Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 3)

Psalm 44, continued

In the first two parts of this Psalm (see the earlier studies on vv. 2-9 [1-8] and 10-17 [9-16]), the Psalmist recounts the great deeds performed by YHWH in protection of His people, and then the suffering and loss that came upon them when He removed that protection. Clearly, the latter involves conquest of the land and exile of the people, even if the precise historical circumstances indicated by the Psalm cannot be determined. At the very least,the conquest/exile of the Northern kingdom would have occurred, and we can fairly assume a time-frame no earlier than the end of the 8th century B.C.

The reason for YHWH removing His protection, and allowing the conquest/exile of the people, is not stated in the Psalm, but would have been known to anyone familiar with Israelite history (especially as it is presented in the Prophetic Scriptures). It was the flagrant (and repeated) sin by the people, the violation(s) of the covenant bond with YHWH, that led to the punishment of conquest/exile. The breach of covenant took the form, primarily, of idolatry—that is, the worship of deities other than YHWH.

While the Psalmist identifies with the people, he does not identify himself with the sin that brought about the exile. This suggests that he may belong to a younger generation, Israelites who had to endure the punishment (the suffering and shame of exile, etc), even though they were not directly responsible for the sin that led to it. Throughout the final section of the Psalm, the protagonist affirms his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH, identifying himself with the righteous ones.

Verses 18-27 [17-26]

Verse 18 [17]

“All this has come (upon) us,
and (yet) we did not forget you,
and have not been false by (the) binding (agreement).”

This opening verse is (loosely) a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, emphasizing, as noted above, that the Psalmist is among those who have remained faithful to the covenant (tyr!B=, lit. “binding [agreement]”) with YHWH, even as he has to endure the suffering and disgrace of life in exile. This faithfulness is expressed by two verbs in the negative: jk^v* (“forget,” i.e., “we did not forget you”) and rq^v* (“be false, act falsely,” i.e., “we were not false regarding the covenant”).

Verse 19 [18]

“Our heart has not moved back behind,
and our footsteps (never) bent from your path.”

Both in their intention (“our heart”) and their daily conduct (“our footsteps”), the righteous have not strayed from the path of faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. This image of walking the path or way of God is a common Wisdom motif, and occurs frequently in the Wisdom writings (including many Psalms). Here the jr^a) signifies a well-worn and traveled road, meaning primarily that the track is well-defined and clear. The allusion is to the commands and regulations of the Instruction (Torah), which represent the terms of the agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 20 [19]

“For you have crushed us in (the) place of monsters,
and (then) covered over us with (the) shadow of death.”

The emphasis in this couplet shifts back to the idea of the suffering of the righteous (in exile). The first line is uncertain. The Masoretic text has the expression <yN]T^ <oqm=B! (“in the standing-place of monsters”), which could stand as an apt description of the polytheistic heathen environment where the righteous now dwell (in exile, i.e., within the Assyrian/Babylonian empire). However, Dahood (p. 267) suggests that the consonantal text be divided differently, as <y]n~t=m* qomB=, “with decay (in the) loins”. Here the image is of a festering illness/sickness that can lead to death—a familiar motif in the Psalms, as we have seen.

In any case, the life of suffering and shame can be described as living “in the shadow of death [tw#m*l=x^]”; this idiom occurs with some frequency in Old Testament poetry—cf. the famous occurrence in Psalm 23:4; also 107:10, 14, and 10 times in the book of Job (3:5; 10:21-22; 12:22; 16:16; 24:17, etc).

Verses 21-22 [20-21]

“(Yet) if we had forgotten (the) name of our Mighty (One),
and stretched (out) our palms to a strange(r’s) Mighty (One),
would not (the) Mightiest (One) have searched this (out)?
for He (is One) knowing (the) hidden (place)s of (the) heart.”

Verse 21 [20] is related to v. 20 [19] as a confirmation of the Psalmist’s faithfulness. Even though YHWH has “crushed” him (and the other righteous ones now in exile), this was not due to his disloyalty to the covenant. He makes clear that he has not worshiped or recognized any deity besides YHWH. The divine name in the first and third lines is the plural <hy!l)a$ (Elohim), which I translate as “Mightiest (One)”, or, when with a possessive suffix, as “Mighty (One)”. The second occurrence here (in line 3, first line of v. 22 [21]) is likely an Elohist substitution for hwhy (YHWH).

In line 2, “Mighty (One)” translates the related singular noun la@, the common Semitic word for deity, and the title for the High Creator God (El). Here it is used in the general sense of deity (i.e., a[ny] god). The designation rz` means that it is a deity worshiped by the surrounding peoples; literally it refers to people who have “turned aside” to dwell (among the Israelites), but it is often used simply to designate a non-Israelite (i.e., a stranger/foreigner). Thus the connotation here is specifically a non-Israelite deity—that is, a deity other than YHWH.

There is no point in the Psalmist making such a confession if it were not true, that is, if he really had worshiped other gods (and thus would be deserving of punishment). Since YHWH knows the “hidden places” of every person’s heart, He would surely know if there were any inclination to idolatry (i.e., veneration of other deities) in the Psalmist’s heart. Such idolatry in Israel led to the punishment of conquest and exile, but the Psalmist denies that he is guilty of any such sin. This kind of affirmation of loyalty to YHWH is frequent in the Psalms, often featuring as part of an appeal to YHWH (as Judge) by the Psalmist that he is innocent of any violation of the covenant.

Verse 23 [22]

“(But it is) that over you we are being slain all the day (long),
considered as sheep (for the) slaughter.”

The prepositional expression ;yl#u* (“over you”) is emphatic, and can be understood a couple of different ways. It may carry the sense of “for your sake”, that is, because we are your people. Another possibility is that it refers to the purpose and action of YHWH— “because of you”, i.e, because you have done this or willed this. In any case, the current suffering of the Psalmist (and other righteous ones like him) is not because of any disloyalty to YHWH on his part; rather, it is because he belongs to the people that has endured the punishment from YHWH.

This punishment involves some measure of persecution by the nations in which Israel is exiled. Such persecution was described extensively, if in rather general terms, in the second section of the Psalm (cf. the previous study). Here it is described by the motif of slaughter. Two different roots are used for this: the first, gr^h*, is the regular verb for the slaying of a human being; the second, hb^f*, for the slaughtering/butchering of an animal (for food). The idea of sheep being slaughtered is used in a number of Old Testament (Prophetic) passages for the suffering of the people, and, in particular, of the judgment that comes upon them (cf. Isa 53:7; Jer 12:3; 25:34; Zech 11:3).

Probably this should be understood in a general, figurative sense here, rather than specifically to the idea of the people of Israel being killed. However, the experience of persecution may, in fact, involve instances of people being put to death, just as, sadly enough, we find it amply recorded in the long history of anti-Israelite and anti-Jewish violence.

Verse 24 [23]

“Rouse (yourself)! For what [i.e. why] do you sleep, my Lord?
Awaken! May you not reject (us) to (the) end!”

The Psalmist calls on YHWH to act, to end this condition of suffering and disgrace for His people. This is done utilizing the motif of rising/waking from sleep. To suggest that a deity is ‘asleep’ means that there is no obvious evidence that he is acting (on behalf of his adherents), which gives the impression that he is sleeping. This motif is used as part of the anti-Baal polemic in the Elijah narratives (cf. 1 Kings 18:27). As the true God, El-Yahweh cannot be “asleep” in that sense (Psalm 121:4); rather, his ‘sleep’ means that He seems to be inattentive to the prayers of His people (cf. Dahood, pp. 267-8).

Verse 25 [24]

“For what [i.e. why] have you hidden your face,
(so that) you forget our oppression and our distress?”

The apparent lack of response, to the prayers of the righteous for deliverance, can also be described by the image of God hiding (vb rt^s*) His face. Dahood (p. 268), here, and at other points in the Psalms, would read the verb as derived from the root rWs (“turn [aside]”); the meaning is comparable, since God “turns away” His face when He “hides” it. The suffering of the people is described by a pair of nouns with similar meaning: (1) yn]a(, “oppression”, with the fundamental meaning of being bent/pressed down; and (2) Jj^l^, “distress, pressure”, with the basic idea of being squeezed. The first root (hn`a*), in particular, occurs frequently in the Psalms, in reference to the righteous (and their suffering).

Verse 26 [25]

“For our soul is bent down to the dust,
and our belly sticks (hard) to the earth.”

Here the idea of being pressed down, from v. 25 [24], is described vividly, in terms of a person laying down on the ground. The people collectively, in spirit (“our soul”) as much as in body, are forced to bow down (i.e., are bent down, vb hj*v*) to the ground, to the point of crawling/laying down in the dust. The second line extends the image further, to that of a person laying flat on the ground (on his/her belly), a prostrate position that well symbolizes both weakness and humiliation.

Verse 27 [26]

“Stand (up now and) give help to us,
and ransom us as response to your goodness!”

The call in v. 24 [23] (cf. above) is repeated here, though in the more general terms of standing up (i.e. rising) to give help to one who is in need. Along with Dahood (p. 268) and other commentators I read htrzu as a verb (rather than noun) form, “give help”; it probably should be parsed as a precative perfect, parallel in meaning with the prior imperative (hm*Wq, “stand [up]!”).

The call for YHWH to act is based on the binding agreement (covenant). The Psalmist throughout has affirmed his loyalty to the covenant bond, and his faithfulness means that he is deserving of the protection that YHWH is obligated to provide. According to the terms of the covenant, YHWH must keep His loyal vassals safe from danger, rescuing and fighting on their behalf, just as He did for Israel in times past (cf. the study on the first section of the Psalm). As I have previously noted, the noun ds#j#, while having the basic meaning of “goodness, kindness”, is often used in a covenant context, where it connotes faithfulness and loyalty. That is very much its meaning here; the rescue (lit. “ransom,” vb hd*P*) that the Psalmist asks for is based on, and must come as a response to (/u^m^l=), YHWH’s own faithfulness to the covenant.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *