< October 10, 2010 >

Commentary on Psalm 111

 

Psalm 111 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm type in which the singer gives thanks for God's goodness in delivering him/her from various life-threatening situations such as illness, oppression, or enemy attack.

The words of thanks by this individual worshiper are unusual, however, for they recount not an event of God's deliverance of an individual, but God's deliverance of an entire community.

In addition, Psalm 111 is a succinct and masterful acrostic poem. It consists of twenty-two phrases (excluding verse 1a), each of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In a mere seventy-two words, the psalmist summarizes the whole history of God's deliverance of ancient Israel in the following structure:

Verse 1: A Vow to Give Thanks
Verses 2-4: The Deeds of the Lord Praised
Verses 5-9: The Deeds of the Lord Described
Verse 10: An Introduction to Wisdom

The psalm begins with "hallelujah," initiating a whole series of psalms (Psalms 111-118) in which the word "hallelujah" reverberates, occurring eight times at the beginnings and endings of these psalms.

Verse 1 of Psalm 111 suggests that its words are those of an individual worshiper giving thanks to God in a public setting of worship; the council of the upright and the assembly. While some scholars suggest that these two terms imply different groups of people, the first a small group that gathered around the worshiper and the second the entire congregation of worshipers, most make no distinction between the two.

The words "I will give thanks (yadah) to the LORD" tie Psalm 111 to the psalms that precede it in Book Five (Psalms 107-150). In Psalm 107, the reader encounters the words "Give thanks to the LORD" in verses 1, 8, 15, 21, and 31. They occur as well in Psalms 108:3 and 109:30.

Verses 2-4 of Psalm 111 describe God's "works" and "wonderful deeds." The Hebrew word translated "wonderful deeds" is niphla'oth." It means "something that I simply cannot understand," or "something different, striking, remarkable; something transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination." The word is used many times in recounting the events of the exodus from Egypt. We find it in the stories of the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the provision of water in the desert. All of these are referred to as "wonderful deeds," things transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.

Verses 2-4 culminate in verse 4b's refrain "the LORD is gracious and merciful." "Gracious," from the Hebrew verbal root hanan, and "merciful," from the verbal root raham, are two of the self-declarative attributes of God given to Moses in Exodus 34:6. God declares, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." In Psalm 111, the word order is reversed ("merciful and gracious" in Exodus 34; "gracious and merciful" in Psalm 111) because of the constraints of the acrostic structure of the psalm.

In verses 5-9, the psalmist outlines, in brief descriptive phrases, the works and wonderful deeds of God. In verse 5, God gives "food," a reference perhaps to the giving of the manna and quail in the Wilderness (Exodus 16 and Numbers 11). Verse 6's "the inheritance of the nations" suggests God's giving of the Promised Land to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 6-7). The "precepts" of verse 7-8 are part of the Torah, the instruction of God given at Sinai (see Psalm 119:27, 104, 173). And verse 9's reference to "deliverance" summarizes the actions of God in the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings.

Verse 9 concludes with the words "he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name." God's covenant and God's name are foundational traditions of ancient Israel. Upon these the community may depend for its future as the people of God.

With God described as "awesome" in verse 9, the proper response of the worshiper in verse 10 is to "fear the Lord." In the twenty-first century we tend to associate "fear" with something scary, something we want to get away from, or something we think will harm us. Yet we read in the Old Testament that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Thus, we know that "the fear of the Lord" is a good thing; it is a positive aspect of our faith.

The word "fear" (yara') appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for "love" (Deuteronomy 10:12); "cling to" (Deuteronomy 10:20); and "serve" (Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. The Hebrew word for "fear" is powerful in meaning, but it has more to do with feelings of awesomeness. It is more about being in the presence of the holy other with cautious reverence than it is about the sweaty-palmed, shaking, gasping for breath kind of fear we often experience. When we enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible, it is a high calling. It is a dangerous, a reverent, a fearful relationship.

The Psalm scholar Leslie Allen likens the words of Psalm 111 to Romans 5:1-11. He writes:

"Psalm 111 glories in the present and permanent relevance of the ancient events of salvation. ... Those events have a once-and-for-all value which the New Testament in turn attaches to the Christological counterpart. They are a window through which God's purposes for each generation of his people can be clearly discerned. They are a signpost pointing to his enduring care and claim."1 

As believing communities recite and reverence the stories of the great deeds and wondrous acts of God performed on their behalf, they maintain and make ever-new their claim of being "the people of God."


1Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Waco, TX:  Word Books, Publisher), 93.