If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 111 as we continue our way through the fifth book of the Psalms. Hebrew poetry, unlike our poetry, is not based on rhyming, but you will find various devices in Hebrew poetry that indicate that it has an elevated sort of aesthetic style. One thing that you will find in Hebrew poetry is parallelism, where the same thing is said right next to one another in different words in order to sharpen our understanding of what has just been said. Another pattern that you will find in Hebrew poetry is the use of acrostics. And this psalm is an acrostic based on the Hebrew alphabet. Interestingly, the next psalm is as well. Psalm 111, Psalm 112, clearly go together as twins. They both focus on the fear of the Lord and they emphasize, Psalm 111, the righteousness of God, and Psalm 112, the righteousness of those who love God. And so this psalm, beginning after the opening “Hallelujah,” the opening “Praise the LORD,” follows the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in twenty-two different statements that it makes about God. It piles up praises to God. This psalm reveals for us through, but especially at the very end, what the heartbeat of a Biblical piety is, the heartbeat of a true — not a feigned piety, not a pretended piety, not some sort of sanctimonious presentation on the outside to the world so that people think that we're godly when we're really not — but what a true godliness and piety looks like. And I want to consider that with you for a few moments tonight.
Before we read God's Word, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord, this is Your Word and we need it. We thank You that Your words and true and Your words are profitable. Your words glorify Yourself and they do good to our souls, so even as our souls are ministered to by Your Word as it is proclaimed and read tonight, glorify Yourself in our hearing, in our embracing and understanding Your Word, and in our practice of that Word by the power of Your Holy Spirit and the help of the grace of Jesus Christ. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. Full of splendor and majesty is His work, and His righteousness endures forever. He has caused His wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear Him; He remembers His covenant forever. He has shown His people the power of His works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations. The works of His hands are faithful and just; all His precepts are trustworthy; they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever. Holy and awesome is His name! The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
This psalm not only exhorts us to praise God, it shows us how to praise God. And beautifully, in this psalm, the psalmist not only exhorts us to praise God, he shows us how he praises God, so he gives us both precept and practice, exhortation and example. There's so much in this psalm that we can't do justice to it in the time we have together tonight, but I want to point your attention to five particular things that we learn about the praise of God and real piety in this psalm.
EXHORATION TO PRAISE
And the first thing I want us to see — you don't have to get out of the opening exhortation to see — the opening exhortation is for us to praise the Lord. And that reminds us that when we gather to worship, the most important thing about our worship is the object of our worship. Worship is the great battle of our lives. Every one worships, but here's the problem — we're so tempted to worship idols of our own making, to set our affections on things other than and lower than God and to worship them as the supreme thing. And so worship is really the battle of all our lives. Who will we worship? And Christians, those who worship according to the Scriptures, worship God. God, is the object of our worship. But even our gathering for worship equips us for the battle against idolatry during the week and it, in and of itself, is the culmination of our determination in all of life to worship God.
I love what Don Carson reminds us about worship. He tells us that worship is a transitive verb. Now I know that's going to tickle the hearts of all the English people in the congregation! For those of you who teach English or are English professors to love to study English, love to study grammatical things, and worship is a transitive verb. And that means that it takes a direct object. It requires a direct object. You can't just worship, as you hear some people say from time to time, you have to worship something. And Christians worship God. And here's what Don Carson says about this. “Should we not remind ourselves that worship is a transitive verb — a verb that requires a direct object? We do not meet to worship, that is to experience worship; we meet to worship God. Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only. There is the heart of the matter. In this area one must not confuse what is central with the byproducts. If you seek peace, you will not find it. If you seek Christ, you will find peace. If you seek joy, you will not find it. If you seek Christ, you will find joy. If you seek holiness, you will not find it. If you seek Christ, you will find holiness. If you seek experiences of worship, you will not find them. If you worship the living God, you will experience something of what is reflected here in the psalms. Worship is a transitive verb and the most important thing about a transitive verb is the direct object.” And you don't get out of the very first exhortation of this psalm before you learn that lesson. “Praise the LORD!” And that's something to keep before us as we praise the living God, as we worship the Lord. He is the central point of our worship.
EXHORTATION AND EXAMPLE
But the second thing I want you to see here is how the psalmist joins precept and practice, exhortation and example. And again, you don't get out of the first few words of the psalm before you see this. Here's the grand exhortation, “Praise the LORD!” And what does it follow up with? “I will give thanks to the LORD.” “Praise the LORD” is the exhortation to the congregation. You can see the psalmist leading the whole of the assembly of the people of God in worship, perhaps in Jerusalem at some great festival. And the exhortation goes out from the pulpit or from the lectern, “Praise the LORD!” and then immediately the psalmist who is leading in worship says, “I'm not just going to tell you to praise the Lord, I am going to praise the Lord myself. I will praise the Lord. You praise the Lord; I will praise the Lord.” And we see a joining of precept and practice. “Praise…I will praise.”
That is so important. I've sent to you on a couple of occasions the wonderful letter that William Still wrote to his congregation on the occasion of the opening of one of the terms at the University of Aberdeen. And in that letter he says to his congregation that every year when the new students are coming to the University of Aberdeen he gets panicked phone calls and letters from parents whose children are going off to school, begging for him to track them down and to make sure that they don't get into trouble and to try to minister to their souls. And Mr. Still writes to his congregation and he said, “You know what? I've found over the years that all that tracking down doesn't do a whole lot of good because what's most important in rearing children in the knowledge of the Lord is what is done before they go off to college for their first semester.” And he then proceeds to say — and it's interesting because Mr. Still was an old bachelor. He says, “Here's how you rear children” — and he used this outline —“Prayer, example, and precept. That is how you rear children — prayer, example, and precept.”
You pray for your children, you live a godly life before your children, and you teach them the Word. That is how you prepare children to go off to college one day when they are young adults —prayer, example, and precept. And notice how he joined the example of parents with the teaching of parents because our children have built in bunk detectors. And when they see us tell them things to do that do not reflect the heart of our own concerns and living, I have some really bad news to tell you folks — they see it; they get it; they know the dissonance; they know the disconnect; they know the contradiction; they see it. And so precept and practice, exhortation and example, have to be joined. And the psalmist points that our right here. He doesn't just say, “Okay, you people praise the Lord.” He says, “Let me praise the Lord with you. Let me show you how to praise the Lord.” He joins the precept with practice, the exhortation with his own example. And that's another thing that I want you to see in this psalm.
EXHORTATION TO WHOLE HEARTED WORSHIP IN THE CONGREGATION
But the third thing I want you to see, and again we're not out of the first verse before we see it, is how the psalmist describes the worship that he is going to do and that he wants the congregation to do. Look at verse 1. “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart in the company of the upright in the congregation.” In other words, there are two parts to the worship that he is exhorting and exampling them to. It is with the whole heart and it is in the congregation. That is, it is heart-felt and real and it is congregational. He's not simply going to go off into a corner somewhere and have an experience with God. He's going to worship in the context of all the saints, the family of God. He longs to be in the fellowship of fellow believers in worship, and that is not just an Old Testament ideal. That's a New Testament ideal. We haven't gotten there yet but we're going to get there in Hebrews and we’ll read it — somebody will read it — Billy will read it or Josh will read it or somebody will read it on Sunday morning when we get there. But the author of Hebrews is going to exhort us not to forsake the assembling together of the brethren. That's very, very important. And the author of the psalm is telling you the same thing. He wants to worship God in the assembly of the saints. We need that — I need you, you need one another. We need to be together in worship.
But notice also what he says — he's going to do it with his whole heart. Now William Plummer, the great southern Presbyterian commentator on the Psalms, and I love that book. The devotional sections alone are worth their weight in gold. He makes this comment about that verse. He says, “It is no easy matter for us to avoid cold affections in worship.” It is no easy matter for us to avoid cold affections in worship. Now the psalmist is not requiring of us some sort of external, emotional temperature, but he is requiring of us real heart-engaged worship of the living God.
When I was in Scotland, I was constantly mind-boggled by the lack of external expression of any kind of emotion in public worship. In fact, I remember preaching at a Church of Scotland congregation down in the west end of Edinburgh one morning. There were five hundred people there, gathered around me, and there was not but one smile in that building. And when I saw her over in the corner, I thought to myself, “She's got to be an American!” (laughter) And sure enough, when I got to the door of the church, as they were going out, her husband worked for Exxon or Shell and she was from Houston, Texas and they were there living in Edinburgh. And I said, “I knew it! You were an American! Because no Scot would have been smiling like that in the worship service!” But, I also found that with the Scots, their affections ran very, very deep. They did not wear them on their sleeves like we do, but there was a deep affection for Christ amongst godly Christians that I encountered in Scotland. And so the psalmist isn't telling you how to express your emotional temperature in a way that it can be seen, but he is talking about real heart-felt worship. And it's very difficult, as Plummer reminds us, to avoid cold affections in the worship of God.
What is the secret to it? The secret is delighting in God Himself. Let me read you these words from Jonathan Edwards:
“True saints center their attention on Christ and His beauty transcends all others, and His delight is the source of all other delight. He in Himself is the best among ten thousand and all together lovely. These saints delight in the way of salvation through Christ because it demonstrates God's perfection and wonder. They enjoy holiness, wholeness, while they take no pleasure in sin. God's love is a sweet taste in their mouths, regardless of whether their own interests are met or not. They rejoice over all that Christ has done for them and they delight merely because God is God and then this delight spills over onto all of God's other works, only their salvation.”
In other words, he's focusing our worship on delighting in God above everything else, delighting in God, delighting in Christ. And John Piper puts it this way:
“The authenticating, inner-essence of worship is being satisfied with Christ, prizing Christ, cherishing Christ, treasuring Christ. This is tremendously relevant for understanding what worship services should be about. They are about going hard after God. When we say that what we do on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings is to go hard after God, what we mean is that we are going hard after satisfaction in God; we are going hard after God as our prize; we are going hard after God as our treasure, our soul food, our heart's delight, our spirit's pleasure. Or, to put Christ in His rightful place, it means that we are going hard after all that God is for us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.”
If that is not our pursuit in public worship, then we may well give worship from cold affections. It is a hard thing to avoid cold affections, and so we must prepare ourselves. This is one of the reasons our forbearers urged Christians to prepare themselves to come to public worship, because it is very difficult to flip on the switch at six o’clock when the heart has not been prepared. That's one of the reasons, by the way, that I love morning and evening worship. You know, true confessions, one of the things that morning worship does for me — it gets me ready for this evening worship. I think that's one reason why I love evening worship so much, because God has already wrought upon my heart — and I get to do it twice on Sunday mornings — He's already wrought upon my heart so that I'm readied for the worship that is going to be rendered and the grace that is going to be dispensed in the evening service of the people of God. So the praise that we're going to give is both whole-hearted and congregational, it's heart-felt but it's publicly expressed.
A KEY TO PIETY
Fourth, one of the keys to piety, and you see it here especially in verses 4 and 5, is in the treasuring up of and the remembering of God's works. Now I've skipped over a great example of that in verse 2. “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in Him.” And that word, “works,” in that verse, is often used to describe God's creation of the heavenly bodies in the Scriptures. Interestingly, that verse is written over the entrance way into the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, England where some of the greatest physical discoveries of our time have been found. “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in Him.”
You know, Christianity is no enemy of true science, and the best science has always been practiced over the course of the centuries by those who pursued that science in order to praise the God who made the things they were studying. And that's why verse 10 actually goes with verse 2. You can't study the works of the Lord if, as a fool, you have said in your heart, “There is no God.” You can't really study the works of the Lord until the fear of the Lord is in your heart. But I pass over that and I rush right on to verses 4 and 5. Notice what he says. He has caused His wondrous works to be remembered — “The LORD is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear Him; He remembers His covenant forever.” Isn't it interesting? The beginning of verse 4, end of verse 5, He tells us two things. He tells us that He keeps His work from being forgotten by us and He does not forget His works. He causes His works to be remembered; He doesn't let us forget them. And that's why, Lord's Day after Lord's Day, He commands us together in worship. Why? So that His works will be remembered.
And you know, with all of our electronic access to devotion materials, 24/7 available to us anywhere in the world — I was talking to someone last week about how wonderful it is to be able to download onto a Kindle or an iPad some great devotional work. You can be somewhere in the middle of the night with insomnia and your wife or your husband right next to you in bed, and you can flip on that iPad and download Matthew Henry's Method for Prayer or you can download Matthew Henry's Bible Commentary or you can download C.H. Spurgeon's Morning and Evening. It's a wonderful thing, but with all of those things, public worship, Lord's Day after Lord's Day, is more important than ever. It's amazing to me how many Christians go all week long and they’re never in the Word. With all the resources that we have, they’re not in the Word and they’re not in prayer and they’re not feeding their souls. Public worship is more important than ever, and so God has established it as a marker in our hearts and our lives — why? So that we do not forget His Word. Just like He established the festivals in the Old Testament. Remember the exodus. Think how much of this psalm is about remembering God's redeeming work in the exodus. And by the way, this is the point of this message that emphasizes the Gospel as the center of worship because as Christians, what we remember as the works of the Lord, the supreme work that we remember is the work of God for us in Jesus Christ on the cross and in His death and burial and resurrection. The Gospel is at the center of what we remember in worship, and we work it deeper and deeper and deeper into our hearts, into our flesh, into our bones as we worship God. Remembering and treasuring up the acts of God to us in Christ and in our lives is one of the keys to worship.
I was thinking this afternoon, there are so many points and markers in my life where I can go back and remember what God did for me in my life and in my heart at different stages. And by God's grace, so many of those things are connected to the public worship of the people of God. I was numbering them this afternoon. I won't rattle them off to you, but I could. How often God has dealt with me in some significant way in the public worship of the people of God and it's important for us to treasure those things up and remember them. That's one of the keys to piety.
THE HEARTBEAT OF TRUE PIETY
But here's the last thing I want you to see. The psalm closes with a quote that is very, very similar to one that you find in the book of Proverbs. And in this quote, the psalmist summarizes the heartbeat of true piety. Piety is the life of God in the soul of man. Piety is true godliness. Piety is true religion. And the sum of true religion is described in verse 10. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. All who practice it have a good understanding.” Now the fear of the Lord is a phrase that would bear you to do a little Bible study. Here's a challenge for you — go home tonight and look how often the phrase, “the fear of the LORD” appears, or a similar phrase to it, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The fear of the Lord isn't just an Old Testament idea, it's a New Testament idea that Paul uses repeatedly. When you want to say that someone is truly a worshiper of God, in Old Testament and New Testament language, what you say about her or him is that she or he fears the Lord. It's a summarizing phrase that captures the essence of true piety.
Now, it does not mean merely a dread of God's wrath and judgment. That's to misunderstand the Biblical phrase, “the fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is a reverence joined to a love and adoration and affection for God that causes the soul to delight in God and tremble before Him. Calvin, when he's describing this says that, “A person who fears the Lord so reverences and adores and loves God that he would tremble to sin even if there were no hell.” So an awe and a trembling fear of God's judgment may indeed be a part of the fear of the Lord, but the fear of the Lord is a reverence joined with an adoration and a love of God that delights in Him above everything else and that fear of the Lord animates everything in Christian experience.
John Murray, in his series of lectures on Christian living called, Principles of Conduct, wrote an entire chapter on the fear of God. If you type into Google, “John Murray” and “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” it's on the internet. In that wonderful chapter, he explains how it is the fear of the Lord that animates everything in the Christian life. It's what moves us in living the Christian life. And the psalmist here tells us that it's the heartbeat of true piety. True godliness is animated by what the Bible calls the fear of the Lord — an adoration, a reverence, an affection for God in which we delight in Him above everything else.
Well, there's so much more to say but the psalmist has already gone a long way in teaching us how to praise God and how to live the Christian life. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for this, Your Word and we ask that You would teach us, instruct us, in the fear of the Lord, in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing and then we’ll respond by singing the last stanza of Psalm 111 which contains those words about the fear of the Lord.
Peace be to the brethren and love with faith through Jesus Christ our Lord until the daybreak and the shadows flee away.