Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 34 (Part 2)

Psalm 34, continued

In the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9, cf. the previous study) 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.

Remember that Psalm 34 is an acrostic poem, with the opening letters indicated for each couplet below.

Verses 10-22 [9-21]

Verse 10 [9]

y “You must fear [Wary+] YHWH, (you) His holy (one)s,
for there is no(thing) lacking to (those) fearing Him.”

The second half of the Psalm begins with the exhortation for the righteous to fear YHWH (vb ar@y`). This theme was introduced in verse 8 [7], and is an antithetic parallel to the idea of being saved (by God) from everything that might cause fear (vv. 5-7 [4-6]). There is no need to fear the wicked, nor anything on earth, since the righteous are under YHWH’s protection; it is only YHWH Himself who is to be feared.

At the close of the first half of the Psalm (v. 9 [8]), the covenantal protection provided by YHWH was described in terms of the blessed bounty that the faithful will receive at their Lord’s table. This motif is echoed here in v. 10, with the assurance that those who fear YHWH (i.e., His faithful servants) will not have anything lacking (rosj=m^)  for them. According to the binding agreement (covenant), the superior (YHWH) provides for his vassals, so they will never be in need. Here the material sense of poverty (and hunger) is primarily in view, as the next couplet makes clear.

Verse 11 [10]

k “(The one)s with abundance [<yr!yB!K=] may be poor and hunger,
but (the one)s seeking YHWH will not lack any good (thing).”

The Masoretic text has the plural noun <yr!yp!K= (“[young] lions”), while the Greek version reads plou/sioi (“rich [one]s”), suggesting that the underlying Hebrew may be <yr!yB!K= (“[one]s with [an] abundance”). The difference between the two readings is a single letter; unfortunately, the Dead Sea Psalms MSS offer no help in deciding, since almost nothing of this Psalm survives. I have opted for the latter reading (following the LXX); however, <yr!yp!K= could still be correct, since strong/vigorous animals are frequently used in the ancient Near East as honorific titles for powerful men, nobles, and rulers. The basic point of contrast in the couplet is that while it is possible for the rich and powerful in society to end up in poverty, as the result of a change in circumstances, this cannot happen for the one who truly relies upon the protection and provision of YHWH.

Verse 12 [11]

l “Walk [Wkl=] (here, my) sons and listen to me,
(the) fear of YHWH I will teach you.”

While there is a strong Wisdom-aspect running through the entire Psalm, nowhere is it expressed so clearly or directly as in this couplet, along with the series of Wisdom sayings and maxims that are introduced here. The fear (ha*r=y!) of YHWH is virtually synonymous with wisdom, as a number of sayings in the Wisdom tradition state precisely, to the effect, in particular, that true wisdom begins with the fear (i.e., honor, reverence, obedience) of God—Prov 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Psalm 111:10; Job 28:28; cf. also Mic 6:9; Isa 11:2; 33:6.

Verse 13 [12]

m “Who [ym!] (is) the man th(at) desires life,
loving (those) days (in which) to see good?”

This sort of rhetorical question is typical of Wisdom instruction, and so follows the call for the righteous to receive instruction in v. 12 [11]. Here the verb bh^a* (“love”) more properly connotes the longing that the lover feels. The word-play of the Hebrew in these lines is almost impossible to reproduce, with the formal parallelism of <yY]j^ and <ym!y`. They are both plural nouns, but the first of which is almost always translated as a collective singular (“life”); the parallel would better be expressed by rendering the plural as “times of life” or “moments of living”. The implication of the rhetorical question, of course, is that everyone desires the blessing of the good life, but that only the wise person, the one fearing YHWH, will truly find it.

Verse 14 [13]

n “Guard [rx)n+] your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit.”

This is one of the few instances where the concise rhythm of a simple 3-beat (3+3) couplet can be captured naturally in a literal translation. It is the sort of maxim common in Wisdom literature—e.g., Job 27:4; Psalm 39:1; 50:19; 120:2; Prov 10:31; 12:19; 15:2; 21:23; 26:28.

Verse 15 [14]

s “Turn [rWs] from evil and do (the) good,
search (for) wholeness and pursue it.”

Again the 3-beat couplet can easily be translated (literally) into correspondingly concise lines in English. The noun <olv* is typically translated as “peace”, but it should probably be understood here in its broader, more fundamental sense of “wholeness, completion, fulfillment”, encompassing not just the idea of peace, but of health and prosperity, etc. Ultimately, this “wholeness” is defined in terms of the moral (and religious) contrast of doing “good” (bof) instead of “evil” (ur^).

Verse 16 [15]

u “(The) eyes of [yn@yu@] YHWH (look) to (the) righteous (one)s,
and His ears (listen) to their cry for help.”

Here there is a shift from the simple Wisdom-saying back to language more in keeping with the thought-world and style of the Psalms, emphasizing the idea of the righteous calling on YHWH in their time of trouble. The promise is that God will indeed answer the righteous when they call, since He is already focused on them as a result of the faithfulness that they have demonstrated. As noted previously, the adjective qyD!x^ (“just, right[eous]”) often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in a covenant context.

Verse 17 [16]

p “(The) face of [yn@P=] YHWH is (set) on (those) doing evil,
to cut off from (the) earth (all) memory of them.”

This couplet forms an obvious contrast with that of v. 16 [15]. If the eyes of YHWH are focused on the righteous, in a positive and protective sense, His face is directed at the wicked (“[the one]s doing evil”), in a negative and destructive sense. Actually, both eyes and face have a benevolent aspect in relationship to the righteous, and a destructive aspect in relation to the wicked. On the “face” as a euphemism for the punishing anger of God, cf. Psalm 21:10 [9]; 80:17 [16]; Lam 4:16, etc.

