Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 11: Psalms, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
PSALM 111 334
The title to this psalm supplies the place of an argument; and, that others may be induced to engage in the praises of God, the Psalmist points out the manner of doing so by his own example. Then he gives a short account of the manifold benefits which, in olden times, he conferred upon the faithful, and is daily conferring upon them. The psalm is composed in alphabetical order, each verse containing two letters. The first verse begins with a, א aleph, while the letter b, ב beth, is placed at the commencement of the next half of the verse. The last two verses only are not divided into hemistiches; but each of these has three letters. If, however, any one will closely examine the contents, he will find that this has occurred through mistake or inadvertence; for if we make these two verses into three, 335 the construction of the sentences corresponds very well one with another; and consequently, the transcribers have erred in not attending to the prophet’s distinction.
1. Praise ye Jehovah. 336 (א, aleph,) I will praise Jehovah with my whole heart, (ב, beth) In the congregation and assembly of the just. 2. (ג, gimel,) The works of Jehovah are great, (ד, daleth,) Sought out of all who have a desire to them. 3. (ה, he,) His work is beautiful and magnificent: (ו, vau,) And his justice endureth for ever. 4. (ז, zain,) He hath caused his marvellous works to be remembered: (ח, cheth,) Jehovah is compassionate and merciful.
1 I will praise Jehovah The best and most efficient method of inculcating the performance of any duty is to be exemplary; and, accordingly, we find that the prophet, in the present instance, sets himself for an example, to lead others to engage in the celebration of God’s praises. His resolution to praise God consists of two parts; that he would celebrate God’s praises unfeignedly, with all his heart, and that he would do it publicly, in the assembly of the faithful. He very properly begins with heart-praise, because it is much better to praise in secret, and when no one is conscious of it, than to lift up our voice, and shout forth his praises with feigned lips. At the same time, the person who, in secret, pours out his heart in grateful emotions towards God, will also set forth his praises in swelling strains, otherwise God would be deprived of one half of the honor which is due to him. The prophet then determines to praise God with the whole heart, that is, with an upright and honest heart; not that he engages to come up to the full measure of his duty, but he declares that he would not be like the hypocrites, who, coldly and with a double heart, or rather guilefully and perfidiously, employ their lips only in the praises of God. This is a point worthy of notice, lest any should be discouraged, in consequence of not being able to cherish the hope of attaining to that perfection of heart which is so desirable; for however defective our praises may be, they may nevertheless be acceptable to God, provided only we strive unfeignedly to render unto him this act of devotion. We come now to the other part of his resolution, in which he says he would proclaim the praises of God before men; for although the Hebrew term סוד, sod, denotes a private assembly, 337 yet I think that, in this passage, he employs two words of synonymous import. At the same time, should any one be inclined to take a more refined view of the passage, he may do so if he please. He says, in the congregation of the just, because the principal object for which holy assemblies are convened, is to afford the worshippers of God an opportunity of presenting to him sacrifices of praise, agreeably to what is stated in Ps 65:1,
“Praise waits for thee, O Jehovah! in Zion.”
2 The works of Jehovah are great He now proceeds to inform us that there are abundant materials for praising God, supplied by his works, to which at present he makes only a general reference, and which he, subsequently, defines more explicitly in relation to the government of the Church. The magnitude of God’s works is a subject which, generally, eludes the observation of men, and, therefore, few of them are acquainted with it. This ignorance the prophet ascribes to the indifference and ingratitude of men, comparatively few of whom condescend to notice the great wisdom, goodness, justice, and power, which shine forth in these works. Expositors are divided in their sentiments about the second clause of the verse. Some translate it, sought out for all their delights; and, indeed, the Hebrew term חפף, chaphets, signifies good pleasure; but as this is too harsh an interpretation of the word, it is better to understand it as an adjective, expressing the idea of loving or desiring. As to the participle, sought out, which, according to the Hebrew verb, דרש, darash, properly denotes, to search with diligence, we yet find that the works of Jehovah are, in this place, called דרושים, derushim, that is, perceived or found out. Hence, in Isa 65:1, it is said, “I was found of them who sought, me not.” I must, however, not lose sight of the prophet’s design, namely, that in consequence of so few applying themselves to the study of the works of God, he teaches us that that is the reason why so many are blind amidst a flood of light; for, when he says that the excellency of the works of God is known to all who desire it, he means that none are ignorant of it, except such as are wilfully blind, or rather, malignantly and contemptuously quench the light which is offered to them. We must, however, attend to the means which we possess for arriving at the knowledge of these words because we know, that as long as the faithful are on earth, their understandings are dull and weak, so that they cannot penetrate the mysteries, or comprehend the height of the works of God. But, incomprehensible as is the immensity of the wisdom, equity, justice, power, and mercy of God, in his works, the faithful nevertheless acquire as much knowledge of these as qualifies them for manifesting the glory of God; only it becomes us to begin the study of his works with reverence, that we may take delight in them, contemptible though they be in the estimation of the reprobate, who treat them with impious scorn. The LXX. having rendered it, sought out in all his wills, Augustine has therefore taken occasion, with philosophic finesse, to ask, How can there be, or, at least, appear to be, a plurality of wills in God? And it is indeed a pleasing consideration, that though God manifest his will in his law, nevertheless there is another secret purpose by which he is guided in the wonderful management of human affairs. This doctrine, however, is, foreign to the exposition of this passage.
3 His work is beautiful Others render it splendor. The meaning of the clause is this, That every act of God is replete with glorious majesty. In the following part of the verse he specifies more clearly in what this beauty and magnificence consist, by stating that the justice of God is everywhere conspicuous. It is not the design of God to furnish us with such a display of his power and sovereignty in his works, as might only fill our minds with terror, but he also gives us a display of his justice in a manner so inviting as to captivate our hearts. This commendation of the works and ways of God is introduced in opposition to the clamor and calumny of the ungodly, by which they impiously endeavor, to the utmost extent of their power, to disfigure and deface the glory of the works of God. In the next verse, he more especially extols the wonderful works in which God has principally set forth his power. To cause his marvellous works to be remembered, is equivalent to the doing of works worthy of being remembered, or the renown of which shall continue for ever. 338 And having above called upon us to contemplate his justice, now, in like manner, and almost in like terms, he celebrates the grace and mercy of God, principally in relation to his works, because that justice which he displays in the preservation and protection of his people, issues from the source of his unmerited favor which he bears towards them.
5. (ט, teth,) He hath given a portion to them that fear him: (י, yod,) He will remember his covenant for ever. 6. (כ, caph,) He hath declared to his people the power of his works, (ל, lamed,) To give the heritage of the heathen to them. 7. (מ, mem,) The works of his hands are truth and judgment; (נ, nun,) All his statutes are true. 8. (ס, samech,) They are established for ever, (ע, ain,) And are done in truth and righteousness.
5 He hath given a portion to them that fear him The Church being a mirror of the grace and justice of God, what the prophet said respecting them is here expressly applied to her; not that he designs to treat of the justice of God, in general, but only of that which he peculiarly displays towards his own people. Hence he adds, that God’s care of his people is such as to lead him to make ample provision for the supply of all their wants. The word טרף, tereph, which we have translated portion, is frequently taken for a prey: 339 others render it meat; but I rather choose to render it portion, in which sense it is taken in Pr 30:8, and Pr 31:15; as if he should say, that God had given his people all that was needful, and that, considered as a portion, it was large and liberal; for we know that the people of Israel were enriched, not in consequence of their own industry, but by the blessing of God, who, like the father of a family, bestows upon his household every thing necessary for their subsistence. In the following clause of the verse, he assigns as the reason for his care and kindness, his desire of effectually demonstrating that his covenant was not null and void. And here it must be carefully observed, that if, in former times, and from a respect to his gracious covenant, he manifested so great kindness towards the people of Israel, in like manner, the goodness which we receive from him is the result of our adoption into his family; and because God is never weary in showing kindness to his people, he says that the remembrance of his covenant shall never be effaced. Moreover, as he daily and constantly loads us with his benefits, so our faith must, in some measure, correspond with it: it must not fail, but must rise above life and death.
The next verse is subjoined, by way of exposition, for the purpose of showing that God, in bestowing upon his people the heritage of the heathen, had manifested to them the power of his works. He does indeed employ the term show, but he means a true showing; because the possession of the Holy Land was not acquired by mere human power, but it was given to them by Divine power, and through the working of many miracles; and thus God, as it were, openly testified to the descendants of Abraham with what incomparable power he is invested. It is on this account that he sets up the people of Israel as a match for so many other nations, who would assuredly never have vanquished so many enemies, unless they had been sustained from on high.
7 The works of his hands In the first clause of the verse he exclaims that God is known to be faithful and upright in his works, and then he goes on to extol the same truth and rectitude as pervading the doctrine of the law; the amount of which is, that a beautiful harmony characterises all the sayings and doings of God, because every where he shows himself to be just and faithful. We have a memorable proof of this fact in the redemption of his ancient people. Yet I doubt not, that, under the term, works, the prophet comprehends the constant government of the Church; because God daily and unceasingly shows that he is just and true, and unweariedly pursues the same course. Among men it is reckoned to be of more importance for one to be found just in practice than in profession; yet, as the doctrine of the law was the very life and safety of the people, the prophet very properly, and in several expressions, dwells upon the sentiment contained in the second clause of the verse; saying, all his statutes are true, they are established for ever, and are drawn up in perfect accordance with the strict law of truth and equity And assuredly, but for God’s having kept the people united to him by the sacred chain of the law, the fruit of their redemption would have been very small, and even that benefit would have soon been lost by them. We ought to observe, then, that this subject is brought prominently forward in this place; because, in attesting the eternal love of God, it became the means of imparting life.
9. (פ, phe,) He sent redemption to his people; (ץ, tzaddi,) he hath commanded His covenant for ever: (ק, koph,) holy and terrible is his name. 10. (ר, resh,) The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom: (ש, schin,) good understanding have all they who do these things: (ת, tau,) his praise endureth for ever.
9 He sent redemption to his people What he had already stated is here repeated in different words. And as the deliverance of his people was the commencement of their salvation, it is first introduced; next is subjoined its confirmation in the law, by reason of which it comes to pass that God’s adoption could never fail. For though, long prior to this, God had established his covenant with Abraham, which also was the occasion of the redemption of the people; yet what is here mentioned refers exclusively to the law, by which the covenant was ratified, never to be disannulled. The amount is, that, in the deliverance of the people, God did not act the part of a beneficial father, merely for a day, but that, in the promulgation of the law, he also establishedhis grace, that the hope of eternal life might continue for ever in the Church. Moreover, you must attend carefully to what I have elsewhere cautioned you against, and to which I shall advert more at length on Psalm 119, where the law is spoken of, That the commandments must not be taken always abstractly, for the Holy Spirit, in an especial manner, refers to the promises which are in Christ, by which God, in gathering his chosen people to himself, hath begotten them again to eternal life.
10. The fear of Jehovah Having treated of the kindness of God, and paid a well-merited tribute to the law, the prophet goes on to exhort the faithful to reverence God, and be zealous in the keeping of the law. In calling the fear of God, The beginning or source of wisdom, he charges with folly those who do not render implicit obedience unto God. As if he should say, They who fear not God, and do not regulate their lives according to his law, are brute beasts: and are ignorant of the first elements of true wisdom. To this we must carefully attend; for although mankind generally wish to be accounted wise almost all the world lightly esteem God, and take pleasure in their own wicked craftiness. And as the very worst of men are reputed to be superior to all others in point of wisdom; and, puffed up with this confidence, harden themselves against God, the prophet declares all the wisdom of the world, without the fear of God, to be vanity or an empty shadow. And, indeed, all who are ignorant of the purpose for which they live are fools and madmen. But to serve God is the purpose for which we have been born, and for which we are preserved in life. There is, therefore, no worse blindness, no insensibility so grovelling, as when we contemn God, and place our affections elsewhere. For whatever ingenuity the wicked may possess, they are destitute of the main thing, genuine piety. To the same effect are the words which immediately follow, a good understanding have all they who keep God’s commandments. There is great emphasis upon the qualifying adjunct טוב, tob; because the prophet, in inveighing against the foolish opinion to which we have already adverted, tacitly condemns those who delight in their own wicked craftiness. His meaning is, I admit, that they are usually deemed wise who look well to their own interests, who can pursue a temporising policy, who have the acuteness and artifice of preserving the favorable opinion of the world, and who even practice deception upon others. But even were I to grant that this character belongs to them, yet is their wisdom unprofitable and perverse, because true wisdom manifests itself in the observance of the law. Next he substitutes the keeping of God’s commandments for the fear of God. For though all men, without exception, boast that they fear God, yet nothing is more common than for them to live in the neglect of his law. Hence the prophet very properly inculcates upon us the voluntary assumption of his yoke, and submission to the regulations of his word, as the most satisfactory evidence of our living in the fear of God. The term beginning 340 has misled some, leading them to imagine that the fear of God was denominated the entrance of wisdom, as it were the alphabet, because it prepares men for true piety. Such an opinion is scarcely deserving of notice, seeing that, in Job 28:28, it is called “wisdom.” In this passage fear is not to be understood as referring to the first or elementary principles of piety, as in 1Jo 4:18, but is comprehensive of all true godliness, or the worship of God. The conclusion of the psalm requires no explanation; it being the object of the prophet simply to inculcate upon the faithful, that nothing is more profitable for them, than to spend their lives in the celebration of the praises of God.
This and the subsequent psalms, to the 119th, are supposed to have been sung by the Jews at the celebration of the Passover; and the subject-matter of them was peculiarly adapted to such a purpose. “From the 111th to the 118th psalm, inclusive,” says Jebb, in his recent work on the Psalms, “we find very interesting marks of a ceremonial which, tradition asserts, was observed by the Jews at the eating of the Passover, namely, the singing of the Gospel Hallel — that hymn, in all likelihood, which our blessed Lord sang with his disciples after the Last Supper. Dr Lightfoot informs us that there is considerable discrepancy of opinion among the Jews as to what psalms constituted the Greater Hallel; the various opinions extending or contracting its range from the 113th to the 137th psalm. As usual, these traditions are uncertain and ill defined, and have more respect to the arbitrary dicta of the Rabbins than to the internal evidence of Holy Scripture. Let us now examine this evidence. In the first place, we are to remark, that all the psalms (except the 114th and 118th) which precede the 119th, have Hallelujah (that is, Praise ye the Lord) either prefixed or subjoined, or both, while those which are without this burden are in evident connection; the 119th as evidently beginning a new series. In the absence, then, of any consistent testimony, it seems fair to assume, that this group of psalms formed the Greater Hallel, the sentiment they contain being singularly applicable to the festival, — to the great deliverance from Egypt, which it celebrated, and to the second delivery from Babylon, which so strongly resembled it. According to Dr Lightfoot, the 113th and 114th psalms were sung at one period of the feast, at the second cup; and after the fourth cup, the other psalms, namely, the 115th to the 118th, inclusive; and here the feast ordinarily ended. They thus held the place of grace before or after meat; and this division is very consistent, the latter psalms being more evidently Eucharistical.” — Jebb’s Literal Translation of the Book of Psalms, with Dissertations, volume 2, pages 269-271.
“These two verses,” says Dr Geddes, “might just as well have made three, and then the whole of both psalms would be regular.” According to Jerome, this is the first psalm that is exactly alphabetical, the rest of this description, which precede it, being only nearly so.
The Hebrew for Praise ye Jehovah is Hallelujah. This is probably the title, and no part of the psalm itself. The alphabetical construction of the poem seems to confirm this opinion. It is acrostic, and begins with aleph, and each succeeding hemistich commences with the other letters of the alphabet in order; but were Hallelujah, which begins with the fifth letter of the alphabet, answering to our H, the first word of the psalm, that would destroy its perfectly alphabetical character.
“Aben Ezra and others think that עדה is put in opposition to סוד, which denotes a more secret assembly; and so the verse, they say, means, in substance, as follows: ‘I will praise the Lord with all my heart, both privately and publicly.’ This, however, I think can scarcely be the sense: it is much more likely that סוד is here employed to express a congregation of Israelites; because the rest of the world was excluded from such assembly, and so far it partook of the character of private or secret. This is the view taken by Luther, whose paraphrase of this verse is as follows: ‘I thank the Lord here in this public assembly, where we (Israelites) meet one another as in private counsel, and where no heathen nor strangers can be present.’” — Phillips.
“זכר עשה. He hath made a memorial for himself in his wonderful works. זכר, the same as זכרון in Nu 17:5. So the LXX., in Ex 17:14, render זכר by ὄνομα, name; accordingly, זכר עשה may signify, He hath made himself a name; i.e., His wonderful works will exist as memorials of his name.” — Phillips.
“Given meat — Heb., ‘Prey;’ i.e., food. Some think this refers to the manna rained upon Israel in the wilderness; we should rather think, to the quails. See Ps 105:40.” — Williams. “טרף. This word is usually translated prey, and the passage is thought, by some, to refer to the spoiling of the Egyptians by the Israelites, mentioned in Ex 12:36. It is, however, more probable that טרף signifies here food, and that allusion is made to the manna with which the children of Israel were fed in the wilderness. See Pr 31:15; Mal 3:10. The first hemistich is the consequence of what is stated in the second; i.e., because God remembered his covenant, therefore he gave food to them who fear him.” — Phillips.
“The beginning, — the word, so translated, also signifies the prime, the chief part, the perfection; a sense which it may very well bear in this place: comp. Deut. 10:12, Job 28:28, Prov. 1:7, Prov. 9:10” — Cresswell. “ראשית this word may signify, the first in time, and so it may denote the foundation of any thing; hence the meaning of the Psalmist here is, that the foundation of all wisdom is the fear of the Lord. But ראשית has also the sense of being first in dignity, as well as in order of time; thus ראשית חכמה, wisdom is the chief thing, Pr 4:7. Here it may be understood in the same manner; i.e., the fear of the Lord is the chief wisdom.” — Phillips.