I regularly think to myself, “I wonder if I’ll remember this?” I’m not exactly sure why this thought comes to mind so often for me. Most of the time this thought is not about remembering a specific task or a deadline. I write those down. It is usually about wondering whether I’ll remember a specific experience or feeling or thought process. The strange thing for me is I often remember that I had wondered if I would remember something, but I typically don’t actually remember the thing itself.
One thing I do remember is the first time a teacher specifically taught strategies for remembering in one of my classes. My seventh-grade history teacher taught our class a wide range of mnemonic devices to help us remember the facts about history he was teaching. Whether we created a silly sentence where the first letter of each word represented the first letter of something we were to recall, used an acrostic, or paired information with a tune, my teacher wanted to give us tools to remember vital information about the history of the world.
The writers of the Psalms are similar to my seventh-grade teacher. The writers regularly use mnemonic devices to form the memory of the people about God and to guide their praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 111 is constructed for memory even as it is a Psalm about memory—both God’s memory (or remembering) and the people’s and the response to this remembering by both God and the people. The Psalmist uses a simple, ABC-like acrostic to guide the people through the journey of remembering that begins (v. 1) and ends (v. 10) in praise. The Psalmist has used a mnemonic device to give shape to the Psalm in order to convey the message of remembering that God inspires (vv. 4-5, NASB).
So what exactly is on the writer’s mind in constructing this acrostic for the people to remember? In short, God’s work in the world on behalf of God’s people is on the Psalmist’s mind. The writer uses words related to God’s work in verses 2 (works – ma-aseh), 3 (work – po‘al), 4 (has made – ‘asah), 6 (works – ma–aseh), and 7 (works – ma–aseh). God is a God at work, active in the world and in relationship with God’s people. And God’s activity inspires remembering (v. 4) and understanding of God’s character and attributes, that is to say, of who God is.
In this work of remembering, the Psalmist is careful to use language that further prompts the people to remember their history with the God who is at work on their behalf. Beginning with the emphasis on “work,” the people will remember that God was at work in the creation of the world, in their creation as a people, and in their rescue from slavery in Egypt. Those with ears to hear will surely remember the Lord commanding the people in Exodus 20:9-11, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made [‘asah] the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy” (NASB). And in remembering God’s works, the Psalmist recalls and helps the people remember God’s character—as if the act of remembering the work God has done will in itself call to mind God’s character. The Psalmist uses the language of Exodus 34:6-7 to remind the people of God’s character displayed in God’s revealing himself in response to their unfaithfulness in the wilderness: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (NRSV).
Throughout the Psalm, the Psalmist points the people again and again toward a remembering that is deep and reflective. The remembering the Psalmist encourages involves deep and repetitive study (v. 2) and results in the reverencing, honoring, and giving proper awe to—which is all to say the fearing of—the Lord. Praise of the Lord is connected specifically to this kind of remembering rooted in and prompted by the action and character of God.
In learning to preach, my professors encouraged our classes to consider deeply the interplay of the focus (the main point), the form (the shape the sermon would take—e.g., story formed or lecture like), and the function (what the sermon is trying to do). They encouraged us to make the focus, the form, and the function work together toward the same goal. They also challenged us to take seriously the way the focus and the form of various texts work together to convey a particular message and to consider how this might give shape to our preaching of that text. When preaching on Psalm 111, we would do well to act on what my preaching professors encouraged and what the Psalmist has demonstrated. Creatively inviting our people to remember the works of the Lord in a way that is both memorable and that draws them (and us) deeper into reflection and praise is the task at hand for preaching this Psalm. As you prepare to preach this week, may you be filled with the Spirit of the God the Psalmist proclaims and gifted with the grace of creative memory-making.
Director of Community Ministry, Duke University Chapel