Shiur #42: "They Stand Fast Forever And Ever" Psalms 111-112 (Part I)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

SEFER TEHILLIM

 

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Dedicated in memory of Jack Stone, and Helen and Benjamin Pearlman, z"l,
and in honor of Mrs. Esther Stone.

By Gary and Ilene Stone of Teaneck, NJ

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Dedicated by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family in memory of their grandparents
Shimon ben Moshe Rosenthal, Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen Fredman, and Chaya bat Yitzchak David Fredman,
whose yahrtzeits are this week.

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Lecture 42: "They stand fast forever and ever"

Psalms 111-112 (part I)

Rav Elchanan Samet

 

 

 

Psalm 111

 

Psalm 112

1

Praise the Lord!

(א) I will thank the Lord with all my heart,

 (ב) in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation.

1

Praise the Lord!

(א) Happy is the man who fears the Lord,

(ב) who delights greatly in His commandments.

2

(ג) The works of the Lord are great.

(ד) They are available to all who delight in them.

2

(ג) His seed will be mighty upon the earth.

(ד) The generation of the upright will be blessed.

3

(ה) His work is glory and splendor,

(ו) And His righteousness endures forever.

3

(ה) Wealth and riches are in his house,

(ו) and his righteousness endures forever.

4

(ז) He has made a remembrance for His wonderful works.

(ח) The Lord is gracious and merciful.

4

(ז) Light shines in the darkness for the upright,

 

(ח) the gracious, and the merciful, and the righteous.

5

(ט) He gives food to those who fear Him.

(י) He remembers His covenant forever.

5

(ט) Good is the man who gives freely and lends,

(י) and who conducts his affairs justly.

6

(כ) He declared to His people the power of his works,

(ל) when He gave them the heritage of His nations.

6

(כ) Surely he will never stumble.

(ל) The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance.

7

(מ) The works of His hands are truth and justice.

(נ) All His decrees are true.

7

(מ) He is not afraid of evil tidings.

(נ) His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.

8

(ס) They stand fast forever and ever.

(ע) They are made in truth and uprightness.

8

(ס) His heart is supported, he is not afraid,

(ע) until he sees his enemies.

9

(פ) He sends redemption to His people.

(צ) He has commanded His covenant forever.

(ק) Holy and revered is His name.

9

(פ) He gives freely to the needy.

(צ) His righteousness endures forever.

(ק) His horn will be exalted with honor.

10

(ר) The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

(ש) good sense for all who do them.

(ת) His praise endures forever.

10

(ר) The wicked man will see it and be angry.

(ש) He will grind his teeth and melt away.

(ת) The hope of the wicked will come to nought.

 

Introduction

 

            The book of Tehillim is comprised of various collections of psalms, which can be identified with the help of assorted markers, especially the headings of the psalms.[1] However, the order of the psalms within each collection, and within the book of Tehilim as a whole, remains unclear. Several commentators toil to explain the arrangement of the psalms based on substantive and stylistic grounds, but their arguments are often unpersuasive.

 

            There are isolated incidents in the book of Tehillim in which the juxtaposition of particular psalms stems not from an editorial process, based on linguistic associations (in accordance with the conjecture of many commentators), but rather from the author's original intention. This phenomenon lends itself to objective identification by way of markers that cannot be disregarded.[2] In such cases, it falls upon the commentator to clarify the nature of the connection between the adjacent psalms and the ramifications that their juxtaposition has with respect to understanding each psalm on its own.

 

            Executing this mission is not always easy. Let us illustrate the matter with the following example: Psalms 113-114 are connected to one another by way of a striking bond. Both open with the words, "Bless the Lord, o my soul," and also close with those same words. This expression is found nowhere else in the book of Tehillim. If, indeed, this testifies to an essential bond between the two psalms, and this is an entirely reasonable conjecture, the commentator must expose this connection and point to its contribution to our understanding of each of the two psalms. How does the connection between the two psalms enrich our understanding of each psalm by itself? We might even be able to take this one step further - what new idea rises from the combination of the two psalms that would have gone unnoticed had we examined each psalm separately? But here lies a problem, for these two psalms are very different in nature and substance, to the point that it is difficult to fulfill this task.[3]

 

            The situation is very different in the case of the pair of psalms 105-106. These two psalms, which are similar to each other in length and which both open with the words, "Give thanks to the Lord," both survey the historical past of the Jewish People. The time period surveyed is different in each psalm: In psalm 105, the survey begins with the Patriarchs and ends with Israel's entry into Eretz Yisrael, whereas in psalm 106, the survey begins with the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Sea and ends with Israel's sins in the Land of Israel and the punishments that they received for them. There is a partial overlap between the two psalms with respect to the historical time periods they describe - both describe the exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the wilderness.

 

            We need not probe very deeply to see the fundamental difference between these two psalms. Psalm 105 describes God's acts of kindness toward Israel and how He fulfilled the covenant that He had made with their forefathers; psalm 106 describes Israel's ingratitude that began already at the time of the exodus from Egypt and during the years of their wandering in the wilderness and continued and even intensified during the period when they settled in Eretz Yisrael. But while each of these two psalms stands on its own, it is clear that it is only the combination of the two that expresses the full idea that the psalmist wished to convey. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the two psalms and the essential connection between them may help us understand each psalm in itself. For example, anyone who reads psalm 105 is likely to ask himself why the splitting of the Sea is missing from the account of the acts of kindness that God performed for the people of Israel at the time of the exodus from Egypt. The answer to this question is given in psalm 106, where this event is chosen to illustrate the beginning of Israel's ingratitude: "And they rebelled against You at the sea, regarding the Red Sea." In general we can say that both the choice of the historical period described in each psalm and the choice of the specific events described in it are dictated by the general objective. And it may further be argued that behind the two psalms stands one plan, and understanding how it is realized necessitates a consecutive reading of the two.

 

            We now come to the pair of psalms that will be discussed in this and the next study, psalms 111-112. The formal and stylistic similarity between the two psalms is so great that they can be likened to non-identical twins. The similarity is much greater than that found in the two pairs of psalms mentioned above. Let us spell out the details of this similarity:

 

1)     Both psalms open with the same heading (which is not part of the psalm itself), "Praise the Lord!"

2)     Both psalms are constructed around an acrostic of all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet[4] arranged in the accepted order.[5]

3)     Both psalms are comprised of 10 verses – a number that symbolizes perfection and wholeness.

4)     The internal arrangement of the twenty-two letters of the alphabet within the ten verses is the same in both psalms. The first 8 verses in each psalm are all divided into two clauses, each clause beginning with one of the letters of the acrostic; the last two verses are divided into three clauses each, so that there are 6 letters in these final verses.

5)     The last verse in each psalm veers in a certain measure from the topic discussed throughout the psalm up to that point.[6]

6)      The clauses in both psalms are short – three to four words per clause, and generally speaking the two clauses in each verse do not parallel each other.

7)     There is a stylistic-literal similarity between the two psalms. Parallel verses beginning with the same letter open in the two psalms with the same word (ve-tzidkato – ve-tzidkato; chanun – chanun; semuchin – samuch); there are unique words and combinations of words and even entire clauses that repeat themselves in the two psalms.

 

It is clear, then, that one author wrote the two psalms based on a single model, and that they were created from the outset as a pair.

 

To our great consternation, however, the two psalms deal with entirely different issues, and they even belong to two different categories of psalms in the book of Tehillim. Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise to God about His works in this world and about His providence over His creations and His people Israel. Such psalms of praise are well represented in the book of Tehillim, especially in the fifth section of the book.[7] In contrast, psalm 112 is a "wisdom psalm," a psalm whose addressee is man, rather than God, and whose objective is to educate towards living a life marked by the fear of God and the performance of His commandments. The book of Tehillim has a few other wisdom psalms, two of which – psalms 127 and 128 - were the subject of our previous studies.[8]

 

The difference between the topics of the two psalms already finds expression in the opening words of each psalm. Psalm 111 opens with the words, "I will thank the Lord with all my heart," whereas psalm 112 opens with the words, "Happy is the man who fears the Lord." What, then, is the essential connection between these two psalms which, from a literary perspective, were cast in the same mold?[9]

 

            The remainder of this study will be dedicated to psalm 111. We will try to understand its structure and ideas and to explain some of its exegetical difficulties. The next study will be devoted to a similar analysis of psalm 112. Only at the end shall we return to the question of the essential connection between the two psalms.

 

Psalm 111 – "I will thank the Lord with all my heart"

 

I.              The Structure of the Psalm

 

For what is the author of our psalm preparing himself to praise God? For many things: For "the works of the Lord;" for "His work;" for "His righteousness;" for His traits - He is "gracious and merciful;" for the sustenance that He provides those who fear Him; for His remembering His covenant; for all the good things that He did for His people when he gave them "the heritage of the nations;" and for "His decrees," the commandments that He gave them. This list does not exhaust all the grounds mentioned in our psalm for thanking God.

 

Even this partial list demonstrates the great variety in the description of God's acts of kindness for which we must offer thanks. Upon initial classification, we can distinguish between several realms:

 

1)     God's works in creation (verses 2-3)

2)     His providence over and acts of kindness toward man (verses 4-5)

3)     His intervention in the history of His people Israel (verses 6 and 9)

4)     His commandments (verses 7-8)

 

Are the realms in which God's kindness and goodness in this world are evident arranged in any particular order?[10] In other words, is our psalm structured in a clear manner that exhibits internal organization of the details listed above?

 

Such a structure, if it can be found, can help us understand the psalm. It can help to explain various repetitions along the way (see note 10), and to distinguish between the various places in which there is repetition based on belonging to different parts of the psalm.

 

First, let us define the verses in the psalm that list the acts of God for which the psalmist offers thanks and with respect to which the question of structure arises.

 

Verse 1 – in its two parts – constitutes an invitation directed at the psalmist himself, in which he invites himself to thank God, and it is simply an introduction to the rest of the psalm:


I will thank the Lord with all my heart,

in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation.

 

            Verse 10 is also not part of the body of the psalm, for it deals with a different issue and it serves as the psalm's conclusion (see note 6).

 

            We are left then with 8 verses, verses 2-9, in which are found the clauses beginning with the letters gimmel to kuf. This is an odd number of clauses (17), for verse 9 contains three clauses. In a psalm with a formal character such as is found in our psalm, we would expect to find the main body of the psalm divided into two equal parts, something that is impossible when there is an odd number of clauses and letters. Is there a clause that is exceptional in verses 2-9? The answer is yes - the last clause in these verses, at the letter kof, "Holy and revered is His name," is not only the clause that breaks the even number of clauses in verses 2-9, but it is also different from all the previous clauses, and even stands in a certain opposition to them.

 

In order to clarify what we mean, let us begin with the explanation offered by R.Yehuda Halevi in his book, "Kuzari," for the order of the first three blessings – "the blessings of praise" – in the Amida prayer:[11]

 

In the first paragraph, entitled, “Fathers (Avot),” the worshipper remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, the establishment of the covenant with them on the part of God for all times, which never ceases, as is expressed in the words, “He brings the Redeemer to their children's children.”

The second blessing, known as “Mighty Deeds (Gevurot),” teaches that God's rule is the eternal rule of the world… Similar ideas prevail in the words, “He causes the wind to blow, and the rain to descend.” According to His desire He “delivers those in bondage,” as may be established by instances from the history of Israel…

Having read these paragraphs, which enlighten him in the belief that God keeps up a connection with this material world, the worshipper extols and sanctifies Him by the declaration that no corporeal attitude appertains to Him. This is done in the paragraph beginning, “You are holy (Kedusha).”[12]

 

            In our psalm as well, verses 2-9 (letters gimmel to tzadi) describe God as "keeping up a connection with this material world," and even in realms similar to those discussed in the "Avot" blessing (for example, "He sends redemption to His people. He has commanded His covenant forever") and in the "Gevurot" blessing (for example, "He gives food to those who fear Him"). Following such a description of God in our psalm, we would expect words that "extol and sanctify Him" and declare that "no corporeal attitude appertains to Him." This is the role of the third clause in verse 9, which concludes the praises of God in verses 2-9 – “Holy and revered is His name” - in the very same way that the blessing of "You are holy and Your name is holy" seals the blessings of praise that precede it.

 

            We are left then with 16 clauses in verses 2-9 (letters gimmel to tzadi). Is it possible to uncover the structure of this section, which constitutes the main body of our psalm? Let us examine these verses from a stylistic perspective: Are there stylistic phenomena that can help us divide these verses into subsections?

 

            The repetitions in these verses may prove helpful. One such repetition relates to the words "the works of the Lord" (in v.21, at the beginning of the section under discussion) or "His works" (in v.61).

 

            Another repetition relates to the words "His covenant forever." This combination is found in v.52, "He remembers His covenant forever," and once again in v.9(at the end of the main body of the psalm), "He has commanded His covenant forever."

 

            We see then that the main body of our psalm is divided into two equal halves – eight clauses with eight letters in each half. Each of the two halves opens with "the works of the Lord" and ends with "His covenant forever."

 

            Here is our psalm written in a way that illustrates its structure as it was explained in this section:

 

(1)          Praise the Lord

(א) I will thank the Lord with all my heart,

(ב) in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation.

I

II

(2) (ג) The works of the Lord are great.

(6) (כ) He declared to His people the power of his works,

(ד) They are available to all who delight in them.

(ל) when He gave them the heritage of His nations.

(3) (ה) His work is glory and splendor,

(7) (מ) The works of His hands are truth and justice.

(ו) And His righteousness endures forever.

(נ) All His decrees are true.

(4) (ז) He has made a remembrance for His wonderful works.

(8) (ס) They stand fast forever and ever.

 

(ח) The Lord is gracious and merciful.

(ע) They are made in truth and uprightness.

(5) (ט) He gives food to those who fear Him.

(9) (פ) He sends redemption to His people.

(י) He remembers His covenant forever.

(צ) He has commanded His covenant forever

(ק) Holy and revered is His name.

(ר) The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

(ש) good sense for all who do them.

(ת) His praise endures forever.

 

(To be continued.)

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] In our study of psalm 80, we mentioned the collection of psalms 73-83, whose headings mention Asaf. The most famous example of a collection of psalms is the collection of the fifteen "Songs of Ascent" (Shirei Ha-Ma'alot), psalms 120-134.

[2] We are not referring to adjacent psalms which essentially constitute a single psalm but were for some reason divided into two psalms, e.g. psalms 9-10 and psalms 42-43.

[3] This difficulty may lead the commentator to the conclusion that the juxtaposition of these two psalms results from an editorial process that takes into consideration the similarity between the two psalms with respect to the literary framework – "bless the Lord, o my soul" at the beginning and at the end – but does not testify to an essential connection between them. This conclusion is not impossible, but before reaching it, we must first exhaust the possibility presented above until it becomes clear that it does not lead us anywhere.

Prof. Meir Weiss, z"l, in his article on Tehillim 104 (Mikra'ot Ke-Kavanatam, pp. 220-222) compares these two psalms (see note 13 in his article) and deals primarily with the differences between them. His words imply that he does not think that the juxtaposition of these two psalms and the striking stylistic connection between them testify to any inner connection. On the contrary, he exploits the stylistic similarity between the two psalms to sharpen the differences between the call of "bless, o my soul" in each of them. Even this approach, however, derives exegetical benefit from the juxtaposition of the psalms.

[4] In four of the seven alphabetical psalms in the book of Tehillim, we do not find all 22 letters of the alphabet. For example, psalm 145 – "Tehilla le-David" – lacks a verse opening with the letter nun. Psalms 25, 34 and 37 also lack letters of the alphabet. Apart from Tehillim 111-112, a full alphabet is found only in Tehillim 119. (In addition to the psalms mentioned in this note, mention should also be made of Tehillim 9-10, which appear to have been one psalm, the alphabet of which is exceedingly deficient.)

[5] Alphabetical acrostics are also found in literary units outside the book of Tehillim. Four of the five lamentations in the book of Eikha are structured in this manner, and in three of them – chapters 2-3-4 – the letter peh precedes the letter ayin.

[6] Verse 10 in Tehillim 111 shifts from the praise of God to a discussion of man's fear of God and observance of the mitzvot; verse 10 in Tehillim 112 shifts from the actions of the righteous man who fears Gods and his rewards to the reaction of the wicked man to the above.

[7] The collection of psalms referred to by Chazal as "Hallel Ha-mitzri," the "Egyptian Hallel," immediately follow psalms 111-112 in psalms 113-118; psalms 135-136 (136 is called by Chazal "Hallel Ha-gadol," the "Great Hallel"); and psalms 145-150 which are called by Chazal "Hallel she-be-khol Yom," "ever-day Hallel" ("Pesukei De-zimra" or "Zemirot").

[8] At the beginning of our study of Tehillim 127, we expanded upon the definition of the wisdom psalm in the book of Tehillim, and in note 1 we noted the various opinions regarding their scope in our book. Note should be taken here of the similarity between wisdom psalm 112, which opens with the words, "Happy is the man who fears the Lord," and the wisdom psalm 128, which opens with the words, "Happy is everyone who fears the Lord."

[9] There is, of course, no difficulty finding some conceptual connection between the two topics, but such a connection can be found between any two psalms in the book of Tehillim.

[10] Other psalms of praise in the book of Tehillim are dedicated to a single realm in which God's greatness reveals itself (e.g., Tehillim 104) or to two such realms (e.g., Tehillim 119 and Tehillim 136). When there is more than one realm, each realm is arranged in a different part of the psalm (as in the two examples cited above). Such an arrangement is difficult to find in our psalm, in part because of the repetitions found in it (e.g., God's words are mentioned in verses 2, 6 and 7, and we must clarify the distinction between the three places; God's covenant is mentioned twice in verses 5 and 9, and once again we must clarify the distinction between the two places).

[11] Book III, sec. 17.

[12] R. Yehuda Halevi expressed this ambivalence in man's relationship to God in his poem:

Lord, where shall I find You/ Your place is elevated and hidden.

And where shall I not find You/ Your glory fills the world.

The same idea continues throughout the poem.