Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 60

Psalm 60

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is yet another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics. The characteristic shift, from a plea for deliverance to an expectation that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer, has occurred in a number of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms we have recently studied. The structure of the composition, in this instance, is peculiar, due primarily to the divine oracle present in vv. 8-10 [6-8]. Within both Judaism and early Christianity, the Psalms came to be regarded as prophetic (to be counted among the Prophets); however, this is one of the few Psalms which actually contains a prophetic oracle.

The meter follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, with a notable shift to a 3-beat tricolon (3+3+3) format in vv. 8-10. This shift marks off the divine speech of vv. 8-10 in poetic terms.

For the structure of the Psalm, I feel it is best to divide it into parallel sections, separated by the oracle in vv. 8-10:

    • Part 1: Lament over the suffering experienced as a result of YHWH’s anger (vv. 3-5 [1-3])
    • [Oracle regarding the Kingdom] (vv. 8-11 [6-9])
    • Part 2: A second lament (v. 12 [10]) and prayer for deliverance (vv. 13-14 [11-12])

The heading designates this Psalm as another  <T*k=m! (miktam, on this term, cf. the study on Psalm 16). The previous miktams were apparently poems without music, to be sung to an existing melody. This also seems to be the case here, with the melody being /v*Wv (“lily,” or possibly “lotus”), resembling the name in Pss 45 and 69 (pl. <yN]v^ov, “lilies”). The poem is also designated as an tWdu@, usually translated “testimony,” but properly referring to words that are to be repeated. There is thus a didactic purpose to the poem, which is “to be taught” (dM@l^l=), much like the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32.

The superscription marks the poem as yet another Davidic composition (“belonging to David”), attributing it (in verse 2) in relation to the historical David-tradition recorded in 2 Samuel 8:1-14 (par 1 Chron 18:1-13). This tradition relates to the nations mentioned in vv. 8-11, in the context of the establishment of the kingdom of David and Solomon—which represented the territory of the Israelite kingdom at its greatest extent.

In this regard, there have been a good many theories regarding the specific dating of the poem, along with the critical question of how the oracle in vv. 8-10 fits within the overall composition. It is generally thought that the oracle represents a significantly older piece of traditional material, around which the remainder of the Psalm was composed. A common view is that the Psalm proper dates from the late kingdom-period, around the time of the Babylonian conquest, thus creating a stark juxtaposition with the territorial promises in the oracle. For a good survey of the question of dating, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 95-8.

PART 1: VERSES 3-7 [1-5]

Verse 3 [1]

“O Mightiest, you rejected us, you scattered us;
you were angry—(but) may you turn back to us!”

Two points of interpretation are important for determining the thrust of this opening couplet. First, does the verb jn~z` mean “reject,” or “be angry” (corr. to Akkadian zenû, cf. Dahood, II, p. 77). Second, does the imperfect verb form bb@ovT= reflect an indicative or jussive? If a jussive (with imperatival force) is intended, the the verb bWv here would have the positive meaning “turn back, return”; but, if it is a past tense indicative, then it has a negative sense of “turn away, withdraw”. Dahood opts for the latter, along with reading jnz in the sense of “be angry”; this creates a parallel couplet of pure lament:

“O Mightiest, you were angry with us, you scattered us;
you snorted with anger, (and) you turned away from us!”

The force of the couplet might even be clearer if jnz has the typical meaning “reject”, creating a chiasm:

    • “you rejected us”
      • “you scattered us”
      • “you were angry” (i.e. snorting like an enraged bull)
    • “you turned away from us”

My translation above reads bb@ovT= as a jussive, adding a hopeful prayer-note to the lament.

Verse 4 [2]

“You made (the) earth shake, you split it (open);
may you heal its broken (piece)s, for it is slipping!”

The force of this couplet also hinges on a point of interpretation—regarding the word hpr. The MT vocalizes it hp*r=, usually understood as an alternate spelling of the imperative ap*r= (“heal!”). But the actual verb hp^r* means “(let) sink, drop,” which would fit the image here of a handful of broken pieces, potentially giving to the couplet a sense of unmitigated disaster, i.e., “(you) let drop its broken pieces”. Dahood (II, p. 78) would vocalize as the adjective hp*r* (“slack, drooping,” i.e. “weak”), which leads to a quite vivid couplet, that I would translate as:

“You made (the) earth shake, you split it (open),
(and) weak (from) its broken (part)s, how it is slipping!”

