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Fear of God: Humility as the Posture of Worship

Series: How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Nov 10, 1999

Psalm 128:1-6

Now turn with me, if you have your Bibles with you, to Psalm 128. We’ve been looking together, as you remember, at these “Ascent Psalms.” We’ve come now to the ninth in the series of fifteen of them, from Psalms 120-134.  Let’s hear together the word of God.

“How blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,

Who walks in his ways.

When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands,

You will be happy and it will be well with you.

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine,

Within your house,

Your children like olive plants

Around your table.

Behold, for thus shall the man be blessed

Who fears the Lord.

“The Lord bless you from Zion,

And may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.

Indeed, may you see your children’s children.

Peace be upon Israel!”

So far, God’s holy, inerrant word. Let’s pray together.

 

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word. We ask now for the ministry and illumination of the Holy Spirit, that You would cause this word to be written upon our hearts. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“Bless this house” is the banner that’s unfurled above this great 128th Psalm.

“Bless this house, O Lord, we pray;

Make it safe by night and day.

Bless these walls so firm and stout,

Keeping want and trouble out.

Bless this roof and chimney tall,

Let Thy peace lie over all.

Bless this door, that it may be

Ever open [to joy and love].”

Well, that piece of doggerel is on many of our walls, but of course it contains something of very profound significance; and it echoes, I think, the desire and the prayer and the longing of the hearts of God’s people. And it is, in one sense at least, echoing the sentiment of Psalm 128.

Like Psalm 1, the very first Psalm, it begins and opens with the word blessed, and in fact four times in the course of this Psalm we have repeated for us—though using two different words, to be sure, in the Hebrew—but four times, blessed, or be blessed, or blessings, relating to us that this Psalm is a Psalm about blessing. It’s a Psalm about the happiness, in the profound sense of that word, of the people of God. It relates that to us, in the first place, in the personal and present in verses 2-4; and then, in verses 5-6 in the public and future.

And there is a kind of progression from Psalm 126 through 127 and onwards to 128. In Psalm 126, the prayer has been for blessing, and in Psalm 127 there has been that realization that that blessing comes by trusting in the Lord. And now in Psalm 128, the psalmist elaborates and opens that up for us in greater detail, and puts that blessing in covenantal terms, so that we appreciate that that blessing ultimately comes out of Zion and out of Jerusalem, and out of that covenantal fellowship into which God has placed us.

The main point of this particular Psalm is to say to us that the blessings which we enjoy as the people of God are far more substantial than any of the blessings that the people of this world enjoy. And in that sense, this Psalm reminds us of the words of John Newton in that wonderful hymn, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken; and you remember that line, “Solid joys and lasting pleasures, none but Zion’s children know.” And there is a sense, isn’t there, that this Psalm is an apologetic for the day and age in which you and I live. How necessary this Psalm is in a hedonistic age in which we live: that true joy, that true blessing and happiness and contentment is to be found for the Lord’s people in the work that they do and in the homes in which they live, and in the worship which they offer to God.

And on closer examination, if we dig a little deeper into this Psalm, we see that in the first four verses, and in particular in verses 1 and 4, there is a repetition of an idea: that the people of God are they who fear the Lord, and you see it repeated once in verse 1 and then again in verse 4, that God’s people truly fear Him. And it’s a kind of inclusia – or, think of it like a bookend –  enclosing the thought that true joy can only be attained by those people who truly fear the Lord. And the Psalm is saying something to us of profound significance: that true piety and true godliness and the essence of true piety and true godliness is found in this idea of fearing the Lord.

And that’s a message which the Bible is at pains to say over and over again: 150 times, in fact (or thereabouts), the Bible reminds us of the necessity to fear the Lord. And we see that exemplified supremely, I think, in the person of Job; that one of the attributes, one of the characteristics of Job, and the poise and the equanimity that was his in the midst of his trials and difficulties, was that he feared the Lord. And we could analyze that at some considerable length, but my little clock here is ticking away! So let me just say that the essence of what it means to fear the Lord is essentially the realization of and the response to what we know about God. It is the response of the child of God to the true nature and character of  God, and in particular, the greatness of God and the majesty of God: that God is great; that God is majestic; that God is greater than we can ever imagine Him to be. And true biblical hedonism, true biblical enjoyment and pleasure and blessing, is the response of the child of God in terms of the words of the first answer to The Shorter Catechism; that is, it is to glorify God and therein to enjoy Him forever. And there’s nothing more fundamental than that. It doesn’t get more basic than that, that what it means to enjoy the privileges of the Christian life is to live the Christian life in the fear of God, to walk before Him as He has revealed Himself as the great God that He is.

