Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 112, a Wisdom Psalm, provides instruction in right living and right faith in the tradition of the other wisdom writings of the Old Testament.

February 6, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Psalm 112, a Wisdom Psalm, provides instruction in right living and right faith in the tradition of the other wisdom writings of the Old Testament.

It, like Psalm 111, is a succinct acrostic, with each of its twenty-lines beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 111 celebrates God’s mighty deeds on behalf of the people, and Psalm 112 offers instruction for response to God by the people. One scholar observes that Psalm 111 is “theology,” while Psalm 112 is “anthropology.” Psalm 112 may be outlined as follows:

Verse 1a: A Call to Praise
Verses 1b-3: The Praise of the One Who Reverences (NRSV, “fears”) the Lord
Verse 4: The Fate of the Upright Ones
Verses 5-9: The Deeds of the One who Reverences (NRSV, “fears”) the Lord
Verse 10: The Fate of the Wicked Ones

The psalm begins with “hallelujah,” and is part of a group of psalms (Psalm 111-118), in which the word “hallelujah” occurs repeatedly at the beginning and end. Two translation issues present themselves as the reader enters the acrostic body of Psalm 112.

First, the psalm begins, in the NRSV, “Happy are those who fear the LORD,” and in the NIV, “Blessed is the man . . .” The word translated “happy” or “blessed” is ‘ashre, whose basic meaning has to do with walking in a prescribed path and not wavering off the path. While “happy” and “blessed” are good translations of the Hebrew word, a better rendering might be “content.” The person who walks along the path prescribed by God can rest in a sense of contentedness that they are following the words of God faithfully.

Second, verse one states that “contentedness” comes to the one who “fears the LORD.” “Fear” is a very good translation of the Hebrew word yara’. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the base instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word actually encompasses a larger meaning of “awe, reverent respect, honor.” It 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 base, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.  

Verses 2-3a outline the rewards for the one who “reverences the LORD” and “delights in the commandments.” That person will have mighty, upright, and blessed descendants and a house in which contain riches and wealth. The words of these verses echo in many ways the promises given by God to Abram in Genesis 12, 13, and 15–descendants, land, house and blessing. 

Verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 112 evince strong parallels with verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 111. Yahweh is the subject of 111:3-4’s words of thanks:

Full of honor and majesty is his work,,
and his righteousness endures forever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the LORD is gracious and merciful.

The righteous person is the subject of 112:3-4’s wisdom words:

Riches and wealth are in that person’s house,
and that one’s righteousness endures for all time.
A light has shone forth in the darkness for the upright ones,
gracious and merciful and righteous.1

Just as the righteousness of God endures for all time, so does the righteousness of the “content” person of Psalm 112.  The basic meaning of righteousness includes the ideas of “a sense of right,” “correct order,” “being just,” or “being true,” and, in the Hebrew Scriptures, has more to do with right actions than with right states of mind (see Genesis 38, for example). 
In verse 4a, the “content” person is promised a light in the darkness. While it is not clear as to what the “light” refers, nor does verse 4b have a clear subject, the reader may be permitted to equate the light with Yahweh, who is described in 111:4b with the same words that describe the light in 112:4b–“gracious and merciful.” 

Verses 5-9 describe the actions and demeanor of the “content” person of Psalm 112. In verse 5a, the person is gracious (hanan) and lends to others (lavah).  The Hebrew root hanan carries a basic meaning of “an aesthetically pleasing presentation or aspect of someone or something,” or “the pleasing impression made upon one individual by another.” Lavah indicates a connectedness to others, as results when one lends to or borrows from another.  In 5b, we read that the “content” person holds words in judgment, being slow to speak words of praise or condemnation. 

Verse 6 acts as something of an interlude for this portion of the psalm. Here the reader learns that the person– now called “the righteous one”– with the character traits that have been described in verse 5 and will be further described in verses 7-9a will not stumble and will be for all time a memorial. The verse is strikingly parallel to Psalm 111:4’s words, which state that Yahweh is a memorial because of his wondrous acts. 

Verses 7-9a continue with a description of the “content/righteous” person.  Despite potential danger from “a bad hearing” and oppressors, this one is not afraid, having a heart that is established and steady; in fact, here is one who reaches out the hand and gives to the needy.   When the apostle Paul wants to encourage the church at Corinth to contribute financially to the impoverished church in Jerusalem, he quotes Psalm 112:9 as an example of a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:9).  The final two cola of verse 9 offer a concluding refrain in praise of the “content/righteous” person. 

Verse 10, in true “wisdom” fashion, contrasts the fate of the wicked one, with the fate of the righteous one.  While a light will shine forth in the darkness for the upright ones (verse 4b), the desire of the wicked ones will perish (verse 10c).

Psalms 111 and 112 are a summary statement of what faith is all about:  who God is and what humans must do in response to God.  In a rich intertwining of language and metaphor, the “content” person of Psalm 112 partners with the God of Psalm 111, working together to achieve righteousness– right living, correct order, and truth– in this world.

1This is the author’s own translation.  The NRSV renders the singular pronouns in Psalm 112 as plurals in order to achieve more gender-neutral language.  But the singularity of the “content” person is important for a proper interpretation of this psalm.