Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 4

Psalm 4

This is the second Psalm of the collection designated as a musical composition (romz+m!), and one “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=); cf. the previous study on Psalm 3. The precise meaning of the opening word of the superscription remains uncertain—j^X@n~m=l^, found in the superscriptions of 55 Psalms (also Hab 3:19). The root jxn probably originally had the sense of “shine, [be] bright”, but the verb is rather rare in the Old Testament, occurring (outside of the Psalter) primarily in post-exilic writings (Chronicles, Ezra) in the technical sense of one who serves in a position of prominence or leadership, in a supervisory or overseeing role. This has led most commentators over the years to assume that in the Psalms the participle jxnm refers to the person directing/conducting the performance of the composition—a translation like “(the one) directing” is probably as good as any. Its place in the superscription relates to the musical direction which follows, i.e. how the composition is to be performed; in other words, it would seem to reflect a rudimentary performing tradition. Here the instruction simply indicates “on/with string (instrument)s” [tonyg]n+B!].

Verse 2 [1]

The opening lines mark the Psalm as a prayer, or petition, to God; at least, that is the framing structure (vv. 2, 8-9 [1, 7-8]) of the song. The central section (vv. 3-6 [2-5]) provides the religious (and theological) context for the Psalmist’s petition, the first line of which is:

“In my calling (to you), answer me, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of my justice”

As always, in my translation, “Mighty (One)”/”Mightiest (One)” renders the Hebrew plural <yh!l)a$ used as a Divine title (i.e. Elohim), and typically translated “God”. The construct phrase “Mighty (One) of my justice” is a literal rendering of yq!d=x! yh@l)a$, though the expression “my justice” (yq!d=x!) is a bit ambiguous. In the construct syntax it could mean “my just/righteous God”, where the suffix serves as a possessive for the entire expression. However, much more likely is that it is essentially an object suffix, with the noun qd#x# here having a kind of verbal force—i.e., God as the One “working (out) justice for me”; the English “vindication” has been suggested as an appropriate rendering of qd#x# here (Dahood, p. 23). For a similar occurrence in the opening of a Psalm, see 17:1.

The initial phrase reads “In my calling, answer me”; this is often understood in a temporal sense and translated in English as “When I call…”, but this obscures the parallel with the second line, each line beginning with the preposition B= (“in…”). Let us see the two lines together:

“In my calling (to) you), answer me, Mighty (One) of my justice!
In (my) distress, you (shall) have made room for me:
Show favor (to) me and hear my petition!”

There is a chiastic structure at work here in these lines as well:

    • My calling
      • Answer me
        • (Precatory request): In my distress…
      • Show favor / hear me
    • My petition

In between the two imperatives (“answer…”, “hear…”) the core of the request is expressed by way of a precative perfect—i.e., a wish or request phrased in terms of something which has (already) been done. The verb is T*b=j^r=h!, a hiphil perfect form of bj^r*, “be open, large, wide”, the hiphil being a causative stem, “make large, make wide,” etc. It relates here conceptually to the noun rx^, which has the fundamental meaning of something narrow, tight, etc, which presses in on a person (i.e. “distress”). The expectation is that God will literally “make room” for the Psalmist, relieving and protecting him from the forces and difficulties which press on him. The royal setting suggested by the superscription (associating the Psalm with David) may well provide the (artistic, narrative) context for the conflict faced by the Psalmist, a possibility to be considered further below.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

As noted above, these lines, which form the central core of the Psalm, provide the religious and theological thrust of the work. It functions on two levels:

    1. A contrast between the true God and the (false) idols of pagan (Canaanite) religion
    2. A contrast between the Psalmist who remains loyal to the true God and those who have gone after “idols”, i.e. who do not worship YHWH in the proper manner

Within the structure of the Psalm itself, there are two Selah pauses in this section, creating an interesting division:

    • Challenge (in the form of a question) to those prominent men who do not remain loyal to YHWH (v. 3)
      Selah Pause
    • Exhortation to the people, in two parts:
      (i) Promise that YHWH will honor those who are faithful to him (v. 4)
      (ii) Exhortation to purity and repentance (v. 5)
      Selah Pause
    • Challenge (in terms of religious ritual) for people to remain loyal to YHWH (v. 6)

Let us consider the lines together:

“Sons of man—until what [i.e. how long] is my Honor (to be given) to insult?
(How long) will you love an empty (thing) and seek after a lie? Selah
You should know that YHWH does wonders (for the one) loyal to him—
(indeed) YHWH will hear (me) in my calling to him.
You should be disturbed and not (continue to) err—
Show (this) in your heart upon your lying down, and groan. Selah
Slaughter (sacrifice)s of justice and show trust unto YHWH!”

