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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"The Beginning of All Wisdom"

Psalm 111
James McTyre
Psalm 111
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA
Sunday, August 20, 2006

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
– Abraham Lincoln

Psalm 111 concludes with a proverb: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Could it be that the fear of the Lord and keeping your mouth shut go hand in hand? Every now and then I’ll be standing next to someone and he or she (or even, by chance, I) will say something so – how do you say this politically correctly? – something so “lacking in nice-i-ness” that we step back and say, “Watch out for lightning.” “God’s gonna getcha for that one.” We might not be smart enough to curb our tongues, but we are kind enough to want to spare those close to us from God’s retribution. If only. If only God’s retribution was so swift. All gossips, all liars, all smarty-pantses would be removed from the earth in a kind of Rapture in reverse. The “left behind” would be only the nice people. And the frightened people, who never open their mouths. Wise people. The fear of the Lord would govern every tongue and wisdom would reign forever.

But God is not a terrorist. God allows us our personal rights. So among “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” count also the right to indulge the earth with our own lack of wisdom. God allows us to gossip, snipe, lie, and smart-off to our parents without fear of lightning strikes. God lets us be free in our relationships to be as hurtful as we intend to be, or as accidentally hurtful as we don’t know we’re being. But – God also allows us the chance to choose wisdom.


Ironically, Psalm 111 begins with the pledge of an open, talkative mouth.

Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

The psalmist not only tells us he’s going to speak, but that he’s going to speak publicly, loudly, with his whole heart – in the company of the upright, in the congregation. We assume the upright are going to congregate in the place of worship, but not necessarily. The congregation of the upright could be a group of people on a street, or in a classroom, or a shop in the marketplace. And before this congregation, what does the person say? “Praise the Lord!” Exclamation point. “Thank you, God!” Exclamation point. I read an author who says her two favorite prayers are, “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” A wise repertoire. Because the prayers are both personal and public enough to direct a person to God, without editorializing, without making comments about someone else. If – IF – God did bean people with lightning bolts for saying unwise things, the one way to be sure of safety would be to fill your mouth with praise. So that even if you did have to open your mouth and remove all doubt, you’d assure people of your wisdom instead of your foolishness. You’d assure people of your faith in God, instead of faith in your own observations.

Read the Psalm with emphasis on God, and you hear it sound like this…

Full of honor and majesty is HIS work,
and HIS righteousness endures forever.
HE has gained renown by HIS wonderful deeds;
THE LORD is gracious and merciful.
HE provides food for those who fear him;
HE is ever mindful of his covenant.
HE has shown his people the power of HIS works….
The works of HIS hands are faithful and just;
all HIS precepts are trustworthy.

Read the Psalm with the emphasis on God, and what happens? It removes the emphasis on us. It says, GOD’S work is full of honor and majesty – not ours. GOD’S righteousness endures forever – not ours. GOD is truly faithful and just – not us. Humility is the flipside of praise. Praise God, and you see how humble and lowly you are. Praise God, and you see how not-to-be-feared the world is. Praise God, and you see how un-worthy of praise, envy, and gossip everyone else is. Praise God, respect God, fear God – and see how wise you will become. Not that the people and events of this world shouldn’t be taken seriously. Of course they should. They’re God’s creations, too. Not that you shouldn’t take yourself seriously, either. You’re God’s creation. But you, and everyone else, and the world aren’t created for glory in and of ourselves. We’re created for the glory of God. We’re created to have enough wisdom to praise our maker. Public praise of God and personal humbleness are two sides of the same coin. Start by praising God and your perspective on yourself will come clear.


Proverbs 9 says,

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town,
"You that are simple, turn in here!" To those without sense she says,
"Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight."

Interestingly, especially so on the day we install the leaders of the Presbyterian Women, wisdom in the Bible is always personified as a woman. Strange how the church doesn’t bring that up very much. Probably one of those DaVinci Code things. Wisdom builds a seven-pillared, strong house. Wisdom calls out to the simple people, the people without sense, saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” We talked a lot about bread and wine last Sunday, because we celebrated Communion. Jesus calls out the same way as Wisdom does, loudly and compassionately, offering us food and drink of the Holy Spirit. Offering us wisdom, at the expense of our own simpleness.

The million-dollar question is, of course, how do you tell the voice of God’s wisdom from the voice of the people who sound wise, but are really spouting their own opinions? Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” How do you know the voice shouting from the highest places in town isn’t just pushing its own agenda? Encouraging you into more foolishness? How do you recognize Lady Wisdom when she calls? If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom, seeking understanding is the second step. “Faith seeks understanding,” wrote St. Anselm. If you want to discern wisdom from folly, you have to ask a lot of questions. You have to be brave enough – that is, have faith in God enough – to challenge the experts who want to convince you of this or that in order to pump up their own egos or make a fast buck. Ask questions. Ask, “Is this or that really helping to praise God? If not, is it really worthwhile? Or is it just more silliness?” Seek understanding, if you want your praise to grow beyond itself. Seek understanding if you want faith to lead you to answers, or, at the very least, to better questions. Seek understanding if you want to grow out of fear of the Lord into the second step of wisdom.


Finally, Psalm 111 ends with the concluding line, “His praise endures forever.” Praise of God endures forever. That’s not just a nice way to wrap up a psalm. It’s a promise. It goes to say that no act of praise is ever wasted. No praise of God falls on deaf ears. No praise of God dries up and blows away like all the other keys to happiness that get shoved into our mailboxes. “God’s praise endures forever.” Everyone wants to leave a lasting mark on the world. Everyone wants some assurance that their life adds up to something, something that will benefit someone to come. Here’s the assurance. Don’t pass it over by reading too quickly. Your praise, your praise of God, your acts of praise, your words of praise – will endure forever. How precisely? I don’t know. That’s God’s business. But the Psalm tells us that your work to praise God will, however it happens, endure forever. So praise God by singing psalms and hymns, if that’s how you choose. Praise God by serving as a leader to the Presbyterian Women, if that’s how you choose. Praise God by joining the Men’s Breakfast, or helping tutor a child, or teaching the Youth Group. Your good deeds, done in the service of God will endure. Your good deeds done in the service of God will long outlast your fears, will long outlast your understanding. Your good deeds done in a spirit of praise will endure, forever.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” True. But it’s even better to be a fool for God – speaking, working, doing, praying to the glory of God Almighty.