Shiur #43: "They Stand Fast Forever And Ever" Psalms 111) (Part II)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

SEFER TEHILLIM

 

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This week's shiurim are dedicated
in memory of Mrs. Cela Meisels, Tzerka Nechama bat Shlomo,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 14th of Tevet.

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Lecture 43: "They stand fast forever and ever"

Psalm 111 (Part II)

Rav Elchanan Samet

 

 

(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.

 

 

II. THE SUBJECT OF THE FIRST HALF AND THE SUBJECT OF THE SECOND HALF

 

The repetitions in verses 2-9 have helped reveal the two halves from which the main body of our psalm is constructed. But it is precisely these repetitions that sharpen the question - in what way are the two halves different one from the other? Do the verses in each half share a common denominator?

 

Once again, we turn to the verbal-stylistic level and ask - is there a word (or words) that is characteristic of one half and absent in the other? A quick examination of the two halves teaches us that the word "amo," "His nation," appears twice in the second half – at the beginning of the second half and close to its end – but not at all in the first half.

 

This finding suggests that the second half deals with the praise of God as He reveals Himself in his actions toward Israel, whereas the first half describes His actions with respect to the world and humanity in general.

 

With respect to the second half there is no difficulty proving the truth of this argument - the issues under discussion are explicitly or implicitly connected to Israel. It mentions the giving of the heritage of the nations to God's people – that is, the giving of the Land to Israel when it was conquered from the nations who resided therein. It mentions God's decrees – His commandments, which surely were given to Israel (even though this is not explicitly stated in the psalm). And finally, it mentions the redemption and rescue that God sent His people. This may be referring to when they were taken out of Egypt, or perhaps the reference is to the future (despite the past tense of the word "shalach," "He sent"), when God will redeem His nation by virtue of the everlasting covenant that He made with them.[1]

 

The universal content of the first half stems not only from what is missing from it (the term "His nation" and the Israelite context found in the second half), but also from what is found in it. The great "works of the Lord" discussed at the beginning of this half seem to refer to His works in the physical world that He created. This follows from the clause at the beginning of verse 3, "His work is glory and splendor," which parallels the clause at the beginning of verse 2, "The works of the Lord are great." "Glory and splendor" mean "beauty that arouses feelings of veneration" (Amos Chakham). Such an account of God's great works surely relates to the physical world that He created.[2]

 

The quality of God's mercy for His creatures, mentioned in verse 4, "The Lord is gracious and merciful," is not limited to Israel, for surely, "The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are upon all His works" (Tehillim 145:9). The opening clause of v. 5, "He gives food to those who fear Him" is also not restricted to Israel, but rather refers to the recompense that God gives all of mankind – God rewards those who fear Him by providing them with their sustenance.

 

The distinction between the first half and its universal character and the second half and its Israelite quality is the key to the distinction between the expressions that are found in both of them. The terms, "the works of the Lord," at the beginning of the first half, and "His works," at the beginning of the second half are not referring to the same works. The works in the first half are the world which God had created (Radak: heaven and earth), whereas the works in the second half are God's actions in the history of the people of Israel.[3]

 

The "covenant" of God standing "forever" that is mentioned at the end of the first half is also not the same covenant that is mentioned at the end of the second half. The first covenant is the covenant that God made with His world regarding its perpetual existence, and that finds its clearest formulation in the covenant of the rainbow that God made with Noach and his sons (Bereishit 9).[4] The second covenant is the covenant that God made with His people Israel, which was made with the Patriarchs (with the covenant of the pieces and the covenant of circumcision) and which was made with the entire people at Sinai.

 

There is a difference between these two covenants. The first, universal covenant is static. It promises that the world will continue to exist in accordance with the laws of nature (Bereishit 8:22) and that it will not be destroyed by another flood (ibid. 9:11). Therefore, the verb used in connection with this covenant is "remember" – God remembers His covenant forever and allows the everlasting existence of the world, as it is stated in v.32, "And His righteousness endures forever." Thus, the Radak understands this verse: "And His righteousness – namely, the entire world, for it is righteousness from Him to His creatures - stands forever."

 

In contrast, the covenant that God made with His people is an active factor that leads to God's constant intervention in Jewish history. It is by virtue of this covenant that God took His people out of the land of Egypt, and it is by virtue of this covenant that He gave them the land of Canaan as their inheritance.[5] By virtue of this covenant, He gave them the Torah and the commandments, and by virtue of this covenant He will redeem them once again in the future as in days of old. Therefore, the verb appearing in the context of this covenant is "command" – "He has commanded His covenant forever."

 

The commentators who did not pay attention to the structure of the psalm, and therefore failed to distinguish between the different subjects in each of the two halves, inclined to explain various verses in the first half with respect to the people of Israel. Thus, for example, Rashi's explanation of v.41: "'He has made a remembrance for His wonderful works' – He established for Israel Shabbat and holidays and commandments, regarding which it is written: 'And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt.'"[6] But the context in which the verse appears in the "universal" half of the psalm forces us to understand this verse in a different manner: God's "wonderful works" are His wonderful works in the creation of the world (those discussed in the two previous verses, vv. 2-3), "zekher" means "perpetual existence," and conceptually this verse parallels the previous clause, "And His righteousness endures forever."[7]

 

Rashi explains the words "The Lord is gracious and merciful" (v.42) in similar fashion: "Towards His sons, and He wishes to find them righteous." The Ibn Ezra and the Radak explain the verse "He gives food to those who fear Him" (v.51) in connection to the money that Israel took with them from Egypt, whereas R. Yeshaya and the Meiri understand that it refers to the manna that fell from heaven for Israel in the wilderness. Once again, however, the context in which these verses are found in the first half of our psalm force us to understand them as referring to God's relationship with all of His creatures.

 

And finally, the medieval commentators – Ibn Ezra, Radak, R. Yeshaya, and Meiri – explain the verse "He remembers His covenant forever" (v.52) as referring to the covenant that God made with the Patriarchs or with the people of Israel. As we have already explained, however, the structure of our psalm and the distinction between its two halves bring us to explain this covenant as the covenant that God made with His world regarding its everlasting existence.

 

III. THE PARALLELISM BETWEEN THE TWO HALVES

 

To summarize the first half of this psalm, in the first half the psalmist praises God and thanks Him for His works in the world, and this in two realms:

 

  • In verses 2-41 (letters gimmel to zayin) he praises Him for His works in creation.
  • In verses 42­­-51 (letters chet to tet) he praises Him for His relationship with humanity in general.

 

These two realms in which God's actions reveal themselves conclude with the mention of the covenant that God made with His world. By virtue of this covenant these actions of God in these two realms endure "forever."

 

We already partially explained the second half in the previous section, and therefore let us summarize it here as follows: In this half, the psalmist praises God for His works with respect to the people of Israel, and here too in two realms:

 

  • In verses 6-81 (letters kof to lamed and letter peh) he praises God for His actions in the history of His people.
  • In verses 7-8 (letters mem to ayin), he praises God for His Torah and His commandments.[8]

 

The psalmist describes God's actions and commandments with four terms: 1) They are "truth and justice;" 2) they are "true" – "they have no injustice" (Radak); 3) they "stand fast forever and ever," i.e., they are fixed and stable, and therefore they constitute sturdy support for those who observe them (Radak); 4) they "are made in truth and uprightness."[9]

 

God's works in these two realms also conclude with the mention of the covenant that God made with His people and "commanded" for them "forever."

 

Can we point to a connection between the two realms discussed in the first half of the psalm and the two realms discussed in the second half? Identifying such a connection may help clarify the structural relationship between the two halves of the psalm.

 

The "creation" and the "Torah" are two realms in which man can encounter God's actions in His world on a daily basis, and infer from them the greatness of He who performed them. Indeed, an entire psalm in the book of Tehillim – psalm 19 – is dedicated to these two realms: The first half of the psalm opens with the verse, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork," and the second half opens with the verse, "The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. The Testimony of the Lord is faithful, making the simple wise."

 

The connection between God's works in the creation and His works in the Torah finds twofold expression in our psalm. First of all, these two types of works are accompanied by a series of praises of those works:[10]

 

God's works in creation

God's works in the Torah

Great

Truth and justice

Available

True

Glory and splendor (in them)

Stand fast

 

Made in truth and uprightness

 

            Second, both God's works in creation and His works in the Torah are described as standing forever:

 

And His righteousness endures forever.[11]

They stand fast forever and ever.

 

            The eternality of God's works in these two realms stems from the covenant that was made with respect to each of them, which is also "forever."

 

            God's providence over His creatures, which is described in the first half of the psalm, and His actions in the history of the people of Israel, which is described in the second half, are also two realms bound by an essential connection. In both realms, God's merciful attitude toward man and providence over him reveal themselves.

 

            It turns out, then, that the second half of the psalm, while focusing on the praise of God for his actions among Israel, elevates the first half. It deals with realms similar to those dealt with by the first half, but it raises them. The physical world, described in the first half, rises to the description of the Torah – the spiritual parallel of creation, which gives meaning to its existence. The description of God's providence over all of mankind focuses in the second half on an account of His providence over the people of Israel, which finds clearest expression in the history of this people.

 

            Based on the connections that we have pointed out here, we can say that the internal order of the realms described in each one of the two halves creates a chiastic structure:

 

 

First half                                                           Second half

Creation                                                             Intervention in history

Providence                                                        The Torah

 

IV. THE PSALM'S CONCLUSION

 

The third clause of verse 9 – "Holy and revered is His name" – concludes the two halves of the psalm that preceded it. We have explained this role at length above.

 

What is left for us to do is to explain verse 10, which serves as a conclusion for the entire psalm.

 

The first two clauses in verse 10 are formulated in "wisdom" style, and they serve as a didactic conclusion of the description of the praises of God in the body of the psalm.

 

1)     "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" – this verse has several parallels in biblical wisdom literature:

 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Mishlei 1:7)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Mishlei 9:10)

Behold, the fear of the Lord - that is wisdom. (Iyyov 28:28)

 

            But is this verse connected to the main body of our psalm? The answer to this question is yes:

 

            In the first half of the psalm it is stated (v.5): "He gives food to those who fear Him." Thus, we see that the wise man conducts his life with the fear of the Lord.[12]

 

2)     "Good sense for all who do them" - who are those "who do them," and what exactly do they do? The Ibn Ezra understands these words in connection to the second half of our psalm: "Good sense for all those who fulfill His decrees."[13] According to this, this clause serves as a didactic conclusion of the description of the praise of the commandments in the second half of the psalm.

 

"Good sense" parallels the word "wisdom" in the first clause, and the expression is used in a similar sense in Divrei Ha-Yamim II 30:23: "The Levites who displayed good sense in the service of the Lord" – those who know God's commandments and are prepared to fulfill them.[14]

 

3)     The medieval commentators – Ibn Ezra, Radak and Meiri – understood that the third clause of verse 10, "His praise endures forever," refers to "those who do them," i.e., the decrees mentioned in the previous clause: "And each of those who do them – his praise endures forever" (Ibn Ezra). This explanation suffers from two difficulties. First of all, the transition from the plural - "those who do them" - to the singular - "his praise" is a little surprising. Second, in most of its appearances in the Bible, the word "tehilla" ("praise") refers to God, and not to man, not even the man who fulfills God's commandments.[15]

 

Accordingly, we should accept the explanation put forward by Amos Chakham and other commentators:

 

God's praise endures forever… and the psalm concludes with the words "His praise" similar to the way it begins with "Praise the Lord! I will thank…."

 

            This explanation is supported by the fact that the expression "endures forever" already appears in our psalm in v.32, "And His [God's] righteousness endures forever."[16]



[1] The Meiri adopted the second explanation: "And at the end he alludes to the redemption of which one should not despair. The words 'shalach' and 'tziva' are in past form but refer to the future."

[2] This is the way the Radak explains verses 2-3: "The works of the Lord are great… that He performed among the created beings… His work is glory and splendor – when man contemplates His work, heaven and earth, he sees that it is glory and splendor. And His righteousness –the entire world, for it is righteousness from Him for His creatures – endures forever."

[3] a) The specific Divine act discussed in v.6 is the giving of the Land to His people. The verse means as follows: "He declared to His people the power of His works, when He gave them the heritage of the nations – then He showed them His power and might" (Rashi). According to the Meiri, the works through which God showed His power to His people were "the exodus from Egypt and their wars in the wilderness." The connection to the second clause of the verse is that these works helped Israel later, when the Land was given to them: "For because of the wonders that they [the nations] saw and heard, all of the inhabitants of the land melted away."

b) "The works of [God's] hands" are mentioned a second time in the second half at the beginning of verse 7: "The works of His hands are truth and justice." According to the parallelism with the second clause, "His works" are "His decrees" – His commandments - but the designation of God's commandments as "the works of His hands" is strange. Therefore, the Radak and the Meiri suggest that "the works of His hands" are those discussed in the previous verse, i.e., the act of giving the Land to Israel, which was in truth and justice: "And the works of His hands when He gave them the heritage of the nations are truth and justice – 'on account of the wickedness of these nations' (see Devarim 9:5)" (Meiri). It is, however, possible that the reference is to God's commandments, for in the verse beginning with the letter ayin, the psalmist uses the root ayin-sin-heh in connection with God's decrees: "They are made (asuyim) in truth and uprightness."

[4] In our study of Noach (Iyyunim Be-Parashiot Ha-Shavu'a, 2nd series, pp. 20-38), we noted that the covenant of the rainbow is an expansion of the covenant that God made with His world in the very act of creation.

[5] See our study of Parashat Vaera in Iyyunim Be-Parashiot Ha-Shavu'a, 1st series, pp. 175-177.

[6] The Radak cites an explanation similar to that of Rashi, noting that their source is in a midrash. But he, too, explains that "the wonderful works" of God are those that He performed for Israel in Egypt. The Ibn Ezra and R. Yeshaya interpret similarly. What is most surprising is that even a modern commentator – Tz.P. Chajes – explains the verse like Rashi: "His wonderful works will be remembered forever by way of the holidays, such as the exodus from Egypt which will be remembered on Pesach."

[7] This is the way the Meiri explains our verse: "He went far with his wonderful works to the point that some of them will be remembered forever owing to their greatness." This is also the way that Joel Brill explains the verse in his commentary to Tehillim: "The Lord who is gracious and merciful made a remembrance for His wonderful works of creation in each and every generation." Amos Chakham in his Da'at Mikra commentary explains similarly.

[8] It is not entirely clear to which realm the clause opening with the letter mem belongs: "The works of His hands are truth and justice." See above, note 3b.

[9] These descriptions of God's commandments are similar to the description of God's commandments in Tehillim 19:8-10. There too it says, "The testimony of the Lord is sure (ne'emana);" "the statutes of the Lord are upright (yesharim);" "the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever (omedet la-ad);” "the judgments of the Lord are true (emet)."  

[10] In the other two realms in which God's actions reveal themselves in our psalm – His providence over all of mankind and His intervention in the history of His people – there are no superlatives, only a description of the actions themselves.

[11] We already cited above the Radak's explanation of these words, that "His righteousness" is "the entire world, for it is righteousness from Him to His creatures."

[12] The Ibn Ezra finds another connection to the body of the psalm: "Since it mentioned that He is "wonderful" (or "fearful" - nora), it says here, "The fear (yir'at) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

[13] The Ibn Ezra later cites the explanation of R. Moshe (Gikitila): "The heh and mem in the word "osehem" (who do them) refer to wisdom and fear (mentioned in the first clause of the verse)." This understanding appears to be far-fetched.

[14] The expression "sekhel tov" (good sense) appears another two times in the book of Mishlei (3:4; 13:15), where the meaning may be slightly different.

[15] Of the 57 instances of the word "tehilla" in Scripture, only 4-5 of them refer to humans.

[16] The similar expressions in our psalm also refer to the works of God: "His decrees – stand fast forever and ever," and His covenant is "forever."