Peter reminds us, doesn’t he, that we are to live our lives as strangers, in the fear of God. And Bunyan tells us that “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and they that lack the beginning have no middle nor end.”

And what has that, then, to do with this Psalm, Psalm 128? Because we need to note the parallel that is found in verse 1 to fearing the Lord. What does fearing the Lord mean? Well, he tells us by way of this Hebrew parallel. It means to walk in His ways. That’s what it means to fear the Lord. The person who says that he fears God but doesn’t walk in the ways of God is a liar and a hypocrite. Fearing God means revering Him sufficiently that I want to conform my lifestyle to His lifestyle, and to do that in the sphere of work, and in the sphere of my home, and in the sphere of worship: to say

“Thy way, not mine, O Lord,

However dark it be,

Lead me by Thine own hand;

Choose out the path for me.”

Now this happiness, this blessedness, is worked out, then, in these three particular areas.

And in the first place, the happiness of those who fear the Lord is experienced in the sphere of work.

And he tells us in the second verse,

            “When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands, you will be happy

            and it will be well with you.”

Well, it sounds a little bit, doesn’t it, like the “health and wealth” gospel. It sounds like the “prosperity” gospel, and if we were using the New International Version in this church, it would very much sound like the “health and wealth” gospel, because it actually uses the very word prosperity. And it leads people, the children of God, into all kinds of areas and avenues that actually deny fundamental principles of Scripture with respect to what we can actually expect as the children of God.

So let me suggest to you that what the psalmist intends here by saying that we shall eat of the fruit of our hands, and that we shall be happy, and that it will be well with us, that we shall prosper in that sense, that it means first of all that for the man or woman who walks in the ways of God, work...work will be a blessing. It means that, first of all. Work will be a blessing; that you will find your enjoyment and you will find your contentment in what God has given you to do in the deployment of your skills and abilities. And when success comes, and sometimes it comes in surprising and unexpected ways, you can celebrate that—not inyour achievement, but you celebrate that in the fact that you see it as something which God in His mercy and grace has given to you.

You remember how Paul addresses the Thessalonians, who, because of their belief in the imminence of the return of Christ, thought that they didn’t need to work any more. And Paul says to them very clearly, if you’re not prepared to work, then don’t eat, he says. It’s a great blessing, do you see, to eat the fruit of one’s own labor (and especially when calling coincides with our inclination and you love your work), to know the provision of daily bread that comes as a consequence.

But it also means, I think, something else: that the man or woman who walks in God’s ways in integrity and in uprightness. And you pay, perhaps, the price for that integrity and that uprightness by not cheating on your contracts...that you’re a man of your word, and God blesses you. Isn’t that prosperity? Isn’t that the greatest blessing of all, the fruit that comes from working and laboring with a good conscience towards God? That God really does provide for His own; that you will never see the righteous begging for bread?

It’s not, you see, that if you’re a Christian you will be rich. That’s a travesty of exegesis! That’s a travesty of understanding the life of Joseph, or the life of the Apostle Paul; or, for that matter, the life of Jesus Himself! But God provides, and He provides so plentifully. And all of us here this evening, every single one of us here this evening, can say that: that God has provided in far greater measure than we ever deserve. “It will be well with you” even if all hell is breaking out around you; you will find that pleasure, that blessing, in the work which God has given you to do.

But in the second place, happiness and blessing of those who fear the Lord is experienced in marriage, the psalmist says. And it’s a sad reality that for some here this evening the marriages from which they came as children were perhaps broken marriages, and you know something of the pain of that, and the strife of that, and the turmoil of that.

And for some it is true that going home is walking into another battlefield. And I have to admit that sometimes (as many of you know my particular testimony that I wasn’t brought up in a covenant home and with a covenant family), and I have to say that sometimes I envy those testimonies and those glowing pictures of husband and wife and children around the hearth and singing praises to God, and the warmth and the blessing that all of that entails. But I’ve long since come to appreciate the providence of God in the lives of every single individual, and the way God has formed you and brought you to this point has a design and a purpose that is attached to it that is singularly his own, and is singularly divine, and is singularly wise. And I’ve long since learned to rest in the providence of God and not in my own personal aspirations.

But what we have here in this Psalm is an ideal picture –  that’s what it is – an ideal picture of a wife who is fruitful, with children like olive plants around your table.

Now, I need to say something very briefly here to those of you whom this is not the picture of your lives, and that because you’re not married, or that because you’re divorced, or that because you’re unable to have children, and for whom this Psalm contains not just blessing, but a note of great pain, too. And I need to say to you that you need to first of all have patience, perhaps. Perhaps that’s what you first of all need. Have patience. And perhaps for some of you, this ought to be the burden of your prayer.

But for some of you, too, I need to say you need to be sensitive to this. You know, Presbyterians can be insensitive, and if you don’t know and realize that, you need to appreciate that: that some Presbyterians can be insensitive; that when we speak about the covenant and the blessings of the covenant, sometimes that can be a source of great pain to others, and we need to remind ourselves that Paul was a bachelor, and Jesus was a bachelor, and that you, if you find yourself in that condition this evening, perhaps with no seeming prospect of it being changed, that that is a gift of God to you, and that that is God’s design and purpose for you, and that is God’s providence for you, and see the grace of God in all of that.

But what we do have here, I think, is an ideal picture...an ideal picture of a fruitful wife, and of a vine, and of these children like olive plants sitting all around. And do you remember the blessing? Do you remember the picture here? It’s a picture of extraordinary blessing...of extraordinary blessing...and it’s a picture of great happiness and of great contentment.

 And it’s not a picture, you see, of prosperity and health and wealth. That’s not where the psalmist is finding his pleasure and his blessing. He’s finding it in the simple things of home and wife and children. And I desperately think that some of you need to hear that, concerned as you are with so many other things that are peripheral and inconsequential: that the real happiness of the people of God is to be found in the home, and with your wife, and with your children.

And I was thinking as I was preparing this afternoon of those times when perhaps you first got married. Do you remember them? And when those children began to come – do you remember those times? And you were living perhaps in an apartment, and you weren’t living in this grand mansion of a home, and things were difficult and tight, and money wasn’t all that plentiful. And you remember those times when bills were difficult to pay. But is there one of you who will say this evening that those weren’t blessed times and happy times? That that was the occasion when God revealed the extent of His blessing to us? And, oh, how, perhaps, the application for some of us this evening is to give thanks to God, and then to give thanks to the one sitting next to us – so long as that is your wife or husband, you understand! – to give thanks for the one who bore your children, and who raised your children, and to find that blessing and that privilege, and that hedonism and that contentment, in those uncounted simple things...but profound things.

And I wonder this evening, you men, especially...and perhaps your children have grown up, and you’ve forgotten the enormous pleasure and the enormous privilege that God gave to you in that particular picture that is echoed for us here in the Psalm.

But there’s a third area, and my time is now way past, but let me just mention it: that the happiness of those who fear the Lord is expressed not just in work and not just in marriage, but that it’s also expressed in worship.

You see how the Psalm ends in verses 5-6. It’s actually a prayer. It’s actually a blessing. It’s almost like an Aaronic benediction. And what it is saying is that the blessing actually derives from Zion and Jerusalem. And Zion and Jerusalem in the Old Testament are code words for where the people of God gathered together to worship Him, and that is saying two things to us tonight. It’s saying first of all that true blessing comes from the means of grace...that true blessing comes from the gathering of God’s people covenantally together. So don’t expect God to bless your work if you work seven days a week and only attend church occasionally. Don’t expect God to bless that work. And don’t expect God to bless those grades if you’ve had to work on Sunday and miss church in order to obtain them. True blessing comes from Zion and from Jerusalem and the gathering of God’s people together.

But I think the Psalm is saying something much more profound, even, than that: that true blessing comes from God, from God Himself. And what this Psalm is saying to us is that we ought to be captivated – captivated by the glory and majesty and greatness of God, from whom, from whom alone, true blessing comes.

There’s a beautiful picture...I wish I had time...maybe some other time...to open it up. But there’s a beautiful picture here in this Psalm of someone who is truly blessed, and it’s a grandparent with children’s children seated around them. And you know, when I sit down here sometimes on a Sunday morning and there are some grandparents down here with their children and their children’s children sitting all around them, it always reminds me of Psalm 128 and what the Christian life is really, really, all about. May God bless His word to us tonight, for His name’s sake.

Would you stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

May the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you, now and forevermore. Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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