The ABC’s of Faith
This week, Faith in Real Life discussed Psalm 112, part of a series of Psalms that create a Hebrew acrostic used to teach fundamental lessons of the faith–literally the ABC’s of Faith. The blog post for the week encourages readers to look deeper than the superficial level of scripture, while acknowledging that understanding the ABC’s is essential for deeper exploration.
1 Praise the LORD!
Happy are those who fear the LORD,
who greatly delight in his commandments.
2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever.
4 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright;
they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.
5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
6 For the righteous will never be moved;
they will be remembered forever.
7 They are not afraid of evil tidings;
their hearts are firm, secure in the LORD.
8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid;
in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever;
their horn is exalted in honor.
10 The wicked see it and are angry;
they gnash their teeth and melt away;
the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.
This blog reveals a struggle I have when reading scripture. All too often, I react too literally. I start assigning my meaning without waiting to see what God might be saying. And until I get past that reaction, I don’t listen very well. In this psalm, I reacted immediately to the words referring to rewards for goodness—”Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.3 Wealth and riches are in their houses…”— and punishment for wickedness— “they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.” This was too simplistic.
Since I was a young adolescent, I have not trusted such broad declarations. I have seen many righteous people harmed and many wicked people thrive. These are not new questions, but each time I read them, they are stumbling blocks. These pronouncements do not match real life and the mismatch often makes it difficult for me to engage the Word. In this case, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at how we learn, when we learn and how our understanding of faith changes as we mature. I still find these interesting topics but I do not think it was what the psalmist had in mind.
In our FIRL groups I asked about life lessons that have turned out to be questionable. The responses were quick and varied. “I was taught I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard enough”. “I was taught if I got good grades and went to college, I would have a good job”. “I was taught if I were kind to people, they would be kind to me”. “I was taught that if I delighted in the Lord and obeyed his commandments, I would receive special protection”. Each of these childhood lessons are only partly true. When the discrepancies are exposed, children and believers question the credibility of the source. It is natural to ask why we should trust a rule of life that does not match our experience. There comes a time when it is no longer sufficient to answer with, ‘Because the bible says so.’—or the parental version, because ‘I said so.’
But that does not mean these early lessons should not be taught. It just means that our learning is developmental. We have to learn the ABC’s before we can write. We have to learn scales before we can play music. When my daughter was about three or four, she asked me for some candy. It was too close to supper and I told her ‘no’. She responded, ‘But daddy, I said please’. To which I replied, ‘Yes, sweetheart, you were very polite. But saying please doesn’t guarantee anything, it just gives you a better chance.’ It is a difficult and painful lesson to learn that our best ‘goodness’ does not equate to outcomes we desire. There are some lessons we only learn with time and experience.
As we mature, and as our faith matures, we face many exceptions and nuances to the rules we were raised with. We worship a God of Love and we seek to be loving but figuring out how to love gets more and more complicated. Maturity leads us into uncertainty. I see the mother of an adult woman who is an opioid addict. She is living at home. What are the parents to do? Is more patience called for? Is it time to set hard, ‘tough love’ consequences? More patience is just as defensible as telling her she can no longer live at home. But her parents, nor any of us, can know what love requires. The ‘rules to live by’ do not provide answers; they are signposts to guide our thinking. Once I got that far, I could start to listen to the psalm.
As a literary form, this psalm is instructional. It was designed to be remembered. Each line after the opening ‘Praise the Lord’ begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is a liturgical faith statement and is literally the ABC’s of faithful living. In an oral tradition in which scripture was recited more often than it was read, this pattern made remembering easier. (The technical term for this form is ‘acrostic’ and it is used multiple times in the Psalms).
Fundamentally the psalm offers two pathways of living—the righteous and the wicked. The point is not nearly so much the particular rewards and punishments as the choice and the promise of following God’s way. Verse one begins the promise “Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.” Two words need a little comment. Neither ‘Happy’ nor ‘Fear’ translate particularly well from the Hebrew into our century. Happiness is not necessarily a ‘feel good’ experience’ so much as the contentment of a solid connection with the eternal. And ‘fear of the Lord’ is not so much the quaking in the presence of expected punishment, as it is the deep humility that comes from seeing the magnitude and majesty of God. It might be easier to think of the phrase as ‘Joined with God are those who stand in awe of him and who passionately seek to live as he commands.’
This is the ‘rule of life’ that is the foundation of our faith. Seek to join your life with God and God’s purposes. Live humbly in his greatness and his great care for you. Live as he directs you. In real life, the application gets complicated and uncertain but it is the ABC’s of our faith. This rule of life can see us through the worst hardship. It is solid. It teaches a way of life beyond ourselves and beyond our lifetimes. As Barbara Blaisdell writes on this passage, we are offered the “humbling chance to have a purpose, to make a difference, to be part of something greater than ourselves.” (Feasting on the Word, vol. 1, p.324). The alternative is gnashing of teeth and melting away.
We can follow God’s ABC’s or we can try to create our own alphabet. The psalmist makes the choice and the consequences clear.
Grant that our lives be joined with the eternal. Let it be so.