”1
I recently experienced this and was reminded afresh of this truth: the need to think God’s thoughts after Him; the need to therefore think deeply, deliberately and therefore devotedly about God. This is the theme of Psalm 111. In many ways, it is the theme of the Christian life.
In 2016, we would do well to set about to grow in our knowledge of God. As I learned recently, to the degree that we grow in our knowledge of God, we will grow our in our appreciation of the love of God, which will result in us loving God in return.
The opening verse reveals the psalmist’s determination that the Lord be praised. He writes, “Praise the LORD! I will praise the LORD with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation” (v. 1).
When I visited India many years ago, I was struck that the first words uttered by almost every Christian I met were, “Praise the Lord.” I don’t know whether or not that is just a cultural habit for Indian Christians, but I know that Christians do often face the danger of what we might call “formula Christianity”: words without thought. In other words, we can say the right thing without really giving any thought to what we are saying. This is, in fact, one way in which we might be guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain.
But this was not the case with the psalmist. On the contrary, he opens this psalm with a command to praise the Lord, followed immediately with his own obedience. He practices what He preaches.
Psalm 111 is the first of a triad of psalms that open with the Hebrew exclamation of praise, “Hallelujah!” It is the first of two psalms that are written in the form of a Hebrew acrostic.
Psalms 111 and 112 are closely connected in theme. Psalm 111 describes “the steady goodness of God displayed in His works.”2 It is a psalm about God. Psalm 112 describes the godly man. The acrostics pattern indicates that these psalms were to be sung together. That is, they teach us that we become like the gods or the God whom we worship.
This writer is determined to praise God. He has a healthy disposition. And he wants us to have one as well.
The psalmist’s disposition is also heartfelt. He is committed to praise God “with my whole heart.” He was not merely going through the motions; his heart was in it. He meant it.
Sometimes, motion summons emotion, but it is always best for affection to be present as we are praising God. We will see shortly how to develop and maintain this affection.
We need to determine to have such a heartfelt disposition. Determine that you will have a gratitude attitude; a devoted disposition; a submissive spirit.
Our lack of praise is a by-product of hardened hearts and critical spirits. Boice correctly notes, “If God is known at all, he must be known as One who is utterly worthy of our very highest praise.”3
Like a choir, this song of praise is not to be sung in isolation; it is not to be sung alone. The writer makes this clear when he says that he will praise God “in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation.” The first term (a close, intimate word) modifies the latter (all the people). As Kidner comments, “‘Company’ is that intimate word sôd, which has the connotation of a circle of friends or advisers…. But the wider word, congregation, precludes any idea of a narrow clique; the two terms together describe the people of God in their breadth.”4
Boice thinks that this phrase emphasises that a small remnant within the entire congregation are the writer’s singing companions here. That may be reading too much into it. Regardless, this man is determined to praise God with others. “In his praise of God, the writer of the psalm wants to identify openly with the visible church, the assembly of believers.”5
It is worthwhile adding another quote here, this time from Leupold, who writes, “These same persons have such a community of interests that they are quite naturally drawn together and form a unity.”6
Praise must form a large part of our being together.
What is on your lips when you talk with others—with the church, with your family? Do you make much of the Lord with your lips, or do you only talk about sport, entertainment and current events?
Verse 2 describes the psalmist’s holistic delight. He writes, “The works of the LORD are great, studied by all who have pleasure in them.” I am told that these words are inscribed on the wall above the entrance to Cavendish Hall at Cambridge University. Henry Cavendish was a believer, who took these words quite literally.
The point is simply this: We see God’s worth as we study His works. General revelation—the creation that we behold around us—testifies to the glory of God. True science is to study the glory of God in His creation. According to Psalm 19, everything in creation points to the glory of God for those who have eyes to see.
But general revelation is probably not the main idea here. Rather, the psalmist is calling for a contemplation of the special revelation of God. He is pointing to the gospel, and he gives thanks and praise for “the steady goodness of God displayed in His works”7—namely, as we will see, God’s work of forming and keeping His people.
But note the important caveat: The praise that arises from the works of God requires effort; it requires study; it requires contemplation—disciplined contemplation. The Lord’s works must be “studied by all who have pleasure in them.”
Those who praise the Lord are those who are pleased in the Lord. They take pleasure in Him and in what He has done. I am sometimes concerned about those who remain silent while the church sings the praises of God during corporate worship. Surely if we take pleasure in the Lord we will delight in singing his praises. We might think the same of those who shy away from conversations about the Lord.
