This has been an historic day in the life of Tenth – the calling of the thirteenth Senior Minister of our church. It certainly is a thankful day, as we thank our Lord for his provision of a new servant, Liam Goligher, to pastor and lead his flock. It is appropriate then to study a psalm that turns our minds and hearts to doing just that – to gather in church and thank God for his provision and good works.
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
This would be a good verse for the Call to Worship. The psalm is not the private meditation of the heart, but the public exaltation of God in the assembly of his people. We are to join in with him in his praise of God. For what are we to praise God? For his works.
2 Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of splendor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
The words for “works” and “work” are two different words in the Hebrew. Perhaps one can distinguish between them, though when a study is done of their use in the Old Testament, they overlap in meaning. I suspect the psalmist is being a good poet and using synonyms. In this context, they speak of the general works of God in his creation – both the work of creation itself and the ongoing works of sustaining that creation and acting in it.
The psalmist says that those who delight in such works make a study of them. The NIV uses the term “ponder.” I like the King James rendition “sought out.” The psalmists were poets who delighted in creation. Their psalms are filled with imagery drawn from creation. God “makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind” (104:3); his righteousness is “like the mountains” and his judgments are “like the great deep” (36:6); the “heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (19:1). They speak of God’s care of creation and work in it. God visits the earth and waters it (65:9); he provides the springs that “give drink to every beast of the field” (104:11), the trees where “the birds build their nests” (104:17). God is in the storm (29) and earthquake (60:2). And the psalmists speak of God’s providential work. He judges princes and provides for the needy (107:40-41); he watches over sojourners and widows and orphans (146:9).
And so, as they look upon the words of the Lord, they conclude that the works are great; they are full of splendor and majesty. They reveal the righteousness of God. Their study of creation, of natural processes, and of history leads them into deeper understanding of God, and thus all the more they glory in him.
So there is the general work of creation and providential care. There is also the specific work of redemption, specifically the redemption of God’s covenant people from slavery in Egypt.
4 He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him;
he remembers his covenant forever.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the inheritance of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy;
8 they are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name!
God sent redemption to his people. He led them out of Egypt through wondrous works. He established his covenant with them, giving them precepts of the Law, which are trustworthy. In the wilderness he provided food. And he led them into the promised land of Canaan, giving them the inheritance of the nations who were there.
This recalling of redemption again runs through the psalms. Psalm 78, 105, 106, and 136 tell the story of the plagues and miracles. God is the Lord God who brought the people out of the land of Egypt (81:5). Psalm 114 tells how the sea “looked and fled,” how the Jordan river “turned back.” Psalm 71 recounts how God caused the waters to tremble as he led his flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. In the wilderness he provided manna and meat and water (78:24-27; 105:40-41).
And as the psalmists remember these wondrous works, again they make conclusions about God. He is gracious and merciful (4); he is faithful to his covenant (5); his works are faithful and just (7); his word is trustworthy (7). Their God is one whom they can depend upon to deliver them in time of need and to provide for them. Their God is holy and awesome, although “awesome” no longer carries the weight that it once did. We say “awesome” to mean something is “cool” or “astonishing.” This word means more. Maybe the best way to catch the tenor of it is to recall the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. It is dark, a strong windstorm comes up, causing waves to crash into the boat. The veteran fishermen know that they will drown. Jesus stands up and orders the storm to cease. Mark reports their response: “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’ ” They are not giving each other high fives. They are not saying to Jesus, “Awesome, Dude!” They are scared. They know they have in the boat someone not like them. His mighty work shows them that, like God in our psalm, he is holy and, as the RSV, translates the word, “terrible.”
The wondrous works of God inspire, not merely wonder, but trembling fear, as they display the reality that he is not one of us. His glory, his majesty, his holiness leaves the beholder saying, “Who then is this?” They instill in the beholder humble fear. And so the psalm concludes:
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever!
And so we are brought to the concluding train of thought. Look back at the beginning of the psalm. Verse two speaks of studying the works of God, as well as the word of God. (Note verse 7 about “precepts.”) That studying leads to further understanding of the character of God. That understanding leads to a humble fear of the Lord. Such fear is the beginning of true wisdom, because the very mark of wisdom is understanding one’s standing before God. And such wisdom, in turn, leads to good understanding – that of God and his ways. And a good understanding will lead to praise.
We see this very line of thought and response in the Apostle Paul in chapter 11 of Romans. Paul has been laying out the complex ways of God in bringing salvation to the Gentiles and how it will play out as well to the blessing of the Jews. And then he cannot help himself. As he considers the wondrous ways of God, it leads to spontaneous praise:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34"For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?"
35"Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?"
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Paul and the psalmists cannot study the works and ways of the Lord for long without breaking forth into praise.
Let’s turn now to us. Whenever I read a psalm extolling the works of God, I cannot but think how we should be in greater awe than any of the psalmists. Think about this. Consider the matter of studying God’s general works of creation and work in it. Do you think the psalmists, when they looked up at the stars had a concept of the immensity of the universe that we have? What if the psalmist who wrote “the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” had opened up his recent issue of National Geographic, looked at the photos of the Milky Way galaxy and read this:
Our galaxy is far larger, brighter, and more massive than most other galaxies. From end to end, the Milky Way’s starry disk…spans 120,000 light-years. Encircling it is another disk, composed mostly of hydrogen gas… And engulfing all that our telescopes can see is an enormous halo of dark matter that they can’t. While it emits no light, this dark matter far outweighs the Milky Way’s hundreds of billions of stars…Indeed, our galaxy is so huge that dozens of lesser galaxies scamper about it, like moons orbiting a giant planet.
