Let’s say you’re watching Guy’s Grocery Games or Judge Judy or whatever it is you watch on TV and an annoying commercial pops up for mouthwash. The ad shows a woman leaning to pet her dog, the dog whines and backs away and then the camera zooms in for a close-up of her teeth. Suddenly, we’re aware that this woman has bad breath and diseased gums.
Then, we also see in small print – but quite visible – “actor portrayal.”
Why do we see this message?
Because mouthwash companies have a hard time finding “real people” who use their mouthwash and are willing to go on TV with diseased and ugly gums. And the actors in these portrayals also want viewers to know, “Hey, I’m acting. I had to sit through two hours of makeup to look like this.”
You see this “actor portrayal” disclaimer in other ads, too, like promos for feminine hygiene products, shoe inserts, male performance problems, foot fungus powders, and medications for a host of embarrassing health problems. Real people are not going to line up to endorse these products – and admit they have these problems, no matter how helpful and beneficial the items may be.
On the other hand, some companies have no trouble finding “real people, not actors” to endorse their products. From Dove soap, to SoFi to Chevrolet to eHarmony, “real people” can be found who praise and endorse commercial products or concepts.
Why? Because, if eHarmony truly brings genuine, loving relationships or we’re convinced that the person who has to have this herbal, eco-friendly shampoo is a real, average middle-class person like us, we’ll try it and buy it. We’ll put down cash for stuff because a person of our own tribe and status loves this shampoo – not some phony Hollywood actor/celebrity.
This is called social realism. It was given birth by social media – platforms on which everyone’s authentic ideas, opinions and feelings are revealed. Social media is a web of gossip, innuendo and outrageous claims. But it’s our gossip, innuendo and outrageous claims and we love it; we believe each other, at least those in our own social or political clan.
This is why most people, according to a recent survey, prefer real people over actors in commercials. It’s just more authentic. The writer of today’s psalm is a real person, like us. Not a professional troubadour, hired to sing praise to Yahweh. This guy’s the real deal.
Reading Psalm 111, you get the feeling that the writer is a millennial texting or posting on Instagram or TikTok. Maybe he has his own YouTube channel and this psalm is his recording. He probably has an acoustic guitar. And the song! This is not just a random text; this psalm is a work of art! The song has 22 phrases (excluding verse 1a), each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In just 175 words, the singer summarizes the whole history of God’s deliverance of ancient Israel as his poetic homage to the Lord! He’s definitely ready for Twitter even though Twitter’s not available to him.
Psalm 111 is not a voice-over by a paid performer. There’s nothing fake about this person. He’s real. He’s impressed. And he wants to tell us, sell us and ask us to buy.
So what does he say?
He says, PTL! The first three words summarize the entire song: Praise the Lord! Or literally: halla-lu-yah. Hallelujah!
This psalm is a praise song to God, a point Rev. Will Willimon makes in a sermon on this psalm. The psalm is all about God, he observes. It’s not about us. And this is the essence of worship. It’s about God. We might have enormous stress during the week, we might have family problems, we might have issues with the boss, or we may need to lose weight. But when we come together to worship, it’s all about God, not us.
Notice verse 1: “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (emphasis added). It is one thing to praise God in the privacy of one’s home, or in one’s thoughts. But God likes it when we offer praise publicly. God wants us to be “real people, not actors.” Such a witness or testimony is believable. It has credibility.
So the writer is not going to worship hoping to “get something” that will help him wiggle out of a tight spot or give him courage in some relationship issue. No, the psalmist focuses on God. This is his goal. This is his worship.
Verse 1 is the writer’s thesis statement. This is followed by an assertion, which is followed by examples to support the assertion and finally, the logical conclusion or outcome – his call to action. Let’s look at each of these.
“Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.” This verse describes what the writer intends to do with his little post. He’s going to praise the Lord.
Then the writer contends that the “works of the Lord” are great and people who love God’s work actually study them, examine them in detail. They look at every aspect of the works of God, deconstruct them, analyze them, conjecture, hypothesize, extol and rhapsodize. They’re in shock and awe. This is what the author asserts in verse 2.
