Commentary on Psalm 111
If anyone ever asked for a rubric to understand God’s identity, and how we sing God’s praises, the answer is found in Psalm 111.1
This liturgical hymn of praise begins with a “hallelujah” (Hebrew: hll YH), which is the second-person plural imperative, “Praise the Lord!” This particular psalm is a preface to a small series (Psalms 111–118, except 114) that emphasizes “hallelujah.”
This collection within the Psalter is among the psalms thought to be from the postexilic period. In particular, Psalms 113–118 are considered integral to Israel’s Jewish festivals.2 As such, they seemingly reflect Israel’s understanding of God’s capacity to honor covenant and deliver God’s faithful from destruction and displacement. So, it seems fitting that in the preface—Psalm 111—we find instruction for the when, where, why, and how of praising the Lord.
In this text, the author proclaims to the people the need to collectively praise YHWH. He then follows his pronouncement by offering himself as an example of how one might praise, remarking, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” (verse 1). Biblical expressions of the heart have often been misunderstood in the modern world because we commonly understand the heart as the seat of emotion and the head as the domain of intellect and rationality. This was not true in the biblical world.
The heart was seen as a host for emotion, morality, spirituality, determination, and intellect.3 Take, for example, Solomon’s request of God in 1 Kings 3. In verse 6, Solomon designates David’s heart as righteous as a means to describe Solomon’s perception of David’s morality. Later in the same chapter (1 Kings 3:9), Solomon asks God for a heart to judge the people fairly. Such an articulation is a request for discernment and wisdom.
Consequently, when we see the psalmist’s declaration to give God thanks with his whole heart, we bear witness not only to an emotional proclamation but also to a statement of intellect and intention.
Further, this edict is offered within community, in front of the congregation. Such an articulation is both a means of challenge to the people to declare the Lord publicly and freely and a means for accountability. Here, “God’s people” are established as a unit in their willingness to acknowledge God’s goodness among one another.
And so, once the audience and community are established, the psalmist’s focus is on praising God for God’s deeds, with a focus on God’s work in creation, redemption, provision, and instruction.
There is some debate about whether this psalm—like the others in its collection—should be linked to the Torah.4 I think that its liturgical structure, combined with its attention to the memory of God’s work through and in covenant, provides ample reason to draw connection with the Torah and, more specifically, with the exodus.
In verse 5, when the psalmist points to God’s provision of food, we as readers might be drawn to consistent images of God’s promises and provision in the midst of famine in the book of Genesis—both with Abraham in Genesis 12 and 13, and with Joseph and his family in the Joseph novella (Genesis 37–50). However, from the perspective of festal worship, this text might also conjure the Passover meal in Exodus 13 and the manna from heaven in Exodus 16. God’s bestowment of food is an indication of God’s desire to physically and spiritually sustain God’s people.
In verse 9 the psalmist references God’s redemption and eternal decree of the covenant. Here, the author seems to be referencing the Mosaic covenant. Examining the decalogue (Exodus 20:3–17) gives us fodder for comprehending the scope of praise the psalmist professes.
The decalogue mirrors a treaty in the ancient world that establishes rules for the relationship between lord and subjects. The treaty requires the lord or master to protect the lesser party and provide for their needs. In return, the vassals, or subjects, are required not only to pledge a certain allegiance to this master but to reflect the will of their lord in the world. Consequently, the decalogue is commonly understood to establish God’s responsibility to Israel, and to outline Israel’s responsibilities in turn.
In Psalm 111, the author seems to be acknowledging God’s faithfulness in deed to the contract established in Exodus 20. Further, he seems to remind the people that they have an obligation to respond to God’s actions not only in praise and adoration but in righteousness. They are to be the “company of the upright” (verse 1).
In the same manner, we are called to praise God. However, we must remember that our praise is not simply the shouting of words. Our praise of God is a remembering of God’s redemptive and salvific activity in the world; it is a recollection of God’s provision. Further, our praise is a living into covenant such that we honor family, community, humanity, and all of creation. We are called to live out God’s commandments. In doing so, our praise is best reflected in our ability not only to name God’s work in the world but to participate in God’s work as a reflection of who God is.
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 13, 2019.
- Marc Zvi Brettler, “The Riddle of Psalm 111,” in Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael A Fishbane, ed. Deborah A Green and Laura Lieber (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), 64.
- Kauffman Kohler and Tobias Schanfarber, “Heart,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Adolf Guttmacher et al. (New York: Kvat, 1964), 265.
- Brettler. “The Riddle of Psalm 111,” 66.