Verse 18 [17]

x “They cry out [Wqu&x*] and YHWH hears (them),
and from their distress He snatches them (away).”

The subject of the Wqu&x* (“they cry out”) is unspecified; the context makes clear that it refers back to the righteous ones of v. 16 [15]. This couplet repeats the promises of vv. 5-8; on this, and the use of the verb lx^n` (“snatch out/away”) to express this promise of deliverance from YHWH, cf. the discussion in the previous study.

Verse 19 [18]

q “Near [borq*] (comes) YHWH to (the one)s broken of heart,
and (for the one)s crushed of spirit He makes (them) safe.”

This couplet expands on the promise of v. 18 [17], that YHWH will hear the cry of the righteous in their time of need, and will act to rescue them. The adjective borq* (“near”) can be understood either in the sense of God being near or coming near (the verbal action being unspecified); both aspects are valid, but the latter sense better fits the promise of deliverance—i.e., YHWH comes to rescue them. The verbal form u^yv!oy can be translated simply as “he saves”, or in a more exalted way as “he brings salvation”; I have opted for a straightforward rendering of the verb in its fundamental meaning (in the Hiphil causative stem): “make safe”, i.e., “He makes (them) safe”.

There is a precise parallel between the construct expressions “ones broken of heart” and “ones crushed of spirit”; it is a beautiful example of synonymous parallelism, but one that is not always preserved properly in translation. The expressions emphasize that the righteous may frequently experience hardship and suffering from the forces of evil and wickedness in the world; this point is stressed further in the next couplet.

Verse 20 [19]

r “Many [toBr^] (are the) evils (facing the) righteous,
and from all of them YHWH will snatch him away!”

A literal translation of the first line would read “many (are the) evils of (the) righteous”, but this could give the misleading impression that the “evils” are things the righteous do, or which are characteristic of the righteous. The context clearly indicates that these are evils facing the righteous person, which are experienced at times during his/her life on earth. The promise of deliverance, stated in the prior verses (and earlier in vv. 5-8), is repeated here, most emphatically: “from all of them…”. The verb used to express the action of YHWH in delivering His faithful ones is again lx^n` (“snatch away”, cf. above).

Verse 21 [20]

? “He (is) watching [rm@v)] (over) all (the) strength of his (limb)s,
(even) one (bone) from them will not be broken!”

Here again, the protection provided by YHWH is described in terms of seeing, as in v. 16 [15] (“the eyes of YHWH…”). God keeps close watch over the life of the righteous, specifically seeing that no (physical) harm comes to the body. The noun <x#u# literally refers to the strength of substance of something, but often is used specifically for the strength/substance of a human body, viz. the bones which give it firmness and strength. That is clearly the meaning here, with the added promise that not even one bone will be broken from the evils faced by the righteous. On this motif in the context of the Passion narrative (the crucifixion of Jesus), in light of the Passover tradition regarding the bones of the Paschal lamb (Exod 12:46; Num 9:12), cf. John 19:31-36.

Verse 22 [21]

t “It will put to death [tt@omT=] (the) wicked, (will) evil,
and (those) hating (the) righteous will face (their) guilt.”

The rhythm of this relatively concise 3-beat couplet is difficult to reproduce in a literal translation. This is in part because of the wide semantic range of the roots ur and <va, respectively. In particular, there is no good English equivalent for the verb <v^a*, which centers primarily around the idea of guilt; it can refer to the act which brings guilt, or to the punishment of that guilt, as well as to an entire range of related concepts. Here the context indicates that the wicked will face the true consequences of their guilt—guilt that stems from their own evil actions, which are defined in terms of hating (and mistreating) the righteous. As often in the Psalms, we find both a strong contrast between the righteous and the wicked, as well as a contrastive fate for the wicked that is framed in terms of the ancient lex talionis principle. The punishment for the wicked will match their crime, and will come in a similar form and manner—i.e., the kinds of evil things that the wicked did will be turned back upon them, to strike them in turn.

That seems to be the basic sense of the couplet. The very sort of evil done by the wicked, with the intention of harming the righteous, will result in putting the wicked themselves to death.

VERSE 23 [22]

“YHWH (is the One) ransoming (the) soul of His servants,
and all (the one)s seeking protection in Him will not face guilt.”

The Psalm closes with a longer 4-beat (4+4) couplet that affirms, once again, the promise that YHWH will protect and rescue all those who remain faithful to Him. Here the ancient covenant context comes more firmly into view, whereby the righteous/faithful ones are referred to as His “servants” (i.e., vassals). The verbs hd*P* and hs*j* also very much reflect this covenant-context. The primary significance of hd*P* is of making payment to secure the release of a person held captive. No trustworthy sovereign would let a vassal remain a prisoner or captive, but would act to secure their release—whether by payment or other means. Even closer to the context of the binding agreement (covenant) is the protection which such agreements and treaties entail, either of mutual protection or of that provided by a superior for his subordinate. The verb hs*j* denotes the act of seeking (and/or finding) protection.

While the language of real-life binding agreements is used throughout the Psalms, it often takes on a deeper symbolic and religious sense. Here, for example, the idea of protection and release from human adversaries has been transferred and applied to Death as the great enemy. By rescuing the righteous from the threat of death, as in the case of a life-threatening illness, YHWH acts in a manner similar to the sovereign who delivers his vassals from a human enemy. Moreover, the idea is clearly expressed that the righteous are not to meet such a fate (i.e., death) in a manner reserved for the wicked—that is, as a punishment for their guilt (vb <v^a*, cf. above). This is a theme found frequently in the Psalms: that the righteous person is not at all like the wicked, and so, according to the terms of the covenant (with YHWH), should not suffer the fate of the wicked.

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