Do you think he might have been even more impressed with the glory of God? What if the psalmists had seen movies like “The March of the Penguins,” or watched Discovery channel? Do you think they would have written with even more feeling about God feeding animals and providing water to drink?
For me, the most baffling puzzle of all is how scientists and naturalists can be atheists. I just can’t understand it. When a psalmist writes, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” surely they must be thinking, “If you only knew how fearful and wonderful your body really is.” Every part of creation – even its simplest element – is wonder upon wonder.
Or consider the psalmists' view of God’s word. They speak of his precepts being trustworthy. We, thousands of years later, can still attest to the same truth. The measure of time – a time filled with attacks against the written word, constant questioning of the Word’s veracity – has failed to diminish its power. Generation after generation after generation still attest to God’s precepts being trustworthy. And not only is it about time, but about people. People of more tongues and locations and customs that the psalmists ever knew have come to know the same precepts and live by them – even scientists! Surely we have greater reason to be impressed with the ancient precepts that have endured over the centuries.
But even more than the knowledge we possess about creation and about the written word is the knowledge we possess about God’s wondrous work of redemption. When the psalmists look back at the great work of redemption of God for his people, they are thinking of his delivering them from Egypt. They are taken from a piece of land and settled in another piece of land. That is a simplistic way of looking at it, I know, but, nevertheless, it captures the gist of the redemption. It was a redemption that was intended to make possible a change in the hearts of those who experienced it, and to set up the stage by which the people could serve God.
Do I need to argue that the redemption of Jesus Christ is greater than that of the exodus? Was not the shedding of Christ’s blood greater than turning rivers to blood? Was not victory over death and sin greater than the victory over the Egyptian army? Did not the incarnation of the Son of God prove to provide greater bread from heaven than the manna in the wilderness? Was not the parting of the veil in the heavenly temple greater than the parting of the Red Sea? Do we not now have a greater High Priest in Jesus Christ than Aaron ever proved to be, and has Jesus Christ not mediated a supremely greater covenant than Moses?
For all the miracles attributed to Moses, did he rise from the dead? Did he ascend on high? Do we look to his return in glory? Do we not look to our own resurrection into glory because of the redemption won by Jesus Christ?
Should we not then all the more “give thanks to the Lord with [our] whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation”? Indeed, should we not praise the Lord with even stronger voices? We above all should know that the praise of the Lord endures forever. Let us not be put to shame by psalmists who at best could only see the shadows of what we know clearly.
What we should be learning from such a psalm as this is the connection between the study of God and his ways and of praise. Whether your training is limited to personal devotions or you are a seminary student studying for a theology class, your study should be leading you to the praise of God and to greater trust in him. As we have already noted, the psalmists looked at the works of God and from them concluded the traits of God. The more, by studying creation and history, they grew in awe of God as creator and provider, the better understanding they had of God himself, and the more trusting they became of him due to understanding that he is merciful, gracious, and faithful. As they studied his Word and recounted his work of redemption they developed a deeper, humbler fear of him.
And all of this study caused them to take delight in him. Or one could say that because they delighted in him, they all the more desired to study him. They were not like many Christians today who just aren’t into theology. They just want to know the basics and, more importantly, what is needed to be a better person – a better father or mother, better at sinning less or doing right things more. They are like me when it comes to computers. One day I asked an assistant to help get me out of some problem on the computer. So he starts to explain to me how the computer works, what would have caused the problem…until he saw my eyes glaze over. “You’re really not interested, are you?” “No, I just want the problem to be fixed!”
I don’t delight in computers, at least to the degree of wanting to study them. I like the results but I am quite satisfied with the explanation that they work by magic. The same with a car. I could care less what is under the hood, as long as the engine turns on. But car enthusiasts are passionate about knowing what makes the engine run, just as computer enthusiasts with computers. They wax eloquent about the inner workings of such stuff.
Should Christians not be the same about God and his works? Should we not listen with expectation to preaching that takes into the mysteries of God and his works, especially his work of redemption? They don’t care about how practical what they are learning is, no more than the car enthusiast about the details he studies of his favorite car. And yet, it is because of that very enthusiasm that they learn what is really practical. If I had a real interest in computers, I wouldn’t have to call my son-in-law every time I have trouble, and who gently (because he is my son-in-law) tells me the simple procedure to get my problem solved. Really, what is more practical than learning how gracious and merciful and faithful our God is? What is more practical for overcoming sin and for living a righteous life than to study the redemptive work of Jesus Christ?
It is those who know God best who know best how to live. It is those who know Jesus Christ and his great redemptive work who know best how to be gracious and merciful and faithful themselves. And it is those who know God and his wondrous ways best who praise him the most and take the greatest delight in him.
I don’t mean just head knowledge. I could be forced to learn more about computers if I needed the knowledge to pass a test, or if I wanted to be recognized for my knowledge. It is the one who delights in the knowledge, who then grows in admiration for God and who then learns how to benefit from that knowledge. And this, by the way, is the key to true humility – delighting in God, delighting in what you learn about God. And it is true humility that leads further into knowledge.
See how it all works together. To delight in God is to desire to study God. To study God leads to further delight. Such delight is made possible by humility, which itself naturally blooms as one learns more about God, which is also wrapped up in the fear of the Lord, a fear that anyone who knows God delights in. And the fear becomes deeper as…well, you get the picture.
However you came into the congregation tonight – whether to give thanks to God or to seek refuge from the cold or your troubles – may you leave with a desire to study the wondrous works of God and return with the desire to praise him.
© 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org