Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 56 (Part 2)

Psalm 56, continued

The second half of the Psalm generally follows the pattern of the first half (vv. 2-7 [1-6], cf. the previous study), with a pair of short stanzas separated by a central refrain. The tone of lament in the first half gives way to the expectation that YHWH will deliver the Psalmist, rescuing him from his wicked adversaries.

VERSES 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“Against trouble make escape for <us>!
In (your) anger (against the) peoples,
bring (them) down, O Mightiest!”

Metrically, this opening verse is somewhat irregular; it can be read, loosely, as an odd 2+4 couplet, but much better as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. However, in that format, the thought of the last two lines is divided; conceptually, a longer 4-beat line would be more appropriate: “In (your) anger, bring down (the) peoples, O Mightiest!”

There are textual difficulties related to the first line. The verb fl^P* of the MT, meaning “(make) escape, deliver,” would seem to require a first-person plural suffix on the preposition l= that follows (rather than the 3rd person plural of the MT). This problem could be solved by emending oml* (“for them”) to Wnl* (“for us”), while Dahood (II, p. 44; cf. also I, p. 173) would read wml (here and in other OT poetic passages) as a first-person form, without emendation. This is the solution I have followed above. Another possibility is to emend the verb, from fl^P* to sl^P* (cf. Kraus, p. 525), with the meaning “weigh, balance,” indicating a context of judgment against the wicked:

“Weigh out (judgment) to them for (the) trouble (they cause)”

It is also possible to preserve the MT as it stands, reading it as a kind of rhetorical question:

“Against (their) trouble can there be escape for them?”

Verse 9 [8]

“My waving may you yourself recount,
set my tears (as record) on your skin.
Are (they) not (there) in your account?”

This tricolon may be viewed as a straightforward 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by an additional short 2-beat line. The question posed in the extra line adds to the tension and dramatic effect of the poetic scene. The basic image is of YHWH writing down an account (rps) of the Psalmist’s suffering. The meaning of the second line, in this regard, is somewhat ambiguous: the image could be of setting (vb <yc!) down his tears on (B=) a piece of parchment (“skin,” dan)), or of setting them in a skin-bottle to preserve a record of them. There is an obvious word-play between dan) (nœ°¼) in the second line and don (nô¼) in the first line; the latter refers to a waving movement, and the parallel with tears suggests a gesture of mourning or lamentation.

The written accounting of the Psalmist’s suffering, and thus also of the actions by the wicked, is essential for YHWH to bring judgment (against the wicked) on his behalf.

Verse 10 [9]

“When (the one)s hostile to me turn back,
(falling) behind on (the) day I call (out),
(by) this I shall know that (you are the) Mightiest for me!”

Metrically, this verse is a tricolon similar to v. 9, but with an extended 3-beat (3+3+3) format. The Psalmist anticipates that YHWH, indeed, will bring judgment on his behalf, rescuing him from his enemies. The initial particle za*, a demonstrative adverb indicating time and place, is best rendered here as “when”. When what the Psalmist describes happens, then by this (hz#) it will truly be confirmed for him (“I shall know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (<yh!l)a$, i.e., ‘God’).

The covenant bond between the righteous Israelite (and/or the king as the representative of Israel) is indicated by the statement that YHWH is God “for me” —He is my God, and I am His faithful servant. The image of the  Psalmist’s enemies “turning back” (vb bWv) and falling back (roja*) suggests a military encounter, which would be appropriate to the royal background of this and many other Psalms. However, it tends to be the case that this royal/military setting of the Psalms has become generalized, referring in a more common sense to God delivering His people (the righteous ones) from the forces of wickedness.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

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

This central refrain is virtually identical to that in the first half of the Psalm (v. 5 [4], cf. the discussion in the previous study). The line in square brackets is a gloss that, almost certainly, preserves the original form of the opening line, where the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) occurs rather than the title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’). This Psalm is part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter, in which Elohim is consistently substituted for YHWH (cf. above). Verse 12 here also has “man” instead of “flesh” in v. 5, but the meaning is the same.

Verse 13 [12]

“Upon me, Mightiest, (are my) vows to you;
I will complete (them) casting (praise) to you.”

The Psalmist’s “vows” (<yr!d*n+) relate to his deliverance by YHWH; that is, once YHWH has acted to rescue him, he is obligated to fulfill what he has promised—his vows are binding upon (lu^) him. Principally, he is obligated to give praise to God, and that is how the Psalmist will “complete” (vb <l^v*) his obligation. As discussed repeatedly, the root <lv in the Psalms typically is used in a covenant context. The protection YHWH provides to his faithful servants (i.e., the righteous) is part of His covenant obligation.

The suffix ;– on ;yr@d*n+ should be read as an object suffix—i.e., “(my) vows to you,” rather than a possessive (“your vows”).

Verse 14 [13]

“For you (will) snatch my soul from death,
so as (surely) to prevent my feet from falling,
(and thus) to walk before (the) face of (the) Mightiest
in (the) light of the Living (One).”

The perfect verb form T*l=X^h! may be translated in the simple past tense, with the Psalmist describing a condition after the deliverance from YHWH that he anticipates (as an answer to his prayer). However, it is perhaps even better to understand the verb here as a precative perfect—that is, the Psalmist describes what he hopes (and expects) will happen as something that has already occurred. The verb lx^n` is another way of referring to the idea of being delivered or rescued by God; the verb fl^P* in verse 8 [7] (cf. above) denotes making an escape, while lx^n` carries the more vivid and concrete meaning of being “snatched away” from danger.

The negative particle (al)) in the second line, prefixed by the interrogative particle –h&, is a bit unusual (and difficult to translate) in context. Literally, emphasizing the interrogative aspect, the line would read: “will not my feet (be kept) from falling?” But this would be extremely awkward within the poetry of the verse; thus, it is better to understand the prefixed particle as an expression of certainty.

By keeping the Psalmist’s feet from falling (yj!D=), YHWH enables him to walk securely, upright and straight ahead (as befits the righteous). This walk takes place “before (the) face” of God (preserving the concrete sense of <yn]P*, “face”). The plural <yY]j^ (lit. “living [one]s”) in the final line should be understood as an intensive plural, and as a Divine title (“Living [One]”), precisely parallel with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”). The expression “light of the Living (One)” is clearly parallel with “face of the Mightiest (One)”.

This verse is conceptually parallel with v. 7 [6] at the close of the first half of the Psalm, sharing the combined motifs of feet/walking and life. However, verse 7 is part of the Psalmist’s lament, referring to the desire of the wicked to destroy the life (soul) of the righteous. Here, we find quite the opposite, with God protecting the life of the righteous. Moreover, the path before God ultimately leads to the blessed/heavenly afterlife in His presence; as the Living One, YHWH is the source of (eternal) life for those who trust in Him.

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).
Those 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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