Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 57

Psalm 57

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar to a number of the Psalms we have studied recently (cf. the previous study on Ps 56). In this instance, the hl*s# (Selah) pause markers seem to provide an indication of the structure of the composition: two stanzas (vv. 5-7, 8-12) preceded by an opening prayer (vv. 2-4). However, the meter could suggest a different structural division, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominating in vv. 2-6 and 11-12, and a 3+2 meter in vv. 7-10.

Psalms 56-60 are each designated as a <T*k=m! (miktam), a term whose meaning remains uncertain (cf. the previous study, as well as the earlier study on Psalm 16). One characteristic of these mitkams is that they seem to be poems without music (words only), which are then sung to an existing melody. This may be compared, for example, with the many Psalms designated as a romz+m! (mizmor), which are musical compositions (words and music). This particular miktam is sung to the melody “Do not destroy” (or “May you not destroy”), tj@v=T^-la^, apparently the name of a well-known lament. The miktams of Psalm 58 and 59 are sung to the same melody. The phrase itself probably is an allusion to Deuteronomy 9:26.

The superscription marks it as another Psalm “belonging to David”, associating its composition with the David tradition(s) narrated in 1 Samuel 22:1ff and 24:1ff.

VERSES 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“Show me favor, Mightiest, show me favor,
for in you does my soul seek refuge,
and in (the) shade of your wings I take refuge,
until (the) falling (calamity) passes over (me).”

These opening couplets show that we are dealing with another prayer-Psalm, with lament characteristics. The Psalmist prays to YHWH (Elohim, “Mightiest”) for protection and deliverance from a “calamity” (hW`h^) that threatens him. This is best understood here in the concrete sense of the root hwh, referring to something falling (down). YHWH provides protection for the righteous from this ‘downfall’, using both the motif of shade/shadow (lx@, i.e. protection from heat, etc) and the protective wings of a bird (on this aspect of the ‘wings’ of YHWH, cf. Deut 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4, etc). The similar imagery in Psalm 91 suggests that the “calamity” here could refer to disease or plague. The plural toWh^ is perhaps best understood as an intensive plural.

Here the verb used (twice) for seeking/finding protection is hs*j*; elsewhere in the Psalms, the more common verb used to express this idea is jf^B*.

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“I will call to (the) Mightiest, (the) Highest,
to (the) Mighty (One) completing (the bond) over me;
(the) <Mightiest> will send (help) from heaven,
and will save me (from the) scorn of (those) panting after me!”
Selah

The tone of prayer (a direct plea) in the first two couplets (of v. 2 [1]), shifts to a dramatic description, depicting the Psalmist’s prayer and anticipating YHWH’s answer. Verse 3 [2] describes the prayer, as the Psalmist “calls” (vb ar*q*) to God. The use of the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One],” i.e. ‘God’) is typical of the Elohist Psalms; almost certainly, it replaces the Divine name YHWH (originally in the Psalm) throughout. Retaining the Divine name here would yield much better poetry:

“I will call (out) to YHWH (the) Highest,
to (the) Mighty (One)…”

The participle rm@G), used as a descriptive title of YHWH, must be understood in the context of the covenant. The verb rm^G` fundamentally denotes finishing or completing something; here it is roughly synonymous with the more common root <lv, referring to the completion/fulfillment of one’s covenant obligations, which, in turn, completes the covenant bond. YHWH completes His covenant obligation over (lu^) the righteous by providing protection in time of need.

This covenant loyalty (an important theme in the Psalms) means that the Psalmist can be confident that YHWH will answer his plea, and will provide salvation (vb uv^y`) for him. In v. 2 [1] the specific nature of the “calamity” facing the Psalmist was unclear; I had mentioned how the parallel in Ps 91 suggested disease or plague, but here in v. 4 [3] we are clearly dealing with the familiar motif of attacks by the wicked. The verb [r^j* has a relatively wide range of meaning, but the primary idea is of throwing blame (or scorn, reproach, etc) on a person; slanderous accusations and insults are characteristic of the wicked in the Psalms. The verb [a^v* means “pant (after),” and evokes the image of a ravenous animal chasing after its prey; it was used, in a similar context, in Psalm 56:2-3 [1-2].

In any case, verse 4 [3] describes YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. In order to maintain a consistent 3-beat (3+3) meter, I have emended the first line of v. 4, adding another <yh!l)a$, though there is no real textual support for this. Along these lines, it may well be that the final line of v. 4 in the MT (following the Selah-marker) is essentially a duplication of the first line (possibly an explanatory gloss) that could be omitted; I have done so in the translation of v. 4 above. The line, if it were to be retained, reads:

“(The) Mightiest will send (with) His goodness and His firmness”

Verses 5-7 [4-6]

Verse 5 [4]

“My soul (is trapped) between lions,
I lay (amid those) raging at (the) sons of men;
their teeth (are) spears and arrow-points,
and their tongue a sharpened sword.”

The Psalmist returns to his lament in this stanza, describing the wicked who threaten him as ferocious lions. The participle <yf!h&l) in the second line literally means “blazing”, but perhaps is better rendered here in the more general sense of “raging” (i.e., a raging fire), which would better suit the image of a lion (cf. Dahood, II, p. 52).

Verse 6 [5]

“(Your) height is over the heavens, Mightiest,
your weight over all of the earth!”

The lament is interrupted, curiously, by this declaration of YHWH’s majesty and glory; it is identical with the closing lines of the Psalm (v. 12 [11]), where it makes more sense. The opening word, hm*Wr is typically parsed as an imperative (“be high/exalted…!”), however Dahood (II, p. 53f) makes a reasonably compelling argument for reading it as a substantive (verbal noun), parallel with dobK* (“weight, worth,” i.e., honor), noting the occurrence of hm*Wr as a proper noun (place name) in 2 Kings 23:36. The couplet is a declaration of YHWH’s sovereignty over all of creation (heaven and earth); as Creator and King of the universe, He is certainly able to act as Judge on behalf of the righteous.

Verse 7 [6]

“A net they have set up for my foot-steps,
(and) a noose for my throat;
they have dug a pit before my face—
(that) they would fall in (the) midst of it!”
Selah

The lament returns here in v. 7 [6], the meter now shifting to a 3+2 format, giving the lines a terse and more dramatic feel. The menacing and threatening actions of the wicked are again described, but in terms of crafty human hunters, rather than fierce lions (v. 5 [4]), going after their prey. I follow Dahood (II, p. 53) in explaining the word [pk in light of the Akkadian kippu(m), meaning a curved noose or snare. This provides a fitting parallel with tv#r# (“net”) in line 1; and note the similar conceptual pairing in Job 18:8-9. Occasionally the noun vp#n# (usually translated “soul”) carries the more concrete physical meaning of “throat”; such instances are limited to the poetic idiom, as here, where it does seem to fit the context.

I also follow Dahood in understanding the perfect verb in the final line (“they have fallen”) as a precative perfect—i.e., the Psalmist describing what he wishes to occur as something that has already happened. Here it has imprecatory force, as a kind of curse, calling down the judgment of God on his wicked adversaries. The idea of the wicked falling into the very trap they constructed occurs frequently in the Psalms, and is part of the imprecation.

Verses 8-12 [7-11]

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“Set firm (is) my heart, O Mightiest,
set firm (is) my heart—
I will sing and make music!
Awaken, my <liver>, awaken!
(with) the lyre and harp
I will awaken (the) dawn!”

The lament of the prior stanza now gives way to an expression of praise, anticipating YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. As is fitting for the Psalmist, as a poet and musical composer, this praise relates to his artistic inspiration. These two verses have an off-beat structure, consisting of two 3+2+2 tricolons. The first line of each emphasizes the Psalmist’s inspiration, referring to his inner organ (i.e., the source of thought and feeling/emotion), located specifically in the “heart” (bl@) and “liver” (db@K*, rather than MT dobK*). This inspiration leads to singing and music-making (esp. on the lyre or harp [roNK! / lb#n@]).

Verse 10 [9]

“I will throw you (praise) among the peoples, Lord,
I will make music to you among the nations.”

A more conventional expression of praise by the Psalmist, promising to make public what YHWH has done for him; this also refers to the dissemination of the Psalmist’s work as an artist and musician.

Verse 11 [10]

“For great unto (the) heavens (is) your goodness,
and unto (the) vapors (of heaven) your firmness!”

This couplet marks the beginning of Psalmist’s praise to YHWH. The deliverance which he expects to receive from God (in response to his prayer) is described as being related to the characteristic “goodness” (ds#j#) and “firmness” (tm#a#, i.e., trustworthiness) of YHWH. Both terms must be understood primarily in terms of His faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant. This pairing of nouns also occurred in the third line of v. 4, which probably should be viewed as an explanatory gloss (cf. above).

Verse 12 [11]

“(Your) height is over (the) heavens, O Mightiest,
(and) your weight over all of the earth!”

If the greatness of YHWH’s attributes extends even beyond the heavens (v. 11), this is because He Himself is greater than the heavens. These lines are identical with v. 6 [5] (cf. above), but they make more sense here, and their inclusion at the earlier location could conceivably be the result of a secondary interpolation. In any case, the lines here make for a fitting conclusion to the Psalm, as a declaration of the sovereignty of God over the entire universe.

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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