Shiur #46: "Happy Is The Man Who Fears The Lord" - Psalm 112 (Part III)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet


By Rav Elchanan Samet



This shiur is dedicated by Drs. Jerry and Barbara Belsh.



Lecture 46: Psalm 112

"Happy is the man who fears the Lord" (Part III)




Psalm 111


Psalm 112


Praise the Lord!

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

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


Praise the Lord!

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

(ב) who delights greatly in His commandments.


(ג) The works of the Lord are great.

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


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

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


(ה) His work is glory and splendor,

(ו) And His righteousness endures forever.


(ה) Wealth and riches are in his house,

(ו) and his righteousness endures forever.


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

(ח) The Lord is gracious and merciful.


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


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


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

(י) He remembers His covenant forever.


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

(י) and who conducts his affairs justly.


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

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


(כ) Surely he will never stumble.

(ל) The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance.


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

(נ) All His decrees are true.


(מ) He is not afraid of evil tidings.

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


(ס) They stand fast forever and ever.

(ע) They are made in truth and uprightness.


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

(ע) until he sees his enemies.


(פ) He sends redemption to His people.

(צ) He has commanded His covenant forever.

(ק) Holy and revered is His name.


(פ) He disperses freely to the needy.

(צ) His righteousness endures forever.

(ק) His horn will be exalted with honor.


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

(ש) good sense for all who do them.

(ת) His praise endures forever.


(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.




            We have not yet explained why the description of the righteous man's actions and recompense in psalm 112 is divided into three cycles/stanzas. Clarification of the unique contents of each stanza will help us in this task.


            The account of the God-fearing man's righteousness in stanza 1 is very general and relates to the entirety of God's commandments. Stanzas 2-3 illustrate his righteousness in two specific realms: stanza 2 regarding the mitzvot between man and his fellow and stanza 3 regarding the mitzvot between man and God.


            It should, however, be emphasized that stanzas 2-3 describe much more than formal observance of the Torah's commandments. The Torah commands, "You shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother; but you shall open your hand wide to him, and shall surely lend him" (Devarim 15:7-8). Not only does the righteous man in our psalm "give freely and lend" to the poor as the Torah commands, he even "disperses" his money to them – that is, he gives them gifts, thereby fulfilling what Chazal refer to as "giving charity" (tzedaka). What is more, he also "shines light in the darkness for the upright" – that is, he provides emotional support to people in distress, which is likened to darkness. Similar actions are described in the commands of the prophet:


Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house?

When you see the naked, that you cover him;

and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?…

And if you draw out your soul to the hungry,

And satisfy the afflicted soul… (Yeshayahu 58:7, 10)


            Stanza 3 also describes a religious quality of the righteous man that goes beyond the fear and love of God (discussed in stanza 1): the quality of trust in God. This quality is tested in times of distress and threat, when a person's routine world is undermined and he is liable to lose his wits. But the righteous man in our psalm "is not afraid of evil tidings" because "his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord."




            The conclusion of the psalm and the fact that the clause, "His horn will be exalted with honor," serves as an introduction to this conclusion, was already discussed at the beginning of our study of psalm 112. Here I wish only to discuss the relationship between the stanza's conclusion and stanza 3, which precedes it. The wicked man's anger and the grinding of his teeth when he sees the exalted horn of the righteous man are not merely expressions of jealousy. The Radak explains the physical reaction of grinding teeth: "Were he able to destroy him, he would do so." It turns out, then, that this wicked man is one of the enemies of the righteous man mentioned in stanza 3: "until he sees his enemies."


            The final clause beginning with the letter tof, "The hope of the wicked will come to naught," seems to refer to "the hope of the wicked to see evil befall the righteous," as proposed by the Radak. Accordingly, the dashing of the wicked man's hope certainly results from his fall, and this is precisely what the righteous man is promised - he will "see [the fall of] his enemies."


            We see, then, that the psalm's conclusion continues what was stated in stanza 3, while changing the perspective from contemplation of the righteous man and his destiny to the complementary consideration of the wicked man and his fate.




1.     The alphabetical order in the two psalms – limitation or advantage?


In our analysis of each of the two psalms, we strove to reveal the structure of each psalm and the importance of that structure for understanding the general intent of the psalm as well as its various details. Exposure of the structure of each of the psalms has taught us that despite the fact that the two psalms were cast in the same mold and maintain ramified stylistic and substantive connections between them, each psalm has a structure that is different than that of the other. In each of the psalms, the structure serves the subject of the psalm and its unique intention.


Uncovering the structure of each of the psalms taught us something else as well: The alphabetic acrostic in these two psalms did not at all impede the free expression of their ideas and their internal organization in a tight and logical structure.


Let us formulate this more clearly. The literary analysis could have been undertaken independently of the acrostic, to the point that the reader might have entirely overlooked the fact that the verses in these two psalms are arranged in alphabetical order. Why, then, did the author of psalms 111 and 112 choose to arrange the psalms around an alphabetical acrostic?


It goes without saying that we must not content ourselves with the technical answer, which can be found among certain modern commentators, that this order was meant to make it easier to recite these psalms from memory. While it is undeniable that an alphabetical order is helpful in this regard, there is no reason why precisely these psalms (and the other alphabetical psalms) were supposed to be committed to memory any more than the rest of the psalms in the book of Tehillim.[1]


A more convincing explanation relates to the symbolic significance of using all the letters of the alphabet, whereby the psalmist expresses the idea of perfection and wholeness.[2] The acrostic demonstrates that the idea of the psalm can be expressed, and even must be expressed, in each of the letters of the alphabet, from alef to tof. A similar notion is expressed through the fact that each of the two psalms is comprised of ten verses, which is a number that expresses the idea of perfection in a different way.[3]


This phenomenon of a poet accepting upon himself a technical limitation such as an acrostic (and in later generations, many additional limitations, rhyme being just one of them) characterizes the history of poetry throughout the ages. For a true poet, not only does such a limitation not impair his freedom of expression, but on the contrary, it helps in this regard.[4] This seems to be paradoxical, but anyone familiar with the poetry of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi, for example, can see this in almost every one of his poems.[5]


2. The connections between Psalm 111 and Psalm 112


            Now that we have dealt with each of the psalms independently, the time has come to return to the question that we raised in our introduction to this pair of psalms: What is the essential connection between them, and does this connection help us understand each of the psalms, and perhaps even teach us a new idea that we would not have learned from each psalm on its own?




We will began our discussion of this issue with the most overt and prominent substantive connection between the two psalms. Verse 10 of psalm 111 serves as that psalm's conclusion, it being the didactic conclusion of the main body of the psalm, as we noted in our analysis. At the same time, however, it serves as a connecting link, or perhaps even as an introduction to psalm 112. Let us clarify this by comparing this closing verse to the opening clause of psalm 112:


Psalm 111:10

Psalm 112:1

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,


Happy is the man who fears the Lord,


good sense for all who do them.

who delights greatly in His commandments.



            The primary difference between the two verses is that the first one is formulated as an abstract and general conclusion following from what was stated previously, whereas the second one concretizes this conclusion in the person of a particular "man."


            Let us now examine the conclusion in verse 10. How does it follow from the body of psalm 111? In our discussion of this verse at the end of our study of psalm 111, we demonstrated that its first clause is substantively and linguistically connected to the first half of the psalm, whereas the second clause is connected to the second half of the psalm. Let us expand now upon what was said there.


            Why is "the fear of God" the necessary conclusion from the description of God's greatness in the first half of the psalm? God's greatness is evident in this half in two areas: in the world that He created and in His providence over His creatures. The second realm is connected linguistically to the conclusion in verse 10: "He gives food to those who fear Him" – "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." That is to say, God ensures the continued existence of those who fear Him, and it is wise to be included among them.


            Fear of God is also the necessary conclusion from contemplation about the world that God created. The Rambam's words in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah (2:1-2) explain this idea:


The God, honored and revered, it is our duty to love and fear… And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name… And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil affrighted, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge.


            Let us move on now to the second clause of verse 10, "good sense for all who do them." How does this conclusion follow from the second half of the psalm? The commentators explained that the pronominal suffix in the word “oseihem,” "who do them," refers to the decrees described in verses 7-8. God's decrees and commandments are described in the second half of psalm 111 by several designations: "truth and justice," "true," "they stand fast forever and ever," "they are made in truth and uprightness." From this we may conclude that it is wise and sensible for a person to observe them.


            Now, since psalm 112 concretizes what was stated in 111:10 with respect to the "man" described therein, we can say that contemplation of what was described in psalm 111 brought the "man" in psalm 112 to be a "man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments."


            In our explanation of this verse (in our analysis of psalm 112), we said that its two clauses describe the qualities of the fear and love of God on the part of the man described. How does this man come to the love of God? Above we brought the words of the Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah. But in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (positive commandment 3), the Rambam describes a different path to the love of God:


That we should contemplate and look at His commandments and decrees and actions so that we may comprehend Him… This is the love about which we were commanded.


            With respect to psalms 111-112, we can formulate this as follows: What is the path to the love of God and to observing His commandments with great desire? When a person contemplates God's decrees, as described in psalm 111, and sees in them His wisdom and uprightness, he will immediately long to observe them with a willing heart.


            It turns out, then, that the man described in psalm 112 is one who internalized the description of God's greatness in psalm 111 and thanked God with all his heart for His actions. This man also learned the didactic conclusion of psalm 111 and applied it in his daily life.[6]



In our introduction to this pair of psalms, we noted the stylistic-verbal similarity between the two, and especially the repetition of clauses found in one psalm in the other. This repetition is the most prominent phenomenon when we compare the two psalms, and it stands to reason that it is especially significant with respect to the question of the essential connection between them.


The two clauses beginning with the letter chet are very similar:


The Lord is gracious and merciful.

The gracious, and the merciful, and the righteous.


            In our explanation of the second stanza of psalm 112, we brought the prevalent view among the commentators that
"the gracious, and the merciful, and the righteous" are three designations of God. We conjectured there that they understood these words in this manner because the words "chanun" (gracious) and "rachum" (merciful) appear in Scripture only in connection to God. We raised several objections to this explanation, however, owing to which we reached the conclusion that this clause is dealing with the righteous man, who is "gracious and merciful."


            The truth is that if all we had before us was psalm 112, it would be difficult to explain these words in this manner. It would be unreasonable to think that the terms "gracious and merciful" were assigned to man in only one place in Scripture. But the proximity of psalm 112 to psalm 111 makes this explanation possible. In psalm 111, it says about God that He is "gracious and merciful," and in psalm 112 it says about the righteous man that he follows in his Creator's footsteps and adopts His qualities, to the point that he, too, is "gracious and merciful."[7] This is what the Sages (Sifrei, Parashat Ekev, sec. 49) taught on the verse, "To love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways" (Devarim 11:22):


What are God's ways? "The Lord, God, merciful and gracious" (Shemot 34:6)… Rather, the Omnipresent is called "merciful," you too be merciful; the Holy One, blessed be He, is called "gracious," you too be gracious, as it is stated, "The Lord is gracious and merciful, etc.,"[8] and make free gifts; the Omnipresent is called "righteous," as it is stated, "For the Lord is righteous, He loves righteousness" (Tehillim 11:7), you too be righteous. The Omnipresent is called "kind," as it is stated, "For I am kind, says the Lord" (Yirmiyahu 3:12), you too be kind.[9]


            It turns out, then, that the juxtaposition of psalms 111-112 not only helps us understand a difficult verse in psalm 112,[10] but also give rise to a new idea that we would not have arrived at had we studied each of the psalms independently: The God-fearing man who delights in His commandments must imitate God's ways and adopt those qualities with which God is described and which are relevant to man as well.[11]




Another clause that is found in both psalms is the clause beginning with the letter vav:


And His righteousness endures forever.


In psalm 112, this clause appears once again in the letter tzadi, and in a slightly different form in the letter lamed: "The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance." We have already seen that these three clauses serve as a refrain at the end of each of the three stanzas, which constitute the main body of psalm 112.


This repetition cannot be explained in the way that we explained above the repetition of the words "gracious and merciful." This follows from the different context in which the clause "His righteousness endures forever" appears in each psalm; the different context determines also a different explanation.


In psalm 111, this clause appears in the context of a description of God's works in creation (letters gimmel to zayin), and therefore it should be understood as it was understood by the Radak: "And His righteousness – namely, the entire world, for it is righteousness from Him to His creatures, stands forever." Man, who is one of the creations in God's world and not the Creator, cannot follow here in the footsteps of God.


In psalm 112, this clause appears twice, at the end of the description of the righteous man's reward in stanzas 1 and 3. "Reward" is something human by its very definition, and irrelevant to a description of God's greatness.


What, then, is the meaning of the repetition of the clause "and His righteousness will endure forever" in the two psalms in such different contexts? What does it come to teach us?


In psalms 111-112, two synonymous words repeat themselves in striking fashion: "la-ad" and "le-olam" ("forever"). In psalm 111, they appear 6 times,[12] and in psalm 112 they appear 4 times.[13] Their repetition in psalm is 111 is understandable: this psalm describes God's greatness, which finds expression in the eternality of His works. The world that He created, the commandments that He gave, and the covenant that He made will all endure "forever," and God's praise itself will "endure forever."


The appearance of these synonyms in psalm 112, which describes man, is, however, somewhat surprising: "Man that is born of a woman is of a few days, and full of trouble" (Iyov 14:1). How is he connected to the eternality expressed in the words "la-ad" and "le-olam"?


The juxtaposition of psalms 111 and 112 and the stylistic similarity between them come to teach us precisely this: The reward of the God-fearing man who walks in God's ways ("Just as He is gracious, you too be gracious…") is that an element of the eternal is conferred upon him by the Eternal one.


Now we can understand the paradoxical connection between the matching clauses beginning with the letter vav in the two psalms. God's works in the world that He created are eternal and endure forever. But it is only creation as a whole that is eternal, for the particulars constantly change. Man, too, is one of the particulars of creation; he comes from dust and ends in dust. He himself is temporary and his works are temporary, lacking any eternality.


In one realm, however, man can imitate his Creator and "create" something eternal; his good traits and deeds – "his righteousness" – endure forever. Through his good deeds, a person can remove himself from the category of transient beings and acquire for himself a place in God's eternal house.


It turns out, then, that God's "righteousness" in psalm 111 is the material world that He created from above to below (as explained by the Radak), whereas man's "righteousness" in psalm 112 is his clinging to the path of God, which bursts forth from earthly man in the lower world and climbs upwards to the region of eternity. Regarding both of them it says that they endure forever.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] S.D. Goitein in his commentary to our psalm ("Ha-Chumash Ha-Acharon Shel Sefer Tehillim," in Iyyunim Be-Mikra, pp. 167-168) argues that the fact that the word "Halleluya" is found at the beginning of both psalms "proves that they were composed from the outset to be sung in public," with the prayer leader proclaiming half a verse, and the congregation answering "Halleluya." (He finds a remnant of this custom in the manner in which these psalms were sung on Shabbat at Mincha in southern Germany). 

[2] Goitein (ibid., pp. 165-166) writes: "The idea of marking the unity of a song with an acrostic composed of the alphabet or the letters of a name… or even the letters of a complete sentence – as is found especially among the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians – was common in the literature of various nations, much earlier than the Hebrew Bible. Our ancient authorities viewed the alphabet as exceedingly holy, for it includes the entire script through which the Torah was given and through which all knowledge in the world is acquired… The intention of the author himself was that in the alphabet, which includes all the letters, the idea of perfection is implanted, and the idea of perfection is what the author wished to express in these two psalms."

[3] The combination of these two means of expressing the idea of perfection made it necessary that the last two verses in each psalm contain three clauses instead of two.

[4] In our psalms, this is expressed in the fact that the alphabetical order is helpful in forming the structure of each of the psalms, as we saw in our study of the two psalms.

[5] Regarding the alphabetical psalms in the book of Tehillim, we find a disagreement between Chazal and the early commentators, on one hand, and many modern commentators, on the other. Berakhot 4b brings the statement of R. Elazar bar R. Avina that whoever recites "A praise of David" (Tehillim 145) every day is sure to inherit the World-to-Come. The gemara explains that psalm 145 enjoys this special status for two reasons: its contents and its alphabetical arrangement.

In the Radak's introduction to his commentary to psalm 111, he writes: "This psalm was written in alphabetical order… and it is a venerable psalm, which speaks about contemplating God's actions and always remembering His wondrous deeds… Every psalm having an alphabetical arrangement – it seems that is because of its nobility and the venerable things stated therein that it was stated in that way [in alphabetical order] by way of the holy spirit."

As opposed to these sources, we find among the modern commentators a negative assessment of the artistic-literary value of such psalms. I will cite here the words of Brill, in his "Bi'ur" to the book of Tehillim, in his introduction to the first alphabetical psalm, psalm 25:

"When we consider the matter [of the alphabetical psalms], it seems that each of the psalms written in this manner… has a certain deficiency… this in two ways:

a.              The wording of these psalms is not as noble [as that of the non-alphabetical psalms]… because when [the psalmist] must think to find words beginning with the letter that must come now in accordance with the order, his soul will become stifled and he will lose some of his inspiration… as is known to anyone who understands the way of the soul.

b.              The statements will not hold together well, but rather each will stand on its own… without continuity, not with the previous statement and not with the one that follows. In some cases some of the statements will connect, but not all of them. As a result, you can remove one or more statements from the psalm, without losing the overall idea…

The literary analysis of psalms 111-112 in these studies refutes this position and the similar position expressed by other modern commentators. See what Meir Weiss says on the matter in the introduction to his article, "Tehilla Le-David – Mizmor 145" (Mikra'ot Ke-Kavanatam, pp. 264-265).

[6] Goitein describes the connection between the two psalms in a different style (see the work cited in note 1, p. 166): "These psalms complement each other. Psalm 111 relates the praises of the Holy One, blessed be He, whereas psalm 112 describes the qualities and happiness of the God-fearing man. The link that connects the two is the concluding verse of psalm 111… a verse that describes the relationship between man and his God. Each of the two psalms contains the entire spiritual world, from the perspective of God and from the perspective of man."

[7] The Radak, who in his second explanation of the words, "the gracious, and the merciful, and the righteous," explains them as referring to the righteous man, writes: "'The gracious and the merciful' refer to the man who learned from the qualities of his Creator."

[8] The verse that is cited here is from psalm 111, and this raises two questions. First of all, this verse adds nothing to what was stated beforehand. The Sifrei's teaching is based on the verse (Shemot 34:6), "Lord, Lord, God, merciful and gracious," which is also the source of the verse in Tehillim. What does this verse from Tehillim add? Second, what is meant by "etc."? The words "the Lord is gracious and merciful" are found at the end of verse 4, and what follows in the continuation of the psalm is irrelevant to this teaching!

It seems, therefore, that the word, "etc.," alludes to the parallel verse in psalm 112; the Sifrei's citation in its entirety should read: "The Lord is gracious and merciful… and the gracious, and the merciful, and the righteous." This conjecture is supported by the fact that the Sifrei continues: "The Omnipresent is called 'righteous'… you too be righteous." It seems that this teaching takes the verse, "the gracious, and the merciful, and the righteous" (the first words of which were brought to prove that a person must walk in the ways of God, who is called in the book of Shemot and in Tehillim 111 "merciful and gracious"), and reverses the direction of the teaching: The demand falling upon man to be righteous is also based on the fact that God is called "righteous" (in Tehilim 11:7 and elsewhere in Scripture). If our conjecture is right, the Sifrei bases its teaching on the comparison between the similar clauses beginning with the letter chet in psalms 111-112.

[9] Shorter parallels to the Sifrei are found in Mekhilta, Beshalach, Shira, parasha 3 (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 127) and in Shabbat 133b, both of which are cited in the name of Abba Shaul.

[10] We refer to verse 4 in its entirety, "He shines light in the darkness for the upright, the gracious, and the merciful, and the righteous," for if we understand the second clause as referring to the righteous man, it is reasonable to understand that the subject of the first clause is also the righteous man, and that the word "zarach" is a transitive verb. See our comments on this verse in the previous lecture.

[11] The Rambam counts this as a positive commandment, "And you shall walk in his ways" (Devarim 28:9), and he explains this commandment (following the Sifrei) in Hilkhot De'ot 1:6. See also Guide of the Perplexed, I:54.

[12] In the clauses beginning with the letters vav and taf la-ad; in the clauses beginning with the letters yud and tzadi le-olam; in the clause beginning with the letter samekhla-ad le-olam.

[13] In the clauses beginning with the letters vav and tzadila-ad; in the clauses beginning with the letters kof and lamedle-olam.