Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 2

Psalm 22, continued

Verses 12-23 [11-22]

In this portion of the Psalm, the distress and misfortune experienced by the Psalmist (cf. the previous study on vv. 2-11 [1-10]) is defined in terms of attacks by his adversaries and opponents. Often in the Psalms, this line of imagery relates to the royal background and theology of the ancient poems (i.e. referring to opponents of the king and his kingdom). Admittedly, this aspect is less prominent here in Psalm 22, but we must still take it into account. The adversaries of the protagonist are never specified, though they are characterized generally as wicked and faithless/disloyal to the covenant with YHWH.

Verse 12 [11]

“Do not be far away from me,
for distress is near (to me),
for there is no (one) helping (me)!”

The section begins with a 2+2+2 tricolon, in which the Psalmist calls out urgently to God, as he faces “distress” (hr*x*), an abstract term which should be understood in the concrete sense of hostile opponents who are attacking (or who would attack). The substantive participle “(one) helping” (rz@ou) refers to human aid, perhaps in the practical sense of military assistance; since there is no one available, the Psalmist has to turn to YHWH for divine aid.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Many (strong) bulls surround me,
(the) mighty (one)s of Bashan enclose me;
they open their mouths upon me,
tearing and roaring (at me as) a lion!”

The two 3+3 couplets in these verses describe the Psalmist’s enemies in the traditional imagery of fierce and powerful animals (bull / lion). They are compared with bulls (<yr!P*) in the first couplet, the parallelism filled in by the local idiom of cattle-herding in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan (“mighty ones of Bashan”). In the second couplet, the lion (hy@r=u^) is in view, with its deadly mouth that roars and tears at its prey.

Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like water, I am poured out,
all my bones are separated;
my heart is (become) like wax,
it melts in the midst of my tissues;
my strength is dried up like (baked) clay,
and my tongue has been stuck to my jaws—
and (all this) has set me toward the dust of death!”

In the face of such danger, the Psalmist can feel himself on the verge of death. The strength of his limbs (and his heart) dissolves, melting all over. This liquid metaphor is replaced (in v. 16 [15]) with the opposite idea of drying—his strength drying up like the tongue in his mouth. The figurative anatomical references give way to a climactic exclamation in the final line, an exclamation, however, which is a bit difficult to interpret. The verb form, yn]t@P=v=T!, appears to be a second person singular imperfect form, suggesting a sudden switch to a direct address to YHWH by the Psalmist, perhaps blaming God for the situation he now faces—i.e., “and (so) to the dust of death you have put me!”. Dahood (p. 140), following the earlier analysis of W. F. Albright, suggests instead that it should be read as a third person feminine (collective), perhaps in the sense that ‘all these things’ (“they”), together, have set me toward the dust of death. I have tentatively followed this interpretation above. The image of “dust” (rp*u*), of course, fits the motif of drying out in v. 16.

Verses 17-19 [16-18]

“For (these) dogs have surrounded me,
a pack of (those) doing evil has gone about me,
digging (into) my hands and my feet—
I count all my bones (that are left)!
They, they give a look,
they take sight at me;
they divide my clothes among them,
and upon my garment they cast a pebble.”

These difficult (and irregular) couplets represent the violence of the attack made upon the Psalmist. Perhaps it is what he envisions happening, rather than something which, whether real or figurative, has actually taken place. In any case, the animal imagery from the prior lines continues, with the adversaries now depicted as a pack of savage dogs. They are characterized as “(one)s doing evil” (<yu!r@m=), and, in keeping with the imagery of the couplet, I have rendered the common noun hd*u@ (“appointed [gathering], assembly”) colloquially as “pack” (cf. Dahood, p. 140).

The second couplet (v. 17b/18a) is particularly difficult, evidenced by the misplaced verse division. With many commentators, I read the initial word yrak as a verbal form (infinitive) from the root hr*K* I (“dig”), with an ‘intrusive’ aleph [a]. It is often translated here as “pierce”, perhaps to give greater relevance to the subsequent (Christian) application to the crucifixion of Jesus (i.e., piercing his hands and feet, cf. Luke 24:39). However, the original context of the Psalm had nothing to do with crucifixion; rather, it would seem, the idea is of dogs digging their sharp teeth into the legs and arms (i.e. ‘hands and feet’) of the protagonist. It is a vicious attack that leaves the victim in a debilitated state; and, it is in this light that I understand the second line of the couplet, as a bit of grim irony—the Psalmist is able to count the few intact bones he has left!

Rhythmically, following this pair of 3+3 couplets, there is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet in the remainder of verse 18. The sense is not entirely clear, but I believe that the idea involves the attackers pausing to look at the body of their victim. This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verse 19 (again a 3+3 couplet). Having left their victim dead (or near death), they strip him of his clothing, dividing the garments between them, casting lot to see who will receive the choicest garment (his robe/tunic). This detail, of course, features in the Gospel Passion narrative (Mark 15:24 par), the Psalm being understood as a prophecy of Jesus’ death, as the direct citation in John 19:24 makes clear.

Verses 20-23 [19-22]

“But you, YHWH, do not be far (away) from me!
My strength, you must hurry (here) to help me!
Snatch my soul away from the sword,
my (life) intact from (the) hand of (the) dog!
Save me from the mouth of (the) lion,
and answer (to rescue) me from (the) horns of wild (oxen)!
(Then) will I recount your name to my brothers,
in (the) midst of (the) assembly, I will shout (praise to) you.”

The plea of the Psalmist in verse 20 [19] repeats that of v. 12 [11] at the beginning of the section (cf. above). The depiction of violence in vv. 13-19 is thus best understood as a portent of what could (and may well) happen to him, if YHWH does not come to his aid. God is literally referred to here as the Psalmist’s strength ([tW]ly`a$), in the (military) sense of protection and the ability to fight off attackers. Verses 21-22 [20-21] clearly capture the sense of imminent, impending danger, associating the three savage, attacking animals of the prior verses—dog, lion, and wild bull/ox—with the sword.

The second line of v. 21 is a bit obscure, especially the apparent use of the adjective dyj!y` (signifying being one or united) in a substantive sense (with possessive suffix). The parallel with “soul” (vp#n#) suggests that the meaning may be something like “my only (life)”; I prefer the emphasis on being united, and tentatively translate above “my life (intact)”. Dahood (p. 141) would read blk (MT bl#K#, “dog”) as related to the root [lk (i.e., twplyk, “axe”), comparable to the word ab*l=K% in Aramaic and the cognate pair býK= and [l%K@ in late Hebrew (all meaning “axe”). Even though “axe” makes a suitable pairing with “sword” in the couplet, the earlier specific use of “dog” (bl#K#), and the same triad of animals (bull/ox, lion, dog), renders such a reading less likely.

If YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea, saving him from danger (and death), then he will be able to recount God’s saving action to others, giving praise to Him and His name (v. 23 [22]). This includes the context of public worship in the “assembly” (lh*q*), and may indicate a specific ritual or liturgical setting for performance of the Psalm. The similar pairing of the verbs uv^y` (“save”) and hn`u* (“answer, respond”) in Psalm 20 (vv. 7, 10 [6, 9], cf. the earlier study), suggests that the royal background of military action (and God’s role in aiding the king, His faithful/loyal vassal) underlies the imagery here in v. 22. In any case, it is an appeal to the honor of YHWH’s name, such as we find frequently in Old Testament poetry. The closing couplet of this section also prepares the way for the next (vv. 24-32 [23-31]), the conclusion to the Psalm, which focuses on the praise that is due to YHWH for His power and goodness—the implication being that God will deliver the Psalmist in his time of need.

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