Commentary on Psalm 111
“The ABC’s of Theology”
In his commentary in the Westminster Bible Companion series, James Limburg titles Psalms 111 and 112, “The ABC’s of Theology” and “The ABC’s of Anthropology,” respectively.1 The reason for this is that the two neighboring psalms are “twins.” Each psalm is 22 lines, divided into 10 verses. Each psalm is an alphabetic acrostic — with each half-verse beginning with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from alef to tav (from “A to Z,” so to speak).
Psalm 111 is mostly about theology — it is about God. Whereas Psalm 112 is mostly about anthropology — it is about the human response to God. Themes introduced in Psalm 111 are echoed in Psalm 112. For instance, Ps 111:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Psalm 112:1 says, “Happy are those who fear the Lord.” Or, Psalm 111 confesses about God’s character: “The Lord is gracious and merciful”(verse 4b). Psalm 112 says God’s people reflect God’s character: “they are gracious, merciful, and righteous” (verse 4b).
Since the psalm for this week — the fourth Sunday after Epiphany — is Psalm 111, the focus is on God. On God’s character, actions, promises. In short, the focus is on “the ABC’s of Theology.” This is appropriate in the Epiphany season, because the focus is not so much on us and our actions, so much as it is on God and who God has been revealed to be.
Because of the psalm’s acrostic structure, perhaps the best way to approach the psalm is thematically rather than structurally. Because the poet was constrained by the alphabetic structure, the poem does not develop logically — from one logical development to the next, or from one theme to the next. Therefore, rather than moving from one section of the psalm to the next in an expository fashion, perhaps the most fruitful approach to preaching the psalm is thematic — picking out key themes.
Who God Is
A first theme to be considered is who God is. The psalm provides both metaphorical, creedal expositions of who God is. In terms of metaphors, in verses 3-4, the psalm draws first on terms drawn from the realm of royalty and then from the realm of parenthood (especially motherhood). Drawing from the realm of royalty, the psalm refers to God as “full of honor and majesty.”
The image here echoes the common image in the Psalter of the Lord as king (see Psalms 93, 95-99). God is like a great king, ruling with power and might. But then the psalm moves toward a more domestic vision of God. Drawing from the realm of the family, the psalm refers to God as “gracious and merciful” — note especially that the term merciful suggests the image of God as mother, since behind the term “mercy” is the Hebrew word for womb — rechem. The parental metaphor is continued, as God is described as one who provides food.
As noted above, there are also creedal dimensions to the description of who God is. The above phrases — “gracious and merciful” — echo the ancient creed-like confession of God found in Exodus 34:6-7a
The Lord, the Lord
a God merciful and gracious,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
Keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
In verse 9, the psalm also refers to God as “holy and awesome.” The language here is of God as transcendent, as surpassing any rival and indeed, of surpassing any comparison.
Throughout, the psalm is bearing witness to the very nature of God — to God’s character, to who God is.
What God has Done
The psalm also touches at multiple points on what God does and has done. Already above, it was mentioned that God provides food. As part of the divine creative agency, the Lord goes on working within creation — providing food. But also suggested here is that the sustaining and renewing of creation are God’s ongoing work. As it says in Psalm 104:30, “When you send forth your spirit, they [all “your creatures”] are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” Among God’s other actions, the psalm names:
- “he is ever mindful of his covenant” (verse 5b; see also verse 9b) — a reference to the covenant that was initiated at Mt Sinai
- “giving [the people] the heritage of the nations” (verse 6b) — a reference to the gift of the promised land
- “all his precepts are trustworthy” (verse 7b ) — a reference to the gift of the law
- “holy and awesome is his name” (verse 9c) — a reference to the gift of God’s name, which the people can use to call upon God in “praise, praise, and thanksgiving,” as Luther says in the Small Catechism.
Throughout these references to God’s activities, the history of God with the chosen people is foregrounded. Even though God is transcendent (holy and awesome, full of majesty and honor), God is equally immanent (gracious and merciful, ever mindful and providing). Even though Gods works are “great (verse 2), those works are also faithful and just and trustworthy and they may be studied. God may be beyond comprehension, but God can be known.
Specifically, God has drawn near in the history of the chosen people — and, of course, Christians believe most of all in the person of Jesus Christ. The transcendent God is also a God of providence, guidance, deliverance, law, a God who answers those who call upon his “holy and awesome name.” And all of these activities of God occur within history.
Which is, after all, the message of Epiphany. In the history of the chosen people Israel — a nation of people who were chosen, by the way, not for their own benefit but rather that through them, all the other nations could be blessed through them — and above all in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has drawn near. In the words of the Gospel of John: “And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:14, 16).
1Psalms (Louisville: Westminster, 2000) 381, 384.