Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 3)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Psalm 43:1-5

This is the third and final stanza of the psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2 for the first and second stanzas).

Verse 1

“Judge (on) my (behalf), Mightiest (One),
struggle (for the sake of) my struggle:
from a nation with no goodness,
(and) from a man of deceit
and injustice, help me escape!”

The opening verse of this stanza consists of five 2-beat lines, and the terse staccato-like rhythm seems to highlight the dramatic situation facing the Psalmist. He makes his plea to God for deliverance, framed as a legal petition, made to YHWH in His role as Judge. As previously noted, in these ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the general title “Mightiest (One)” (<yh!l)a$, Elohim) is regularly used in place of the Divine name hwhy.

At the end of the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the Psalmist’s suffering was described in terms of attacks and taunts by his adversaries, and this theme is picked up here in verse 1. Now, however, the adversaries are understood as the wicked generally—and this human wickedness is realized both in terms of nations (“a nation with no goodness”) and individuals (“a man of deceit and injustice”). While I have translated the substantive adjective dys!j* and noun hm*r=m! according to their fundamental meaning (“goodness” and “deceit”), both terms have a special meaning in the context of the covenant bond; dys!j* denotes one who is faithful and loyal, while hm*r=m! can specifically indicate treachery or betrayal. The root lw#u* basically signifies a departure or deviation from right conduct, whether in a moral-ethical or legal sense. Since a judicial context in involved, it is appropriate to translation the noun hl*w+u^ as “injustice”.

The judicial setting is clear enough from the first two lines, with the use of the verb fp^v* (“judge, render judgment”) and by byr!. This latter verb means “struggle, grapple”, but regularly in the sense of a legal contest—i.e., for justice, in a court of law. The double-use of the root, with the related noun byr!, emphasizes the idea of a legal fight (by God, on behalf of the Psalmist). This suggests that YHWH is as much a legal advocate for the Psalmist as He is the actual Judge in the case.

Verse 2

“For you are the Mighty (One) of my place of refuge—
(so) for what [i.e. why] do you reject me,
for what [i.e. why] do I walk about (clothe)d in darkness,
in (the) pressure of the (one) hostile to me?”

The imagery in this verse shifts to YHWH (“Mighty [One]” = “Mightiest,” Elohim) as a place of protection for the Psalmist, lit. a “place of refuge” (zoum*). The legal aspect of the covenant with YHWH has been replaced by the socio-political—referring to the protection which the sovereign is obligated to provide for his faithful vassal.

The last two lines echo 42:10 [9] (cf. the previous study on stanza 2), with the image of the Psalmist forced to go about in darkness (i.e., dark in color/dress, like one in mourning) because of the oppression he faces from his enemy. The singular verbal noun by@oa (“[one] being hostile”) can be understood as a human adversary, or the great enemy Death himself (that is, the danger facing the Psalmist is life-threatening). As the second line makes clear, the protagonist feels that God has turned away from him (vb jn~z`, “reject, repel”), leaving him vulnerable to the attacks of his enemies. This is the reason for the appeal to YHWH, calling for both justice and protection, on the basis of the covenant bond.

Metrically, this verse generally follows the pattern of v. 1, with its sequence of 2-beat lines; here it is a quatrain, with the rhythm 3+2+2+2.

Verse 3

“Send (out) your light and your truth,
they shall be my guide (to safety),
they shall bring me to (the) hill of your holiness,
and to (the) places of your dwelling.”

Having established the covenant-basis for his appeal, the Psalmist now requests that God act on his behalf. In spite of the legal/judicial setting of verse 1, the action requested by the Psalmist is one of rescue. This is indicated by the use of the verb fl^P* in v. 1, and also the noun zoum* (“place of refuge”) in v. 2. This place where YHWH will provide protection is further described here in v. 3 as the “mountain of [God’s] holiness” (i.e., His holy mountain), and the locale where He Himself dwells (plur. of /K*v=m!, “dwelling-place”). The idea of El-Yahweh residing on/in a great mountain (shaped like a giant tent) is an ancient Semitic cosmological (and religious) motif. While the mountain is an archetypal symbol, it can be realized at the practical conceptual (and ritual) level in any local mountain or hill-top site. Here the emphasis is on the presence of YHWH—i.e., the place where He dwells.

The fact that the Psalmist specifically calls for YHWH to send His light (roa) and truth (tm#a#, signifying “firmness, certainty”), illustrates that what threatens him is understood primarily in an ethical-religious sense—as wickedness and injustice. The lack of faithfulness and loyalty (dsj) is a primary characteristic of the wicked, but also a tendency to act falsely and with deceit (on both points, cf. verse 1 above). In the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the attacks by the wicked involve slanderous taunts against the Psalmist. Truth and light serve as the antidote for the poison of such dark slander.

Verse 4

“And I will come to (the) place of slaughter for (the) Mightiest,
to (the) Mighty (One) of my joyous circling,
and (there) I will throw you (praise) on (the) harp,
(O) Mightiest (One), my Mighty (One)!”

In this verse, the “mountain” of God’s dwelling is now realized as the location of the Temple (i.e., the ancient fortified hilltop site of ‘Mount’ Zion). Having been rescued by YHWH, and now dwelling in safety under His protection, the Psalmist will give worship to God in the Temple precincts. The image is of a person circling joyously around the altar (“place of [ritual] slaughter”), giving praise to God. The motif is symbolic, as much as it may be meant to describe an actual scene of worship in the Temple. Whether, or to what extent, the stanzas of this Psalm were part of a specific Temple ritual (procession into the precincts, etc) is difficult to say.

The oddity of the final line, which reads (literally) “(O) Mightiest (One), my Mightiest (One)” (in conventional English, “[O] God, my God”), provides a strong argument in favor of the theory that, in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the divine name hwhy (YHWH) had been originally used throughout, but that it was (systematically) replaced by the plural title <yh!l)a$ (for reasons that are far from clear). The final line would thus have originally made more sense: “(O) YHWH, my Mighty (One)”, “(O) YHWH, my God”.

Refrain: Verse 5

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on 42:6 [5]). After the declaration of hope, in v. 4, that YHWH will rescue the Psalmist, this refrain takes on a new tone. There is even more reason now for the righteous to wait on the Lord, trusting that He will act to deliver them, and less reason for one’s soul to be sad and downcast in the midst of distress.

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