Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 41 (Part 2)

Psalm 41, continued

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) is a prayer to YHWH with strong Wisdom features (cf. the previous study). It focuses on the righteous, and climaxes with a personal plea (by the Psalmist) for healing and deliverance.  The second part (vv. 6-13 [5-12]) deals with the attacks by the wicked against the righteous, retaining the central theme-setting of the first part: the experience of illness by the righteous.

Verses 6-13 [5-12]

Verse 6 [5]

“(The one)s hostile to me say evil against me:
‘When will he die and his name be lost (forever)?'”

The Psalmist’s enemies (<yb!y+oa, lit. ones being hostile [to him]) respond to him in his illness. The preposition l= is best understood here in the sense of “against”, though this is normally expressed through lu^. These people say evil (things) regarding the Psalmist’s condition. They are eagerly awaiting his death, though it is not clear just why they are so antagonistic toward him; it is typically of the conflict between the righteous and wicked generally—the wicked seek the harm (including the death and demise) of the righteous. It is not only the Psalmist’s own life that is involved; the wicked seek the obliteration of his entire reputation and posterity (lit. “name”, <v@), including that of his family and any children who would follow him.

Verse 7 [6]

“And if (such a one) comes to see (me),
he speaks emptiness (from) his heart,
(and) gathers (up) trouble to him(self)
(then) goes forth outside (and) speaks (it).”

Verse 6 [5] was a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, while here in v. 7 [6] we have pair of 3-beat (3+3) couplets, though the rhythm is relatively loose. The action of the wicked is described, expounding the basic idea expressed in the initial verse. The first couplet here sets the scene: one of the Psalmist’s enemies comes to see him (while he is ill and suffering), apparently feigning friendship; but what the man says in false friendship is actually “emptiness” (aw+v*), in terms of what is truly in his heart. Indeed, while he speaks emptiness (pretending to friendship), this person is busy “gathering up” (vb Jb^q*) trouble (/w#a*). It would seem that the true purpose of the enemy’s visit is not to see the suffering protagonist (as a friend), but to see the nature and extent of his condition (i.e., the illness), so that it can be used to make trouble. This “trouble” takes the form of a gossiping slander that the wicked person spreads about once he gets outside (JWjl^).

Verse 8 [7]

“(As) one, they (all) whisper about me,
all (the one)s hating me plan evil for me.”

The meter of this verse would seem to require omitting the second yl^u* (“against me”) as a duplication (cf. Dahood, p. 251 for a different solution). The result is a 3-beat couplet (if loosely so). The verse picks up on the idea from the end of the previous line. The wicked are gossiping (lit. “whispering”, vb vj^l*) about the Psalmist’s condition. This reflects their hatred for him—that is, of the wicked for the righteous—with the verbal noun “(one)s hating” (<ya!n+v)) more or less synonymous with “(one)s being hostile” (<yb!y+oa), i.e., “enemies”. The preposition l=, translated as “for” above, can also be understood in the sense of “against”, as in v. 6 [5] (cf. above).

Verse 9 [8]

“‘(May) a word of destruction be poured in(to) him,’
and ‘(may he) who lies (there) not be (able) to stand again!'”

The couplet in verse 9 [8] is best understood as an expression of the hatred (for the Psalmist) by his enemies. The evil that they plan for him (v. 8 [7]) is meant for his destruction and death. The “word of destruction” (lu^Y~l!B-rb^D=) is conceived of as a lethal poison which (it is hoped by them) will finish off the Psalmist. That they wish for his death is clear from the second line. Their evil hope is that the illness which has the Psalmist laying bed-ridden will become fatal, so that he will never rise up again.

Verse 10 [9]

“Even (the) man of my bond, in whom I trusted,
(the one) eating my bread, has twisted (the) heel upon me!”

This couplet seems to build upon the idea that at least one of the Psalmist’s enemies had pretended to be his friend (cf. the first couplet of v. 7 [6] above). Here this person is called “man of my <olv*,” an expression that is extremely difficult to translate literally in English. The noun <olv* has the fundamental meaning of “wholeness, fullness, completion”, often in the specific context of a binding agreement (covenant). That is to say, it reflects the idea of an agreement that has been completed, so that the two parties have a bond that gives to them mutual security, protection, etc. The Psalmist thought he had such a bond (of friendship and loyalty) with this person; they ate together at the same table, and so forth. And yet, as it turns out, this would-be friend has “twisted the heel” upon him. This idiom of ‘giving someone the heel’ especially connotes slandering or maligning a person (cf. Dahood, pp. 251-2).

This verse was famously interpreted by early Christians as applying to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas (cf. the citation in John 13:18).

Verse 11 [10]

“But you, YHWH, (may you) show favor to me,
and make me stand (up), and I will complete (this) for them!”

The Psalmist now prays to YHWH, asking for God to “show favor” (vb /n~j*) to him, healing him from his illness (“make me stand up”). The verb <l^v* involves a bit of wordplay, with the noun <olv* in the previous verse. In terms of the covenant context, we should understand the verb here in the sense of “making good on the bond that has been broken”, or, we might say, of completing the broken bond by paying the betrayers back (with punishment). This draws on the more general idea of God punishing the wicked—and of prayers by the righteous to that effect. Part of this punishment involves the shame and humiliation his enemies will experience when their evil plans and hopes (for his death) are thwarted.

Verse 12 [11]

“By this will I know that you find delight in me:
(that the one) hostile to me will not make a shout over me.”

If YHWH heals the Psalmist, and so thwarts the evil plans and desires of his enemies, then he will truly know that God takes delight (vb Jp^j*) in him. The “shout” (i.e., a ringing cry [u^Wr] of triumph) that the hostile ones (enemies) would have made “over” (lu^) the Psalmist, conjures up the image of victorious soldiers celebrating over a dead body.

Verse 13 [12]

“And I, in my wholeness, may you take hold of me,
and stand me (upright) to your face (in)to (the) distant (future)!”

The noun <T) (“completeness, wholeness”) here has a double meaning. Through the healing provided by YHWH, the Psalmist will be made whole again; at the same time, this healing also reflects the Psalmist’s own righteousness and loyalty to YHWH. The prayer here is that this completeness (both in the physical and moral/religious sense) be preserved from now on. This is expressed through the verb bx^n` (in the Hiphil causative stem), referring to the act of making something to stand upright, fixing it in position. The Psalmist asks (and hopes) that YHWH will place him right in front of Him, before His face. This location in God’s very presence implies a blessed afterlife in heaven, a condition than will last “into the distant (future)” (<l*oul=).

Verse 14 [13]

“Blessed be YHWH, Mighty (One) of Yisrael,
from the distant (past) and until the distant (future)—
surely (it is so), and (may it) surely (be so).”

The final verse of the Psalm (14 [13]) takes the form of a closing benediction, of the sort that may well have been applied to the poem secondarily. It very much reflects a general Israelite (Yahwist) piety, affirming YHWH as the God (Mightiest [One], Elohim)—that is, the one and only true God—of Israel. I have tried to capture the fundamental meaning of /m@a* (°¹m¢n) in the final line (“surely, certainly),” through a glossed translation, rather than simply transliterating it in English as “amen”.

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

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