Sermon preached on Psalm 111 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/9/2011 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
The Fear of God in Worship: “Holy and Awesome is His Name”
Today we continue a short three part miniseries on worship. Last weeks’ message was on “The Glory of God in Worship.” Next week we will consider “The Grace of God in Worship.” Today, however, we’ll consider “The Fear of God in Worship.”
Now I recognize that in today’s age the concept of the “Fear of God” is not very popular among man. People don’t want to fear God. If they believe in God at all, then they usually want God to be their best friend, or maybe even their lover. But not someone they should fear. Now, I could have easily titled our message today the “Reverence of God in Worship,” and given essentially the same sermon. The word “revere” and the word “fear” are actually close synonyms to each other. And yet ty experience shows that for some reason, people today tend to have less of a problem with the idea of revering God, than with fearing God. When I talk about fearing God, it often raises lots of questions from people. When I talk about revering God, people usually have no problem with that. Probably because people in their minds they might tend to lighten what “reverence” is all about. It’s probably just a sort of holy respect in many people’s minds. And so I intentionally named our sermon today about the “fear of God.” Technically, “reverence of God” would have gotten at the same idea. But I think we need to really recognize the importance of actually fearing God, in the biblical sense of such fear.
OPC minister and professor John Murray said, “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.” If that’s true in general for godliness, how certainly it’s true when it comes to our worship of God. We can’t properly worship God without a right sense of fear of God. Now let me right away get an important clarification out of the way. There’s one important sense in which Christians ought not to fear God. We should not fear God in terms of judgment. 1 John 4:18 says that perfect love casts out fear. You see, there are different senses to the word “fear.” Christians don’t fear that God will judge us. We know God loves us and has saved us. Faith in that love casts out that kind of fear.
And yet 1 Peter 2:17 still tells us to fear God. There’s a fear of God that’s not about fearing judgment, but that appreciates all who God is. We can fear God in a way that recognizes his awesome and even terrifying power. The very fact that God could have brought judgment upon us, could certainly install this same kind of proper fear of God. Christians should always have this right sort of fear of God. Fear that recognizes that God is God, and we are not. Fear that recognizes how everything is in his hands. All is in his control. He has the power to do whatever he wills. This fear is a sort of holy respect, but it’s more than that. Its constantly recognizing the almightiness of God in a way that stands in awe of him. His greatness should grip you in a way that can be called “fear.” I don’t want us to lose that word. For Christians, this is not a negative fear. It’s an amazing fear. It’s even a good fear. And it’s the one enduring fear we will always have in our life.
This passage talks about the fear of God today. And it relates that fear to our worship of God. Three concepts are actually prevalent in this psalm. The fear of God, the praise of God, and the works of God. Those three ideas are connected in this psalm. The psalm starts and ends with a general reference to praise. Verse 1 commands it, “Praise the Lord.” Verse 10 ends the psalm saying that his praise endures forever. That’s the overall subject presented here. It’s a psalm of praise. But the notion of the fear of God appears a few times in this passage as we’ll see today. It connects the fear of God with the praise. It’s foundational for our praise. And that notion of the fear of God is also connected here with the works of God. The main body of this psalm discusses the works of God. That’s verses 2-9. The heart of this psalm praises the works of God. We’ll see today that these works of God show forth part of why we fear God. That will be our focus today. We’ll see how these three concepts come together to help us understand better the fear of God in worship.
Well, as we begin to dig into this psalm, notice first the context. This psalm is a call to worship, and it’s a call to the official corporate worship of the church. The call as we mentioned is right in verse 1. Praise the Lord. The next line mentions the psalmist as an individual worshipping, “I will praise the LORD with my whole heart.” And yet this psalm obviously isn’t envisioning a solo worship experience. It goes on to tell us the location of this praising. It’s in the assembly of the upright; in the congregation. That’s all right there in verse 1. And so this call to worship is being given to whole assembly; to the whole congregation of God’s people. Each individual in that gathering is to praise God with their whole hearts. This psalm calls to worship, and the context is that of the official corporate worship of the church; in the assembly of the congregation as it says here. As we read on in this psalm, this just becomes even clearer, with repeated references to the covenant people of God. There are times to worship God individually, but this psalm’s focus is on calling the church corporately to worship God. So realize that’s my focus today too. I want us to particularly think about how the fear of God affects our corporate worship together. What we do here every Sunday morning at 11 am.
The point I’d like to make next from this psalm is that the fear of God should be a foundation for praise. The fear of God is a foundation for praise. It’s one of those underlying concepts that should inform how and why we worship God. That’s essentially the effect of verse 10. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. A good understanding have all those who do his commandments. His praise endures forever.”
Now, yes, I know that this verse specifically connects the fear of God with wisdom. The explicit point of verse 10 is that the fear of God is the foundation for wisdom. If you want to begin to have real wisdom, you need to start with a fear of God. And so, it says that the fear of God is the foundation for real wisdom. I on the other hand, just said a few moments ago that the fear of God is the foundation for worship. Am I reading into the text? Well, I don’t think so. Just notice the context. It’s here right at the end. Right after the psalmist had finished going through all the works of the Lord. Right after the psalmist came to the conclusion of verse 9 – holy and awesome is God’s name. Right after that it interjects this line which we all probably recognize from the book of Proverbs. But then it ends with the note that God’s praise endures forever.
So my argument is an argument from the context. The context of this psalm is about praising the almighty God who does all these wonderful works. This little line about fearing God and wisdom is not misplaced. No, it’s wisdom to know that we ought to continually praise the Lord. When we read in Proverbs about the fear of the Lord being the foundation for wisdom, we should realize that’s a holistic sort of thing. All of our living should start with the fear of God. That’s wisdom; to live life from a proper fear of God. Well, this psalm uses that same idea, but connects it to worship. That’s what the context does with this idea. It connects the fear of God with our worship. If all wise living flows out of a fear of God, surely part of that living is in our worship. Our worship too, then, is founded on the fear of God.
This is of course what other passages of Scripture tell us too. Time and again the Scriptures commend to us the fear of God. There are some concepts that repeatedly get mentioned in Scripture. This is one of them. God’s people need to fear him. Several scriptures then connect that with our worship even. One example: Psalm 22:23, “You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And fear Him, all you offspring of Israel!” Or another example: Revelation 15:4, “Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy.” Scripture shows that a right fear of God should lead us to worship God. Last week we talked about glorifying God in worship. Today we’re seeing that a right fear of God should lead us to glorify God.
And so the fear of God is a foundation for our worship of God. Let’s turn now to see the next point from this passage. Let’s consider the works of God here. Let’s see how these works of God are a foundation for fear. Let me start with a summary. Essentially, the works of God that are listed here, are all reasons to fear God. The testimony of God’s works here, show forth a God that ought to be feared, in the best sense of the word.
Notice first all the general descriptors used here about God’s works. Verses 2-9 keep going back and forth between telling us specific works of God, and then describing them with adjectives. Let’s survey the adjectives first. Verse 2, his works are great. Verse 3, they are honorable; they are glorious. Verse 3 implies that his works show forth his righteousness; that’s another characteristic of his works. They manifest divine righteousness. Verse 4, they are wonderful; they are memorable; they show forth his graciousness and compassion. Verse 5, they represent that he remembers his covenant. Verse 6, they declare his power. Verse 7, they are verity, in other words they are faithful and true. Verse 7 also says they are justice. In other words they bring forth justice and judgment in this world. Verse 7 also says that his precepts are sure; well the giving of his precepts is the work here, so we see that his works are sure; steadfast; enduring. Verse 8 also brings out the enduring character of his works.
That’s a lot of adjectives to describe God’s works here. There are some specific works of God mentioned here. We’ll think more about the specific works in a moment. But first just step back and let all those descriptions sink in. His works are great, honorable, glorious, righteous, wonderful, memorable, gracious, compassionate, mindful of his covenant people, powerful, true, just, and enduring.
All of those are in one person’s works. God’s works. Each of those qualities finds their greatest expression in God and his works. That’s awesome in power. We should have a healthy sense of fear for one so omnipotent. Who is like our God? Certainly, no human’s works can be described this way. Tremble in awe over this amazing God.
Notice with me some of the specific works of God mentioned here. I’ll mention two broad categories here. The first category is in verse 5. He has given food to those who fear him. This is a general word for food here. You could even translate it as “nourishment.” And so one work of God is that he provides for our basic earthly needs. He provides for our ongoing sustenance. He gives us our daily bread, you might say. Now, of course, we know this is generally something he gives to all mankind. Yet here it particularly says he gives it to those who fear him. It’s talking about God’s people there. You might consider how this is a gift from God, not a right. The Christian band, The Newsboys have a song that says, “They don’t serve breakfast in hell.” That’s right. God right now might allow both the wicked and the God-fearers to have food. But that won’t always be the case. The threatened curse of famine in the Old Testament theocracy tells us that. But God in his power is able to provide for his people, no matter the circumstances. Think of the wilderness wandering, how he sent manna from heaven.
Shouldn’t that power he holds, grant you a sense of godly fear? He holds our daily provision in his hands. We eat our next meal today if he so wills. Think of your attitude toward a boss at work. I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like their bosses. They might not even respect them in their hearts. But they fear them. They fear their boss because they could fire them. Then they’d go hungry or maybe lose their earthly provisions. They might also fear their boss and act accordingly, because their boss holds the power of whether or not they’ll get a raise that year or not. Well, what about with God? We have this sort of healthy fear for our earthly bosses, because of the power they hold over us. How much more with God, who controls in all ways every aspect of our earthly provisions and nourishments? If we so fear and outwardly respect our earthly bosses, who may not care about us, how much more should we fear and worship our good Lord who loves us.
A second category shown here of God’s works are with regards to his redemptive works. This passage refers to God’s special redemptive works to his chosen people. Notice the language here about how he remembers his covenant. To remember his covenant, is to remember his covenant people. His covenant and his people get mentioned multiple times in this psalm. Verse 9 climactically finishes this section in this way; the final work listed here. It says, “He has sent redemption to His people; He has commended his covenant forever.” Now in its most immediate context, we should think in this psalm about the past history of Israel. When we hear of this redemption, we should remember the Exodus, and how God brought them out in power into the Promised Land. When we here of this eternal covenant, we should think about the special relationship God entered into with the people at Mount Sinai.
And yet we just completed a year long study of Deuteronomy. So, I hope by now, you’ve been trained to see how the old covenant redemption looked forward to the new covenant redemption in Christ. Redemption from sin and death. Forgiveness of sins by faith in Christ. Eternal life as we repent of our rebellion from God and turn to Christ. And so the mention of the work of redemption in this psalm, should draw you to consider Christ and the gospel. And so brothers and sisters in Christ, think of the application then. If we ought to all fear God in general, how true this must be for us who’ve seen firsthand what God can and will do to save us! The almighty, all powerful, God gave up his only begotten son to die on the cross to save us. He poured out hell on Christ on the cross, for us. To redeem us! Doesn’t that power make you tremble? Doesn’t that awe lead you to worship God! The gospel takes away the fear of judgment. But it shouldn’t take away the right fear of God. It should make us fear the almighty God even more, and turn our hearts to his worship.
Look at how the psalmist responds to this redemption in verse 9. This verse is the final verse describing the works of God. The last part of this verse then summarizes the response to all these amazing works of God. It says, “Holy and awesome is His name.” I have to point out today that the word “Awesome” is actually the literal word in the Hebrew for fear. You could translate this that his name is holy and to be feared. Holy and fearful is his name! That’s the psalmist’s conclusion when he considers all God’s works here. He concludes that God is holy and fearful. And of course, he says this about God’s name. Whenever you talk about his name, you’re talking about his renown. About his glory. In other words, about his praise. So verse 9 actually connects the fear of God with the works of God, and brings that all back around to his praise. And now, of course, you see the connection even more greatly with verse 10. That’s why the psalm turns to talk about the fear of God in verse 10. Because the conclusion of verses 2-9 is that God is holy and to be feared!
And so here is what you have in this psalm. God’s works are a foundation for why we fear God. We have a fear of awe for God when we consider his greatness as seen in his works. Works of his providential care for us, and especially works of salvation. We fear God as we consider these mighty works of his. In turn, this fear of God becomes the foundation for why we worship God.
A final thing that I would like you to notice today is a specific label given to God’s people here in this psalm. God’s people are referenced in this psalm at different points. But we saw them given a label in verse 5. Look again there in verse 5. He gives food to those who fear him. Clearly this label in context is referring to the people of God. “His people,” as they are called elsewhere in this psalm. But here, the psalmist calls his people this label. Those who fear God. That’s their name, essentially, in verse 5. It’s a way to identify those who are God’s people. We don’t have time to do it today, but if you scan through the Bible, you see that language repeatedly used in a positive way. It’s a good thing to be called someone who fears God.
And as I’ve made the case, this is something true in both the Old and New Testaments. In this Old Testament psalm, those whom God had redeemed were known as those who fear God. In this Old Testament psalm, it’s the redeemed people who are worshipping him in holy assembly that are called those who fear God. In the New Testament, as we already quoted in 1 Peter, we still are called to be known as those who fear God. We, redeemed in Christ, are to be those who fear God.
Surely, then this has an application to our worship. We should have an ongoing perspective of fearing the Lord. Not in the sense of punishment. But in the clear sense of awe for the Almighty God. I mean think about it. Part of the reason I became a Christian is because I was afraid of hell, frankly. I believed the Bible’s teaching about God’s coming judgment. That’s terrifying. So I did what I thought best. I fled to the mercy of God in Christ. That’s what makes the gospel to me, so amazing, so awesome, in the best sense of the word! That instills in me an amazing sense of reverence. Knowing how powerful God is to send to hell. I don’t fear judgment anymore. I know I’m forgiven and set free. But I still have a very sobering appreciation for how mighty God is. That colors how I approach him. I approach him with joy, that he’s exalted me as a son. That Jesus can call me his friend. Yet I also come before him bowing in submission. Humbly thanking him for his every mercy. I delight to call myself his servant. I know I don’t do this perfectly by any means. But let us all strive to fear God in the best sense of the word.
And let’s express that even in our worship. His awesomeness should cause the greatest reverence in us. I’m talking about especially when we show up here on Sundays. How might this look like? Well, it should affect our attitude for starters. When we come here, we shouldn’t just have a carefree or thoughtless attitude. Sunday worship shouldn’t be an afterthought. Our minds should come knowing full well what we are doing. Our language should be honoring, and especially distinguished when we come in formal worship. We are coming before this almighty, all powerful, holy and fearful God! Be reminded of this right attitude we should have. Let us make this time about him. He is God. We are not. We are his redeemed people. That both exalts us and humbles us. God always stays in the highest place, however.
Certainly this will affect our practical preparations. I keep mentioning these things, and will do it again this Sunday. Let us get here on time for service, or even early. When we get here, let’s spend a few moments preparing our hearts and minds for the service. Let’s not unnecessarily get up and down during the service. Let’s keep our hearts and minds focused on what we are doing while we are here.
Take great comfort knowing that God is at work in this. He’s at work to grow you even in this. I know this, because the Scriptures tell us that God is working in us to conform us to the image of Christ. Well listen to this Old Testament passage about Christ.
Isaiah 11:1-3: There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. 3 His delight is in the fear of the LORD.
The prophet Isaiah said that even the Christ would have a fear of the Lord! That’s not really surprising though, is it? As the God-man, he had to live perfectly righteous. As we’ve said today, the heart of righteousness includes a right fear of God. So we are not surprised that Isaiah would say this would be descriptive of the Christ. His delight is in the fear of the Lord. That’s what characterizes the Spirit within Christ.
Well, that same Spirit is at work inside us. The Holy Spirit is forming Christ in us. That includes having a right fear of God. As we look to respond to this message today, let us repent of the ways we’ve not had a right fear of God. Let us then ask God to continue to work this Spirit inside us. That we too might delight in being called those who fear God. We look forward to the day of Christ’s return when he will complete that transformation together.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.