Psalm 111: The Fear of God

Praise the Lord.

I will extol the Lord with all my heart
    in the council of the upright and in the assembly.

Great are the works of the Lord;
    they are pondered by all who delight in them.
Glorious and majestic are his deeds,
    and his righteousness endures forever.
He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
    the Lord is gracious and compassionate.
He provides food for those who fear him;
    he remembers his covenant forever.

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Psalm 111

Most days as a student I passed under an old archway upon which was inscribed the last verse of Psalm 111: ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’.  Of course, there are those who claim that all religion is fear-based, that people only believe in God because of their fear of the unknown, that people only believe in an afterlife because of their fear of death. Cynics from both left and right have argued that fear is used in religion as a means of social control to manipulate and to keep the masses in their place. It is undoubtedly true that some preachers have used fear as their main weapon to frighten people into loving God. Fear may have its place. It’s an appropriate response in some situations – but it is hardly the basis for a healthy long-term relationship. 

The ‘fear of God’ that is referred to in Scripture is not cringing or craven. We were God’s enemies but now Christ has come to make us his friends and friendship is not based on fear (John 15:15), it is based on love and the Bible tells us explicitly that there is no fear in love (1 John 4:18).

The ‘fear of God’ is that sense of incredible wonder and joyful amazement at being in the presence of the God who has chosen to reveal himself to us in Christ as our heavenly Father. That ‘fear’ or wonderment expresses itself in heartfelt praise (v. 1), worship that is neither partial nor piecemeal but is whole hearted. The Psalmist’s praise is not private but is expressed openly so that others may see and hear and be encouraged and might join with him or her in worship (v. 1b).

The ‘works of the Lord’ in creation are a source of great wonder. Yet for much of the time we pass over them too quickly and take them for granted, we ‘walk blindfold in this glorious theatre’ (John Calvin). The time of Covid-19 has been a difficult one for most, for some it has been absolutely devastating and for many it has been a time of slowing down. Many of the latter have said that they have a renewed appreciation of nature around us, the buzzing bees, the fluttering butterflies, the singing birds. It’s a shame it takes a pandemic to do that.

The ‘works of the Lord’, though, are not just as Creator and Sustainer (v. 5) but also as Saviour. Verses 5 and 9 refer to God as one who makes covenant with people. And God makes covenant to bless people, that people might, to use Gospel language, experience life in all its fullness. Ultimately Jesus is the fulfilment of the covenant promises of God – through his self-offering upon the cross, he brings to us the blessing of forgiveness and eternal life as we are reconciled to God. 

Verse 2 of the Psalm is carved into the doors of the old Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was apparently put there at the request of the great physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, when the laboratory was built in the early 1870s. Clerk Maxwell understood not just the wonders of science in helping us to ‘think God’s thoughts after him,’ to use a wonderful phrase from the astronomer Johannes Kepler, but he also understood the limits of the scientific enterprise. Science can tell us how to make an atomic bomb but not whether it is right or wrong to drop it! We have good reason to value science and to value the incredible work that scientists do but, through no fault of its own, science struggles to answer the questions that matter to us most. 

Clerk Maxwell’s biographers record a prayer which reflected his faith in a God who calls us to care for and use the created world:

‘Almighty God, who created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee and have dominion over Thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth to our use and strengthen the reason for Thy service; and so to receive Thy blessed Word, that we may believe on Him Whom Thou hast sent, to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins. All of which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.’