Psalm 111: Thoughtfulness

Originally presented at the 2010 Faculty Catalyst Training Workshop, this Bible study guide offers several activities to help you connect with the Scripture passage in a meaningful way.

To see the passage online at, click here.

1. Read through the Psalm, slowly and thoughtfully. What two or three things impress you most upon your first reading? Now read it again. Are there any changes in your brief list of first impressions?

2. The psalm’s structure offers important insight into its meaning. What note is struck both in the beginning and at the end of the psalm? Make a list of the qualities of the LORD that give rise to this expression of praise. Now, frame a prayer of your own (preferably in writing) that offers your own expression of praise to the LORD.

3. Psalm 111 is an acrostic (as the notes in your Bible probably observe). That is, each line begins with the 22 successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Think for a few moments about what is required to produce such a poem. What are the challenges of this form? How would producing this prayer of praise be different than your efforts above? What impresses you about the author’s accomplishment here? How are the ideas expressed in the poem related to the literary form of the poem?

4. Make a list of the verbs in the psalm that relate to the life of the mind. How do they describe “thoughtfulness?” How are they related to praise? What are the challenges for us in contemporary culture as people who aspire to be thoughtful?

5. Focus your attention on verse 10. How is thoughtfulness related to “wisdom,” the LORD’s “precepts,” and “praise?” Contrast this view of their relationship with that put forward by Leon Kass in his address to undergraduates at the University of Chicago, “The Aims of Education.”

A college education does not guarantee decency and good character. Perhaps the most profound philosopher of our century [Ludwig Wittgenstein] – a man noted in fact for his attempt to restore thoughtfulness – was a member of the German Nazi party and even its articulate defender. Indeed, the dominant source of our Western beliefs about how we should live morally, biblical religion, is rather dubious about the benefits and even about the need for questioning or for autonomous philosophizing, especially about what is good. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says Psalm 111. And, from Micah: “It has been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” And when Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” I rather doubt that he was thinking of liberal education, or for that matter, of what we mean by free. Is free thought really and always good.for morality?

We cannot dissolve this question. Once it is raised, we cannot send it away or solve it by some artful hypothesis and deduction. We really have no choice but to think about whether and how thinking is good or bad for character or piety. Those of you attached to one of the religious traditions will no doubt be moved to consider more deeply the traditional teaching about human life and the cosmos in the light of all you learn here. Those of you who are unattached might at least try learning what those religions teach, and to ponder whether so-called unaided human reason is a sufficient guide for human life. We might all consider whether thoughtfulness that does not think on the possibility of the eternal and the divine is thoughtful enough.

Finally, however, the case for the goodness of thoughtfulness cannot rest only on its utility, whether to politics or morals, to public or private life. Thoughtfulness is not only good for; it is also simply good. It is not only good for life; it is also good living. It expresses, in activity, a certain deep longing of the human soul. As Aristotle put it long ago: “All human beings by nature desire understanding.” This desire can be thwarted, distorted, and almost crushed by a lack of encouragement or opportunity for its exercise. But anyone who has looked into the eyes of very young children straining to understand, anyone who heard their genuine, spontaneous, and marvelous questions, born of wonder, anyone who has witnessed the delight they manifest when they have understood something, cannot but believe that Aristotle was right. My experience as a teacher assures me that you too are still youthful enough to experience the child’s delight in discovery. Happily, the very youthfulness which makes you inexperienced and ignorant also makes you supremely open and eager for learning, much more so, I am afraid, than many of us who will be your teachers, burdened as we are by worldly cares and the care of this university, which makes it possible for you at least freely to learn.”

How might you, as a faithful follower of the LORD, respond to Kass?

6. Return to your thinking about the challenges presented by contemporary culture to the life of thoughtfulness presented to us in Psalm 111 (see #4 above). Pray about these matters, committing yourself to God’s way, seeking new ways to shape your life or to encourage the faculty you know on campus. Write a brief, pointed prayer based on these reflections to offer yourself to the LORD.

Works Cited

Boyer, John W.. 1997. The Aims of Education: Selected Essays. Leon Kass’ address at the University of Chicago. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Photo credit: khrawlings’ via Flickr.


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