< August 29, 2010 >

Commentary on Psalm 112

 

Psalm 112 is constructed as an acrostic poetic text.

Each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The reader in English would probably not catch this pattern unless the translation of the text was purposely altered in order for it to be so. Hence, if the text were to read as an acrostic in English, the first lines of the Psalm might be translated as: Alleluia to the Lord. Blessed are the ones who fear God, who greatly delight in God's commands. Children of God will be great in the land...and so on. Each sentence begins with a successive letter of the English alphabet. This psalm is not unique in this regard. Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 119, and 145 are also written in an acrostic form.

Why might this form of writing be significant for a Hebrew speaker? What is it about acrostic poetry that could appeal to the hearer? It could be employed as a mnemonic device to help the people of God memorize the text. It could also serve as a means toward writing the text on the heart and mind so that it might become as natural as breathing to speak or sing the words. The form lends itself to memorization.

Psalm 112 is more than a simple ten-verse poem set in an acrostic form. It is poem that lays out something of the distinctive qualities of those who would ascribe to the law of God and endeavor to live their lives by it. It breathes with something of an absolutist ethic. There is a right course and a wrong path for human living. It does not appear at first reading that there is much room for gray in its ethical system.  Juxtaposing light and dark, the author provides a mental contrast between one way and the other.

Those who strive to make their steps cohere with the path of God are counted as blessed. Reading the psalm through a certain hermeneutical lens, one could claim that the psalmist draws one toward certain conclusions about the life of faith. Perhaps contemporary commentators could use this text in support of different iterations of the prosperity Gospel. Not only is the person blessed, but also so are their children, and they can expect a life of wealth and riches. Perhaps.

Another interpretative reading of the text could provide quite a different image of what it means to be blessed and what riches and wealth entail. The psalmist offers a connection between riches and wealth with that of someone who is righteous, gracious, compassionate, generous, just, and who trusts in God. Perhaps the wealth and riches are not to be understood as simply monetary ones, but as gains in what contributes to a life well lived -- grace, compassion, generosity, justice, and faithfulness. These are the treasures after which one might strive.

In personal worlds touched by violence, relational and economic hardship, greed and unfulfilled desires, this psalm offers people an alternative. It is as if the psalmist is offering something to which a person might cling as a life jacket of hope. Yet, in our consumerist society this may at first sound like bad news rather than good. It may sound like an anchor to hold one down rather than wings to enable flight.

That said, I think people of faith know well that striving toward personal wealth and a life of ease is transitory. It is generally only those things that transcend ordinary, individual wants and desires that somehow connect with the eternal that are really worth our personal and communal efforts. They are what remain after we are gone.

I do not think the psalmist is trying to say that only people who are perfect in their devotion to the commands of God or that exhibit a life completely consonant with the will of God will be recipients of these blessings. Instead, it seems to me that the psalmist is holding out a set of goals after which one might strive and that by so doing might be a recipient of blessings as the course of a life lived by faith unfolds. 

Nine verses were composed about those who set their hearts and minds on a course of obedience to the commands of God. Only one of the ten verses is about those who oppose the laws of God. For me the key words in verse ten might be translated into English as "vexed" and "longings." Here lie twins with whom we are familiar. The propensity toward sin or toward selfish aims can rub like sandpaper against impulses that might be regarded as generous, just, and upright. The drive to put the self first before the needs of others is strong within the human frame. We may become "vexed" when we see someone else receive an honor that we think we deserve even though we have not labored to receive it. We may become disappointed when what we long for remains unattained and we watch someone else receive lavish gifts for a life well lived.

For the psalmist, the distinctions between one way and the other are clear. Those whose longings and life practices are congruent with the commands of God will find blessings in this life. For those whose longings and aims are contrary to the commands of God their experience of life will be one that remains unfulfilled and their goals for life will result in nothing permanent.

This psalm serves as a reminder about how to construct a life worth living. Generosity and steadfast trust in God are actions with positive results.