Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 2)

Psalm 40, continued

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

The tenor of the second part of the Psalm changes notably, with vv. 14-18 [13-17] forming a separate poem, a lament that is nearly identical with Psalm 70. It is possible that vv. 12-13 [11-12] were added to join to two poems together; in any case, they function in the Psalm as a short transitional unit.

Verse 12 [11]

“You, YHWH, did not withhold your (great) compassion from me,
your goodness and firmness continually keep watch (over) me.”

This irregular 5+4 couplet establishes the transition between the thanksgiving-praise to YHWH for deliverance in vv. 2-11 and the lament-plea for help in vv. 14-18. The basis for the Psalmist’s cry for help rests in the continual protection YHWH provides for the righteous. This protection is rooted in the idea of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people. As long as God’s people remain faithful and loyal, they have the guarantee of His protection. Covenant loyalty is regular theme in the Psalms, as we have seen throughout these studies. Here, the terms ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) and tm#a# (“firmness, certainty,” = trustworthiness and truth[fulness]) in line 2 must be understood in a covenantal context.

Along these same lines, YHWH shows love and compassion (<j^r^) to His people by protecting and delivering them in time of trouble. The plural form here could mean “acts of love/compassion”, or we may understand it as an intensive plural, i.e., “great compassion”.

The perfect forms in v. 12 could perhaps be taken as precative perfects, expressing a wish for what YHWH will do, framing the action as something that has already taken place (“Oh, that you would have…”).

Verse 13 [12]

“For evils have closed round upon me,
until there is no counting them;
my (own) crookedness has reached me,
and I am not able to <fly> (away);
they are great (in number) from (the) hairs of my head,
and my heart leaves me (behind)!”

In this verse, which I also take as transitional, the focus shifts to the Psalmist’s need for YHWH’s protection (v. 12 [11]), in the face of much trouble and evil that afflicts him. This triad of sharp, terse couplets (rhythmically, 3+2 | 2+2 | 3+2) sets the stage for the fervent plea for help in vv. 14-18. The first and third couplets form an inclusio of sorts, framing the verse:

    • Evils close in around the Psalmist
      • there is no counting (the number of them)
      • they (number) greater than the hairs of his head
    • His heart leaves him (because of this great threat)

The “evils” (tor*) in v. 13a can be understood in a generic and comprehensive sense. The reference brings to mind many passages in the Psalms where the wicked—enemies and adversaries of the Psalmist—surround and threaten him. The verb [p^a* (“surround”) tends to be used in Hebrew poetry for the idiom of the ‘waters’ of death that threaten to engulf a person (Ps 18:5 [4]; 116:3; Jonah 2:6).

However, in the second (middle) couplet, the emphasis is on the Psalmist’s own “crookedness” (/ou*)—that is, his own sinfulness. The evils that surround the Psalmist thus are not the attacks by the wicked, but his own sins. This may suggest the experience of a life-threatening illness (or other affliction) that was thought to have come upon him as a result of sin. We have seen this basic dramatic setting in a number of the Psalms we have examined thus far. It appears to have a common setting for lament-poems.

On a minor text-critical note, I follow Dahood (p. 247) in reading toad=l! (“to fly [away]”) for the MT toar=l! (“to see/look”). Confusion between dalet (d) and resh (r) was relatively common, with examples of variant versions of texts where this occurs in Ps 18:11 [10] (par 2 Sam 22:11 [10]) and Lev 11:14 (par Deut 14:13).

Verses 14-18 [13-17]

Verse 14 [13]

“May you rush, YHWH, to snatch me (away)!
(O) YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

The Psalmist’s plea for help begins with this single couplet. As the text stands, the meter is 3+3, but some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 422f) would eliminate the second hwhy as a duplication, resulting in a 3+2 couplet that is more fitting to the overall metrical pattern. I follow Dahood (p. 247) in vocalizing the initial verb form (hxr) as hx*r% (from the root JWr, “run, rush”), rather than MT hx@r= (from hx*r*, “be pleased [to act]”). The verb JWr makes a more obvious (and fitting) parallel with vwj (“hurry”) in the second line.

That this is the opening couplet of what was originally a separate poem (vv. 14-18) would seem to be confirmed by the parallel version in Psalm 70. However, Ps 70:2 [1] differs slightly in its reading.

Verse 15 [14]

“May they feel shame and humiliation as one,
(those) seeking my soul to sweep it (away)!
May they be sent backward and be ashamed,
(the one)s (who) delight in my evil!”

While verse 13 [12] emphasized the Psalmist’s own sin (lit. “crookedness”), here in the lament proper we return to the familiar motif of wicked assailants who attack the righteous protagonist, seeking to do him harm (and even to kill him). This is a dramatic paradigm we have encountered in dozens of Psalms. It is a general way of referring to the wicked (in contrast to the righteous), and does not require the presence of specific enemies. However, the poetic idiom could certainly be applied to any number of historical situations or practical circumstances.

The desire that such wicked assailants would be “put to shame”, and have their evil plans thwarted (“turned back”), is also a common prayer-wish in these lament-Psalms. This is expressed through three different verbs which share a similar range of meaning: vWB, rp@j*, and <l^K*. These are used repeatedly throughout the Psalms, and often with similar formulations (35:4 is quite close to v. 15 [14] here). Cp. Psalm 70:3 [2].

Verse 16 [15]

“May they be devastated upon (the) heel of their shame,
(the one)s saying to me, ‘Aha, aha!'”

The wish of v. 15 [14] is restated here, but even more intensely, as the Psalmist asks that his adversaries be “devastated” (vb <m@v*) on account of their shame. The expression “upon (the) heel of” (bq#u@ lu^) is a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered blandly in English as “on account of”. The sense of their wickedness is captured here through their accusatory taunting of the righteous (cp. 35:21).

Verse 17 [16]

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!’
(the one)s loving your (great) salvation.”

Just as the Psalmist prays for the wicked to feel shame and humiliation, so he also wishes (conversely) for the righteous to experience joy. The verb pair cWc and jm^c* expresses this joyfulness, even as the pair vWB and rp@j* in v. 15 [14] expresses the shame/humiliation of the wicked. The contrastive parallel (between the righteous and wicked) is quite precise here. The wicked are the ones “seeking [vb vq^B*]” the soul of the righteous, to do it harm; by contrast, the righteous are the ones “seeking” (same verb) after YHWH, to do His will. The wicked utter accusatory taunts (“Aha, aha!”) against the righteous, while the righteous utter praise in honor of YHWH (“Great is YHWH!”).

Structurally, this verse is best understood as a tricolon that has been expanded with two additional short lines. The tricolon is comprised of lines 1-2 and 5 above, producing a fine characterization of the righteous:

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(the one)s loving your (great) salvation.”

Within this poetic structure, the additional descriptive element has been added:

“(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!'”

To their heart and intention, a confessional aspect is included, whereby the righteous demonstrate their devotion to YHWH through what they say publicly. It implies a worship setting, but even more importantly, it marks the Psalmist as belonging to the gathering of (all the) the righteous (cf. the discussion on vv. 10-11 [9-10] in the previous study).

Verse 18 [17]

“And (though) I (am) oppressed and needy,
my Lord has regard for me.
You (are) my help and my escaping—
my Mighty (One), do not stay behind!”

These beautiful closing lines combine both a statement of trust in YHWH, and a cry for help. As such, this verse effectively summarizes and encompasses the entire scope of this part of the Psalm (vv. 12-18). The righteous are frequently characterized as poor/needy (/oyb=a#) and oppressed (yn]a*). The wicked, by contrast, are rich and powerful (at least by worldly standards), and oppress the righteous. This is expressed from the standpoint of social justice, but as an idiom also carries a deeper religious and theological resonance. The righteous, by their very nature, cannot share the success and strength of the wicked in the world; instead, they must trust in YHWH for sustenance and protection.

The protection provided by YHWH is again the subject of the final two lines, as the Psalmist closes his poem with the plea: “My Mighty One [lit. Mightiest, Elohim, i.e., God], do not stay behind!”. The verb rj^a* literally means “stay behind, keep back”, and expresses a situation that is the opposite of what the Psalmist needs. He needs YHWH to come forward to rescue him, to stand in front of him and give the necessary protection. YHWH is both the help and the “way out”, the escape (vb fl^P*) from all that threatens him.

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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