Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 63 (Part 1)

Psalm 63

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2, 4 [1, 3])

We have here a prayer-Psalm with certain lament features, such are to be found in a number of the Psalms we have studied thus far. From the standpoint of the thematic structure, it is possible to divide the Psalm two ways. First, one many isolate a main section (vv. 4-9), in which the Psalmist affirms his devotion to YHWH. This is preceded by a plea for blessing, for an experience of the Divine Presence (vv. 2-3); and it is followed by an imprecatory petition, calling down a curse upon the wicked (vv. 10-12).

Another possibility is a three-part structure, working from the repeated mention of “my soul” (yv!p=n~) in vv. 2, 6, and 9. Based on this dividing principle, there would be three stanzas of unequal length (vv. 2-5, 6-8, 9-12), each of which begins with a reference to the Psalmist’s soul desiring/longing for YHWH. It may be possible to combine this division with the thematic structuring mentioned above. We may thus speak of two main stanzas, juxtaposing the emphasis on prayer for blessing (vv. 2-5) and the call for a curse on the wicked (vv. 9-12). The shorter central stanza (vv. 6-8) is transitional, developing the main theme of the Psalmist’s devotion to YHWH.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet pattern, though not consistently so; places where the poetic rhythm differs or is irregular will be noted.

The heading marks this as yet another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. The additional contextual information, “in his [i.e. David’s] being in (the) outback [i.e. ‘wilderness’] of Yehudah,” alludes to the David tradition(s) narrated in 1 Samuel 22, 23.

Stanza 1: VV. 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest, you my Mighty (One), I seek you at dawn;
(indeed,) my soul thirsts for you,
my flesh faints (with longing) for you,
like a dry land exhausted by no water.”

The initial <yh!l)a$ marks this as another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the plural title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e. ‘God’) has been substituted for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH).

In the MT as we have it, a long 4-beat couplet in the opening line is followed by a 3-beat triad (3+3+3). For a slightly different approach to the division of these lines, cf. Dahood (II, p. 96f). In the first line, the verb rj^v* is denominative (from rj^v^, “dawn”) and refers to doing something at dawn (or early in the morning). The sense of longing conveyed in the following lines makes it appropriate to fill in the act of seeking—i.e., “I seek you at dawn”. This establishes the setting for the first stanza.

The first two lines of the triad that follows form a synonymous couplet: “my soul thirsts for you / my flesh faints for you”, with the verbal parallel of am^x* (“thirst”) and Hm^K* (“[be] faint”); the latter verb occurs only here in the Old Testament, and its meaning must be determined from the context, and by possible cognates in other Semitic languages (Syriac, Arabic). The juxtaposition of soul and “flesh” (i.e., body) is comprehensive, indicating how the Psalmist’s entire person, his whole being, longs for YHWH’s presence.

I take the initial preposition (B=) in the fourth line to have comparative force (cf. Dahood, II, p. 97); in other words, the Psalmist is comparing his longing to that of a dry desert land longing for water. The association with the David tradition indicated in the heading (cf. above) may have been due to reading B= here in its common locative sense—i.e., “in a dry land”. I also tentatively follow Dahood in revocalizing MT [y@u* (a masculine adjective which does not agree with the feminine noun Jr#a#) as an infinitive ([y)u*), “(being) exhausted”. The land is exhausted because of its lack of water, indicated here by the privative adverbial particle yl!B=

Verses 3-5 [2-4]

“So in (the) holy (place) I (would) gaze on you,
to see your strength and your weight—
for good is your kindness (more) than (my) life,
(and the) lips (that) praise you—
so will I bless you in (all) my life,
in your name I will lift my palms.”

The complex poetic syntax of vv. 3-5 demands that they be treated as a unit. Again, my translation does not adequately capture the meter, which requires some explanation. Verses 3 and 5 are essentially parallel couplets, each with a 3-beat (3+3) meter, and each beginning with the emphatic particle /K@ (“thus, so”). These couplets frame an idealized scene of worship:

    • so [/K@] in the holy place I (would) gaze on you,
      to see your strength and your weight…
    • so [/K@] will I bless you in (all) my life,
      in your name I will lift (up) my palms

The Psalmist responds to a vision of YHWH in the (Temple) sanctuary, much like the prophet Isaiah in the famous visionary scene of Isa 6. I understand the perfect verb form ;yt!yz]j& (lit. “I have gazed [on] you”), as a precative perfect, reflecting the Psalmist’s wish for the future expressed as something that has already occurred.

The grandeur and glory of the Divine presence is described using the standard terms of zu) (“strength”) and dobK*—this latter word itself is often translated “glory,” but literally means “weight”, typically in the sense of “worth” (i.e., the value of something); the two terms together refer to the overwhelming greatness of YHWH.

Indeed, so overpowering is the experience of YHWH’s presence, that the Psalmist must give worship (vb Er^B*) with all of his being. The preposition B= in the expression “in my life” (yY`j^B=) could mean either “during my life” or “with (all) my life”. The fundamental meaning of the verb Er^B* suggests a gesture of worship (i.e., bowing, bending the knee), but can also refer to speech (i.e., “blessing” with the mouth). The parallel of lifting up of one’s palms would seem to confirm an act or gesture; in any case, we are dealing with a comprehensive state of worship that encompasses the whole person, and continues throughout his/her life. Such a thorough sense of devotion to YHWH is a characteristic of the righteous, and identifies the Psalmist as one of the righteous.

The middle couplet (v. 4) lies at the heart of this worship scene. It is distinct both in its irregular (3+2) rhythm and in its peculiar syntax. The first line establishes a comparison, between YHWH and the Psalmist. The comparison is made through the preposition /m! (“from”), used in a comparative sense; this usage is difficult to translate, requiring in English something like “(more) than”. The specific comparison is between the ds#j# (“kindness, goodness”) of YHWH and the entirety of the Psalmist’s person. Again the plural noun <yY]j^ (“life, living”) is used, referring to the Psalmist’s life (just as in v. 5). The noun ds#j# often is used in a covenantal context, connoting faithfulness and loyalty; it is typically used this way in the Psalms, as an attribute of YHWH—viz., His loyalty to the covenant.

Not only is God’s loyalty and goodness, etc, greater than the Psalmist’s own life, but it far surpasses his ability to find words fitting enough to express praise for it (vb jb^v*). As a minor grammatical note, even though the suffixed noun yt^p*c= (“my lips”) is feminine (a dual form), the corresponding verb is a masculine plural (WjB=v^y+, “they shall praise”); this, however, is by no means unusual (cf. Prov 5:2; 10:8, etc).

There is an interesting poetic symmetry in verse 5 that is worth commenting on (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 98); there is a certain chiastic structure to the lines:

    • I will bless you
      • in my life/living
      • in your name
    • I will lift my hands

The implication is that the Psalmist’s life (yj^) is to be realized in the presence of YHWH Himself. Here, God’s manifest presence, in relation to His people, his expressed through His name (<v@). This is typical of Old Testament and Israelite religious theology, and is tied to the ancient Near Eastern understanding of the significance of names and naming; for more on this, see my earlier discussion in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. It is quite possible that the idea of the blessed life in heaven is in view here, and that the vision in the “holy place” may refer, not so much to a ritual setting in the Temple, but to the heavenly dwelling of YHWH.

(The remainder of this Psalm [Stanzas 2 and 3]  will be discussed in next week’s study.)

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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