Psalm 111 is a beautiful psalm of praise. It praises the character of God not as an abstraction but as manifested in God’s works. Note the recurrence of “works,” “work,” “deeds,” and various action verbs (highlighted in pink in the photo).
Note also that among God’s works are God’s precepts. God not only gives food to those who enter into covenant (verse 5); God also gives instruction for living (verse 7). Because God is supremely wise, God’s precepts are wise; they convey wisdom. But only to those who perform them, i.e., not to those who hear them and talk about them but do not put them into practice.
God’s wisdom is real, substantial, and permanent. It is as an attribute of God whether we ever see it or not. But God’s wisdom becomes known to us through God’s works, including God’s speech.
In us, however, wisdom is not an inherent and permanent attribute. We become wise only by divine gifting. God offers us the gift of wisdom encoded in God’s example (works) and in words (precepts). We receive that gift when we ponder God’s works and words and then also perform those words. If all we do is ponder and talk about God’s works and words without performing them, we remain foolish, and worse fools than if we had never even seen or heard and talked about the divine revelation, because the contrast between our chatter about God and the practical Godlessness of our un-Godlike deeds and speech puts a spotlight on our failure.
This is the key to verse 10, which at first tripped me up. Anyone who has the slightest awareness of our present circumstances knows that the world around us does not see people who profess to be God-fearing as wise people. It is easy to denounce the world’s skepticism with defensive ardor. But with even a small serving of healthy respect for one’s agnostic neighbors comes the realization that they are onto something. So how is the fear of God the beginning of wisdom? It is just that: a beginning. It does not come to fruition unless it conceives and gives birth in our lives to performance, to action.
So says Gregory of Nazianzus in his oration 16.3, On His Father’s Silence: “Fairer in my eyes is the beauty that we can gaze on than that which is painted in words; of more value the wealth that our hands can hold, than that which is imagined in our dreams; and more real the wisdom of which we are convinced by deeds, than that which is set forth in splendid language. For ‘a good understanding,’ he said, ‘have all they who act accordingly,’ not they who proclaim it.”
Protestant Christians have difficulty reading a psalm like this and applying it to ourselves because we are taught that only God’s work can save us; our own work avails nothing. We ponder and praise the mighty deeds of God, and especially the all-sufficient work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and rightly so. But the first two-thirds to three-fourths of each of the gospels is devoted to recounting the words and deeds of Jesus in a way that, yes, establishes his identity and so the significance of his saving death and resurrection, but also, before that and beyond that, displays the character of God graphically in order to give us a model to follow, and provides plenty of teaching about how we are to live.
So the gospels teach us at great length what verses 5 and 6 of this psalm teach: that the Lord is gracious and merciful, and is a provider of food for those who fear them. Jesus did not enact God’s grace and mercy so lavishly in order to spare us the trouble of likewise but in order to draw us in and captivate us so fully that we would finally be able to do likewise.
The mercy and lovingkindness that we extend to others is not a burdensome and even impossible “work,” a thing to do after we are saved, or a thing that we will be relieved to be told we do not have to do. The process of being conformed to Christ’s character, of becoming imitators of his patterns of speech and action, is the process of our salvation. This is why Paul urged: work out your salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). The fear of which he spoke is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom. To make works the enemy of salvation is to make nonsense not only of the Old Testament but of the teaching of our Lord himself and his apostles.
Just as the grace and mercy of the Lord flow naturally out of the Lord’s character—his righteousness—so also when we are incorporate in Christ and so united in him with God, our nature is transformed and restored into a nature from which love and mercy flow out naturally. This is how we know that we are children of God: that we keep his commandments, that we walk just as Jesus walked (1 John 2:3–6).
“He provides food for those who fear him” is fulfilled finally and perpetually through God-descended-to-earth, as the hymn says:
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.
Nothing could be more contradictory and nonsensical than to praise and partake of that food without being nourished by it into a performer of the trustworthy precepts that were made incarnate in the faithful and true witness who made himself our food. It is impossible. People who truthfully, with their whole heart, give thanks and praise find that their whole mindset is gradually washed over with gratitude, and their whole pattern of relating to their fellow humans is more and more filled with grace and mercy. The “good understanding” possessed by those who keep God’s law entails full integration of thought and life, of gospel believed and gospel practiced.