Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 64

Psalm 64

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

It is appropriate that Psalm 64 follows 63 in the canonical collection, since it effectively serves as an exposition of the final line (v. 12 [11]) of Ps 63 (cf. the previous study). The characteristic tone of lament, with an emphasis on a prayer for deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, is common to many of the Psalms we have studied. The imprecatory elements, calling for a curse/judgment upon the wicked, are also familiar, however uncomfortable they may make us, as Christian readers, today.

Thematically, this Psalm can be divided into two portions, in a manner that is typical of the Psalms we have been studying. The first portion (vv. 2-7a [1-6a]) begins with the lamenting plea, and includes a description of the behavior of the Psalmist’s adversaries (i.e., the wicked). In the second portion (vv. 7b-11 [6b-10]), the emphasis shifts to a call for judgment upon the wicked, with an expectation that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer.

 The superscription simply marks this as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

VERSES 2-7a [1-6a]

Verse 2 [1]

“Hear, O Mightiest,
my voice in my complaint:
from dread of (the) hostile (ones),
may you guard my life.”

As noted above, this opening verse establishes the tone of lament for the Psalm, at least in its first portion. It can be read either as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet or a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain; for a cleaner poetic presentation, and because it seems to fit the syntax somewhat better, I have opted for the latter. The noun j^yc! is a bit difficult to translate with precision; the basic denotation is of a speech (or set of words/thoughts) that a person goes over (repeating/rehearsing). In the context of a prayer-setting, such as this, we should probably understand j^yc! in the sense of a petition, which would also fit the quasi-legal aspect of calling on YHWH (as Judge) to render judgment. For poetic concision, and to add to the dramatic moment, I have translated the word above as “complaint”.

The expression “dread [dj^P^] of (the one) being hostile”, presumably should be understood in terms of the enemy’s fearfulness, and of the danger that the wicked one presents. However, Dahood (I, p. 81f; II, p. 104), both here and in 14:5, would render dj^P^ instead as “pack” (e.g., of wolves), in light of cognate p—d in Ugaritic and Palmyrene paµda. It is an intriguing suggestion, mainly because it provides a far more vivid and specific image of the danger posed by the wicked, requiring protection (vb rx^n`, “guard”) from God.

Verse 3 [2]

“Hide me from (the) council of (those) causing evil,
from (the) conspiring of (those) making trouble”

This couplet establishes the theme of the protection that YHWH provides, and for which the Psalmist prays. The idea of protection is expressed here in terms being “hidden” (vb rt^s*), either in the sense of God covering him (like a shield), or of his being taken away to a safe and secluded location.

There is synonymous parallelism in this couplet, particularly in the two expressions:

    • “council of | (those) causing evil”
    • “conspiring of | (those) making | trouble”.

The nouns dos and hv*g+r! are roughly synonymous, both referring to a gathering of the wicked for an evil purpose. With dos, the emphasis is on plotting in secret, while the root vgr suggests a large or prominent (perhaps even violent) throng of conspirators.

Verse 4 [3]

“they who sharpen as a sword their tongue,
(and) tread (for) their arrows (of) bitter word(s)”

This couplet continues the thought of v. 3, and could have been included with it above.

Here the Psalmist cleverly blends together two aspects of the wicked that are found throughout the Psalms: (1) the threat of physical violence, utilizing military imagery, and (2) harsh and slanderous attacks by speech (with the “tongue”). The tongue, both in its physical shape and the pointedness of one’s speech, rather naturally resembles a sword which the wicked “sharpens” (/n~v*), giving it a pointed edge like a sharp tooth. The second image is a bit more complex, as it involves preparing the bow (by stepping/treading on it, vb Er^D*) for the arrows that one shoots—the ‘arrows’ obviously referring to harsh and wicked words. I have translated the adjective rm* literally as “bitter,” but there is no doubt that the allusion is the bitterness of poison (cf. Gen 49:23; Job 20:14; cp. Job 6:4)—i.e., the words of the wicked are poisoned arrows.

Metrically, after the 3-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 3, here there is essentially a return to the 4-beat meter of v. 2 (cf. above).

Verse 5 [4]

“to shoot in their secret (place) at (the) pure,
suddenly they shoot at him, and do not fear.”

The thought from vv. 3-4 continues here, with this slightly irregular couplet (loosely 3+4). Having prepared their poisoned arrows, the wicked shoot (vb hr*y`) them at the righteous; the adjective <T* literally means “complete” (as a characteristic of the righteous), but for poetic concision I have translated it above as “pure”, which also suggests the idea of “innocence”. There is likely a bit of word play assonance here, between <T* (t¹m) and <a)t=P! (pi¾°œm) in the next line. There is also some conceptual word play involving the root rts (“hide, be hidden”), which was also used in v. 2 (cf. above); in the earlier reference, God is asked to hide the Psalmist (meaning to protect him), but here the wicked are attacking the righteous from their hidden place (rT*s=m!) of ambush.

Verse 6-7a [5-6a]

“They seized for themselves an evil word,
and gave account to hide (deadly) snares,
(and) they say: ‘Who shall see them?’
They search out crooked (thing)s (to) complete.”

These lines are somewhat problematic, and it would be nice if there were surviving portions among the Dead Sea manuscripts to compare with the MT. I treat vv. 6-7a as a unit, a pair of 3-beat couplets. They complete the description of the wicked in the first half of the Psalms.

After the motif of shooting poisoned arrows at the righteous, the wicked here are depicted as laying deadly traps and snares (<yv!q=om). Again there is a play on the idea of something being hidden, only here a different verb (/m^f*) is used. In this instance, the words of the wicked do not represent the weapons they use, but rather it seems to reflect the process by which they work together to lay the traps. They grab firm hold (vb qz~j*) of an “evil word” (the expression ur* rb*D* being parallel with rm* rb*D*, “bitter [i.e. poisonous] word” in v. 4). Then they “count” (i.e., give an account of, or recount) how they have (or intend to) secretly lay these traps, so that no one, least of all the unsuspecting righteous victims, will see them.

In the final line, I read a pair of third person plural verb forms, indicating how the wicked complete (vb <m^T*) what they have planned. The verb <m^T* is related to the adjective <T* (“complete”) used as a characteristic of the righteous in v. 5, the same sort of antithetical (ironic) wordplay the Psalmist employed with the root rts (cf. above).

Verses 7b-11 [6b-10]

Verse 7bc [6bc]

“(The One) searching (all) searches
(the) inner(most part) of man,
and (the) heart (in its) depth.”

I generally follow Dahood (II, pp. 103, 105-6) in treating the remainder of verse 7 as a distinct unit, marking the beginning of the second half of the Psalm. It seems to me fitting, and typical of the conceptual wordplay and irony employed throughout by the Psalmist, that the “searching out” (vb vp^j*) by the wicked would be contrasted by the searching (same verb) of all humankind by YHWH. In this light, I am also inclined to follow Dahood in reading an active (piel) participle (referring to YHWH as the one who searches all things), rather than the passive (pual) participle of the Masoretic pointing.

Metrically, I treat this verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which generally matches the 2-beat quatrain that opens the first half (v. 2).

Verse 8 [7]

“And (the) Mightiest shall shoot at them (His) arrow,
(and) suddenly they will be struck!”

The irony continues in this next couplet, as YHWH parallels the action of the wicked, shooting His deadly arrow at them, just as they sought to shoot the righteous with poisoned arrows. The parallelism extends to the use of the adverb <oat=P! (“suddenly”), as in v. 5.

It is possible to read the perfect form of the verb in the second line as a precative perfect, expressing the Psalmist’s wish: “may they be struck suddenly!” This certainly would fit the imprecatory character of vv. 7-11 (cf. below), and I have found numerous instances in previous Psalms where I have read a precative perfect.

Verse 9 [8]

“May He cause them to fall over their own tongue!
Every one seeing them shall fly away”

The MT of the first line would seem to be corrupt, or at least the text was misunderstood, particularly with regard to the initial verb form. One possible solution is offered by Dahood (II, p. 106), reading Wlyv!k=y~ as a third person singular form, with an archaic W– suffix retained, the following Wh– suffix being an example of dativus commodi. Also attractive is the proposal by Michael J. Barré (1996, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 130), that an instance of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH), originally present, was partially lost, resulting in a corrupted text. The beginning of the line would have read hwhy lyvkyw, (“YHWH caused [them] to fall”). This is almost certainly the proper meaning.

Again, there is a parallelistic irony, as the wicked trip over their tongues, just as (with their speech) they sought to lay traps for the righteous. Their downfall will be so damaging and ignoble that every one seeing it will “fly (away)” (vb dd^n`). This should probably be understood in relation to the boast of the wicked that “no one shall see” the traps they lay.

Verse 10 [9]

“And all men shall be afraid,
and shall set forth (the) deed(s) of (the) Mightiest
and His work(s) they shall consider.”

As it stands, this is a metrically irregular 2+3+2 tricolon. The first line continues the thought from the last line of v. 9. In their fear (and reverence), they will make known the great things YHWH has done; the verb dg~n` properly denotes putting something “in front” (of someone). They will proceed then to consider the deeds/works of YHWH, paying attention to them (vb lk^c*), implying that human beings, for the most part, had not done this previously.

Verse 11 [10]

“And (the) righteous will be glad in YHWH,
and shall find protection in Him—
let all (the) straight of heart give a shout!”

The Psalm ends with a traditional wisdom-contrast between the (contrasting) fates of the wicked and the righteous. While the wicked will come to an ignoble end, falling to their death/destruction, the righteous will find blessing and security under the protection of YHWH. The verb hs*j*, which occurs frequently in the Psalms (26 times, out of 37 OT occurrences), carries the basic idea of taking refuge, of seeking (and finding) protection. Here, the Psalmist’s expectation is that YHWH will answer his prayer, and so the emphasis should be on the righteous finding protection.

In this light, we should take the prepositional expression hw`hyB^ (“in YHWH”) more or less at face value—that is, the righteous find their safety and protection in God Himself, He is their/our protective shelter and shield. Under God’s protection, the righteous are able to rejoice and give up a shout of praise.

The irregular meter of this verse—loosely, a 3+2+3 tricolon, provides a balance to the 2+3+2 rhythm of verse 10. In this case, however, we may also find a certain theological significance to the chiasm of the verse:

    • the righteous are able to rejoice (line 1)
      • having found protection in YHWH (line 2)
    • the upright of are can give a shout (line 3)

The centrality of the Divine protection, and the importance of placing our trust in God Himself, is clear enough.

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).

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