Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7

Psalm 7

This composition in the Psalter is unique in the use of the word /oyG`v! (šigg¹yôn) in the heading to describe it, a musical (or poetic) term whose meaning is unknown to us. It may be related to a primitive root gv (ggv, hgv) which has the basic meaning “stray, go astray”; others would connect it with ugv (Akkad. šegû) which refers to a kind of howling like that of animals, and could possibly indicate some sort of lament. Also uncertain is the significance of the notice “upon the words of Kûš the ‘son of the right-hand’ [i.e. Benjaminite]”; possibly this refers to an accusation made against David (cf. on vv. 4-6 [3-5] below), relating to a tradition otherwise unknown to us.

This Psalm is the longest and most complex of those we have encountered thus far. Not surprisingly, it has a mixed meter with a number of apparent half-lines (cola) which make coordinating the meter and structure difficult; the closing section (vv. 14-18) is more consistent with a strict 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format. Most of the metrical difficulties are in the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9). Tentatively, I offer the following outline:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

The Psalmist’s opening petition—the Psalm itself functioning largely as a prayer—is delivered with a pair of bicola (i.e. 4 lines) that generally utilizes the common 3+3 metrical format, though the first bicolon is actually 4+3 (ever so slightly), due perhaps to the inclusion of the divine name YHWH in the initial line. The presence of the divine name often creates metrical tension in ancient Hebrew poetry, and could, at times, be a sign of secondary adaptation. Here are the lines:

YHWH, my Mighty One, with you I have sought protection—
save me from all (the one)s pursuing me and rescue me,
lest he rip (at) my soul like a lion,
tearing (it) apart (with) no one (to) rescue!

Each bicolon ends with a form of the verb lx^n` (“take/snatch away”) in the Hiphil, emphasizing the need for deliverance, for YHWH to rescue the Psalmist in his time of trouble (a frequent motif in the Psalms, as we have seen). The second occurrence is verbal noun (participle) form which I have rendered like an infinitive in an attempt to preserve the rhythmic sense of the line. The shift from plural (“the ones pursuing”) to singular (“lest he rip…”) is not all that uncommon, especially when dealing with opponents of the protagonist in the Psalms; they can be described as many or as one, collectively or individually—the description can be quite fluid. In part, I think, this is meant to reflect the lack of firmness and integrity in the wicked, in contrast to the Psalmist, who remains firm (and unified) in his loyalty to YHWH.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

The petition gives way to an oath in these lines, drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. The force of such binding agreements was magical-religious, and involved an oath. First, the parties of the agreement would call upon God (or the gods) as witness; second, this meant that, by way of certain ritual formula, divine judgment would be brought down upon one who violated the agreement. The idea of the covenant between YHWH and the people Israel was unique in this regard, since God was not a witness, but a participant in the agreement—as the superior (suzerain) to whom Israel and its rulers were the subordinate (vassal). In agreeing to the terms of the covenant, Israel took an oath to uphold it, including the curse/punishment which would come upon them if/when it was ever violated. Here the oath is more generalized, in terms of common morality and the normal functioning of society, but it still reflects the righteousness and covenant loyalty of the Psalmist.

He approaches YHWH, his sovereign, confirming his innocence by way of an oath. It begins as a 4+3 bicolon precisely parallel to the opening of the petition (v. 2): “YHWH, my Mighty One…”. He has sought protection (vb hs^j*) with YHWH as his Lord and protector (under the covenant); the oath is taken in this very context. According to the text as we have it, the first line reads: “YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this [taz)]”. It is not clear what “this” is, which has led some commentators to emend the text. Dahood (p. 42) suggests that here taz) is a substantive meaning something like “insult”, but whose etymology “is not immediately evident”; he cites other such examples in Ps 44:18[17]; 74:18[17], and Job 2:11. While this is a convenient solution, the basis for it seems extremely slight. Some would relate “this” to the “words of Kuš” in the superscription, i.e. presumably as an accusation made against the Psalmist (David), of which we do not know the precise content, though it may be implied in the lines that follow. Indeed, more properly the pronoun (“this”) refers to the following two “if”-statements. This conditional statement (protasis, “if…”) of the oath, taken together, in vv. 4-5 is:

YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this,
if there really is guilt in my palm(s),
if I have dealt (in) evil (with) my sound (ally),
and pulled away (in) empty (word)s (to make him) my foe,

The last line is difficult to translate, but there is a clear contrast (and formal parallel) between ym!l=ov and yr!r=ox, as also between ur* and <q*yr@. The words in the first pair are themselves difficult to translate, though the sense is clear enough. Both are verbal noun (participle) forms with a first person singular suffix (“my…”). The first verb is <l^v* from the root <lv and denominative of the noun <olv* in the sense of a (covenant) agreement that establishes peace, security, and friendship between two parties. The second verb, rr^x* indicates just the opposite—hostility, rivalry, opposition. By acting with evil (ur*) toward one who was supposed to be a firm ally, it would render their bond as merely “empty [words]” (<q*yr@), creating hostility when there should have been peace. This would seem to be the substance of the accusation against the Psalmist—an act of treachery and disloyalty. Verse 6 provides the result for the condition (apodosis, “…then”) of the oath—it is a three-fold declaration, comprised of three lines (tricolon):

(then) let (the) enemy pursue and reach my soul,
and let him trample my life to (the) earth,
and make my (very) weight dwell in (the) dust!

Three comprehensive terms are used to represent the (whole) person of the Psalmist in its deepest sense:

    • vp#n#—refers to the life-breath or essence of the person, usually rendered as “soul” (here yv!p=n~, “my soul”)
    • <yY]j^—a plural noun referring to the physical life, span of life, etc., of a person (here yY`j^, “my life”)
    • dobK*—”weight”, often in the basic sense of “worth, value”, figuratively as “honor”, etc (here yd!obk=, “my weight/worth”)
      [some commentators read ydbk here as yd!b@k=, “my liver”, in the sense of “my inner(most) organ(s)”]

The purpose of this oath is to confirm—by magical-ritual means—the Psalmist’s innocence; from the religious standpoint of the Psalm, it is meant to demonstrate his loyalty to YHWH. He declares, indeed, that he has remained loyal, and would not have acted in such a disloyal way as he is accused of doing. That he is willing to take on the curse of the oath is an implicit proof that he is innocent. This oath section ends with a hl*s# (Selah) mark, frequent in the Psalms, and the exact significance of which remains uncertain. Here it can be used a structural indicator, marking a break before the next major section.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

As indicated in the outline above, verses 7-17 are to be divided into three sections, or strophes. They make up a call to YHWH, for him to act as judge and declare justice for the Psalmist, vindicating him in the accusation against him. The call proper is contained in vv. 7-10, structurally (metrically) one of the most difficult portions of the Psalm. It is a challenge to divide this portion accurately into lines and couplets. As with verse 6, it seems most natural to view vv. 7-9a as utilizing a tricolon (three-line) format. The first tricolon (v. 7) is:

Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!

The three imperatives are intended to stir YHWH to action, which is the emphasis of these lines. The last verb (hwx, perfect form t*yW]x!) is a bit difficult to render; I take it as a precative perfect, reflecting the expectation of the Psalmist, in the sense that YHWH has the power to command (i.e. make) judgment and deliver justice. In the second tricolon (vv. 8-9a), He is seen as acting, and the imagery shifts to the assembling of the tribunal:

(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes [<yM!a%] surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples [<yM!u^]!

This triad marvelously moves from the congregation of Israel (line 1) to an image of all the peoples [of the world] (line 3); in between is the comprehensive, unifying motif of YHWH seated high above on His throne (line 2). The verb form hb*Wv in the second line is best understood as deriving from bvy (“sit, dwell”) rather than bwv (“turn, return”). In the following lines, vv. 9b-10, this triadic structure expands to include a set of three bicola (6 lines), it seems, following a 3+2 meter. With the tribunal in place, the Psalmist now asks YHWH to make judgment on his behalf:

Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

The initial verb (fp^v*, “judge”) is different from that in the prior line (/yD!, “[act as] judge”), and connotes the establishment of justice in the case at hand. The root qdx plays an important role in these lines, with the noun qd#x# in v. 9b (line 1), and the adjective qyd!x* twice in v. 10 (parallel lines 4 and 6). This key root is central to the idea of the covenant, and, as a consequence, to Israelite religious thought and theology as a whole. It has a relatively wide semantic range, but fundamentally refers to something that is right, straight, and according to a standard (measure). The noun qd#x# is often translated “righteousness” or “justice”, much as the similar noun dikaiosu/nh in Greek (indeed, the diakaio- word-group is close in meaning to Hebrew qdx); perhaps “right-ness” or “just-ness” would capture the meaning better, but there is no such corresponding word in English. In the context of the ancient binding agreement (covenant), it also denotes faithfulness and loyalty. In a judicial setting, the idea certainly is that of determining justice, making things right—and, of course, whether a person (and his/her behavior, cause, etc) is just and right. The loyal servant of YHWH possesses a “right-ness/just-ness” that mirrors that of God Himself (note the clear parallel in lines 4 & 6).

The last word in line 2 (MT yl*u*) has caused some difficulty, leading commentators occasionally to emend (or repoint) the text. Dahood (p. 45) suggests that it should be read as yl!u@, as a divine name, i.e. “(YHWH the) Most High”. However, the parallelism in the bicolon is perhaps better preserved by the (Masoretic) pointing—as the preposition lu^ with first person singular suffix—marking an absent, but implied, verb. Note:

    • judge me [yn]f@p=v*]
      • according to my right-ness [yq!d=x!K=], and
      • according to my completeness [yM!t%K=]
    • (decide) over me [yl*u*]

The parallelism in the second bicolon is antithetic, marking the precise contrast—between righteous and wicked, loyal and disloyal—that lies at the heart of the judgment scene. God is able to make a proper determination, since he is the one “examining [vb /j^B*] hearts and kidneys”—both of these inner organs were use to represent (and locate) the mind (thoughts, intention, desire, etc) of a person; in our idiom we would say “examining hearts and minds”. The significance of the characterization of YHWH as “just” (qyd!x*, cf. above) is two-fold: (a) it means that he is able to establish true and proper justice, and (b) it marks the “just” person as one who is, and remains, loyal to YHWH.

[The remainder of the Psalm (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) will be discussed in the next study.]

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