He then argues that these creative wonders project the honor and majesty of their Creator and that God’s marvelous deeds have earned God a well-deserved reputation: He is a God of enduring righteousness, and moreover, is “gracious and merciful.”
To sum it up: the writer asserts that God is a God of “wonderful deeds” (v. 4), that are clothed in grace and mercy.
This is what the writer of Psalm 111 says.
If you were to send a 240-character tweet praising God, what would you say?
It would be cheating to copy and paste Psalm 111. That would be like hiring a professional actor to say something for you on your behalf.
What would you, the real person, say if asked to offer a “God endorsement” with some peer-to-peer marketing sound bites? Of course, you could start with PTL, but then what?
If this is a difficult exercise for us, it might be a sign that we’re not really engaged with or connected to God, and thus don’t have the words to be real, honest and authentic. What we say might sound fake, and people, especially millennials and Gen Zers, can spot fakes a mile away. In fact, this is one problem millennials and Gen Zers have with “real people” commercials: sometimes the real people don’t seem real.
Are you real? Or are you just trying to appear real?
The writer provides examples to support his contention (that God is a God of “wonderful deeds” (v. 4) that are clothed in grace and mercy).
His examples are:
God provides food.
God keeps promises.
God shows his power to others.
God is faithful, just and trustworthy.
God sent salvation to his people.
One has the sense that the author of this praise song could have kept on writing. Perhaps he kept it brief because he was running out of alphabet! Clearly, he had a lot of material to work with.
God provided food, he writes. This is a reference to the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness when manna and quail sustained them for many years. God also provided water in the desert, which is nothing short of amazing!
God also kept covenant with them, a covenant that began with Abraham and was renewed at Sinai.
God’s works were never private, but very public; neighboring nations learned of the great God of the Hebrews.
God is faithful, just and trustworthy, a reference not only to how God delivered the Israelites time and again, but to the Mosaic law that codified the righteousness of God and the expectations God had for the people.
And finally, the writer says that God saved them, redeemed them from destruction. If this is not an example of the “wonderful deeds” of God, then what is?
All of these examples are convincing, even considered one at a time. If you had just one of these examples to support the contention that God is a God of “wonderful deeds” (v. 4) that are clothed in grace and mercy, it would be more than enough.
But the writer goes further. He emphasizes the eternal nature of these wonderful attributes of God. Did you notice that the expression ever or for ever pops up five times in this short praise song?
Verse 3: His righteousness endures for ever.
Verse 5: He is ever mindful of his covenant.
Verse 8: All his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever.
Verse 9: He has commanded his covenant for ever.
Verse 10: His praise endures for ever.
Imagine the writer peering into the camera and saying, “Take it from me! If you trust in God, you can be sure that God will keep covenant with you. God is forever, my friend. He doesn’t go back or take back, retract or redact, deny or dismiss!”
So the ancient, real-person scribe wraps it up. The conclusion he suggests to us should now be obvious. The evidence is overwhelming: “Holy and awesome is his name” (v. 9).
But this is his conclusion, not ours. In the final stanzas, he adds, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (v. 10). This fear is not a fraidy-cat kind of fear, not the knee-knocking fear we might experience trying to traverse an icy ledge on Annapurna. No, this “fear” is respect and appreciation. In other words, he’s saying, “If you’re really smart, you’ll buy what I’m selling. Choose it or lose it. Your call.”
When you buy in, you will have “good understanding.”
This is what the ancient lyricist has to say. It’s his testimony. He starts with PTL and he ends with, “His praise endures forever.”
What is our testimony? We are called to be real people, not actors, in our relationships with others. People are looking for real people, authentic people, people who are not showing off, not putting on airs of superiority or self-righteous hypocrisy.
But, of course, we need something positive to say. Do we have anything to say?
I’m the pastor here, but I pray regularly that you – as a congregation – don’t get the idea that I’ve be hired as the clergy “actor” to do your worship and praise for you. I’m not here to say your positive things. As God turns His ear toward you, He is not going to consider, “Yeah, what Pastor Joe said” as acceptable words of praise from you.
We – all of us – are called to be real people, not actors, in our worship of God.