Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 47

Psalm 47

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (v. 2 [1])

This Psalm is similar to the previous Ps 46 in its theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations). However, it is much simpler, both in its message and its presentation. It has a simple hymn-format that would make it quite suitable for public worship. The Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator often serves as a marker for the structure of the poem, and that would seem to be the case here. The Psalm can be rather neatly divided into two short strophes (vv. 2-5 [1-4] and 7-10 [6-9]), with a central (transitional) couplet at v. 6 [5].

The central position of the v. 6 couplet strongly suggests the possibility of a ritual setting, involving a procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple, whereby the ceremonial enthronement of YHWH is celebrated.

The meter of the Psalm is irregular, but appears to be based upon a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. In contrast to the previous Psalms (45 and 46), which were called songs (ryv!), here the typical term romz+m! is used, indicating that the Psalm is a musical composition (i.e., both words and music). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout to (the) Mightiest with a ringing voice.”

A proper interpretation of the Psalm depends on how one reads <yhlal here in v. 2 [1], along with the parallel use of <yhla in vv. 7-8 [6-7]. It is important to remember that <yh!l)a$ is plural noun, which literally means “mighty (one)s”; when used a common divine title (and word for deity), in the monotheistic context of Israelite religion, it is best understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)” (= YHWH, i.e. ‘God’). In the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (of which this Psalm may be counted), the title <yh!l)a$ is typically substituted in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH).

If the prefixed l= here is read in its customary sense (as a preposition of direction or purpose), then <yh!l)a$l@ would have to mean “to (the) Mightiest”, since all worship and praise must be directed to God (YHWH). However, Dahood (p. 284) would read the preposition in this instance as a vocative-l, in which case, we are dealing with a true plural, and the couplet would be translated:

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout, (you) mighty (one)s, with a ringing voice.”

This yields a synonymous parallelism (“peoples” | “mighty ones”), where the “mighty ones” could refer either to the chieftains and nobles, etc, among the peoples, or to their gods. However, based on the formal parallel with the first couplet of the second strophe (v. 7 [6], cf. below), the customary reading of <yhlal here is to be preferred.

Verse 3 [2]

“For YHWH (the) Highest (is to) be feared,
(the) great King over all the earth!”

This couplet gives the reason why the peoples of earth must worship YHWH: He is the King, the Sovereign, of the entire universe. The substantive passive participle ar*on is a bit difficult to translate here; literally it means “(one) being feared”, but in this context, the proper meaning is something like “(one) worthy of being feared”, i.e., “(one who is) to be feared”. The praise and worship given to YHWH is a sign of this proper ‘fear’ that is shown to Him. He is both the “Mightiest” and the “Highest” (/oyl=u#), i.e., most Exalted; cf. my earlier article on the title /oyl=u#.

Verse 4 [3]

“He pushed back (the) peoples under us,
and (the) gatherings (of people) under our feet.”

Here the contrast between Israel (the people of God) and the nations (the [other] peoples) is established. Since YHWH is the Creator (and King) of the universe, He is to be worshiped by all people everywhere. Yet Israel maintains its special position as the chosen people of YHWH. The subduing of the nations mentioned here presumably reflects the historical memory of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, but may also refer to the victories of the early kings (Saul, David, Solomon), through which the power of Israel reached its greatest extent, with surrounding nations either absorbed into the Israelite kingdom or made into vassal states.

The verb rbd here is best understood as a separate root (I) from the more common root (II) that denotes “speech/speaking”; the fundamental meaning of rbd (I) is “go back/behind”, which in the Hiphil stem would be something like “push/force back”. Cf. Ps 18:48 for another such instance.

Verse 5 [4]

“He chose our inheritance for Himself,
(the) rising of Ya’aqob, whom He loves.”

The parallelism required of this couplet (“for Himself” | “whom He loves”) prompts me to adopt the suggestion by Dahood (p. 285), that wnl here be understood as an archaic form (WNl^ = Canannite lanh¥) that preserves the longer form of the preposition l (ln). As he notes, when the verb rj^B* (“choose”) is used with YHWH as the subject, it virtually always is in the context of choosing something (or someone) for Himself (e.g., Psalm 135:4, etc); thus WNl^ here = ol.

I have translated /oaG+ quite literally as “rising”, but it here has the honorific connotation of “exaltation” —i.e., YHWH honors (exalts) Jacob (= Israel) by giving him the land of Canaan as his inheritance. This would also tend to confirm that the subduing the nations (under Israel’s feet) in the previous verse refers primarily to the initial Israelite conquest of Canaan. A secondary reference would be to the military victories under Saul, David, and Solomon, which completed the conquest, giving to the Israelite kingdom something close to the traditional borders of the Promised Land.

Central Couplet (v. 6 [5])

“(The) Mightiest has gone up with a ringing cry,
YHWH with (the) voice of (the sounding) horn!”

As noted above, this couplet is transitional between the two strophes of the Psalm, and almost certainly reflects the original ritual/ceremonial setting of the composition. The “going up” (vb hl*u*) of YHWH refers to the modest ascent to the site of the Temple sanctuary (i.e., Mt. Zion). It is quite likely that a ritual procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple was involved, the procession being accompanied by priests and musicians, etc, giving shouts of praise and blowing the ceremonial horn (rp*ov). Once the Ark (symbolically carrying YHWH) arrived in the Temple sanctuary, YHWH would be ceremonially enthroned and worshiped as King. This was a local/ritual realization of the universal Kingship of YHWH.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“Make music, (you) mighty (one)s, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

The parallelism with the first couplet of the first strophe (v. 2 [1], cf. above) would seem to require that <yh!l)a$ here be translated as a true plural, “mighty ones”, parallel with “[the] peoples” in v. 2 [1]. Possibly, the reference could be specifically to the gods of the nations (their “mighty ones”), who give worship to YHWH as King over all. This is a roundabout way of demonstrating that the nations recognize the absolute superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) and worship Him.

The customary rendering of this verse treats <yh!l)a$ here as = <yh!l)a$l@ in v. 2 [1]:

“Make music (to the) Mightiest, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 466) would emend the text to this effect.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (He is) King over all the earth—
mighty (one)s, make skillful music (to Him)!”

We have here the same ambiguity involving the use of <yh!l)a$; I read it again as a true plural (“mighty ones”), referring either to the chieftains and nobles of the nations, or to their gods. Again, the customary translation treats <yh!l)a$ as the Divine title (“Mightiest” = ‘God’)—

“For (the) Mightiest (One is) King over all the earth—
make skillful music (to Him)!”

but this yields an unsatisfactory 4+2 meter, and does not seem to be correct; nor have I seen any emendation that is worthy of adopting.

Verse 9 [8]

“(The) Mightiest (One) is King over [lu^] (the) nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on [lu^] (the) throne of His holiness.”

In this verse, unlike in the two prior couplets, <yh!l)a$ is the Divine title (“Mightiest [One]” = ‘God’); this may seem inconsistent, but it simply reflects the dual meaning of the plural term <yh!l)a$. Probably the use of <yh!l)a$ in the first line is an ‘Elohist’ substitution for the Divine name YHWH; in which case, the original form of the couplet would have been:

“YHWH is King over the nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on the throne of His holiness.”

The wordplay and the intentional contrast between YHWH (the Mightiest) and the “mighty ones” in vv. 7-8 strongly suggests that these “mighty ones” refer specifically to the gods of the nations, who are called on to admit the superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) as King.

Verse 10 [9]

“(You) willing (one)s of (the) peoples, gather (round)
(the) people of (the) Mighty (One) of Abraham;
for to (the) Mightiest belong the protectors of (the) earth,
(and so He is) very much to be lifted up!”

Earlier in the strophe, the “mighty ones” of the nations were addressed, which, I believe, refers to the gods of the nations. The figurative turning of these ‘gods’ to acknowledge the Kingship of YHWH represents how the nations themselves will recognize the absolute superiority of YHWH. Here, however, a different plural term is used—<yb!yd!n+, which literally means “willing (one)s”, but sometimes connotes the nobility of the willing act (or of the person who so acts). It is possible, then, that the term here refers to the leaders (i.e., nobles) of the nations; if they willingly choose to gather around Israel, worshiping YHWH, the people of the nations (as a whole) will follow. There is a clear contrast between Israel (the people [<u^] of God) and the nations (the other peoples [<yMu^]).

The wording of the second couplet is awkward, and, as noted above, it is possible that the text is corrupt. The implication of the first line is that YHWH is King over all the other ‘gods’ of the nations, repeating the key theme of the second strophe. The noun /g@m* is often translated “shield”, but literally means “place of protection” or “place of cover”. It can be used as an honorific term for kings and rulers. Here the meaning is probably two-fold: (a) the royal power/authority of the nations belongs to YHWH (as King of the universe), and (b) YHWH is King over the ‘gods’ of the nations (i.e., the gods as their would-be “protectors”).

Whether the final line is correct as it stands, or has been truncated, the basic message is clear enough. Because YHWH is King over the universe, holding authority over all the nations (and their gods), he should be worshiped—i.e., exalted, “lifted up” (vb hl*u*).

In some ways, this final couplet is parallel to the central couplet of v. 6 [5] (cf. above). The worshipers “lift up” YHWH, presumably through the ritual act of carrying the Ark to the Temple sanctuary, the procession being accompanied by shouts of praise and ceremonial blowing of the horn. Now, at the close of the Psalm, all people everywhere, led by the willing/noble ones of the nations, are called upon to “lift up” YHWH in a similar manner. By “gathering (round)” Israel, the nations may follow the example of God’s chosen people, recognizing the Kingship of YHWH and giving to Him the worship that is His due.

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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