Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 56 (Part 1)

Psalm 56

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (v. 4 [3])

This Psalm has an interesting bipartite structure, with two parts (vv. 2-7 [1-6] & 8-14 [7-13]), each of which contains a pair of stanzas separated by a central refrain (vv. 5, 11-12). This refrain is an expression of trust in YHWH, in the midst of a lament. The lament-character of Psalm 56 is stronger in the first division. 

Like Psalm 16 (cf. the earlier study), this Psalm is described in the heading as a <T*k=m! (miktam), a term whose meaning remains uncertain. It has been related to the word <t#K# (“gold”), and to a separate root <tk that only occurs once elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jer 2:22). The Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targums translate it as referring to an inscription on a stone slab or pillar (Grk sthlografi/a).

In addition to this term, we have the musical direction that the Psalm is to be performed on (lu^, according to) “Doves of (the) distant terebinths[?],” which was apparently a well-known melody. The meter of the Psalm is irregular, though a three-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to dominate.

The superscription marks it as another Psalm “belonging to David”, associating its composition with the David tradition narrated in 1 Samuel 27.

VERSES 2-7 [1-6]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

“Show favor to me, Mightiest, for men gasp (after) me,
all the day (long) their jaws press (on) me;
they would trample me, (those) watching me all the day,
for many (are those) fighting against me!”

These opening couplets show that we are dealing with another prayer-Psalm, characterized as a lament. That is to say, the Psalmist laments his current suffering to YHWH, asking God to deliver him in his time of distress. There are several points of wordplay in these couplets, which are lost completely if one is not careful to preserve the nuances in translation. First, we have the verb [a^v*, for which there are two separate roots, one (I) meaning something like “gasp, pant (after)”, and the second (II) meaning “trample, crush”. In my view, the first meaning is intended in v. 2, depicting the image of a hostile pursuer, like an animal pursuing after its prey. In verse 3, it is the second meaning, viz. that the pursuer intends to crush/trample the protagonist.

The second wordplay involves the consonants <jl. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 42) in reading <jl in v. 2 as a contracted form of the dual <h#yj@l= (> <j@l#), “their (two) jaws”. The idea of jaws pressing on the Psalmist fits well the imagery in v. 2 of an animal chasing after its prey. In verse 3, however, we have the root <j^l*, “fight”, as an active participle characterizing the enemies (plural) of the Psalmist, parallel with the verbal noun rr@ov, “(one) watching,” in the hostile sense of laying in ambush, eying something to devour, etc.

Metrically, verse 2 is a 4+3 couplet, while v. 3 is in the regular 3-beat (3+3) format. The use of <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’), presumably in place of an original hwhy (YHWH), marks this Psalm as part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter.

Verse 4 [3]

“O (Most) High, (on the) day I am afraid
I will seek protection in you.”

A proper 3-beat (3+3) couplet is achieved by including the last word of v. 3 (according to the standard verse division) at the beginning of v. 4. While the noun <orm* can be understood as a locative (place) noun, meaning a “high/exalted place,” it is best read here as a Divine title, “High/exalted One”, i.e. “(Most) High”. The verb jf^B*, as we have seen, occurs frequently in the Psalms; it fundamentally denotes seeking (and/or finding) protection, but it also connotes the trust that one has in such protection. Given the possible locative meaning of <orm* we should understand by it the idea of YHWH as a place of protection for the righteous. A place situated high up, on an inaccessible location, is especially secure.

Verse 5 [4]

“In (the) Mightiest, (in) whose word I boast,
in (the) Mightiest I find protection!
I shall not be afraid—
what can flesh do to me?”

This central refrain, essentially repeated in vv. 11-12, is an expression of trust in YHWH, even in the midst of the Psalmist’s lament over his suffering. Again the verb jf^B* is used, but here perhaps with the nuance of finding protection (rather than seeking protection, v. 4). The first line is a bit difficult, but it is probably best to read it in a straightforward and conventional sense: “In (the) Mightiest I praise/boast (in) His word”. This can be rendered better poetically by treating the o– suffix on orb*D= (“his word”) like a relative pronoun, i.e., “(in) whose word”.

The meter of this quatrain is irregular, but has a certain symmetry—3+2+2+3. The language in the last two lines is simple and direct.

Verse 6 [5]

“All the day they cause me pain with (their) words,
upon me all their thoughts (are) for evil.”

Following the central refrain in v. 5, a second short lament-stanza follows in vv. 6-7. The same basic theme, of the Psalmist lamenting his suffering at the hands of his enemies, picks up from vv. 2-3. There is a clear bit of contrastive wordplay between the word of God (“his word”) in v. 5, and the words of the wicked here in v. 6. The Hebrew (MT) literally reads “my words”, but it is much preferable to read the y– suffix as an object suffix—i.e., their words against me. This meaning is virtually required by the parallel with “their thoughts” in line 2. Both the words and the thoughts (i.e., intention, plans, designs) of the wicked are directed against the righteous. The verb bx^u* (I) in line 1 denotes causing pain (or sorrow).

Verse 7 [6]

“They gather and hide themselves, they (do),
my heel-tracks they watch as (I) walk,
they lay in wait for my soul!”

Though there are admittedly difficulties in this verse, it is possible to make sense of it, following the MT and with no real emendation. Metrically, I read it as a tricolon, an expansion of a 3-beat couplet with an additional 2-beat line included for dramatic effect, as befits the close of the first part of the Psalm.

The two verbs in line 1 form a proper pair: (1) WrWgy` (vb rWg, I/II), “they band/gather together”; and (2) WnyP!x=y~ (vb /p^x*), “they hide themselves”. Clearly the image is of a group of conspirators laying in wait for an attack/ambush. The pronoun hM*h@ (“they”), assuming that is the correct reading of the text (cf. Dahood, II, p. 44), is emphatic (placed in final position).

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 44) in repointing MT rv#a&K^ as rv@a)K=—Qal participle of the verb rv^a* (“walk, go straight”) with prefixed preposition. This gives a clear and vivid sense to the line: “they watch my heel-tracks [i.e. footsteps] as (I am) walking”. The short final line gives the climax, pointing out the hostile (and violent) intention of the wicked: “they lay in wait [vb hw`q* I] for my soul!”

The second half of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study) follows the same basic format as the first half, though the tone of lament gradually gives way to the hope and expectation that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer and deliver him from his distress.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

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