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Psalm 111

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. He has shown his people the power of his works, giving them the lands of other nations. 

The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, enacted in faithfulness and uprightness. He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever – holy and awesome is his name.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.

There is a line from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, written by C.S. Lewis in 1950, that speaks directly to my heart whenever I read it – from the first time I read it (to my personal shame, I first read The Chronicles of Narnia series in my 20’s – though my family borrowed the old BBC videos from the library when I was younger so I at least knew the stories…); through to now, it continues to speak to my heart as I re-read the series with my kids.

It takes place in chapter 8, after the Pevensie kids have all come through the wardrobe and are eating dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver; they get lost in a conversation and don’t even notice that Edmund has slipped away. The line I love is in that conversation.

… You'll understand when you see him.
"But shall we see him?" asked Susan.
"Why, Daughter of Eve, that's what I brought you here for. I'm to lead you where you
shall meet him," said Mr Beaver.
"Is-is he a man?" asked Lucy.
"Aslan a man!" said Mr Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the
wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King
of Beasts? Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather
nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs Beaver; "if there's anyone who can
appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else
just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything
about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.

“Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good…” Chills. Every time.

I bring up this story in the context of Psalm 111 because I love the way they both provide affective descriptors; not just describing a title or they way they might look or act in the world, but also including in the description how they make some one feel. 

In this little section, C.S. Lewis describes Aslan in a way that reaches the mind, the heart, and perhaps even something beyond both. Aslan is not a man; he is King of the wood and son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, he is the King of Beasts, a lion – the Lion, the great Lion (what a masterful ascending the hierarchy of being: a… the… the great!) He is not safe – perhaps terrible is the right word, but used in the older sense of “awe inspiring” and related to the world “tremble” (“who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking…”) “But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Similarly, Psalm 111 describes God for the worshiper in a way that reaches the mind, the heart, and something beyond both. The God we are instructed to praise (vs. 1) is a working God – he isn’t distant and watching everything unfold, he is involved – intimately; what’s more, his work has a particular direction: the psalmist writes, “they are pondered by all who delight in them.”  The root of the word translated delight can mean “beautiful” and “desire.” God’s works are such that they move towards and reveal the true, the good, and the beautiful – but also that they reveal for us the desire for the summum bonum – the Ultimate Good; another masterful ascending the hierarchy of being to arrive at the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – to arrive at God himself. Arriving at God himself we can only use the language of worship: glorious and majestic (vs. 3). Seeing him here we see he is righteous (vs. 3), he is gracious and compassionate (vs. 4), he is the provider and he is faithful (vs. 5), and he is the God of truth: “all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever.” (vs. 7-8)

Building up layer on layer of God’s character and being, the psalmist reaches the apex – which is a word pair that is inclusive of all that has come before: “holy and awesome is his name.” Remember, in Hebrew thought name and being are synonymous, one for the other; and so, the Psalmist ends this hymn of praise saying God is holy and awesome. “Holy” means “set apart, sacred;” when used for God it means he is wholly other, transcendent, uncreated, and eternal. The word “awesome” here is interesting. The Hebrew word literal means, “To be fearful” or “to inspire reverence and/or godly fear.”

Or, to draw the parallel even further: “Of course he isn’t safe, but he is good.”

That word pair at the end of verse 9 also helps us to see the poetic connection to verse 10: the psalm would then be read, “holy and fearful is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Where does wisdom begin? In right reverence to a holy God. How do we best understand the world he created? Be seeing him alone as the summum bonum.

Right after Mr. Beaver tells the children, “… ‘course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Peter says, “I'm longing to see him, even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

May we share in his trembling longing.

Holy and awesome God, open the eyes of my heart to see you more and more like the Psalmist sees you in his Song of Prayer. Help me to sing your praises with the whole of my being as I contemplate the whole of who you are. In Jesus’ name, Amen!