Psalm 111: Learn wisdom, truth, equity

‘God’s works are faithful and just, wrought in truth and equity.’ (7,8)

This opening statement is as clear and direct as any, including the pivotal Psalm 99:4. Much has been said on this theme so let us turn to the final verse:

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding (10)

Wisdom is a coveted but slippery commodity, something to which we aspire but seldom feel we have achieved. Is the getting of wisdom genetic, The Force, or Destiny? Or does it seep in from wide reading, learning, and debate, an urge that has driven human thought over the centuries. Why do people feel a lift when walking into a library? And how many classic centres of learning have caught your imagination over the years – the Humanist Library in Sélestat, established by a friend of Erasmus, Beatus Rhenanus; the baroque gem in St Gallen, where many ancient psalm manuscripts are preserved; your local library? So many books, so little time.

Glossa ordinaria psalterii, a 15th century psalter with commentary in Latin by Pierre Lombard. Humanist Library, Selestat, MS 96

Erasmus, at least in his Praise of Folly, was dismissive of wisdom in terms of learning for superior knowledge (=vanity?). This scepticism is reminiscent of Jesus’ habit of inverting social and hierarchical values. Wisdom really blossoms, we are told in the last verse of this full-on psalm, only with recognition of the divine order. Reflect then act, it says. Confucius is not far from this approach:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter. 1

Close; but it depends on what you reflect on and imitate. The psalms suggests accepting a moral order of things based on divine rather than human reference points. Reinhold Niebuhr expresses a complementary approach in his serenity prayer: accept or change, with wisdom to know the difference.

The poetic preparation for this announcement on wisdom is a statement of belief in divine goodness and protection, based on the evidence of majesty and splendour all around – the creation, its bounty and the rightness of the commandments (3-6). Physical evidence is only part of it. The psalmist points out that one of the works of God’s hands is faithfulness, then moves on to some other equally demanding but important precepts, justice and equity, a prime mover of this book.

And how do children read the word ‘fear’. Few bible translations propose a positive dimension. One even uses the word ‘dread’. The Good News Bible tries this: “The way to become wise is to honour the Lord.“ That surely cannot be the end, let alone the heart, of the matter. Admittedly this is Old Testament: but these interpretations ring too loudly of the ten, rather than the two, commandments. Does not a wiser and richer life flow from valuing and directing our lives towards sources of love — divine and human, however we discern them — in our lives, our community, our universe? Such an interpretation is consistent with the ‘fruit of the spirit’ of Galatians 5. It certainly counterbalances and neutralises fear and trembling. The clue is in the immediately preceding verses:

God … worked with truth and equity … holy and awesome is the name. (8, 9)

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Most modern antiphon tunes do not paraphrase the ‘fear of God’ along the lines suggested – awe at a holy name. This is not to say that older children can’t appreciate the nuances of fear, reverence and honour. They are smart. However, more positive terminology would help. Rather than sing about fear with children it may perhaps be useful to use one of the refrains that draw on other themes.

  • TEP, for example, is on safe ground using verse 1: “With my whole heart I thank you Lord. This little composition is nice but may be too syncopated to use as a children’s song unrehearsed.
  • NCH uses the next verse: “Great are the works of God”.
  • It may be time for the music leader to make up a tune with the children on the spot, using a short text that fits the leaders’ chosen theme.
A simple refrain can be refitted with words to taste

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On the classical front, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) wins the Grand Prix for ambition with his Ich danke dem Herrn à16, published in Dresden in 1619. Scored for four choirs of four voices or instruments as well as basso continuo, it runs to about 30 pages. He also wrote three other more modest settings for Psalm 111 including, at the other end of the scale of grandeur, a motet for solo alto and one for two tenors.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611) provided two antiphonal settings of Confitebor tibi Domine as vespers psalms, one for even verses, starting with verse 2. The other setting for odd verses is set for higher voices SSAT) and begins at verse 3, the eponymous verse 1 having been delivered by a cantor:

Introit to Psalm 111, vesper psalm by Victoria,c 1600.
A street in Selestat, Alsace, France, home of the Humanist Library.

1 Confucius, Analects 16:9, c. 500BCE. There are varying translations.