If you do not delight yourself in the Lord and in His works—in the gospel—you will have little, if any, desire to praise the Lord. And so let me encourage you: Study His works! Read about them, think about them, talk about them, listen to others talk about them.
We should perhaps just add that you will only take pleasure in God’s works if you are one of his works—if you are a new creation in Christ Jesus. Then you will realise that you were saved to do good works and to rejoice in God’s good works in and through you (Ephesians 2:8–10).
In vv. 3–4, the psalmist himself comes to a happy discovery as he considers the Lord’s works: “His work is honourable and glorious, and His righteousness endures forever. He has made His wonderful works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.”
When you read, think, and listen to the revelation of God, you are informed of His worth (that He is “honourable”), His weightiness (that He is “glorious”) and His everlasting righteousness (that “His righteousness endures forever”).
VanGemeren notes that the word translated “righteousness” refers to “God’s orderly rule over creation, his victorious rule over the nations, and his redemption of his own.”8 These things are to be “remembered” (v. 4).
The conclusion of such contemplation is the magnifying of His grace and His compassion. We are not honourable, or glorious, or righteous, and yet we are the objects of His covenantal love. This can only evoke praise as it drives home the reality of His grace and pity for sinners.
We do well to consider God’s “frame love” for His people. Psalm 103:14 tells us that “He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” And yet He loves us. As we contemplate this glorious truth, we will grow in our appreciation of who God is, and the higher our view of God, the deeper we appreciate His love and we run back to v. 1: “Hallelujah!”
This reminds us that theology is important. If we minimise God’s character, we will minimise His compassion.
Clearly, v. 4 is calling us to the duty—the delightfully productive duty—of remembering His character and His compassion—particularly in the light of Him saving of His people. Kidner notes that “wonderful works” in v. 4 is a translation of “a single word, “wonders,” and refers most often to the great saving acts of God.”4
As you reflect on the goodness of God to His people, cast your care on Him, knowing that He cares about you. He humbled and therefore helped by your great God. At the same time, count your blessings and, as the hymnist exhorted, try to name them one by one.
As Leupold notes, “it is not His being in the abstract that is being discussed but His acts. For … in the Old Testament God is always the God of action.”10 Let’s now look at some of those acts.
In what follows (vv. 5–9) we have specific deeds described: deeds which we are to remember; deed which are His “wonderful works”; deeds that reveal God’s gracious compassion. He lists at least four historical instances of God’s deeds for His people. And as Leupold insightfully notes, “If praise seeks a theme it has not far to go, for the ‘works of the Lord’ are always in evidence, and the obvious thing to be said about them is that they are always ‘great.’”11
The Manna in the Wilderness
The first historical instance referenced here is God’s giving of the manna in the wilderness: “He has given food to those who fear Him; He will ever be mindful of His covenant” (v. 5). In giving manna, God fed a people who feared Him. It may sound strange to say that the wilderness generation feared God, for they are better known for murmuring and doubting than for their obedience. But even though they were not faultless, they did fear the Lord. They followed Him as they followed God’s mediator, Moses.
But we must be careful to note that the emphasis here is not upon the people but upon the Lord. The Lord fed His people because He was mindful of His covenant. And the one who was mindful of His covenant will always be mindful of His covenant. We can therefore conclude that God will feed and care for His people.
I recently returned from a ministry trip in Cape Town, and as I left the airport in Johannesburg, heading home, I noted a brilliant rainbow over the freeway. I smiled and thanked God for the reminder of His covenant faithfulness. The rainbow is a reminder of God’s covenant with humanity, that He will never again destroy humanity as He did in the flood, and every time we see a rainbow in the clouds we can be thankful for God’s covenant.
The covenantal signs of circumcision (old covenant) and baptism (new covenant) have the same design. These are visible reminders of God’s covenant faithfulness. Those who receive the sign are assured of God’s care and provision for them. The Lord’s Supper (a fulfilment of the old covenant Passover meal) is designed to do the same thing. All of these covenant signs point us to the faithfulness of our God.
The Conquest of Canaan
The second historical reminder of God’s faithfulness is the conquest of Canaan, spoken of in v. 6: “He has declared to His people the power of His works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.” In the conquest of Canaan, God did the otherwise impossible: He gave a beleaguered people the land that He had promised; a land that was in the hands of those who were powerfully wicked. This was God’s gift: a land that was to be holy.
