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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Works and Fear of the Lord—Psalm 111 (Richard Davis)

Psalm 111, which may seem disjointed and a collection of sayings, does, however, offer a consistent political teaching. It emphasizes politics in virtuous imitation of God in his works and the rejection of the politics of fear.

Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

Politics is generally considered a work of the creature and not of the Creator. This makes sense if politics is seen as a profane worldly endeavor, well beneath the level of a transcendent omnibenevolent God. The works of man are sinful, but God’s works are holy and sacred. Yet our call to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1) encourages Christians to model their politics after God’s political works.

Psalm 111 praises the manifold works of God. These works are imitated in the acts and virtues of the righteous man in Psalm 112. Sometimes considered the twin of Psalm 111, Psalm 112 was probably taught together with it. It makes sense that one follows the other, as we are first meant to understand the righteousness of God, and then imitate these characteristics in our own lives.

That these two psalms belong together is also supported by the fact that both are acrostic psalms of similar length. The two opening verses of Psalm 111 unreservedly praise God for his works, preparing us for the detail to come. We are not asked to judge these works on their merits, we are simply encouraged to accept them as great, delightful, honourable, and majestic.

Real Christian politics begins with the praise of God and God’s might (111:1). One’s whole heart gives thanks to God. This is political insofar as the mighty of this world (the politicians) shall not receive this level of praise, which belongs only to the almighty. Our heart (which can also refer to conscience or passions or even mind) or our allegiance belongs to God alone, relativizing earthly rulers and the demands that they make of us.

Easily seen by anyone who studies them, is the greatness of the works of the Lord (verse 2). But what are these works? Obviously, there is the work of creation, God’s original work which is the basis for all of God’s other works in the world. Creation, perhaps God’s greatest work, is almost taken for granted here, but it does not exhaust the work of God. The Psalmist is no deist; God’s work continues after creation.

Verse three highlights God’s eternal righteousness or justice. Human justice in imitation of God’s justice is the highest virtue of politics, and in doing justice humans take guidance from God. It is from alone God that one gets true justice (Proverbs 29:26).

Only God is totally merciful and compassionate (verse 4). These are now rare political virtues. Where is the mercy and compassion for the world’s 21 million refugees? God remembers them all, while the rulers of the earth build walls to keep them away, rather than bridges and homes for them.

Lying at the centre of the Psalm (verse 5), God the worker is not only the creator, but also the provider or preserver of the people. When God “provides food for those who fear him,” he takes us into the day-to-day, bread and butter, issues that often decide elections. But because God is ever mindful of his covenant (perhaps that made with Noah in Genesis 8:22), we might also say that God’s protection and provision is also granted to all God’s children without distinction or prejudice.

Understanding the “heritage of the nations” (verse 6) is not easy. It generally refers to the land God has given the people of Israel (cf. Psalm 2:8). This has proved a controversial verse for it can refer to the land taken from the Canaanites and other nations. There is not ethical comment here from the Psalmist, just appreciation of God’s demonstration of power for the gift of land.

Trustworthiness (verse 7) is another rare political virtue these days. Cynics say that politicians can only be trusted to lie. But God’s precepts are trustworthy and can be relied on.

In the next verse (verse 8), we continue the theme of God’s right precepts which are timeless. They are not changed by public opinion, political polling, or fads or fashions. God’s justice is enduring and established forever, and does not face repeal or constitutional emendation.

Only God offers true redemption (verse 9). Politicians offering false liberation or freedom are plentiful, but false. They offer nothing lasting and lead people astray.

Not to be underestimated as a banal ending promoting wisdom, the final verse (111:10) is perhaps the most important political aspect of the psalm. But what is wisdom for? Does the “good understanding” promised here mean anything in practical or political life?

