Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 34 (Part 1)

Psalm 34

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 21-22 [20-21])

This is a thanksgiving-Psalm, written from the standpoint of someone who experienced deliverance from affliction, his prayer to YHWH having been answered. It thus contains and repeats many of the themes encountered in the Psalms we have studied thus far.

Structurally, the most important point to note is that this is an acrostic poem (cf. the earlier study on Ps 9-10), though not consistently so throughout, which may (or may not) indicate textual corruption. Unfortunately, virtually nothing survives of this particular Psalm in the Dead Sea manuscripts, so no help is available from that source. Metrically, the composition tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon pattern, though with a few irregularities.

The superscription marks the composition again as “belonging to David”, and adds the historical notice alluding to the episode in David’s life narrated in 1 Sam 21:11-16. However, in that narrative, the king at Gath is identified as Akhish, rather than Abimelech. This may represent an historical error/inaccuracy (on the part of an editor), though the tradition in Gen 26:1ff suggests that Abimelech could have been a common name/title used by the Philistine rulers. In any case, the reference makes a curious setting for the Psalm; certainly there is nothing in the composition itself to suggest such an association with that Davidic episode.

Following the acrostic pattern, I would divide the Psalm loosely into two parts: vv. 2-9 [1-8] and 10-22 [9-21], with the final couplet (v. 23 [22]) as a concluding declaration (in a separate meter [4+4]). These two parts have somewhat different thematic emphases. In vv. 2-9, the focus is on YHWH’s faithfulness in answering prayer, thus providing a reason for the righteous to continue trusting in him; the second half, vv. 10-22, containing a strong wisdom-orientation, represents an exhortation for the righteous themselves to remain faithful/loyal to YHWH.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

a “I will give honor [hk*r&b*a&] (to) YHWH in every moment,
a shout (of praise to) Him (will be) continually in my mouth.”

The synonymous parallelism of this opening couplet is straightforward, establishing the emphasis on praise and thanksgiving in the first half of the Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

b “In YHWH [hw`hyB^] my soul will make its shout,
the (one)s oppressed shall hear (it) and be glad.”

The motif of praise continues in the second couplet, where it is said that the soul (of the Psalmist) will make a shout (of praise); this verb (ll^h* II) is the root of the noun hL*h!T= in v. 2 (cf. above), though the relationship is not always preserved in translation. The parallelism of this couplet is synthetic, rather than synonymous—i.e., the second line builds upon, and results from, what is stated in the first line. The communal aspect of the Psalm is introduced already in the opening lines, establishing a Wisdom-orientation at an earlier point than is typical in the Psalms. The righteous are identified as the “oppressed ones” (<yw]n`u&)—that is, those who are afflicted (by the wicked, etc), and yet who remain humble, devout, and loyal to YHWH in the face of their affliction.

The noun vp#n# in the first line has the common meaning “soul”, but sometimes, especially in the older/archaic poetry, it carries the more concrete denotation of “throat”, which here would make a suitable pairing with “mouth” in v. 2. In any case, it indicates a deeper location for the praise uttered by the Psalmist, coming not only from his mouth, but from deeper within him as well.

Verse 4 [3]

g “Declare (the) greatness [WlD=G~] belonging to YHWH with me,
and we shall raise high His name together (as) one!”

Here the Psalmist calls on the righteous to give honor and praise to YHWH together with him. This communal aspect in the Psalms tends to be reserved for the closing portion of the composition, but here it plays an important role from the outset. It draws upon Wisdom-tradition, as a line of tradition which has heavily influenced the shaping and development of the Psalms. It also reflects the corporate worship setting in which the poems came to be used. The parallelism in this couplet is synonymous, as can be seen by the use of the largely synonymous verbs ld^G` and <Wr in a transitive/causative sense—i.e., “make great” and “make high”, respectively. The sense of the verb in the first line, with the preposition l=, is best understood as “declare (i.e. through praise) the greatness belonging to” YHWH. The imperfect verb form in the second line, like those in the prior couplet (v. 3), has jussive/cohortative force (i.e., “let us…”), and should be read in light of the imperative in line 1.

On the significance of the name of God, cf. the previous study (on Ps 33:21). In the thought-world of the ancient Near East, a person’s name represented and embodied the nature and character of the person. Thus, to exalt the name of YHWH was the same as exalting YHWH Himself.

Verse 5 [4]

d “I searched [yT!v=r^D*] (after) YHWH, and He answered (me),
and from all (thing)s frightening me, He snatched me away.”

The idiom of seeking/searching after YHWH, expressed by the verb vr^D*, is a reference to prayer—i.e., the person makes a request of God, seeking for a response. In this case, YHWH has answered him, responding (positively) to his request. In a number of the Psalms we have studied, the context of such a prayer for deliverance would seem to involve a (life-threatening) illness, but there is little indication of that here. More appropriate to the setting in this Psalm, with the righteous described as “oppressed” (v. 3, cf. above), is some kind of affliction at the hands of the wicked. The noun hr*ogm=, denoting something frightening or fearful, is often used in reference to a human being with superior position or power. In any case, the idea of deliverance (from such fearful things) is expressed by the verb lx^n` (“snatch away”), occurring frequently in the Psalms (12 times in the prior Pss 7, 18, 22, 25, 31, and 33).

Verse 6 [5]

h “(So then) look [WfyB!h!] to Him and shine (brightly),
and <your> faces shall not (then) feel ashamed.”

The Masoretic text, as we have it (and as it is pointed), has 3rd person plural forms in the first line: “they looked to Him and shined (brightly)”. While this may be correct, and though such grammatical shifts in person are not uncommon in ancient Near Eastern poetry (or in the Psalms), the Versions (LXX, Aquila, Syriac, Latin Vulgate) indicate underlying Hebrew imperatives. Unfortunately, as noted above, the Dead Sea MSS can provide no help in deciding the matter; however, the overall thrust of the Psalm in these lines would seem to favor reading the verbs as imperatives.  This, in and of itself, would require no real emendation, and only a slight alteration of the MT in the second line (also supported by the Versions): <k#yn@P= (“your faces”) instead of <h#yn@P= (“their faces”).

The main point in the couplet is clear enough, and reflects an important principle that is expressed throughout many Psalms: the person who trusts in YHWH will not be put to shame as a result.

Verse 7 [6]

z “This [hz#] oppressed (one) called and YHWH heard,
and from all (the thing)s distressing him, He saved him.”

This couplet has an extended/irregular meter (4+3), which may be intended as a poetic expression of the tension, the “distress” (hr*x*) experienced by the protagonist. Again the idea of the righteous as “oppressed” (yn]u*) is present here (cf. verse 3, above), and the plural torx* (i.e., the things causing distress) should probably be understood in a personal sense (i.e. oppressors), as also for the plural torWgm= in v. 5 (cf. above). The prayer to God for deliverance is expressed by the verb ar*q* (“call [out]”); again, it is indicated that YHWH heard the Psalmist’s prayer and saved him—and the righteous can trust that He will do the same for them in their times of trouble.

Verse 8 [7]

j “He lays [hn#j)] (down His) tent, (the) Messenger of YHWH,
round about (the one)s fearing Him, and pulls them out.”

This couplet narrates the deliverance YHWH brings for the righteous, using the imagery of military assistance and protection. YHWH acts through His ‘Messenger’ (Ea*l=m^), a personal (or personified) divine being who functions as God’s representative among humans. This is a complex religious concept which cannot be addressed adequately in the short space allotted here. The “Messenger of YHWH” is not simply reduceable to an ‘Angel’; in many passages, it appears that YHWH Himself is acting, and that the expression is a kind of pious circumlocution to avoid depicting YHWH directly in personal, anthropomorphic terms. In any case, the important point to remember here is that the ‘Messenger’ of YHWH acts in place of YHWH Himself, as His representative. Through this Messenger, God “lays down” his tent—that is, his military encampment—in a manner that protects the righteous from the enemy forces. Perhaps it is better to see the encampment as part of a military offensive, surrounding the wicked ‘army’ that is attacking the righteous, and “pulling out” (vb Jl^j*, i.e., rescuing) the righteous from their grasp.

The righteous are specifically identified as those who fear YHWH (vb ar@y`), who show Him the proper honor and reverence, obeying Him faithfully as their sovereign. This is a typical characteristic attributed to the righteous ones, but it is especially prominent in Wisdom tradition. The “fear of God” is a motif that features significantly in the second half of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study).

Verse 9 [8]

f “Taste [Wmu&f^] and see how good YHWH (is)!
Happy the warrior (who) finds protection in Him!”

This irregular (4+3) couplet brings the first half of the Psalm to a close. It involves a mixing of metaphors, but the combination makes sense when one understands the covenant context at work here (and generally so throughout the Psalms). The faithful and loyal vassal is able to sit at the table of his sovereign, eating with him and sharing his blessing and bounty. The same vassal, by the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) with the sovereign, is under his Lord’s protection. The “goodness” (bof) of YHWH here must be understood in this covenantal sense.

The closing line is a beatitude, opening with the construct plural yr@v=a^, as in Psalm 1:1 and 32:1-2. This plural form, which literally would mean something like, “(the) happy (thing)s of”, is best understood in an intensive (and exclamatory) sense: “Oh, the happiness of..”, i.e. “how happy (he) is…!”. The noun rb#G#, while sometimes translated simply as “man”, more properly signifies one who is strong, mighty, vital, valiant, etc; here the connotation of a warrior is fitting to the context. The righteous person is a “warrior” who serves as a faithful and loyal vassal of YHWH (i.e., under the covenant bond), and who is under YHWH’s personal protection (cf. above).

With regard to the first line of the couplet, Dahood (p. 206) makes a reasonably compelling argument that the imperative War= should be derived from the root ar*y`, which he would define as “be fat, satisfied, drink (deep)” (cognate with hw`r*), rather than from ha*r* (“see”). He would distinguish this root (ar*y` II) from ar*y` I, a byform of hr*y`. As evidence, he cites Prov 23:31 and Psalm 91:16, in addition to Prov 11:25, as well as Psalm 51:23; Job 10:15, and Isa 53:11. If this interpretation were correct, then the two imperatives at the start of the line would be translated “taste and be satisfied”, or “taste and drink (deep)”, which would certainly fit the context of dining at the bounteous table of YHWH. Ultimately, I find his suggestion intriguing, but not entirely convincing.


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