Every preacher has them: sermons that they realized after-the-fact that they did the worst thing that can be done in a sermon. They missed the point of the passage.
I’ve had at least my fair share of them. But one stands towering over all the others in my mind. I remember studying that week, wondering about and wrestling over the text: “Am I getting this right?” Thinking along the way, “I’m not sure the direction this is going is right, but all the study and commentaries seem to be moving that way, so I guess it must be okay.”
It wasn’t okay. I was wrong. I had a sense that I was wrong while I was studying. I was uncomfortable during the entire sermon while I preached it. And every time I have read that passage since then, I have cringed inwardly, remembering the sermon I preached on April 14, 1991.
So widely did I miss the uprights of interpretation that week, that I still remember that Sunday’s sermon too vividly more than 20 years later.
This morning I read that passage again: Psalm 112. And specifically, the problem verse was verse three. Speaking of the man who fears the Lord (v. 1), the psalmist says,
Wealth and riches are in his house,
And his righteousness endures forever.
Now unfortunately, my word studies and commentary reading pointed me to a suggestion that this was primarily a reference to material provision. And so that’s the way I preached it — “While God gives abundant spiritual rewards, He also gives abundant material rewards.” I was walking on a line that was moving me towards prosperity theology. I knew that was the problem and I didn’t want to go there, but I didn’t know how to resolve the tension. And I didn’t work hard enough to resolve it.
First, the Psalmist is addressing the covenant people of God — this is a promise to the nation of Israel, and not the church of Christ. There is a temptation to think that all Old Testament passages are for the church in the same way that they were for Israel. But that is not so. God’s means of salvation — by grace through faith — has always been the same, but His promises to His covenant nation Israel and His chosen bride for Christ (the church) are different. Spurgeon noted this distinction when he wrote, “Understood literally this is rather a promise of the old covenant than of the new…” So the psalmist is reminding the covenant people of Israel of God’s intent to keep and fulfill His promises to His people, promises which would include land, seed (both progeny and an eternal King), and blessing to the nations.
Secondly, the statement is not absolute, but proverbial in nature. This is not a guarantee that God will give abundant financial provision to all his people. It means that as a general rule, God gives sustaining food and covering to His people, but some of his people still live in poverty and die of starvation. That does not mean that He has failed those who die; it means that the best means of their growing in conformity to Him was through that affliction of financial lack.
Thirdly, while the words “wealth” and “riches” are generally used of material goods in the OT (see the same pairing, for instance, in Prov. 8:18; 13:7), there are also cautions about the attainment of such riches (Prov. 11:16, 28; 18:23; 21:17), reminders that riches come from hard work and as a gracious gift from God (not as a right for all people, e.g., Prov. 10:4, 22) and those who do not desire those riches above all else are commended (e.g., Solomon).
And finally, the context itself indicates that the psalmist is thinking of something far more than material wealth and riches. The second clause is linked to the first — “and his righteousness endures forever.” In other words, what is the true wealth of the man who fears the Lord? His wealth is that he has been redeemed and because righteousness has been imputed to him (an OT concept as well, cf. Gen. 15:6), both that righteousness and he will live forever in the presence of God. That is a wealth that supersedes all others and that is a wealth worth pursuing.
The problem with my initial faulty interpretation 20 years ago is that such thinking tempts us to desire things that will never satisfy and fulfill. Our riches today are not found in bank accounts and stock markets or in a physical dwelling. Our wealth is our contentment with God and peace and security in Him, our access to God in prayer, our union with Christ and freedom from sin’s bondage, our reconciliation to Him and to one another because of the cross, and His abiding presence.
Joe Thorn was right when he says about our desires for material goods:
The problem is not that you want evil things. The things you want are generally good, or at least harmless in themselves. But more than wanting, you become frustrated by not having. You become jealous, envious, and discontented with your life. It is true; you need what you lack, but what you lack is satisfaction in Jesus.…
Both guilt and greed in times of abundance are the responses of your heart when Jesus is not more glorious to you than the worldly gifts God has also given. If Jesus is your greatest treasure, you respond to God’s generosity in all areas of life with great joy and the desire to share what God has given you — both the worldly goods and the heavenly gospel.
So be grateful when God gives you anything materially. But know that physical goods are not an absolute right for believers to expect to receive from God. And rather than desiring goods, desire God.