Psalm Study: Psalm 111

Dear Reader,

For an introduction to how and why we do Psalm Study, see this post.

Do you remember being in elementary school and writing the letters of the word “MOTHER” down the side of your page and then thinking of words to describe your own that begin with each of them (“M is for makes me cookies . . . “)? If so, you have written an acrostic poem.

The Book of Psalms also contains acrostic poems. They don’t spell anything out anything but they do follow the Hebrew alphabet, one line for each letter.

Sidebar: The Hebrew alphabet contains 22 letters. Actually, I should say 22 consonants. Hebrew was originally written with just consonants. Vowels were added later as people began to forget the langauge (Aramaic, a close cousin, became the spoken langauge). In order not to change the base text of the Old Testament, the vowels were added as little points and dashes above and below the letters (“jots and tittles”). Hebrew words are based on a tri-literal (three letter) root system which makes it a little easier to use just the consonants, but we could read without vowels too. Give it a try: W wlkd th dg ystrdy. Not too hard, right?

Today we are going to look at one of these acrostic poems, Psalm 111. When you made the MOTHER poem in second grade, it probably wasn’t the finest poetry. The psalms that are acrostics, because they have to adhere to the pattern, also will not display all the features we expect of Hebrew poetry. We are less likely to see parallelism and the poem itself often sounds choppier.

Not surprisingly, word choice is very important in acrostics. Though the lines may seem unconnected at first, there are often common words which reappear through the course of the poem. And, of course, each line must start with a certain letter. Sometimes the word that begins the line is a relatively insignificant one (“in”, “the”), but often the psalmist does what you probably did — he thinks about the subject of his poem (God for him, mother for you) and thinks of what word beginning with the appropriate letter best fits that subject.

Psalm 111

  1. Praise the LORD.

  2. I will laud the LORD with all [my] heart.

  3. In the assembly of [the] upright and [the] congregation,

  4. Great — the deeds of the LORD,

  5. Sought by all who delight in them.

  6. Glorious and splendid — his work.

  7. And his righteousness stands for ages.

  8. [A] remembrance he made for his wondrous things.

  9. Gracious and compassionate — the LORD.

  10. Food he gave to his fearers.

  11. He will remember forever his covenant.

  12. [The] strength of his deeds he told to his people.

  13. To give to them the inheritance of nations.

  14. [The] deeds of his hands — truth and justice.

  15. Faithful — all his precepts,

  16. Established for all ages and forever,

  17. Done in truth and uprightness.

  18. Ransom, he sent to his people.

  19. He commanded forever — his covenant

  20. Holy and feared — his name.

  21. [The] beginning of wisdom — the fear of the LORD.

  22. Recompense of good to all who do them.

  23. His praise stands for ages.

Because this Psalm is a little different, a few translation notes are in order before we begin:

  • First words are important here. Due to the differences between langauges, the word that is first in Hebrew doesn’t always end up first in our English translation. This often happens because Hebrew uses one word where we need a few. For example, “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) is one word in Hebrew. In English the boring words like “in” and “the” have to come first. So you will know which word comes first in the Hebrew I put the first word of each line in bold. If mutliple words are in bold, it is because they are one word in Hebrew.
  • Sometimes English requires words that Hebrew doesn’t. I usually put these words in brackets [ ] to show that they are added. You will see that there are a few words in brackets in my translation. Often what comes in brackets is a present tense “to be” verb (is, are) as Hebrew does not require these when English does. There are a number of lines in this poem where I could have added such a verb, and normally would have done so, but chose not to for this psalm. Consider, for exmaple, line 4. In Hebrew it says “Great the deeds of the LORD.” While we would normally add an “are,” I did not here. Remember that in the style of the acrostic it is as if the psalmist is thinking of a word that reminds him of God. In line 4 the word is “great.” After he gives this word, he then explains a little of why it reminds him of God. In this case, it is the deeds of the LORD that are great. It is as if in writing about your mother you the first H word you thought of for her was “hugs” and so you wrote “Hugs — she gives them to me.” That is how this poem sounds to me in Hebrew so it is how I rendered it in English.
  • The first line is not part of the acrostic pattern. Line 2 (as I have it written) begins with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As a reminder, line numbers are not verse numbers but are for discussion purposes.

Your job before you read on is to print out the psalm and to get out your colored pencils. As you read through Psalm 111, notice which words come first in each line. You might even just want to list them all on your paper. Also look for other repeated words and words which are synonymous and express similar ideas.

Hopefully, now you have done your homework. Let’s start by looking at those first words. Focusing on the main words (not the ‘and’s and ‘the’s which are prefixes in Hebrew), here is my list: praise, laud, assembly, great, sought, glorious, righteousness, remembrance, gracious, food, remember, strength, give, deeds, faithful, established, done, ransom, commanded, holy, beginning, recompense, praise.

There are a number of ways we could view this list. If you were working with a class, you could even put them all on slips of paper and sort them (let the class decide how to sort them). The first thing I noticed is that the psalm begins and ends with praise. This sort of bookending is not uncommon.

Not suprisingly, a lot of the words are adjectives describing positive characteristics of God: great, glorious, gracious, faithful, established, and holy. There are a couple of nouns which fit this category too: righteousness and strength. Sought is an interesting one because it might not be a word that comes readily to mind.

A few of the words have to do with God’s actions — give, deeds, and done. I think we can add food and recompense to this list too as they are things God gives us. In fact, throughout the psalm there are lots of words that have to do with doing. Deeds, works and making are mentioned in lines 4, 6, 12, 14, and 17.

Another theme which runs throughout is that of eternity. There are two terms for forever used in this psalm. I have translated one as forever and the other as for ages to keep them distinct but I don’t know that there is much difference in their connotations. They occur in lines 7, 11, 16, 19 and 23. On a not unrelated note, two of our first words have to do with remembering (lines 8 and 11).

Clearly Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise. But there is a little more going on here too. Just as your MOTHER poem would have told something about who mother was, so this acrostic poem tells us who God is.   The Bible frequently uses lists to do just this. Consider God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.” (Exod. 34:5-8; ESV)

This listing of attributes, I dare say is the standard way for us to define or describe God. We can’t sum Him up in one word and even such losts as these could never fully capture who He is, but the more such words and phrases we can give, perhaps the closer to the truth we get.

What can we conclude from Psalm 111 then? Some psalms depict God as a judge who sits on His throne. Others call upon His covenant love. In Psalm 111 there is reference to the law (line 15) and the covenant (line 19) and also to divine justice (line 22) but none of these seems to be the main theme of the psalm.  The two most prominent themes I see in Psalm 111 are doing and eternity. This an active God and an eternal one.

One final note: we mentioned that this is a psalm of praise but we also have a hint of its probably context. Lines 2 and 3 read: “I will laud the LORD with all [my] heart. In the assembly of [the] upright and [the] congregation.” This is communal praise, a psalm for God’s people to sing when they are together, to proclaim to each other the attributes of God.


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