Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 1)

Psalm 31

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 3-22 [2-21]); 4QPsa (vv. 23-24 [22-23]); 4QPsq (vv. 24-25 [23-24])

This Psalm is similar in certain respects with the prior Ps 30 (discussed in the previous study), in that it involves a prayer for healing/deliverance from illness, incorporating both a lament for the suffering the Psalmist faces, and thanksgiving for the strength and deliverance YHWH shows (or will show) to him. Psalm 31 is considerably more complex in how it handles this traditional material, drawing upon a wider range of imagery and manner of expression. The meter is also highly irregular, with shifting beat and rhythm, including a number of tricola, though a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to prevail.

The overall structure of this relatively lengthy and complex Psalm is not easy to determine. I have chosen to divide it into three parts:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame into (the) distant (future)!
In your justice, help me to escape!”

The metrical irregularity of the Psalm is indicated in this opening verse, which is made up of a triad or tricolon, with a 3+2+2 meter. It is perhaps more properly read as a 2+2 couplet preceded by an initial 3-beat line in which the Psalmist invokes God. However, there is also a kind of parallelism between the first and third lines as well:

    • In you, YHWH
      • I have sought protection
    • In your justice
      • help me to escape

The Greek version contains an additional verbal phrase (kai\ e)celou= me) at the end of the third line, making it a 3-beat line; the wording assumes something like Hebrew yn]l@yX!h^w+ (“and rescue me”), perhaps influenced by the opening of Ps 71:2 (and see in v. 3 [2] below).

In any case, there is a definite parallel between the verb hs*j* in line 1 and fl^P* in line 3. The root hsj denotes the act of seeking or finding shelter (from a rainstorm, etc); here, as often in the Psalms, the context implies the presence of danger, and the Psalmist is turning to YHWH for protection. The root flp signifies, in a similar sense, escaping from danger, which one does by taking refuge in God; the Piel stem here indicates a causative aspect, i.e. causing, or helping, someone escape. The noun hq*d*x= is usually translated “justice, righteousness”, but frequently connotes faithfulness or loyalty, especially when a covenant context is in view, as it frequently is in the Psalms. YHWH’s loyalty and fidelity to the covenant bond–both with the Israelite people and the king himself (as a vassal)–means that he will give protection to his faithful followers who call on him in their time of need.

Dahood (p. 187) would read the noun <l*ou in the second line as a divine title (“Ancient/Eternal [One]”) with the prefixed preposition as a vocative lamed (l=). This would result in a clearer parallel couplet in the first two lines:

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame, O Ancient (One)!”

I find the suggestion interesting, but not entirely convincing; I translate <lwul above in the more customary manner, as a qualitative temporal phrase: “(in)to (the) distant (future)” (i.e., for ever, eternally).

Verse 3a [2a]

“Stretch (out) your ear to me,
(and) rescue me quickly!”

This short 3+2 couplet follows upon the third line of v. 2 [1], and example of an additional step-parallelism that is woven through the couplets in the first part of the Psalm. The idiom of “stretching/bending” (vb hf*n`) the ear, in this context, means that God will hear (and answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. The use of the adverbial phrase hr*h@m= (“quickly, swiftly, with haste”) indicates that the situation for the protagonist is urgent, or dire.

Verse 3b [2b]

“Be for me (my) Rock, a strong place,
a house place(d) up high, to rescue me!”

The imagery involves the typical setting of a secure (fortified) site on an elevated and difficult to reach location. The summit of a rocky hill or promontory is envisioned as the ideal locale for a protected refuge. The image plays on the idea of YHWH as a Rock of strength and protection; indeed, the noun rWx is used frequently as a divine appellation or title, and it is possible that here the prefixed lamed (l=) has vocative force (cf. Dahood, p. 187). In any event, this couplet (3+3), with its vivid imagery, illustrates the protection which the Psalmist requests from YHWH (see above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For (indeed) you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high,
and (in) response to your name
you will guide me and bring me along.”

This would seem to be another 3+2+2 tricolon, metrically similar to verse 2 [1] (cf. above). Again there is an instance of step-parallelism as the first line picks up the imagery from the previous couplet. A different noun is used–ul^s# indicating a sharp or ragged rock-cliff–but the basic imagery is the same. The final two lines make up a short 2-beat couplet that introduces a different image—of guidance, like that of a shepherd for his flock. The motif of protection still applies, as YHWH brings the Psalmist safely through any danger he may face. This protection is predicated upon the Psalmist calling on YHWH, literally appealing to His name (and to Him by name) in the context of the covenant-bond. This particular theological aspect of the covenant has ancient roots, going back to at least the Moses traditions of Exodus 3-4.

Verse 5 [4]

“You will bring me out from (the) snare
that they hid to (catch) me,
for you (are) my place of strength!”

Again there is a certain step parallelism at work, picking up on the idea of God bringing the Psalmist along (vb lh^n`), carrying him through any danger; now the image is more properly of YHWH bringing him out (vb ax^y`) of a specific danger—a “trap” set for him by the wicked. The meter of this tricolon (2+2+2) is clearer and tighter than that of verse 4 [3], with a circular synthetic parallelism, the lines building upon each other and then returning back to the original theme (of YHWH as a place of strength and protection).

Verse 6 [5]

“In your hand I shall give my spirit (its) place,
(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One)!”

Verse 6 [5] may be read as a 3+3 couplet, by removing the final word to be part of the next couplet (see below), and treating la@ hwhy (“YHWH Mighty [One]”) as a tight construct expression. In point of fact, this is one of the few verses in the Old Testament that preserves the ancient identification of YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@, lit. “Mighty [One]”). There are a few other instances scattered through the Psalms (e.g., 10:12; 18:3), but only here do we have the precise compound name. In later Hebrew, when the expanded plural form <yh!ýa$ (°E_lœhîm) had replaced the simple la@ (and plural <yl!a@), the expression was changed to <yh!l)a$ hwhy (Gen 2:4b, et al).

The Psalmist entrusts his very life (“my spirit”) to YHWH for protection (“in your hand”); the imagery is more intimate and personal than in the prior verses. The perfect form of the verb hd^P* (“ransom”) is here perhaps best understood as a precative perfect—i.e., a prayer wish expressed in terms of something that has already happened.

The verb dq^P* is notoriously difficult to translate. It often has the basic meaning “appoint”, “set in place”, especially when in the Hiphil causative stem. I have tried to keep to this fundamental causative sense above, though an English rendering like “commit”, “entrust” is smoother and more appealing from a religious standpoint. In any case, the basic idea is of the Psalmist placing his life in God’s hands.

The final word of the verse (MT tm#a$) is problematic, as it disrupts the meter, whether one treats the word as part of the couplet in v. 6 or 7, respectively. Keeping it with v. 6 would yield the expanded line:

“(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One) of firmness”

The expression “Mighty (One) of firmness” refers to YHWH’s faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant); as the true God, He is firm and secure (i.e. trustworthy) in all that He does. It is tempting to view tm#a$ here as a secondary accretion to the text, perhaps after the compound name/title la@ hwhy had fallen out of use; in light of the strangeness of the earlier title, it might have seemed necessary to add something to the word la@ (i.e., “God of…”).

Another possibility is to treat the word tm#a$ as part of the following verse; this is the route taken by Dahood (p. 188), though to do so again expands and disrupts the meter of the couplet. In such a context, the word functions as an emphatic adverb or substantive particle (“Surely…”, “truly…”). Dahood cites similar examples in Psalm 132:11; Isa 43:9; Ezek 18:9. For the purposes of this study, I tentatively follow this line of interpretation.

Verse 7 [6]

“Surely do I hate the (one)s guarding vain (thing)s of emptiness,
while I, (it is) to YHWH (alone that) I give (my) trust!”

The contrast here is between those (i.e. the wicked) who devote themselves to ‘idols’ (that is, to deities other than YHWH), and the person who remains faithful to YHWH alone. The verb jf^B* often denotes the idea of trusting in someone or something, but it can also be used in a sense synonymous with that of hs*j* (in verse 2 [1]), “seek refuge/shelter/protection”. Thus its use here may be intended to bring out a slightly different contrast: while the wicked “guard” the empty/vain things (idols), the Psalmist himself is protected (i.e. guarded) by the true God. Gradually, throughout the Old Testament period, the monotheistic outlook of Israelite religion sharpened, to the point that it became close to an absolute monotheism—that is to say, El-YHWH is the only deity who truly exists. This was expressed, rather harshly (and through an intentional distortion), by identifying other deities purely in terms of the images used by their worshipers to represent them. As such, they could be dismissed summarily as “emptiness” (aw+v*) or “empty/vain things” (<yl!b=h^)—both of these words being used together here (for emphasis). This sort of pointed anti-polytheistic polemic occurs in the Psalms, even as it does in the writings of the Prophets.

By stating unequivocally that he hates those who do not remain faithful to YHWH alone, he is affirming ever more forcefully his own faithfulness and loyalty to God. This device occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms, and is rooted in the judicial aspects of the covenant idea; in other words, the Psalmist’s prayer takes the form of an appeal to YHWH, in which he declares his loyalty to God.

Verse 8 [7]

“I will spin and grow bright (with joy) at your goodness,
(in) that you (truly will) have seen my oppression,
(and will) have known of (the thing)s pressing (on) my soul.”

I have translated the verbs ha*r* (“see”) and ud^y` (“know”) in their fundamental sense; however, this idiom of seeing and knowing here implies that God will take care to act on the Psalmist’s behalf. Compare, for example, the same language used in Exodus 3:7ff. The divine protection is understood in terms of the all-seeing, all-knowing character of God. It is possible that the plural torx* should be read as a comprehensive or intensive (rather than numeric) plural, which would make a more precise parallel with yy]n+u*, “my oppression/affliction”, or perhaps “(the one) oppressing me”. If this wording relates directly to what follows in verses 10-11ff, then it may be a general way of referring to a disease that afflicts the Psalmist. In which case, the entire sense of danger expressed in the Psalm to this point–including the specific image of people setting a trap for the Psalmist (v. 5, see above)—likewise refers to the threat of death from illness/disease.

Verse 9 [8]

“And (so) you will not enclose me in (the) hand of (the) hostile (one),
but will make my feet to stand on a wide (open) place.”

Again, the Psalmist’s prayer here expresses trust and belief that YHWH will answer his call, and will deliver him out of danger. It is quite possible that the “(one who) is hostile” (i.e. the enemy) refers to Death itself (cf. Dahood, pp. 188-9), frequently personified in ancient Near Eastern poetry, including a number of instances in the Psalms. Certainly the pressures and oppression felt by the Psalmist (v. 8) are now expressed under a personal figure, a particular “hostile one” —an adversary or enemy. The “wide/open place” (bj*r=m#) where the Psalmist can stand is in contrast with the danger of being “closed up” within the hand of the Enemy; compare Psalm 18:18-20 [17-19].

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

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