There are several points in these lines where the Hebrew makes translation difficult; it is almost as though the sense of conflict and challenge comes to be expressed through the wording and poetic syntax itself. Some commentators have suggested emending the Masoretic text in various ways, but, for the most part, that would not seem to be necessary. Let us consider each portion of this section briefly.

Verse 3 [2]. The expression “sons of man” (vya! yn@B=) probably has a dual meaning here: (1) as an echo of the common “son of man” (<d*a* /B#), i.e. mortal human being, in contrast to YHWH; (2) the vya! with the specific sense of a certain (prominent man), i.e. “sons of a (prominent) man”, distinguished or notable persons. Also potentially misleading is the expression yd!obK=, “my honor”. We saw in Psalm 3 how dobK* can be understood as a Divine title, i.e. “Honorable One”; here, however, the parallel is with the expression “my justice” in verse 2 [1] (cf. above). In that earlier expression, the significance was a reference to God as the One who works/establishes justice for the person loyal to Him; the sense is similar here—YHWH as the One bestowing honor/worth to those faithful to Him. In any event, the expression is to be read as a Divine title.

The situation, however, is that certain prominent people in Israel have treated YHWH in a shameful way, with insult (hM*l!K=) rather than honor. And what is the nature of this shameful insult? The words “empty (thing)” (qyr!) and “lie” (bz`K*) are almost certainly intended here as euphemisms for idolatry (non-Israelite ‘pagan’ religion), which, according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism (and Yahwism) can itself serve as a pejorative description of any improper religious practice or behavior. It need not always denote worship of other deities; however, if the background of the Psalm genuinely derives from the kingdom period (or even the time of David), then specific Canaanite beliefs and practices, widespread in the surrounding population, may well be meant.

Verse 4 [3]. The Psalmist sets himself in contrast to these ‘prominent men’, as one who is “good” (dys!j*) to YHWH, the adjective having the sense of being loyal (i.e. the king as a loyal vassal) to God. As a result of this loyalty, YHWH hears and responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. The verb alp (al*p=h!), found in some manuscripts, should be read instead of hlp (hl*p=h!); the reference to God doing wonders (i.e. answering prayer, in a powerful/miraculous fashion) better fits the context, and removes the need for any further emendation in the verse.

Verse 5 [4]. The syntax of these two lines is most difficult, and nearly impossible to render accurately into English. Some commentators advocate emending or re-ordering portions of the verse (e.g. Kraus, p. 144-5), however, I do not know that such a step is at all necessary. Consider, for example, the beautiful symmetry of the (Masoretic) Hebrew as we have it, especially in the second line (v. 5b):

WMd)w+ <k#b=K^v=m! lu <k#b=b^l=b! Wrm=a!

The symmetry is both rhythmic/alliterative and conceptual, as can be seen from the following chiastic outline:

    • Wrm=a! “show/speak” (imperative)
      • <k#b=b^l=b! “in your heart” (location)
        • lu^ “upon” (locative preposition)
      • <k#b=K^v=m! “your (place of) lying down” (location)
    • WMd) “groan/wail/weep” (imperative)

I find the first line (v. 5a) actually to be more difficult. What is the sense of the two verbs in sequence? Actually, there is a similar, though different, sort of symmetry involved in this line:

    • Wzg+r! “be disturbed” (imperative)
      • la^w+ “and (do) not”
    • Waf*j$T# “you will err/sin”

The conjunction and particle of negation connect the two verbs, establishing the relation between them:

    • “You must be disturbed”—that is, troubled in soul/spirit because of their “idolatry”; and, if this mindset is in place, leading to repentance, then:
    • “You will not [will no longer] err”—i.e. will not sin (lit. miss the mark)

The sense of repentance is vividly expressed by the image of weeping/wailing/groaning on one’s bed, an idiom found in both Canaanite (Ugaritic) literature and the Old Testament (Psalm 6:7 [6]; Gen 48:30).

Verse 6 [5]. This short line stands on its own—a 4-beat single colon, instead of the 4+4 bicolon format that characterizes the Psalm. It serves, I think, to summarize the section as a whole, making clear the precise nature of the religious failure of the ‘prominent men’. Their failure is characterized by the two elements in this line: (1) sacrificial offerings that are not right, and (2) failing to trust in YHWH. It is hard to say whether by this is meant sacrifices made to deities other than YHWH; much depends on whether the Psalm (and/or its background) is to be dated to the time of David (or otherwise the early kingdom period). In light of the later messages by the Prophets, the expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of justice” could be understood in terms of the prescribed sacrificial offerings in combination with the correct religious attitude and moral conduct (or lack thereof). In either case, there is definitely a ritual dimension at work—i.e. loyalty to YHWH expressed, in large measure, through sacrificial offerings. This loyalty here is defined in terms of “trust” (vb. jf^B*), probably with the sense of relying upon God as a trustworthy Sovereign, expressing confidence in Him. The language and idiom of vassalage is part of the royal ideological (and cultural) background in many of the Psalms, especially those associated with David; for more examples of this, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 2 and Psalm 3.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

These lines return to the petition framework of the Psalm (v. 2 [1]), and may elucidate the context of the Psalmist’s prayer (or, perhaps, to the historical/ritual background of it). A precise interpretation depends on how one understands the noun bof (“good”) in verse 7. Dahood, in his commentary (pp. 23, 25-26), argues that here the “good” from God refers specifically to the rains, and that the setting of the Psalm is a prayer for rain (possibly in time of drought). For an ancient agricultural (and pastoral) society, one need hardly point out the importance of rain—both the proper amount, and in its proper season. Nearly all of the material “good” in society depended upon the rain. The emphasis on the “increase” in grain and wine in verse 8 would seem to confirm this interpretation, especially in connection with other Scriptural parallels (e.g., Deut 28:12; Jer 7:25 [cp. 3:3; Amos 4:7]; Psalm 85:13). However, I would not simply translate bof as “rain” (as Dahood does), but allow the Psalm to explain itself:

“Many are saying ‘Who will make us see the good?
The light of your face has fled (from) upon us!’ YHWH
You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart
from the time (when) their grain and their wine multiplies.

There are couple of points of difficulty that should be mentioned. The first is the position of hwhy (YHWH)—does it belong to the end of verse 7 or the beginning of v. 8? This is especially important, if, as a number of commentators would argue, the MT hsn in v. 7b should be read as (and/or emended to) a form of either the verb sWn (“flee [from]”) or us^n` (“pull away [from]”); something of the sort would seem to fit the context, whereby the entirety of v. 7 represents the faithless words of the “many”. The mention of YHWH could be part of this (“the light of your face has fled from us, YHWH”); but just as easily it could be part of what follows: “YHWH, you shall give joy (to me) in my heart”. Even more difficult, it seems, is the syntax of verse 8. There are two components to this line, each of which makes fine sense in its own right:

    • “You (shall) give joy/happiness (to me) in my heart”
    • “Their grain and their wine multiplies/multiplied”

But how are these two statements related? The problem lies in the connecting word tu@m@, which, as parsed in the traditional MT, is apparently the noun tu@ (“time”) with the prefixed preposition /m! (“from”). Some would read this as a comparative, continuing the contrast from earlier in the Psalm:

“You give joy (to me) in my heart, more than (in the) time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

At best this seems most awkward. Dahood proposes that the mem (m) prefix actually is an enclitic particle that belongs to the previous word (“my heart”), and that tu represents the related time-adverb hT*u^ written defectively (cf. Psalm 74:6; Ezek 27:24). By parsing the initial verb in verse 8 as a (precative) perfect form, it casts the line in a petitionary form much in keeping with the earlier part of the prayer:

“You (shall) have given joy (to me) in my heart; and now, (let) their grain and wine multiply”

In my translation above, I have attempted to capture something of this same sense, while respecting the traditional form of the Masoretic text:

“You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart from the time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

Verse 9 [8] and Summary

If we take seriously two key elements of the Psalm—(1) the issue of idolatry and (2) the idea of rain as the “good” from God—it may be possible to surmise an underlying historical setting. Through much of Israel’s history, from its settlement in Palestine down through the kingdom period, the influence of Canaanite religious beliefs and practices was prevalent in the culture. Most notable were those related to the god Haddu (better known by his popular epithet “Master”, Ba’al [cf. my earlier article]), representing the power of the storm/rain and dispenser of the life-giving waters from the heavens. It is altogether conceivable, even probable, that worship of Baal-Haddu underlies the references to ‘idolatry’ in the Psalm. For many Israelites, especially in the early kingdom period (i.e. the time of David and Solomon), it would have been most tempting and natural to blend together Baal- and Yahweh-worship in different ways. This would have been entirely in keeping with syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in the Ancient Near East, and, indeed, we see evidence for it at numerous points in the Scriptural record of Israelite history. It is hard to explain the prevalence of Baal-worship elements in Israelite society, over such a long period of time—from at least the time of the Judges until the reforms of Josiah—without the power and appeal of such syncretism. And if, indeed, the background of Psalm 4 involves a prayer for rain (cf. above), in the face of the threat of drought, etc, it is easy enough to image many ‘prominent men’ in Israel turning to the Canaanite god with power over the rains, perhaps including him (along with YHWH?) in the sacrificial offerings.

Whether or not such a reconstruction is accurate, there can be no doubt that the Psalmist feels himself at odds with important segments of society, their ‘idolatry’ (in whatever form it took) being central to the “distress” he experiences. In contrast to their lack of faith/trust in YHWH, the Psalms sees himself as remaining loyal to the true God, and this loyalty is proven by the fact that YHWH answers his prayer. It is possible that we have here a kind of parallel to the famous contest between Elijah and the Israelite ‘priests’ of Baal-Haddu (1 Kings 18): those offering sacrifices to other deities (Baal?) will not receive any answer, but YHWH answers (bringing rain) to the one who remains loyal to Him. If the Psalmist is meant to reflect a royal figure (such as David), then it is likely that his prayer is on behalf of the people as a whole; embedded in the Psalm is the message—the hope and expectation—that they, too, will remain faithful to YHWH.

The promise of God’s blessing and protection extends into the final lines (v. 9), and is similar to the statement of trust expressed in Ps 3:6 [5]. We may translate this bicolon as follows:

“In peace I lie down all (alone) and I sleep,
for you alone [YHWH] make me sit secure.”

The basic idea is clear enough, though the specific wording creates some difficulty. The adverbial particle wD*j=y~ can be tricky to render into English. Essentially it means “as one” or “at one”, sometimes in a comprehensive sense (“all together”) or in a temporal sense indicating suddenness (“at once”, etc). Here it is probably meant as a parallel to dd*B* (as an adverb) in the second line:

    • wD*j=y~ “all (alone)”, referring to the Psalmist
    • dd*b*l= “separately, alone”, i.e. by himself, referring to YHWH

Dahood (p. 27) suggests the possibility that wdjy here derives from the relatively rare Semitic (Canaanite) root µdw/µdy, “see, (be) visible”, and that it is functioning as a substantive for the appearance/manifestation of YHWH, parallel to “light of (his) face” in v. 7. It is an intriguing suggestion, but seemingly hard to square with the text as we have it, unless corruption occurred as the original word (and its meaning) was lost in the process of transmission.

The parallelism in the verse continues:

    • hb*K=v=a# “I (will) lie down”, i.e. to sleep
    • yn]b@yv!oT “you make me sit”, i.e. rest, dwell
      and, further
    • <olv*B= “in peace”
    • jf^b#l* “with trust/security”, i.e. safe, secure

Though hard to preserve in translation, the noun jf^b# is related to the verb jf^b* in v. 6; the root fundamentally means “trust (in), rely (on)”, but its range of meaning includes the idea of safety and security—i.e. the security which God provides is the basis for our trust in Him. We have here a beautiful image of complete trust and reliance on YHWH, a model of covenant loyalty, exemplified by the ruler (and/or the Psalmist) and intended as an exhortation for all the people.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1 Teilband (Psalmen 1-59), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *