Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 2)

Psalm 37, continued

The first section of Psalm 37 (vv. 1-11) was examined in the previous study. This is an acrostic Psalm, and I notate the opening letter of each verse in the translations below.

Verses 12-22

Verses 12-13

z “(The) wicked is planning [<m@z)] (evil) for (the) just,
and grinds his teeth upon him;
(but the) Lord laughs at him,
for He sees that his day comes.”

In the first section, the righteous are urged not to react in anger or resentment when the wicked appear to prosper in this life. This Wisdom-message is part of a general (and familiar) contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Here, however, the contrast has sharpened into a sense of outright hostility and opposition—that is, the wicked opposing and attacking the righteous—such as we have seen expressed in a number of other Psalms. We need not imagine that any particular adversaries are in view; rather, the hostility is characteristic of the wicked in general.

What the wicked intend for the righteous is referenced in the first couplet (v. 12); it is described in terms of planning (vb <m^z`)—that is, intentional acts of evil directed at the righteous. The inherent violence of what they intend is expressed through the familiar idiom of “grinding the teeth”.

God’s response to the evil plans of the wicked is described in the second couplet (v. 13). He simply laughs (vb qj^c*)—playfully and derisively—at all they intend to do. The dismissive laughter conveys two points. First, the righteous are under God’s protection, and, even if they do suffer for a time, they ultimately will be delivered and blessed/rewarded for their suffering. Second, whatever cruelty the wicked would inflict on the righteous is trivial and insignificant compared to great suffering that they (the wicked) themselves will endure on the day of Judgment.

Indeed, the “day” in v. 13 certainly is an early reference to the “day of YHWH” theme, as it would be developed in the Prophetic writings. The poetic idiom has not been sharpened to the point that it would be, for example, in the late pre-exilic and exilic Prophets. Here it simply refers, in a general sense, to the Judgment that the wicked will face at the time of their death (and thereafter). There can be little doubt that the death of the wicked is primarily in view.

Verses 14-15

j “(Their) sword [br#j#] (the) wicked (one)s open (wide),
and they tread their bow (as they string it),
(so as) to fell (the) oppressed and needy,
(and) to slay (the one)s straight o(n the) path;
(but) their sword will come in(to) their (own) heart,
and their bows will be shattered (to pieces).”

In the first pair of couplets, the evil plans of the wicked have taken the form of preparation for violent action. The preparation is expressed in the first couplet, using military imagery. The wicked “open” their swords, by which is meant drawing it out (into the open), so as to sharpen and whet it. The collective action of the wicked as a group (and character type) is indicated by the singular “sword” (br#j#). The wicked also step (“tread”) on their bows to string them, in preparation for using them in battle, etc. Again, the noun (tv#q#) is singular, though it also may be possible to parse/vocalize it as a plural (“their bows”, cf. Dahood, p. 228f).

The purpose of this weapon-preparation is expressed in the second couplet, with a pair of phrases governed by infinitives:

    • “to fell [i.e., cause to fall]” (lyP!h^l=)
    • “to slay [i.e., kill in a violent manner]” (j^obf=l!)

The purpose is to kill the righteous, but the language perhaps is meant to convey, in extreme terms, a range of cruel and violent actions. The righteous are characterized as “oppressed” (yn]u*) and “needy” (/oyb=a#). This identification of the righteous with people who are poor and oppressed may seem overly simplistic, but it is an essential aspect of the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition. It is precisely because of their righteousness that there is such opposition from the wicked. The expectation of poverty and affliction suggests that the attacks by the wicked will succeed, at least for a time. In any case, painful experience has taught many devout believers the truth of this apparent contradiction. The day of Judgment (v. 13, cf. above) will correct any wrongs done to the righteous during this life.

The judgment-theme returns in the final couplet, utilizing the lex talionis and ‘reversal of fortune’ motifs found so frequently in the Psalms. By a harsh irony, what the wicked intended for the righteous will be turned upon their own person: their sword will enter their own heart bringing about their own death. The ultimate failure of the wicked is summarized by the image of their weapons (spec. their bows) being “shattered” by God.

Verses 16-17

f “Good [bof] (is the) little (belonging) to (the) just,
from (the) wealth of (the) wicked (who have) much;
for (the) arms of (the) wicked (one)s will be shattered,
but YHWH is giving support (for the) just (one)s.”

I have translated the Hebrew syntax /m!bof quite literally above (“Good [is]…from…”); however, such phrasing typically indicates a comparison. In conventional English, this would be rendered “Better is…than…”; a corresponding translation of the first couplet would be:

“Better (is the) little belonging to (the) just
than (the) wealth of (the) wicked (who have) much”

The just/righteous one (singular, qyD!x^) is juxtaposed with the wicked ones (plural, <yu!v*r=) who have much (<yB!r^). Some commentators would emend <yB!r^ to the singular br^, to reinforce the parallel with fu^m= (“little”) in the first line. However, there is good reason to maintain the reading of the Masoretic text here, with the plural <yB!r^ modifying <yu!v*r=. The contrast is between the righteous person, who is often poor and needy (v. 14), and the wealthy (i.e. successful/prosperous) wicked ones.

God’s support for the righteous, and opposition to the wicked, is expressed in the second couplet. Again, there is an allusion to the ultimate (final) Judgment of God upon the wicked, framed entirely in terms of the dualistic contrast of righteous vs. wicked.

Verses 18-19

y “YHWH knows [u^d@oy] (the) days of (the) complete (one)s,
and their portion shall be for (the) distant (future);
they will not dry (up) in (the) time of evil,
and in (the) days of hunger they will be satisfied.”

In these couplets, the attacks by the wicked have vanished, and the emphasis is on the future reward for the righteous. Clearly, the day of Judgment is in view, along with the blessed afterlife that awaits for the righteous (in contrast with the suffering and punishment that belongs to the wicked). This is very much part of the Wisdom-tradition as we see it expressed in the Psalms (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 1).

Here the righteous are characterized as the “complete (one)s” (<m!ym!t=)—that is, those who have proven themselves to be completely devoted to YHWH, pure in heart and mind, and obedient to the covenant bond between God and His people. The idea that YHWH “knows their days” implies the providential care that He has for the righteous, including the blessing that He will provide for them at the end of their life (i.e., in the afterlife). Indeed, the “portion” (hl*j&n~) that the righteous will inherit belongs to the “distant (future)”, or, in later Jewish terminology, “the Age to come”, which often signifies “eternal life”, i.e., the blessed life in heaven with God.

This blessing, in the second couplet, is described in terms of agricultural/farming imagery. Like the crops that come through to a successful harvest, the righteous will endure, and will not “dry up” (vb vby) in the harsh heat of summer (here called the “time of evil”). More than this, they will eat their fill and be satisfied (vb ubc), even in time of famine (“days of hunger”). Harvest imagery came to be a standard way of depicting the end-time Judgment, and of the inherent contrast between the righteous and wicked (i.e., the grain vs. the chaff).

Verse 20

k “(And it is) that [yK!] (the) wicked (one)s shall perish,
and (the one)s hostile (to) YHWH shall be finished—
like (the) rich(ness) of meadows (on fire),
they shall be finished (off) with smoke!”

This is a most difficult verse, and the certain confusion that is present in the lines (as they stand) suggests possible corruption in the text. Unfortunately, there is no help to be had here from the Dead Sea manuscripts, and any significant emendation would be highly questionable. As a tentative, working solution, I have made one small emendation, moving the first occurrence of the verb form WlK (“they will be finished”) back two words into the second line. The result is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet. This gives to the unit a dramatic climax, and retains a relatively consistent poetic rhythm and structure.

The general sense of the verse is clear enough: it narrates the fate of the wicked, in contrast to that of the righteous (in vv. 18-19, cf. above). While the righteous will endure the heat of summer, and come through as fine crops for the harvest, the ‘fields’ of the wicked will be destroyed, burned up by fire. While the righteous are “complete” (<mt), the wicked are “completed” (llk)—that is, finished off, meeting their end; they are completely destroyed.

Unless there is something missing from the text, the last brief couplet, as we have it, gives only a vague allusion to fields being destroyed by fire. However, this seems to be the imagery that is involved, as a contrastive parallel with the positive harvest imagery in vv. 18-19. Even so, it must be admitted that any treatment of the verse, based on the current data available, must be regarded as tentative and preliminary. For different ways of understanding and rendering these lines, compare, for example, the approaches of Dahood (p. 230) and Kraus (p. 403).

Verse 21

l “(The) wicked borrows [hw#l)] and does not fulfill (his obligation),
but (the) just (person) is (always) showing favor and giving.”

This proverbial couplet, while rooted in the Wisdom-tradition that we find expressed throughout the Psalm, seems somewhat out of place here (and might fit better as part of the first section [cf. the previous study]). However, it continues the contrast between the righteous and the wicked that is central to this Wisdom-Psalm. The contrast is straightforward enough. The wicked person tends to borrow (vb hw`l*) but does not fulfill (vb <l^v*) his obligation. The righteous person, on the other hand, is always showing favor to others and giving (rather than taking). The pair of participles suggests an ongoing action, behavior that characterizes the righteous.

Verse 22

“For (the one)s being blessed by Him will possess (the) earth,
but (the one)s being cursed by Him will be cut off.”

This couplet continues the contrast from v. 21, and should be probably be joined with that verse as a unit, forming a pair of couplets. However, I have isolated it here as the climactic point that brings the section to a close. Likewise, the first section concluded with a promise that the righteous would “possess the earth” as an inheritance (v. 11), and the third section also ends in a similar manner (v. 29, to be discussed in the next study). As previously noted, Jesus essentially quotes verse 11 in his famous Beatitudes (Matt 5:5).

The contrast here involves a pair of passive participles, an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor. The righteous are designated as those “being blessed” (vb Er^B*) by YHWH, while the wicked are those “being cursed” (vb ll^q*) by Him. This juxtaposition of blessings/cursings is part of the ancient Near Eastern covenant pattern, as also is the contrasting fate of inheritance and being “cut off”. The faithful and loyal vassal will inherit a territory, while the one who violates the binding agreement will be “cut off” (tr^K*).

This ‘cutting’ was often symbolized, in ancient times, by the actual dismemberment of a sacrificial animal, sometimes accompanied by a formula that effectively affirmed, “as this animal has been cut up, so let it (i.e., so it will) be done to me if I violate the terms of this agreement,” etc. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the death penalty was not always applied in such situations, when the covenant with YHWH was violated—a symbolic “cutting off” could be substituted in its place. However, the idea that the transgressor will ultimately meet death at God’s hand (perhaps in a violent or untimely manner), is very much present in many Scripture passages, including a number of places in the Psalms. Almost certainly, the death of the wicked is in view here, along with indications of future punishment after death.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

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