Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Steady Heart: Psalm 112

As we come to our reading tonight, Psalm 112, we’ll see that there are close links between this Psalm, and the one before – Psalm 111. In terms of structure there are the same number of verses, arranged in the same way – 8 verses of 2 lines each, then 2 verses with 3 lines. 22 lines in total – one line for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As well as that, we’ll notice that there are some common words, phrases, and even whole lines which are the same. Last Sunday, we looked at Psalm 111, and its subject was the works of the LORD. In this companion psalm, we find the theme is the man or woman of God. We’re going to look at three key words tonight – blessing, righteous, and (no) fear.

Perhaps as we heard the psalm read earlier, it struck you that it seems to be all concerned with our works. So, if you scan the psalm quickly, you’ll see the theme of wealth, and generosity, good business dealings, and good works. Maybe you’re asking the question – is this the secret to being righteous? Twice we read that ‘his righteousness endures forever’ and also that ‘he is righteous.’ So is the secret to being righteous to be good and kind and generous? Well, not quite.

Right from the outset, the author gets the priorities right. It’s not that you do all these things, and you’re blessed. Rather, it’s that you seek first God’s kingdom, and everything else falls into its proper place. Look at verse one with me. ‘Praise the LORD! Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments.’

Here we see that the way to blessing, the secret of being blessed (that word which means happy, but so much more), is the fear of the LORD. Verse 10 in the last psalm told us that ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’, and now this psalm spells it out in greater detail.

But what does it mean to fear the LORD? Is it just a terror, a dread, of his power? Not by any means. After all, the devil may well fear the LORD’s power, and his judgement which is to come, hanging over him, but he certainly is not blessed. Rather, to fear the LORD is to honour him, to respect him, and to serve him. The second line enlarges this, because the fear of the LORD is accompanied by ‘who greatly delights in his commandments.’

So as we move through the psalm, we do well to remember that whatever happens to the man of God, this is the foundation. The world religions may recommend that followers do all this stuff to become blessed – whether it is saying prayers or pilgrimages or penances or whatever. But the secret of being blessed is to fear the LORD and delight in his commandments.

Also, as we move through the psalm, we’ll see how the man of God is blessed to be a blessing to others. We don’t store up the blessings for ourselves, but are to share them freely with others. Think of Abraham, when he was just Abram. God comes to him and says to him, ‘I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.’ (Gen 12:2)

We see this being a blessing to others in verse 2 (among others). ‘His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.’ For you who are parents, what a privilege to bring up children, to instruct them in righteousness and to raise them in the fear of the LORD. They in turn, will be blessed by you, because you can give them something many other parents cannot do.

Verse 3 presents us with a challenge. ‘Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever.’ The second half is clear enough, Flick back to Psalm 111, and check out the second half of verse 3. They are exactly the same. In 111, it is spoken of God, and in 112, it is spoken of the believer. ‘His righteousness endures forever.’

What a great promise! Our own righteousness – which, as we know isn’t ours, but what is imputed to us by God in the first place – endures forever. This is the same length of time as God’s righteousness. It’s not that we’ll be righteous for a wee while, and then can lose it. By trusting in Jesus, our righteousness endures forever. There won’t come a day in heaven, in the new Jerusalem, when God will say, right, your time is up. Our righteousness endures forever.

But what do we do with the first half of verse 3? ‘Wealth and riches are in his house.’ What does this mean for believers in Africa or Latin America with very little? Or for those in our own community who are living on or below the breadline? Wealth and riches are in his house. It would be so easy to over-spiritualise it here and say, that it just means that we have all these spiritual riches in Christ. Yet it is true that God provides for our needs, and knows what we need.

Look with me at verse 9. Again we find these same words ‘his righteousness endures forever.’ And what is the first line of this verse? ‘He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor.’ Twice in quick succession, there is a close connection between his righteousness and his wealth. Here we need to be careful, because many make the mistake of thinking that the gospel is a way to financial prosperity. Have you heard of the ‘prosperity gospel’? Some preachers see this as their calling – the message that if you are saved, then God will bless you – perhaps spiritually, but definitely in material things. So, God wants you to have a bigger car and a bigger house and more money and more things.

But that is not what the Psalm is saying. For the believer, God may well grant us some money and wealth – but these are not for our own good. Remember our first point – blessed to be a blessing. That’s what the man of God does here. He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor. The prosperity Gospel tells you to claim all these things for yourself. The God of the Gospel gives us good gifts to share with others. Again, we don’t give out these good gifts to receive a blessing or to make us right with God – we give them out because we have already been blessed.

In verse 3 we were looking at how the man of God is to reflect the character of God – so righteousness endures forever. We see the same in verse 4, second line. ‘He is gracious, merciful and righteous’ follows the same line from Psalm 111 ‘the LORD is gracious and merciful.’ We who have known mercy and grace at the hand of the LORD should demonstrate it in our own lives in thankful response.

As we have looked at the psalm so far, you could be thinking to yourself that it seems so far from your experience. After all, it seems like this person has it all easy. Children blessed, wealth and riches, enduring righteousness, and an ability to bless others. What about in the hard times? Do bad things not happen to him?

Look with me at verses 8 and 9. Here we see that yes, bad things will happen. Bad news will come. But for the believer, there is nothing to fear. ‘He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid.’

It’s as if the writer is putting this in big flashing lights with sirens blaring, because it is so important. Look at the way he repeats himself with two ‘not afraid’s, two hearts, and a centre. This is a feature of Hebrew structure, where something really important is at the centre, with emphasis around it. So we see a kind of 1-2-3-2-1 structure. 1 is being not afraid, 2 is having a firm heart, and 3, the centre, the focus of the structure, is trusting in the LORD.

If we work out from the centre, we see that through trusting in the LORD, our heart is steady and firm. How can this be so? How can we be certain that our hearts can be secure? Once again, there are parallels between psalms 111 and 112. Our verse 7b says ‘his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD’, and again, this is rooted in the character of God, from 111:7b. ‘all his precepts are trustworthy.’ Because God’s word is trustworthy, and sure, we can put our trust in the LORD, and have a steady heart.

Remember the words of Isaiah, quoted by Peter – ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.’ (Isaiah 40:8 cf. 1 Peter 1:24-25). God’s word stands, and will stand forever. His word of grace to us who come in faith to the Lord’s Table stands forever. Because his word stands, we can have a steady, a secure heart. This is how we can face the bad news that will inevitably come – not with fear, but with a steady heart, trusting in the LORD and his good purposes for our lives.

Verse 4 builds on this theme as well – the powerful image of light dawning in the darkness for the upright. Our hard times are bleak, and can seem dark, but light will dawn and shine for you.

As we’ve said, tonight our Psalm demonstrates the blessings that are available for the believer, for the man or woman of God in their daily lives. These blessings come by fearing the LORD, which makes us righteous (and in turn enables us to be generous and merciful to others). And by trusting in the LORD, we have a steady heart and no fear.

Psalm 111 painted a picture of the glorious works of God, and called for a response in the last verse. In a sense, the first 9 verses of our Psalm call for a response. They continue to challenge us – do we have these blessings in our life? Do we fear the LORD, and therefore have no fear? Are we certain of our righteousness before God, and not because of ourselves? Are we swept about by waves of change and chance or is our heart steady?

The last verse of 111 calls for a response, but our psalm tonight doesn’t. Instead, it paints a picture of the alternative. In contrast to the righteous, there is the wicked man. He hates to see the righteous prosper. But look at his end – ‘he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked will perish!’ The believer’s righteousness endures forever, but the desire of the wicked will perish. Two ways and two ends, which are not equal. Where do you stand tonight?

As we pray, we hear again these words of grace to us who believe: ‘Blessed is the one who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments … his righteousness endures forever … light dawns in the darkness for the upright … he is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid … his horn is exalted in honour.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's, Dundonald on Sunday 28th September 2008

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