“The Only Fear We Need”
September 20, 2015
Because God is supremely great, He alone is to be feared.
I. Because of His greatness (Psalm 111:1-4)
II. Because of His mercy (Psalm 111:5-9)
III. To Fear the Lord is wise. (Psalm 111:10)
We generally take fear to be a negative and inhibiting emotion. “I was so scared when I heard the stairs creak I couldn’t move.” “I was fine climbing the ladder until I looked down.” “When I looked out over that great crowd, all my carefully prepared words fled. I was speechless.” “When I saw the pink envelope from the collection agency I couldn’t even open it.” “The doctors office called but I couldn’t answer.” We all have fears and in general the fears inhibit us, bring out the worst in us. “I was scared I’d fail the exam, so I cheated.” “I didn’t think I’d do a good job, so I didn’t even try.” “I know I got angry, but really I was just scared of what he might do.”
That kind of fear, that paralyzes us or leads us into sin, is clearly negative. But there is another kind of fear that motivates positive behavior. I was driving up to the farm last week and there was a State Trooper behind me and I’m like “What’s the speed limit here? I wonder if I ever got that brake light fixed.” “When was this car inspected?” The fear of punishment can be a healthy fear when it motivates right behavior. An awareness and respect for how fast things can happen and how powerful an automobile really is can cause us to break the habit of distracted driving, of texting and talking and checking our e-mails. We know the power of water, so we don’t drive into it. We’ve seen the power of a hurricane, so we hide from the wind or flee the rising water.
And on an even more positive level when we look up into the night sky, or the rising clouds of a thunderstorm, or the cliffs and rocks of a mighty mountain, we have a sense of awe, of astounding wonder that such greatness should be. In fact whether it’s a thunderstorm or a hurricane or an earthquake, whether it’s the roar of an ocean or height of a mountain range, the greater and more powerful something is, the more respect we have for it. Awe, wonder but also respect and even fear for the power and greatness displayed.
And it is this kind of fear that God calls us to over and over in Scripture. Don’t fear anything else, don’t be terrified, but do fear the Lord. See his wonders, be amazed, respect his power and live your lives in light of those truths. This is clear in Psalm 111, our text for today. Nine of the ten verses in this Psalm are about the greatness of God. The tenth verse is about the fear of the Lord. And this teaches us that because God is supremely great, He alone is to be feared. Because God is supremely great, He is the only one worthy of our reverence and awe and nothing in all creation is worthy of our fear.
Let’s begin with verses 1 to 4 and we’ll see one of the themes that is woven all the way through, that God is great in power. Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. 2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. 3Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. 4He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered.
The first verse tells us this is a psalm of praise. The first word is hallelu-yah, praise Yahweh. This is a frequent command in Scripture We’ve talked before about the fact that it seems an odd thing to command someone to praise, but C. S. Lewis and others have taught us that “we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Praise and thanksgiving complete our enjoyment of God. So it is for our good that God commands this, and for his glory.
Notice too that praise and thanksgiving are in parallel in verse 1: “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord.” So if you don’t know how to praise God, try giving thanks to God instead. Try it right now. Look around this room and pick out something that you are thankful for. In this setting it might be a person in your family, or someone who has made a contribution to your life. It might be thanks for the clothes in your closet this morning or the food you ate for breakfast or the roof over your head. We’re going to talk about those things next week. Or it may be Thanksgiving that God loves you despite yourself.
When the Psalmist does this his thanks and praise are wholehearted, “with my whole heart.” And boy is that ever good therapy. Deuteronomy teaches us to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. That love is expressed in praise and thanksgiving, as well as in obedience. But if I am giving thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, praising him with my whole heart, then there will be no room in my heart for fear or despair or even temptation. This is the expulsive power of a new affection. A heart so full of praise and thanksgiving there is no room for characteristic sin, fear, despair, worldliness, anger, hate or distraction. It’s all about God, his majestic works and marvelous mercies.
Next, this is praise and thanks ‘in the company of the upright, in the congregation.’ You can praise alone. I did a good deal of it while writing this sermon, and it was therapeutic because I was having a week that kept trying to drive me to despair. But praise is better done with others who worship the same God. I had a pastor’s meeting early this week – an opportunity for praise. But it’s here, in the congregation, that praise is wonderfully expressed and thanksgiving. And that’s therapeutic too. It’s encouraging to be together when God is lifted up and exalted and thanked.
Why? Because he is worthy: he is powerfully great in all he does. Verse 2: “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” Great are the works of the Lord. The Psalmist may be thinking of God’s work in creation. The starry heavens declare the glory of God, the sun and the moon praise him. The waters, the mountains, creatures, people, all his works show that he is worthy. But the Psalmist may also be thinking of God’s work in redemption. Two weeks ago we studied God’s rescue at the Red Sea and alluded to the great moment of praise on the other side: “I will praise the Lord who has triumphed gloriously.” That’s one of the great works of the Lord, his rescue.
But we could list dozens of small and large rescues in the Old Testament, from God’s provision of the ram when Abraham was told to offer Isaac, to God’s rescue of Joseph in slavery, to Joseph’s rescue of his family from famine, to Joshua’s defeat of Jericho, to David’s defeat of the giant, to Jehoshaphat’s rescue from the surrounding armies, to Israel’s release from exile, God’s greatness is shown in the power of his redemptions, his rescues, his provisions.
These great works of the Lord are studied by all who delight in them. Don’t miss that. The works of the Lord, whether in creation or redemption are studied by all those who delight in them. Let me be blunt: if you want to live free of human fears, you’ve got to immerse yourself in God by studying his works through his Word. If you want to live with less fear of circumstances and your own inadequacies, immerse yourself in God by studying his works, his ways, his character, his creation, his redemption through his word. Delight in them.
One of the reasons we all enjoy Louie Giglio is that Louie Giglio enjoys God’s greatness. He delights to study it. In this clip he’s talking about the sun and he says “But what I want you to see the size of it. It’s like a million times the size of the earth and that matters to us tonight when you hear what the Psalmist says, Here are his words, this is Psalm 33, ‘By the word of the Lord the Heavens were made.’ In other words God didn’t lift a finger when he made the universe. ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,’ but he goes on to say ‘their starry hosts by the breath of his mouth.’ So we’re looking at something so intense that we don’t want to get any closer than 93 million miles away, which is what we are right now, and then we read that God just breathes out stars. It’s crazy to think about it.”
He then goes on to talk about Betelgeuse, a much larger star. “You could fit 262 trillion earths inside Betelgeuse. So if the earth were a golf ball that would be enough golf balls to fill up the superdome. 3000 times. When I heard that as a teenager, that stumped me right there.” He talks about Canis Majoris, the largest start found in our galaxy, and then he says this,
“And when you see this I don’t know what happens to you, but I know what happens to me, a shrinking feeling comes over me and it’s not a bad shrinking feeling, it’s a good shrinking feeling, because sin, it has a way of shrinking God down in our minds, and puffing us up in our own estimation, but just a glance into the universe that God has made resized everything in a heartbeat. And you realize tonight we are worshipping an unrivalled uncontested God of all kind of might and power and glory and awe who there is none like him anywhere in all of creation tonight.”
Verse 3 “Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. 4He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered.” The word ‘remembered’ there could be translated ‘brought to mind.’ It’s not that his works aren’t staring us in the face, it’s that we have a tragic ability to not think about this. We forget the greatness of God. If we kept the perspective of the greatness of his power we would fear him and nothing else. All fear except the fear of God is ridiculous when we consider his power.
And all fear except the fear of God is ridiculous when we consider his mercy. End of verse 4 to verse 9: [The Lord is gracious and merciful.] 5He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. 6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations. 7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; 8they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. 9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name!
The Lord is gracious and merciful. The verses of Psalm 111 are divided based on the fact that it is an acrostic Psalm. Each phrase starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. But this verse 4 phrase belongs more with verse 5 and with what follows. The Lord is to be feared because of the greatness of his power, but even more because He is gracious and merciful. What a great combination of words for us sinners for us believers in Jesus. We have received undeserved grace and mercy. We have sinned against this almighty God. We deserve his wrath but we receive his grace, his unearned favor and love and we receive his mercy, undeserved compassion and forgiveness.
There are no human examples big enough to encompass this. We think of a king who offers himself in battle that his people might live. We think of a soldier who throws his body over enemy civilians to protect them from the grenade. We think of a mother who hugs her daughter to herself even while that child is cursing her existence, biting, scratching, doing everything in his power to push her away.
And none of these comes close to what God did in grace and mercy when he sent his Son. While we were still sinners. As a sacrifice. To pay the price for our sins. To turn aside God’s wrath. Just as we learn to be small before God’s power by meditating on creation, so we learn to be small before God’s grace and mercy by meditating on the awfulness of sin and the greatness of salvation.
But the Psalmist doesn’t know all about the Son’s rescue, not in detail. The redemption that is foremost in his mind is the rescue from Egypt and the gift of the promised land. So, verse 5: “He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.” In the desert, where the people of Israel were starving, God provided food, manna, and water from the rock.
Notice that He provides these things to those who fear him. This kind of qualification is found throughout the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. For the Psalmist the world divides into two kinds of people, those who don’t fear the Lord and those who do. Many qualities are used to define those who fear the Lord, but my favorite is ‘those who trust.’ Psalm 115:11 “You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!” Psalm 147:11 “But the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Psalm 40:3 “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” So to fear the Lord, in these verses, is to trust the Lord, and hope in the Lord. You don’t trust what you fear. You don’t hope in what you fear, but the fear that comes when you see the greatness of God’s power and of his redemption gives you every reason for trust and hope.
Verse 5, “He remembers his covenant forever.” God’s covenant is his promise of rescue and provision based not on who we are but on who he is, eternal and unchanging. When God makes a covenant promise, he will never go back on it. Verse 6: “He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations.” God said to Abraham “I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” And he fulfilled that promise to Joshua. Joshua 21:45 “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.”
Verse 7: The works of his hands are faithful – he keeps his promises. And they just or righteous; he does what is right.” His works are faithful and his words, his precepts are trustworthy. Precepts is one of the many words Scripture uses to talk about itself. In Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, you find many such words: The Law of the Lord, his testimonies, his ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, righteous rules, His word. “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I may not sin against you.”
This Word of God, this collection of men’s writings over 2000 years, the Psalmist says, is trustworthy. God has supervised and superintended every word, phrase sentence, paragraph, and chapter. They can be trusted. If God says something is right, it’s right, and if God says something is wrong, it’s wrong. Verse 8, They, God’s words and promises, are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. In Peter’s day there were already scoffers who said “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” But Peter responded “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Far from being evidence of his unfaithfulness, the apparent un-fulfillment of God’s promise is evidence of his faithfulness, his patience. He wants us to trust his promises, to fear him and to heed his word, to take it in and to take it seriously.
Verse 9, the Psalmist looks back and says “He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name!” Do you doubt? Do you fear? Look at what God did. Look at the way he rescued his people from Egypt. This is not fiction, this is not myth. This is the reality: God intervenes in history to rescue. And if that’s not good enough, look at what God did in Jesus. God sent his Son as the sacrifice for our sins. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that through faith in him we might find righteousness. This redemption is not fiction, not myth. It is plain history, and grounded in the greatest fact of history, that Jesus kept an outrageous promise. He and rose from death the victor. Rose from death alive, solid, real, with the scars to prove it. Rose from death to live and reign and rescue us forever.
So in the light of the power of his glorious creation and in the light of redemption, in the light of the face of the Risen Savior, we should fear God and not man. Verse 10: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!
Given the greatness of God’s power, the infinite wonders he has created, and the greatness of God’s redemption in the sacrifice of himself in the person of the Son, in the love of Jesus, in the sin-bearing, wrath-bearing death of Jesus and in the glorious resurrection of Jesus – we should fear public speaking. We should fear our circumstances. We should fear rejection. No. We should not fear any of those things. We should fear God, respect God, kneel in submission to God, stand in awe of God, exalt God. This the Psalmist says, is the beginning of wisdom. This is looking at reality realistically. Wisdom is based on taking into account the stunning greatness of God in all his creative and sustaining power.
Wisdom is based on taking into account the stunning greatness of God in his love, in his redemption, in his willingness to rescue guilty sinners. If you don’t have these two facts straight you do not fear God. You have a shrunken God, you have a powerless God, you have an uncaring God, a cruel God. You don’t have a firm grasp on reality. You have blinders over your eyes and you refuse to take into account the most important facts in the universe. There is a God of infinite power. There is a God of infinite holiness and righteousness. There is a God of infinite love and self-sacrificing rescue. The facts, these truths create in us the fear of the Lord. And if you live in that fear, the Psalmist says, then you have good understanding. You are grounded in reality.
I keep trying to find an image to capture these truths. Imagine that you are asked to move two cubic yards of dirt with a shovel. A typical shovelful of dirt might weigh ten pounds. Two cubic yards of dirt might weigh 5000 pounds. That’s 500 shovels full of dirt – a daunting task, and hard on your back, but you’re a good shoveler, you think. You can do this.
This is the Letourneau L2350. It is the world’s largest wheeled loader. The driver sits two stories up in the air and the vehicle weighs 200 tons. But you don’t know it’s there. As you begin to shovel your pile, the driver comes up to you and bets you that he can move the pile faster than you. You think he must have a shovel like yours, and you’re pretty good. So you take the bet.
Then you hear the rumble of the Cummins 2300 horsepower diesel engine. You turn and see coming toward you the 70 cubic yard bucket of the 2350. You can lift twelve pounds. It can lift 180,000 pounds of dirt. You need 500 loads to move your pile. It can move 35 of your piles at once, with you thrown in for good measure. You lose the contest because you had no conception of the greatness of your opponent. And maybe you learn some wisdom about dirt moving.
When we see the greatness of God’s power and even more the greatness of his redemption, we will learn some wisdom about reality. We will learn to fear the Lord, and we will learn that there is nothing else worthy of fear. If God is for us, as he showed in Jesus, who can be against us.