Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 48 (Part 2)

Psalm 48, continued

Verses 10-15 [9-14]

This is the second of the two stanzas of the Psalm, as indicated rather clearly by the overall structure (including the two pause-markers at the end of verses 9 [8] and 15 [14]). Overall, this stanza follows a 3+2 meter, though there are a couple of exceptions (cf. below).

Verse 10 [9]

“Shall we compare your goodness, O Mightiest,
in the midst of your palace?”

The second stanza opens with a 3+2 couplet which I read as a rhetorical question, meant to inspire the praise of the people. It probably has the sense here of “To what shall we compare your goodness…?”, implying that the “Mightiest One” (YHWH) is incomparable. The noun ds#j# is translated according to its fundamental meaning (“goodness, kindness”); however, as I have often noted, the term frequently must be understood in the context of the covenant, denoting (or connoting) faithfulness, loyalty, etc. The first stanza emphasized the protection provided by YHWH, which is a central aspect of His covenant loyalty, whereby God fulfills His obligation to His people (according to the terms of the agreement).

The phrase in the second line, “in the midst of your palace”, again emphasizes Zion (Jerusalem) as the dwelling-place of the King. The “palace” (lk*yh@) of YHWH is, of course, the Temple. Even as the palace of the earthly king resides on Zion, so also does the palace of the heavenly King.

Verse 11abc [10abc]

“Like your name, Mightiest,
so (also) your praise,
(is) unto (the) ends of (the) earth.”

The meter of this verse is slightly irregular, but generally corresponds to a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The idea seems to be that the praise which YHWH deserves corresponds to the greatness of His name. Oddly enough, in this regard, this ‘Elohist’ Psalm here does not use the Divine name (hwhy), but the substitution <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”, i.e., “God”). According to the ancient Near Eastern mindset, a person’s name embodies the essential nature and character of the person.

Dahood (p. 292), following the suggestion of earlier commentators, would read imvk as “like your heaven” (;ym#v*K=, spelled defectively):

“Like your heaven, Mightiest,
so (also) your praise,
(reaches) unto (the) ends of (the) earth…”

In some ways, this would be more fitting to the context of the Psalm, continuing the comparison (vb hm*D*) mentioned in v. 10. It would also develop the idea of the parallel between the heavenly and earthly dwelling of YHWH, as well as emphasizing the role of YHWH as Creator and King over the universe. The dome of the heavens extends over the entire surface of the earth; so also does YHWH’s rule, and the praise that is His due (as King).

Verse 11d-12 [10d-11]

“You right hand is full of justice—
let mount ‚iyyôn rejoice,
let (the) daughters of Yehudah twirl,
in response to your judgments!”

Rhythmically, we have here a pair of 3+2 couplets (following the meter established in the opening verse); however, the conceptual parallelism of the quatrain is rather different: the outer lines (1 and 4) forming a pair, along with the inner lines (2 and 3). The inner parallel also relates to the outer parallel:

    • Your right hand…justice
      • Let Mount Zion rejoice
      • / let daughters of Judah twirl (with joy)
    • / …your judgments

Judah and Jerusalem are to rejoice because of (/u^m^l=) the justice and judgments made by YHWH. This emphasizes God’s role as King and Judge over the universe. The noun qd#x# (“justice, right[eous]ness”) here is fundamentally related in meaning to ds#j#—both terms refer to the goodness, faithfulness and (covenant) loyalty of God. YHWH’s judgments, and the exercise of His justice over the world (and to the nations) take the form of goodness/kindness for His people.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Go around ‚iyyôn and circle through her,
(and) count her great (tower)s;
set your heart to (consider) her rampart(s),
(and) examine her (fortified) dwellings—
in order that you may recount it
to the circle [i.e. generation] (that comes) after.”

This verse returns to the theme of the fortifications of Zion—and thus the protection provided by YHWH—from the first stanza (see esp. verse 4 [3]). Again, this is not meant as a literal/physical description of the city’s defenses; rather, it emphasizes two important motifs: (a) the traditional connection between the Temple mount (and the palace-locale of the ‘City of David’) and the ancient Canaanite hilltop fortress site, and (b) the protection that comes from the presence of YHWH within the city. The true nature of the city’s fortifications  lies in the protective presence of YHWH.

Three terms are used for the fortifications of Zion: (1) “great (tower), tall (place)” [lD*g+m!]; (2) “rampart” [hl*yj@]; and (3) “(fortified) dwelling” (i.e. palace, citadel) [/omr=a^].

The verb gs^P* (in the second line of the second couplet) occurs only here in the Old Testament, and its meaning (and derivation) is quite uncertain. The context suggests a meaning something like “examine”.

The two 3+2 couplets are followed by a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet that explains the reason for counting and examining the fortifications of Zion (that is, the protection provided by YHWH’s presence)—so that it all can be declared (“recounted,” same verb rp^s* as in v. 13) for the generations (noun roD, “circle, [life-]cycle”) of people that are to come. This declaration is the essence of the very Psalm and song of praise that is being sung.

Verse 15 [14]

“For this (all belongs to the) Mightiest,
our Mighty (One from the) distant (past) until (the end)
—(so) He will guide us (into the) distant (future).”
Selah

The conclusion of the stanza (and the Psalm itself) takes the form of a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The initial line is best understood as an abbreviated statement: “for this (belongs to the) Mightiest”, i.e., “for this (is) God’s” —that is, the city (Zion/Jerusalem) and everything in it. In particular, the fortifications of Zion belong to YHWH. It is even possible to read the line in a more literal fashion, in this regard: “For this [i.e. the fortifications] (is the) Mightiest” —i.e., the fortifications are the protective presence of YHWH Himself.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 293f) in reading twm-lu (MT twm-lu^, “until death”) as toml*u), a feminine plural form of <l*ou (typically referring to the “distant” past or future), understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural (i.e., “[the most] distant [future]”), corresponding to colloquial English “forever (and ever)”. As Dahood notes, the first stanza ends with “until (the) distant (future)” (<l*ou-du^), and it is proper that the second stanza would end in a similar manner (toml*udu^).

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

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