Some interpreters thought so. The Radical Reformer Thomas Müntzer gives verse 10 an important place is resisting tyranny and relativizing the fear of the tyrant. In writing to persecuted Christians jailed in Sangerhausen in July 1524, he pointed out that according to Psalm 111:10 (and Proverbs 1:7) “the beginning of wisdom about God is fear of God”. He continued:

“Thus you should sob to God with your whole heart, day and night, and cry and bid him to teach you to fear God alone. For if you do not have this pure fear of God, you will not be able to withstand any tribulation. But if you have this same fear, you will gain the victory over all tyrants, and they will be so utterly ruined that it cannot be described” (Letter #55, 173).

Müntzer continues that, “next to God, you must fear nothing.” At stake here is nothing less than idolatry. Müntzer appears to be saying that just as Christians are to have faith in nothing but God, we are to fear nothing but God. If we fear the ruler and obey his impious commands then, according to Müntzer, we have made that ruler an idol:

“For that would be to set up fear of man as your idol in place of fear of God. Now if you imagine you can please both your prince and God, you will not be able to do this. For everything that competes with God, and seeks to be feared instead of God, is certainly, certainly of the devil himself” (Letter #55, 173)

As Müntzer emphasizes, fear attacks the soul, so we should not succumb to the threats of rulers, but focus on fearing God (Letter #55, 174). Müntzer makes it clear that it is a mistake to underestimate the role of fear in politics. As he says, we should not fear the tyrant. But neither should we succumb to the fears of modern democratic life.

Last century, Nicolas Berdyaev wrote in Slavery and Freedom that the idea of democracy consists in founding the state upon virtue and not fear. Berdyaev wrote that “Political life is distorted most of all by fear of an enemy, by the fear of hurt” (151).

As the USA Presidential election approaches, fear is commonly exploited in the campaign for political advantage. Both Republican and Democrat Presidential candidates suggest that we ought to fear the election of the other. Their own elevation to office, of course, will calm our fears. Between them, Trump and Clinton promise to free us from the fear of terrorism, crime, lawlessness, immigrants, the loss of jobs, poverty, and the fear that is almost unique to the USA, the fear of not having health insurance.

Such rhetoric is not unique to the USA, but is common in politics worldwide. Fear is a political vice that distorts politics. Berdyaev, a contemporary of Franklin Roosevelt, may have been familiar with the President’s famous quote from his First Inaugural Address (1933), that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Berdyaev would agree, but he goes further, suggesting that “The power of the state is disfigured by fear; it not only inspires fear but it also suffers from fear … The demonic principle in the state is due not only to the will to power but also to fear” (151-152).

In the forthcoming Presidential election, Americans are being asked, as many commentators have pointed out, to vote for the lesser of two evils or, in other words, they are being encouraged to vote for the candidate they fear least. That great American value of freedom is practically absent from this election.

From the point of view of Berdyaev, this is where the focus should be—freedom. “Freedom is the victory over fear. Free men do not feel fear themselves nor do they inspire it in others” (151-152). Can the same be said of nations?

That is, freedom for Americans means not fearing their neighbour or their neighbourhood cop. It also means not fearing other nations and certainly not inspiring fear in other nations through military intimidation.

True freedom is what is at stake in today’s politics of fear. But when we consent to fear, it becomes simultaneously the basis of political idolatry and the rejection of the politics of virtue in imitation of God’s majestic works of righteousness.

Psalm 111, which may seem disjointed and a collection of sayings, perhaps prepared with its acrostic structure in mind, does, however, offer a consistent political teaching. It emphasizes politics in virtuous imitation of God in his works and the rejection of the politics of fear. God’s works and our fear of God form the starting point of all just godly politics, and to follow God’s politics from heaven down to earth would be nothing short of a revolution.

Berdyaev, Nicolas. (1943). Slavery and Freedom. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Müntzer, Thomas, (1993). “Letter #55: To the persecuted Christians at Sangerhausen. Allstadt between 15-22 July 1524.” In Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Müntzer, 172-176 Translated and edited by Michael G. Baylor. Bethlehem, Pa: Lehigh University Press.

Dr. Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.

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