O GOD, glorious confession of all Saints, grant us the fear of Thy Name, which Thou hast declared to be the beginning of wisdom, that joined to the councils of Thy servants, we may be filled with the banquet of Thy mercy.

Psalm 111:10

Psalm 111:10 (ESV)
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever!

Psalm 111:10 (HCSB)
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow His instructions have good insight.
His praise endures forever.

The comparison of these two translation demonstrate the translation issue in this passage: Note the second line of the translation

First the difference in the verb: The ESV has “practice” as the verb. HCSB translates the verb “follow”.

The translations also differ in the object of the verb: The ESV have “it”; the HCSB has “instructions”. The NASB has “commandments” as the object. The NIV translates the objection “precepts”.

The Hebrew relevant Hebrew word is עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם
In Hebrew the object can at times be attached directly to the end of the verb.

And here is the explanation:

In verse 10b all those who practice it translates the Masoretic text “all who do them” (plural, referring back to Yahweh’s “precepts” in verses 7–8); some ancient versions have “all who do it” (singular, referring to wisdom in the preceding line), and this is preferred by TOB, NEB, NAB (with textual footnotes), and by RSV and SPCL (without footnotes). HOTTP, however, says the plural form (which it prefers) does not refer back to the commands in verses 7–8, but “in a general way, the fear of the Lord with all its multiple aspects and commandments.” If the translator follows TEV, it will be necessary in some languages to recast verse 10b to say, for example, “God enables people who obey his words to decide matters well.”

Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 957–958. The verb itself merely means “to do” or “to make”. The object is ambiguous, and the question comes: What does the Psalmist intend us to do?

Psalm 111:1–10 (ESV)
111 Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of splendor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him;
he remembers his covenant forever.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the inheritance of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy;
8 they are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name!
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever!

The overarching theme of the Psalm is praise: it begins and ends with explicit praise. The content of verses 2-9 is a list of things for which to praise the Lord.

Verse 10 comes direction. First, the fear of the Lord is commended as something good: it is the beginning (or head) of wisdom. While the rest of the praises God for his work, verse commends an action (other than explicitly praise) on the worshipping congregation (v. 1). (However, note v. 8, discussed below).

Second, the end of the fear of the Lord is “wisdom”. The end of thing practiced is a “good understanding”.  However, it is elsewhere translated “success”, or a good outcome. Note HALOT’s comment on this meaning:

Ps 111:10 could belong to either meaning; if it belongs to the first it means good understanding for those who practise it, so KBL, NRSV, REB, and also the versions; Sept. σὺνεσις ἀγαθὴ; similarly Vulg. and Pesh., on which see also e.g. Gunkel Psalmen 488; ZürBib.; TOB; somewhat different is Dahood Psalms 3:121, 125: the understanding of the good, namely of Yahweh (in the sense of a general object, human insight is meant); if the second meaning is accepted the expression means a beautiful reward (reward as the fruit or result of success), thus Kraus BK 155:939.

Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1329–1330. But when we look at the verse itself, the good outcome is “wisdom”.

The strongest argument for practicing precepts comes from verse 8 where it speaks of the precepts being performed (same verb both places). An argument by analogy can be found in Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 6:24 (ESV)
24 And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.

Here, practicing the commands of God are connected to the fear of the Lord: to follow the commands is to fear the Lord. Thus, an argument that one is to practice the precepts results in “good understanding” (or success) is certainly not an unbiblical concept. But the narrow question is what is meant here. And often the Scripture uses similar ideas with a difference in nuance so as to complete a concept.

In context, I would have to say that practicing the fear of the Lord is more likely than practicing the precepts mentioned in verse 7. First, proximity favors the fear of the Lord.

Second, the end of both the fear of the Lord and “practicing it/them” is the same: wisdom or insight.

Third, to jump over the fear of Lord and pick up “precepts” seems a bit arbitrary where the immediate context provides a satisfactory explanation.

Fourth, the fear of the Lord is in parallel to “praise” and it works well to complete our understanding of what the fear of the Lord means. A fear which is matched with praise is not servile or grudging or cringing. It to be in the presence of something beautiful and terrifying. It is to be praised but not taken lightly; like standing at the edge of the Sun.




O GOD, glorious confession of all Saints, grant us the fear of Thy Name, which Thou hast declared to be the beginning of wisdom, that joined to the councils of Thy servants, we may be filled with the banquet of Thy mercy. (1.)

Great are Thy works, O LORD,* sought out for all Thy wills. Grant us, Thy servants, while we admire the greatness of Thy works, to praise with due confession the glory of the Creator, and search out with reverent wisdom Thy faithful commandments, and achieve with obedient fear the perfect comeliness of understanding. (11.)

O merciful and gracious LORD, (D. C.) Who with Thy wonted goodness hast long spared us sinners; fill us at length with a good understanding, and pour into our minds fear, the beginning of Thy wisdom, and make us to please Thee by living henceforth a sober and godly life. (1.)

M. Neale and R. F. Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Mediæval Writers: Psalm 81 to Psalm 118, vol. 3 (London; New York: Joseph Masters; Pott and Amery, 1871), 458.

Some notes from commentators:

As there are degrees of wisdom, so of the fear of the Lord; but there is no degree of this fear so inferior or low, but it is a beginning, at least, of wisdom; and there is no degree of wisdom so high or perfect, but it hath its root in, or beginning, from this fear.—Joseph Caryl.

C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 111-119, vol. 5 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 12.

FEAR OF GOD AFFECTS THE QUALITY OF HUMAN LIFE. TERTULLIAN: It has also been a subject of discussion, how extremely frequent is the intercourse that heretics hold with magicians, with charlatans, with astrologers, with philosophers; and the reason is that they are people who devote themselves to curious questions. “Seek, and you shall find,” is everywhere in their minds. Thus, from the very nature of their conduct may be estimated the quality of their faith. In their discipline we have an index of their doctrine. They say that God is not to be feared; therefore all things are in their view free and unchecked. Where, however, is God not feared, except where he is not, there truth also is not. Where there is no truth, then, naturally enough, there is also such a discipline as the heretics. But where God is, there exists “the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.” Where the fear of God is, there is seriousness, an honorable and yet thoughtful diligence, as well as an anxious carefulness and a well-considered admission [to the sacred ministry], a safely guarded communion, promotion after good service, a scrupulous submission [to authority], a devout attendance, a modest gait, a united church and God in all things. PRESCRIPTIONS AGAINST HERETICS 43.1

Quentin F. Wesselschmidt, ed., Psalms 51–150, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture OT 8 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 268–269.

True reverence (v 10), which is demonstrated in awesome obedience of God’s laws, is the only basis for coping with life’s meaning and problems. יראת, “reverence,” has the connotation of obedience to the law, here associated with a numinous content, after v 9b (Becker, Gottesfurcht im AT, 270). This first colon of v 10 cites the basic motto of OT wisdom literature (cf. Prov 1:7; 9:10). חכמה, “wisdom,” is the ordering of life in accord with Yahweh’s moral will, as interpreted by the Israelite tradition of wisdom teaching. And there is a great incentive for such a lifestyle: the secrets of a satisfying life are opened only to the willing practitioner of God’s rulings (cf. Matt 7:24–27). Doing and praising were ever to be the dual response to the revelation of what Yahweh had done, which was celebrated afresh at each of Israel’s festivals.

Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (Revised), vol. 21, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 126.

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.

John Calvin, Psalms, electronic ed., Calvin’s Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998), Ps 111:10.