March 10: Psalm 68:16-19

Strophe 5: Psalm 68:16-19 [15-18]

Strophe 4 was discussed in the previous note; on the overall structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 16 [15]

“(O) mountain of mighty (one)s,
(you) mountain of Bašan,
mountain of high (peak)s,
(you) mountain of Bašan!”

This strophe continues the mountain-theme of verse 15 (cf. the previous note), which included use of the Divine title yD^v^ (Šadday), meaning something like “(The) Mountain(ous One),” or “He of the Mountain”. In ancient Near Eastern religious tradition, the Creator God was identified with a great cosmic mountain; in particular, El-YHWH was thought to dwell upon such a mountain, which could be associated locally/regionally with any prominent mountain or hill. As part of the ancient Israelite historical tradition—associated especially with the Exodus event—YHWH was seen as dwelling upon mount Sinai (v. 9, and cf. below).

A mountain in the region of Bashan (/v*B*), Hauran (Jebel Druze) was already mentioned in v. 15—called /oml=x^ (Grk [A]salmanos), the ‘dark mountain’. Hauran was located on the eastern boundary of Bashan, and mount Hermon was at the northern boundary; there were also hills to the west (east of the sea of Galilee). These mountains are referenced here in v. 16, as a way of designating the region of Bashan as a whole. This fertile area to the east of the Jordan is best known in connection with the historical tradition of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land, following the Exodus and years of wandering in the desert—cf. Num 21:33-35; Deut 1:4; 3:1-17; Josh 12:4-5; 13:11-12, 30-31. It became part of the trans-Jordan Israelite tribal territory, assigned to the half-tribe of Manasseh.

The repeated expression “mountain [rh^] of Bashan”, is paired with parallel descriptive expressions:

    • “mountain of mighty (one)s [<yh!l)a$]”
      “mountain of high (peak)s [<yn]n%b=G~]”

The first expression could be translated “mountain of the Mightiest [i.e. God]” (cf. on v. 17, below); however, the parallel with <yn]n%b=G~ here indicates that, in this instance, <yh!l)a$ should be read as a real plural—either “mighty (one)s”, in reference to the mountains as supposed dwelling places of the (Canaanite) deities, or “mighty (hill)s”, as a designation of their grandeur, etc.

Verse 17 [16]

“For what do you look with envy,
(you) high-peaked mountains
(at) the hill (of which) takes delight
(the) Mightiest to sit (upon) it?
Indeed, YHWH dwells (there) to the end!”

Verse 16 utilized a 2-beat (2+2) couplet format, as generally throughout the Psalm, and the pattern continues here, with another pair of couplets (followed by a climactic 3-beat line). The Psalmist asks a rhetorical question, posed as a taunt, as to why (“for what [reason]”) the great mountains of Bashan (i.e., Hauran and Hermon) look with envy (vb dx^r*) at the mountain YHWH chooses as His dwelling-place (cf. above). He rejects the mountains in Bashan, choosing instead a hill further west, across the Jordan. The hill chosen by God is, of course, the hill-top location of Jerusalem (Zion), the old Canaanite site and “city of David”, where the Temple would be built. YHWH takes delight (vb dm^j*) to dwell (lit. “sit [down]”, bv^y`) upon this ‘mountain’. In terms of cosmological-mythic tradition, Zion takes the place of Sinai as the local manifestation of God’s cosmic dwelling. Israel encountered YHWH at Sinai, and He accompanied them on their long journey to the Promised Land, where He would dwell among them, in the sanctuary on Zion.

Here in v. 17, <yh!l)a$ once again is used as a title for YHWH (“Mightiest,” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’), producing a bit of wordplay with its use in v. 16 (cf. above). The final line serves as a dramatic exclamation, affirming that Zion will be YHWH’s dwelling-place “to the end” (jx^n#l*).

Verse 18 [17]

“(The chariot) ride(s) of (the) Mightiest
(are) myriads—thousands repeated!
My Lord (is there) among them
in the holy (place) (at) Sinai.”

When YHWH moves out from Sinai, accompanying His people, He does so with the heavenly army mobilized (cf. Deut 33:2). Here the army is represented by horses (and chariots); the collective singular bk#r# (“ride”) is used, corresponding to the earlier title referring to YHWH as “the Rider on the Clouds” (v.5; cf. also Deut 33:26).

The word <y]t^B)r! is a dual form, meaning something like “a multitude twice (over)”; as a numeric expression, it can mean twice ten thousand (i.e., twenty thousand). This concept is enhanced by the following expression /a*n+v! yp@l=a^, “thousands repeated” —i.e., many thousands, or ‘thousands upon thousands’. There is, however, some textual uncertainty surrounding MT /a*n+v!; there is slight manuscript support for /n`a&v^ (“security”), while the Greek (LXX) translation may be reading /oav^, suggesting the roar/noise of a great crowd. Dahood (II, p. 142f) would interpret /anv in light of Ugaritic ¾nn (also Alalakh šan¹nu), referring to a kind of soldier, perhaps a chariot archer/bowman; cf. also the Egyptian term snn. This would certainly fit the context, and provide a more comprehensive description of the heavenly army—i.e., a multitude of chariots accompanied by thousands of soldiers/archers.

YHWH Himself is among this great army, which moves from the “holy place” (vd#q)) of Sinai, to accompany the Israelite people on their journey. The presence of the army means, of course, that YHWH is able to fight, engaging in warfare, as needed, on His people’s behalf.

As it stands, the meter of this verse is irregular: 2+3+2+2.

Verse 19 [18]

“You went up to the high place,
you took captive (prisoners) captive,
you received gifts by <their hands>;
but as for (the) rebellious (one)s,
(you) set (them) down, YH(WH), Mightiest!”

The “high place” <orm* here should be seen as parallel with the “holy place” in v. 18. It refers to YHWH’s mountain-dwelling, symbolic (on earth) of His heavenly dwelling on top of the cosmic ‘mountain’. As noted above, the Exodus theme of this Psalm assumes that YHWH proceeds from mount Sinai to the mountain of his dwelling (with His people) in the Promised Land, that is, the sanctuary at Zion/Jerusalem. The imagery in the first three lines (following the 2+2+3 metrical pattern) is relatively clear and straightforward. Establishing his new ‘mountain’ dwelling requires military conquest, which results in taking prisoners captive, as well as receiving tributary gifts from the surviving peoples (those willing to submit to Him). I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 143) in reading <dab (MT <d*a*B*, “by [i.e. from] men]) as preserving a contracted form of <y]d^y` (dual, “[their] two hands”); for other examples, identified by Dahood as contracted northern dual forms, cf. I, pp. 70, 88f, and especially (on Ps 17:4) 95.

The final lines of the strophe are especially difficult.  For example, how does the fourth line, <yr!r=os [a^w+, relate to the thought expressed in the strophe? Does [a^ function as an emphatic conjunction, i.e., “and also/even (the) rebellious (one)s,” implying (apparently) that even they are forced to submit to YHWH (and to give Him tributary gifts)? Or, is the force of [a^w+ adversative?—i.e., “but as for (the) rebellious (one)s…” The previous use of the verbal noun <yr!r+os (“[the one]s rebelling”) in v. 7 suggests the latter. Indeed, it seems likely that the Psalmist here is alluding back to that earlier line: “but (the) rebellious (one)s will dwell (in) a scorched/parched land”. The same verb (/k^v*, “dwell”) is used here, and I believe the idea expressed is much the same. However, in order to capture the force of the context in v. 19, I have translated the verb in the visceral sense of “set (down)”, rather than “dwell”, with God as the actor. Cf. Psalm 7:6 [5] for an example of this verb in the context of setting something down in the dust (i.e., burying it); this is essentially the interpretation that Dahood (II, p. 143) gives to the line.

In passing, one should also mention the creative use of v. 19a made in Ephesians 4:8ff, applying the lines to the death and resurrection (exaltation) of Jesus. This, of course, takes the original Psalm verse completely out of context, and yet such Christological application of Scripture is very much part of early Christian thought and practice, and occurs many times in the inspired writings of the New Testament.

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).