All the psalms are considered to be part of Israel’s Wisdom Tradition, but Psalm 111 is one that sings specifically and eloquently that:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Fearing the Lord.
Marveling at the Mystery.
“The fear of the Lord” is not anxiety; rather it is submission and obedience with a trembling, knee-knocking, grateful faith.
“True knowledge – wisdom – is not grounded in ourselves but in God, and it involves the embrace of God’s commitments and values. Thus wisdom will take concrete shape in righteousness, grace and mercy.” Clinton McCann offers some practical help here as we seek to understand. As the divine wisdom is demonstrated by God’s ‘great’ and ‘wonderful’ works, so human wisdom shows forth in our own deeds of righteousness, grace and mercy.
Wisdom takes concrete shape.
Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
The psalmist “delights” in God’s presence among the people, the Lord’s deeds of grace and goodness. The psalmist also delights in those intentional times to study/converse/and explore what all this means for God’s people.
“An hour of study is as an hour of prayer,” I have been taught.
Experiencing times of wonder and and then pondering the wonder brings a wisdom that is beyond knowledge. Beyond even feeling.
Karen Armstrong’s first major book was “The History of God” as she considered the ways God is understood throughout Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Another important work ponders the wisdom religious and spiritual teachers have been discovering since the Axial Age. A 2016 interview piques our interest as we hear her talk about her book The Great Transformation.
“Thinking can only take you so far,” she explains. “Action, behavior, especially compassionate behavior, is more important than thinking. By constantly exercising compassion, the golden rule, you enter a different state of consciousness. This rather than thinking will get you to enlightenment.”
Wisdom teachers have been showing us the way to enlightenment for centuries and that way is always active. God’s wisdom takes concrete shape in God’s compassionate upholding of all God’s creation. Human wisdom take concrete shape in acts of compassion as well.
In Psalm 111, our poet bubbles over with praise for God’s great and wonderful works but with particular thanksgiving for God’s covenant with Israel.
All God’s precepts are trustworthy.
They are established forever and ever
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Covenant is the anchor of Israel.
Salvation from slavery in Israel. Protection through the wilderness. Adoption at the mountain of fire and smoke. Redemption from Exile.
And even before Israel, the covenant with Abraham, Issac and Jacob. And even before the patriarchs, the covenant with Noah and all creation.
All these “wonderful deeds” confirm God’s faithfulness to covenant and call for Israel’s trust and obedience to these “trustworthy precepts.”
So the “work” of God’s people is to trust and obey.
The Lord is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
Here God’s people look to their Lord as their Source and Sustainer. The God who is faithful, gracious and merciful. The Lord whose wisdom takes concrete shape in righteousness, grace and mercy.
Holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
God’s praise endures forever.
Psalm 111 dovetails into Psalm 112. The editors want us to see the same connection they saw between these two praise hymns.
Praise the Lord!
Blessed are those who fear the Lord,
who greatly delight in his commandments.
The fear of the Lord brings both wisdom, confidence and joy.
Karen Armstrong’s book: The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, 2006.
See a video of her 2006 interview with Charley Rose here
Read the 2016 interview with the Editors of Parbola journal here.
Clinton McCann, “The Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996, page 1134.