The church has likewise been given promised land: the world! Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth, not just Palestine. And as Palestine was to become a holy land, so the church’s inheritance will ultimately become a holy land for God’s glory.
During my recent ministry in Cape Town, I was a co-speaker with a man from England. At one point, we were having a discussion, which turned to eschatological matters. I felt certain that the friendship was about to be ruined, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that my colleague was, like me, a premillennialist, who interprets Revelation according to a preterist reading of the text. After this dust had settled, he told me that he is considered a heretic by many in the UK because he is a postmillennialist. It struck me as very sad that it is considered heretical to believe the power of the gospel!
Let us remember Jesus’ promise that the meek will inherit the earth. We should praise God for this gift and do all we can to secure more of it, which will redound to more praise to the one who gives the gift!
The Gift of the Law
Verses 7–8 seem likely to be a reference to Sinai and God’s gift of law and order to His people: “The works of His hands are verity and justice; all His precepts are sure. They stand fast forever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness.”
The Israelites were blessed with law and order. They were blessed to be the recipients of revealed rules that defined, very clearly, what true (“verity”) justice looks like. And they were to praise God for this gift. They were truly blessed above the nations to receive it.
Israel was to praise God for this gift. They were blessed above all nations. As the Lord rhetorically asked, “What great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgements as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:8). God’s law was, and remains, an unchanging standard.
Since these precepts are “forever and ever,” we can happily conclude that God’s new covenant people are blessed with the same gifts. So, what are you doing with them? Are you valuing them?
The Redemption of His People
Verse 9 seems to summarise God’s faithfulness by pointing to the redemption of His people: “He has sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever: Holy and awesome is His name.”
We might wonder precisely what we should understand by this reference to God sending redemption. Does it refer to the Exodus? Does it refer to every aspect of redemption of His people? Does it refer to the future redemption—through Christ—of His people? The answer is yes to all three suggestions! God’s covenantal faithfulness was magnified in the Exodus, continually displayed in His many deliverances of His people, and climaxed at Calvary.
In the light of God’s faithfulness in liberating us from sin, our response is to be nothing less than praising Him as awesome.
The point is that God will forever keep covenant. The glory of the new covenant is that it is an unbreakable covenant. Indeed, “the name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).
The psalmist closes with an appeal to holy devotion: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever” (v. 10).
In light of who God is, what He has done and what He continues to do, the only rational response is to fear Him, to revere Him, to love Him—to obey Him. That is wise living.
Boice notes, “The word translated ‘beginning’ … means ‘the starting point’ or ‘the first principles.’ In other words, reverence for God is the bedrock requirement if a man or woman would be wise. This is where we go astray.”12 As we obey God’s Word then we will experience further reasons to praise God. “Those who are firm in their reverence for the Lord and in their keeping of His commandments will have such experiences of the faithfulness of God as will give them ample occasion to utter the praises of the Lord forever.”13
So, what can take away from this study? Let me briefly suggest a few things.
First, wise men still seek Him. Leupold correctly notes,
To an age when Israel, due to its depressed state, was inclined to give up the fear of the Lord and the faithful adherence to His commandments the author virtually says: Now as always in the past the due “reverence for the Lord” is not only important, it is the very “chief thing.” … To abandon it is the part of folly. So likewise all those who faithfully keep God’s precepts give proof of “good understanding.”13
As someone has said, “The mention of these acts instils the hope that the Lord, who has redeemed his people in the past, will redeem his people in the future. The covenant bond assured God’s people of his continuing loyalty, even when they had failed him.”15
Second, wise people are praising, thankful people. What comes out of your mouth? It is far too easy for us to be characterised by grumbling and criticism. God’s people ought to be characterised instead by thankfulness and praise. Let us remember the words of Jesus: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
Third, wise people constructively associate with other wise people. The psalmist was committed to praising the Lord, but he would do so “in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation” (v. 1). He would not praise God alone, but in a constructive gathering of praising people.
Fourth, praising people must therefore be obeying people: humble, dependant people and devoted.
Finally, wise people want others to also be wise people. They are committed to proclaiming His wonderful works to others so that they too might join the choir. Do you really love to tell the story, or do you merely love to sing about loving to tell the story?
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 2:912. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 396. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:907–8. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 397. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:908. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), 780. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 396. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:701. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 397. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 779. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 780. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:911. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 783. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 783. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:703. ↩