Verse 5 [3]

“You made your people see hardship,
you made us drink (the) wine of reeling.”

Instead of the rather bland Hiphil “you made see” (vb ha*r*), Dahood (II, p. 78) vocalizes htyarh as ht*ar@h), deriving it from the root ary II (“pour”), and also understands hv*q* in connection with the Ugaritic noun q¹š (“cup,” cp. Heb. hw`c=q^, “jug, jar”). This line of interpretation admittedly keeps the imagery more consistent, and also gives to the couplet a striking synthetic parallelism:

“You poured out (for) your people a cup,
you made us drink (the) wine of reeling!”

Verse 6-7 [4-5]

“(May) you give to (those) fearing you a (flag) to raise,
to be raised from (before the) face of the bow(men)!
To (the end) that your beloved should be pulled out,
keep (us) safe (with) your right hand, and answer us!”

The imperatives in vv. 3-4 (cf. above), if correct, would seem to require that the perfect form hT*t^n` (lit. “you gave”) be understood as a precative perfect—i.e., a wish (for the future) expressed in terms of something that has already happened. In English, this is almost impossible to translate in a way that works in poetry; we might say “(that) you (would have) given,” but it it is easier simply to render it like an imperative or jussive (“may you give…!”). The prayer thus takes the form of a clear petition, a plea to God for deliverance.

The noun sn@ in the first line is related to the verb ss^n` (II) in the second. Both are difficult to translate; the fundamental denotation seems to refer to something raised up high so that everyone can see it—e.g., in a military-political context, a flag or banner, around which people can rally. The reference to archers/bowmen (sing. “bow”, tv#q# in place of MT fv#q) [so most commentators]) certainly indicates a military context, with God’s deliverance (from enemies) in terms of a military victory.

Indeed, a military rescue is described in verse 7, using the verb Jl^j* (I), “pull out, withdraw”, in the sense of YHWH pulling His people (and their king) out of danger. The noun dyd!y`, related to dod (in the Song of Songs, etc), means “(my) love, loved one, beloved”; it could be used here of the people Israel (collectively), or of the king as their leader and representative. The Hiphil imperative of the verb uv^y` in the second line literally means “save (us)…!,” but here it is better understood in the sense of the protection YHWH provides (i.e., “keep [us] safe!”). Following the rescue in line 1, God’s protection (in a military sense) will ultimately lead to victory for His people, a victory which is the answer (vb hn`u*) to the Psalmist’s prayer.

The placement of a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker between verses 6 and 7 is curious. It does not seem to relate to the structure of the Psalm, but may simply be used to alleviate the syntactical transition between the two verses.

Oracle:  Verses 8-11 [6-9]

There is a sudden shift in verse 8, both structurally and rhythmically. Verses 8-10 [6-8] constitute a prophetic oracle in which YHWH Himself speaks. In place of the 3-beat bicolon (couplet) format in vv. 3-7 (cf. above), there is a tricolon (triplet) format in vv. 8-10.

Verse 8 [6]

“(The) Mightiest has spoken in His Holy (Place):
‘I will exult (and) will make Šekem (my) portion,
and the valley of Sukkot I will measure out.'”

The 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon format of the oracle is established here. As in verse 3 [1], the title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’) is used, presumably in place of, originally, the Divine Name hwhy (YHWH)—a substitution that occurs consistently throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms. YHWH speaks in His “Holy (Place),” —that is, the sanctuary of His Dwelling (Temple)—though the noun vd#q) could also mean “holiness” (i.e., “in His holiness”).

The geographical association between the city of Shechem and the “valley of Sukkot” here probably alludes to the tradition in Genesis 33:17-18. It may refer generally to the northern territory (and kingdom) of Israel; the northern extent of the kingdom is referenced by David’s conquests over Syria (Aram-Zobah and Aram-Damascus) in 2 Sam 8:3-8. The verb dd^m* means “stretch a line,” i.e., to measure something, and thus refers to measuring the extent of territory belonging to the king/kingdom. Here, the territory belongs specifically to YHWH Himself, as King, but by extension it also belongs to the kingdom of His people (Israel/Judah).

Verse 9 [7]

“To me (belongs) Gil’ad, and to me Menaššeh,
and Ephrayim (is) a protected place (for) my head,
(while) Yehudah (is) my engraved (staff).”

In this verse, the Davidic kingdom of Israel—the united kingdom—is summarized. As noted in the introduction above, if the Psalm proper is dated near the time of the Babylonian exile, then the lamentable situation of the kingdom at that time would be set in stark contrast to the original divine promises regarding the extent of territory (realized, albeit briefly, in the reigns of David and Solomon). The northern territories are represented by the half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (along with the region of the Gilead), depicted in terms of the king’s head—that is, a helmet (lit. “place of protection,” or “protected place,” zoum*). Judah represents the southern territory, and, with its capital of Jerusalem, is the locus of the ruling power and authority of the king (his engraved [vb qq^j*] staff). Again, YHWH is the ultimate King, with the king of Israel/Judah ruling over the people as His representative or vassal.

Verse 10 [8]

“Mo’ab (is the) pot for my washing;
upon Edom I will throw down my sandal;
over Pelešet I will cry out (in triumph).”

Here the territories of Moab, Edom and the coastal cities of the Philistines are included as Israelite territory (belonging ultimately, of course, to YHWH as King). Moab and Edom, in particular, are belittled, described as a mere washpot for the king, or as a place to thrown down (or set down) his sandals. David’s victories over Moab and Edom are referenced in 2 Sam 8:2, 12-14, while his victories over the Philistines headline that passage (v. 1). Here YHWH simply declares that He will “cry out” (vb u^Wr) over Philistia—that is, a cry/shout of triumph over them. The text of the third line should be read in light of the doublet in Ps 108:10 [9].

Verse 11 [9]

“Who will carry me (to the) city (with) strong walls?
Who will guide me (to come) unto Edom?”

The meter now shifts back to the 3-beat couplet (bicolon) format of the Psalm; and, indeed, verse 11 is not part of the oracle, and it is no longer YHWH who is speaking. The verse is transitional, leading the way from the oracle into the concluding verses (a second lament-prayer).

The first line could be understood either as coming to the walled city for protection, or for conquest. In the context of the oracle, the latter seems more likely. The Psalmist envisions a situation when Israel will once again realize the promises of YHWH regarding the kingdom and its territory, and where the conquests by David may, in some sense, be repeated. The specific mention of Edom in the second line may reflect the heightened tensions (and hostility) between Judah and Edom in the late kingdom period (early-6th century, and thereafter). The envisioned conquests will begin with the near adversary Edom (along with Moab, we may assume, to follow).

Part 2: Verses 12-14 [10-12]

Verse 12 [10]

“Is it not you, (O) Mightiest, you (who) rejected us,
and did not go out, Mightiest, with our armies?”

This couplet answers the question (“Who…?”) in v. 11. Even though YHWH had rejected His people (for the verb jn~z`, cf. on v. 3 above), and, for a time, allowed Israel to be defeated and conquered, the hope (and prayer) is that now God will once again return to fight on His people’s behalf. The couplet here thus blends together lament with a hope (prayer) for deliverance, echoing the themes of the longer Part 1. For a different way of reading these lines, cf. Dahood (II, pp. 76, 82).

Verse 13 [11]

“Give to us help from [i.e. against] (our) adversary,
(for) indeed empty is (the) saving (help) of man!”

Only the power and strength of YHWH will allow His people to prevail against their enemies. The noun rx^ can be derived from three different roots, meaning (respectively): (1) “narrowness” (i.e., a “tight spot”), (2) “distress, oppression”, or (3) “adversary, enemy”. All three would be applicable, but the military context here suggests the third meaning is most likely in view. The very acknowledgement of YHWH’s saving power, contrasted with the “emptiness” (aw+v*) of human strength, can be taken as an implicit indication of the people’s current faithfulness (as represented by the Psalmist), and give them reason to believe that YHWH will, indeed, hear and answer their prayer.

Verse 14 [12]

“With the Mightiest, we shall act with strength,
and He (indeed) shall trample down our adversaries!”

The people will act together with (-B=) YHWH to defeat their enemies, just as Israel did (under David’s leadership) in times of old. They will act with strength (ly]j*), since the power of God Himself will be on their side. Indeed, it is YHWH who does the real fighting, trampling down the enemies of Israel (note the emphatic position of the pronoun aWh [“He”]).

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 “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *