Psalm 111 – The Beginning of Wisdom
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
I acclaim the LORD with a full heart, in the council of the upright, in the congregation.
2. Great are the works1 of the LORD, accessible to all who desire them.
3. Glory and grandeur are His creation,2 and His righteousness lasts forever.
4. He has made1 of3 His wonders a remembrance. Merciful and compassionate is the LORD:
5. Food He has given to those who fear Him; He eternally remembers His covenant.
6. His powerful works1 He has shown His people, giving them the heritage of nations.
7. The works1 of His hands are truth and justice. Trustworthy are all His precepts,
8. steadfast for eternity, forever; made1 of truth and uprightness.
9. Redemption He sent to His people; He ordained His covenant for eternity; Holy and fearful4 is His name.
10. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD―good understanding to all who practice1 them.5 His praise lasts forever.
1. The terms work, make, and practice, verses 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 10 are all of one root (‘sh), meaning “do, work, achieve.”
2. Indicates ongoing acts as well as original creation.
3. Alternatively, “by.”
4. That is, “awesome.” Same root as “fear,” verses 5 and 10.
5. Many emend to “it” based on Septuagint and other versions. If “them,” the reference is probably to “precepts,” verse 7.
Psalm 111 is a tight alphabetical acrostic, each letter beginning a phrase rather than a verse. Most individual phrases appear (at least approximately) elsewhere and when considered alone, many might seem almost platitudinous. This brief poem, however, is more than an “anthology,” as some commentators have termed it. As a collection, the poem makes certain specific and challenging points. I first review the psalm by the order of the poem (the opening, the central section, and the final verse), and then focus on one basic point as emphasized through repetition. There is a final note concerning the connection between this psalm and its twin, Psalm 112.
The Introduction (v. 1)
The speaker announces his intention to acknowledge God in public. Only here does he use the first person, “I.” Subsequently, his individuality emerges, as it were, in speaking to the group. (Whether the poem was designed specifically for public liturgical use is uncertain.)
Describing God (vv. 2–9)
In the body of the psalm, God is described in the third person, although the “description” is indirect. God is known through His deeds and the results thereof. In fact, the terms most repeated throughout the psalm are variations on the word “make” (see note 1). As Weiser comments, “In the Old Testament, God is always the God who acts.”
One should also note a subtle historical undercurrent found in this psalm. Many interpreters have suggested that one finds here approximate references to a string of earlier events, spanning the biblical account: from Creation and then through the Exodus, God’s providing for the people in the desert wanderings and His forgiveness of their sins there, the conquest of Canaan, the giving of laws and precepts, and future and eternal salvation. These references, however, are general and with one exception they do not use the specific language of earlier texts, though this may be due to the acrostic frame forcing the use of different terminology. (Even the exception, the reference to God’s attributes of mercy and compassion, taken from Exodus 34, is such an oft- repeated reference in biblical texts that its use cannot be considered an exact citation.) Thus, two levels remain: there is an historical tone to the description, but at the same time it remains a description of the present.
The Moral (v. 10)
The end of the middle section indicates change, as the last phrase describes God in a way that cannot be easily understood as an action or a result of Creation: “holy and fearful is His name.” At that point, as so often in Psalms, the last verse discloses a new emphasis, shedding light on all that had come before. “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” may seem to be innocent enough as a phrase, a prudent recommendation when facing a God so powerful, but it is actually much more.
“Wisdom” is the term for an international type of literature, inherited by
from many other societies. Approximately, it is a guide for living, whether through practical advice (in Israel , as best illustrated through Proverbs) or by contemplation concerning the secrets and essence of life (in Israel , as best illustrated by Job or Ecclesiastes). There were many kinds of leaders in ancient Israel —military, political, cultic, prophetic—and it would seem that the “wise man,” the author of wisdom literature, was yet another. (I hasten to add that there may have been many more, including storytellers, poets, and others.) Israel
To indicate that the fundamental source of “wisdom” is the “fear of the Lord” is to create a hierarchy and a priority. The “fear of the Lord” is a dominant biblical theme, and translations include “fear,” “awe,” “reverence,” and “respect.” It reflects the acknowledgment of one having been created by the Creator, and may be closest to the contemporary term “religiosity.” “Wisdom” thus becomes, according to Psalm 111, a subcategory of the proper orientation in life. Understanding and acceptance of God's lordship must be, the speaker suggests, the basis of contemplation. In the ever-competing world of ideas, this is anything but a platitudinous statement.
Two Other Terms
Sharing the triple repetition in Psalm 111 with “fear” and “make” (in the latter case, repeated six times, twice three) are two other terms: “eternity” and “forever.” Indeed, so the psalm ends, these two terms used in verses 9 and 10, reflecting a solid, immutable, and promising message. From “full heart” (v. 1) through “forever” (v. 10) the intent is consistent, leaving no room for doubt.
* * * * * *
Psalm 112 has a structure identical to Psalm 111: an alphabetic acrostic by phrase, two letters each through eight verses and three letters each through the last two verses. Moreover, many of the terms in the Psalm 111 are repeated in Psalm 112. Some commentators deal with them as a unit. I certainly suggest that readers of Psalm 111 review Psalm 112 soon thereafter. See my comments on the next psalm.
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) הַלְלוּיָהּ אוֹדֶה יְהֹוָה בְּכָל לֵבָב בְּסוֹד יְשָׁרִים וְעֵדָה:
(ב) גְּדֹלִים מַעֲשֵׂי יְהֹוָה דְּרוּשִׁים לְכָל חֶפְצֵיהֶם:
(ג) הוֹד וְהָדָר פָּעֳלוֹ וְצִדְקָתוֹ עֹמֶדֶת לָעַד:
(ד) זֵכֶר עָשָׂה לְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם יְהֹוָה:
(ה) טֶרֶף נָתַן לִירֵאָיו יִזְכֹּר לְעוֹלָם בְּרִיתוֹ:
(ו) כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם:
(ז) מַעֲשֵׂי יָדָיו אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפָּט נֶאֱמָנִים כָּל פִּקּוּדָיו:
(ח) סְמוּכִים לָעַד לְעוֹלָם עֲשׂוּיִם בֶּאֱמֶת וְיָשָׁר:
(ט) פְּדוּת שָׁלַח לְעַמּוֹ צִוָּה לְעוֹלָם בְּרִיתוֹ קָדוֹשׁ וְנוֹרָא שְׁמוֹ:
(י) רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה יִרְאַת יְהֹוָה שֵׂכֶל טוֹב לְכָל עֹשֵׂיהֶם תְּהִלָּתוֹ עֹמֶדֶת לָעַד: