Hebrew poetry follows different forms (parallelism, dirges, acrostics, etc.), as does poetry in the English language (sonnet, narrative, epic, free verse, etc.). This poem follows the acrostic model in which each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. That is obviously a rigorous discipline––especially so in the case of this psalm, which has 22 short lines to accommodate the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet
The first line of the poem, “Praise Yahweh,” is not included in the 22 acrostic lines.
To appreciate the difficulty posed by the acrostic model, consider how difficult you would find it to compose a 26 line poem with each line starting with the next letter of the alphabet from A to Z.
This psalm is a hymn of praise to Yahweh for the wondrous works which he has created.
Both Psalms 111 and 112 begin with “Praise Yahweh.” Both are 22 line acrostic poems. The last verse of Psalm 111 says, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.” Psalm 112 takes up that theme with “Blessed is the man who fears Yahweh” (112:1). The two psalms were apparently written as a pair, and may have been sung that way in Jewish worship––just as we sing two verses of a hymn that follow the same form and meter.
PSALM 111:1-3. I WILL GIVE THANKS TO YAHWEH
1 Praise Yahweh!
I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart,
in the council of the upright, and in the congregation.
2 Yahweh’s works are great,
pondered by all those who delight in them.
3 His work is honor and majesty.
His righteousness endures forever.
I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart” (Hebrew: lebab) (v. 1a). The psalmist begins by calling the congregation to praise Yahweh, and then affirms that he will do so personally with his whole heart (lebab), which means that his outward expression of praise finds its source in his deepest inner nature.
“in the council of the upright (Hebrew: yasar), and in the congregation” (v. 1b). Furthermore, the psalmist will praise Yahweh in the context of public worship––”in the counsel of the upright” (yasar)––those who are straight or right or upright––those who are walking the straight and narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
“Yahweh’s works are great” (v. 2a). Yahweh’s works are great. Verse 5 will mention Yahweh’s gift of food (manna) and his remembrance of his covenant with Israel as examples.
But Yahweh’s works (as far as humans are concerned) began with the creation: Light, the sky, dry land and the seas, vegetation, lights in the sky (the sun, moon, and stars), fish and fowl, animals of every kind, and finally the man and woman (Genesis 1).
“pondered (Hebrew: daras) by all those who delight in them” (v. 2b). The word daras means to seek or examine or study.
The psalmist is saying that those who delight in Yahweh’s works ponder (seek, examine, study) those works.
Even people of no faith can study Yahweh’s works and find delight in them. Even if they don’t acknowledge that God created those things, they take delight in their grand and intricate nature.
But those who approach God’s works in faith find a special blessing there.
“His work is honor (Hebrew: hod) and majesty” (Hebrew: hadar). The word hod means authority or majesty, and was sometimes used to describe the majestic appearance of a strong man or a horse. In this verse, the psalmist is saying that Yahweh’s works embody that kind of authority or majesty.
The word hadar means glory or majesty. These two words then (hod and hadar) are similar. The psalmist uses both words to describe the awe-inspiring nature of Yahweh’s works.
That brings to mind one more thought. If Yahweh’s works are authoritative, glorious, and majestic, what must Yahweh be like? Wouldn’t the creator be even greater than the creation!
“His righteousness (Hebrew: sedaqah) endures forever” (v. 3). Righteousness is one of the defining attributes of Yahweh’s character. Yahweh’s righteousness is reflected in his covenant faithfulness. His righteousness is not subject to whim, but endures forever.
PSALM 111:4-6. YAHWEH IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL
4 He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered.
Yahweh is gracious and merciful.
5 He has given food to those who fear him.
He always remembers his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered” (Hebrew: zeker) (v. 4a). The noun zeker is related to the verb zakar (to remember), and means remembrance or memorial.
Yahweh called his people to remember his mighty works: The Exodus (Exodus 6ff)––his provision for Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16ff)––his commandments (Exodus 20ff)––his leadership into the Promised Land (Joshua 1ff)––his deliverance of Israel from its enemies.
Yahweh also gave Israel tools for remembering:
- The Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).
- Feast days, especially the Passover (Exodus 13:3; 23:14; Deuteronomy 16:1-17; 24:18).
- Various rites and ceremonies (Leviticus 5:12; 6:15; Esther 9:26-28).
- Physical reminders (Genesis 9:16-17; Exodus 39:7; Numbers 31:54; Deuteronomy 6:6–9; Joshua 4:1-9).
- Scriptures, especially the law and the prophets.
“Yahweh is gracious (Hebrew: hannun) and merciful” (Hebrew: rahum) (v. 4b). The word hannum means gracious or merciful, and rahum means compassionate or merciful or forgiving. The two words are roughly synonymous, and are often used together to describe God (2 Chronicles 30:9; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 111:4; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).
That Yahweh is gracious and merciful is hugely important, because “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God”––so our only hope is “being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23). Jesus is the ultimate expression of Yahweh’s graciousness and mercy.
“He has given food to those who fear (Hebrew: yare) him” (v. 5a). To fear (yare) God can mean to be afraid of God, as the Israelites were at Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:5), but it more often means holding God in awe or reverence.
God has created a world that is rich in food. That many people are hungry is often due to poor distribution of food supplies or some sort of dysfunctionality (personal or governmental).
God’s provided food in the wilderness in response to Israel’s complaints about their lack of food. God promised to “rain bread from the sky” (Exodus 16:4), and the bread that he gave them was known as manna (Hebrew: man hu––what is it?). The bread that God provided was not food for the ages, but was instead food for the day (Exodus 16:4-5, 20-21). In keeping with that principle, Jesus teaches us to pray, not for wealth, but for daily bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3).
“He always remembers (Hebrew: zakar) his covenant” (Hebrew: berit) (v. 5b). A covenant is an agreement binding on both parties. Typically, Yahweh dictated the terms of the covenant, which were always favorable to the other party––but which required their compliance.
Yahweh established a number of covenants with the Hebrew people. Some of the more important Biblical covenants were between God and Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3); Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 2:24; Leviticus 26:42); Noah (Genesis 8:21-22; ) Moses (Exodus 6:4-5; 19:5; 24:7-8; 25:21); David (2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 89:2-4; 105:8-11); and Israel (Jeremiah 31:3-4, 31-37).
Yahweh “always remembers (zakar) his covenant” just as a faithful husband always remembers his wedding vows. This kind of remembering goes beyond bringing something to mind. It also involves action––being faithful to one’s promises. Yahweh was not only faithful to his promises, but also forgave Israel time after time when she betrayed her side of the covenant.
“He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations” (v. 6). This hearkens back to the time when Yahweh gave Israel the Promised Land––a term that never appears in the Bible, but is implied in promises made to Abram (Genesis 13:14-17; 15:7-21)––Isaac (Genesis 26:2-3––and Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15) See also 1 Chronicles 16:16-18; Psalm 105:9; Hebrews 11:9.
Joshua led Israel in its successful effort to conquer the Promised Land (Joshua 1-12). That land helped to confirm their identity as a people––and particularly as the people of God.
However, the land didn’t belong to Israel, but to Yahweh (Leviticus 25:23). Yahweh allowed Israel to live in the land when they were faithful, and exiled them when they were not.
PSALM 111:7-9. THE WORKS OF HIS HANDS
7 The works of his hands are truth and justice.
All his precepts are sure.
8 They are established forever and ever.
They are done in truth and uprightness.
9 He has sent redemption to his people.
He has ordained his covenant forever.
His name is holy and awesome!
“The works of his hands are truth (Hebrew: ’emet) and justice” (Hebrew: mispat) (v. 7a). Truth (’emet) is that which is real or dependable––the opposite of false.
Justice (mispat) is a legal word that speaks of judgment or legal decisions. In this instance, the psalmist is saying that the works of Yahweh’s hands involve true justice––judgments with integrity––decisions based on fairness rather than favoritism.
“All his precepts (Hebrew: piqqud) are sure” (Hebrew: ‘aman) (v. 7b). The word piqqud means precept or instruction. My dictionary defines precept as “a general rule intended to regulate behavior or thought”––and that’s what the psalmist is talking about here.
We usually refer to God’s precepts as his laws or commandments. The psalmist is saying that God’s laws are sure (‘aman). Being trustworthy, they lead rightly––provide stability––instill confidence.
That brings to mind Psalm 19, which says:
“Yahweh’s law is perfect, restoring the soul.
Yahweh’s testimony is sure, making wise the simple.
Yahweh’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart.
Yahweh’s commandment is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8).
“They are established (Hebrew: samak) forever and ever” (v. 8a). The word samak has a variety of meanings. In this context, it means that God sustains or upholds his precepts (laws, commandments) forever. They have an eternal quality.
“They are done in truth (Hebrew: ’emet) and uprightness” (Hebrew: yasar) (v. 8b). See verse 7a above for the meaning of ’emet.
The word yasar (uprightness) The word yasar means straight or right or upright or without guile. The psalmist is saying that God’s precepts (laws, commandments) are exactly what they ought to be. They incorporate no guile or pretense or favoritism. We can depend on them to lead us rightly.
“He has sent redemption (Hebrew: pedut) to his people” (v. 9a). The word pedut means ransom or redemption. Redemption involves bringing liberty to a captive, usually through the payment of a price (a ransom).
While pedut could mean deliverance from any adversity, in the context of this psalm it brings to mind the Exodus––deliverance from slavery and possession of the Promised Land.
“He has ordained (Hebrew: sawah) his covenant forever” (v. 9b). The word sawah means to order or to command. In the Old Testament, sawah is usually used for someone issuing an order. But it can also mean to set up something, and that’s the intent here. Yahweh set up or ordained his covenant forever.
For more on covenants, see the comments on verse 5b above.
“His name is holy (Hebrew: qadosh) and awesome!” (Hebrew: yare) (v. 9c). The Hebrew Scriptures consistently present God and God’s name as holy. All holiness is derivative––derived from the holiness of God. The Sabbath is holy because God made it so. The tabernacle and temple are holy because of God’s presence. The nation Israel is to be holy because it is in a covenant relationship with God.
The word yare (awesome) is sometimes translated fear, as in Psalm 85:9, which says, “Surely his salvation is hear those who fear (yare) him.
But yare can also mean awe or reverence, and that is what the psalmist probably means here. Yahweh’s name inspires awe or reverence.
I hesitate to use the word awesome, which our culture has so trivialized, i.e., “Your fingernail polish is so awesome!”
PSALM 111:10. THE FEAR OF YAHWEH IS THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
10 The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.
All those who do his work have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever!
“The fear (Hebrew: yir’ah) of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (v. 10a). The noun yir’ah is related to the verb yare’ (to fear, respect, or reverence) and the adjective yare’ (fearing, afraid).
Fear of (reverence for) Yahweh makes a person receptive to Godly wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). That person will obey Yahweh and observe his commandments (Deuteronomy 6:13; 28:58).
“All those who do his work have a good understanding” (Hebrew: sekel) (v. 10b). The person who does God’s work will have sekel––insight or understanding––the kind of uncommon sense that enables a person to make good decisions and to avoid bad consequences (Proverbs 9:10).
“His praise endures forever!” (v. 10c). I didn’t find anything in the commentaries on this line that was particularly helpful. I take it to mean that the person who fears (reverences) God and does his works will praise God forever. That makes sense in two ways:
- The person whose faith results in wisdom and understanding will be able to praise God through thick and thin. I have seen that kind of positive spirit in a number of faithful people who were facing various adversities––to include the death of a spouse or their own illness and impending death. The deeper our faith, the better we are likely to understand that the Lord is with us even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (or any other adversity) (Psalm 23:4). Note that Psalm 23 speaks of walking THROUGH the valley, and not just into it. God is with us even as we make that journey.
• The person of faith can expect to live eternally, so he/she can praise God forever.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, Leslie C., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word Books, 1983)
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan