Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 1)

Psalm 69

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-19 [18])

It is generally acknowledged that this Psalm, in comparison with the previous Ps 68, is in much better textual condition. Despite being comparable in size, the MT of Ps 69 presents far fewer textual and interpretive difficulties. Even so, its length and complexity remain challenging for commentators. In particular, there a number of different theories regarding the composition of the work. It seems likely that some measure of development and expansion took place, by which the current Psalm grew into shape, from a simpler/shorter original composition. The three-stage development posited by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 176) is worth citing as a plausible hypothesis:

    • Stage 1: A pre-exilic psalm of lament, consisting of vv. 2-5, 14c-19, 31; the structure of this Psalm follows a familiar pattern of lament-petition-praise.
    • Stage 2: The primary psalm was expanded, according its three structural elements: lament (vv. 6-14b), petition (vv. 20-30), praise vow (vv. 32-34).
    • Stage 3: The call to praise, mentioning the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem (vv. 35-37), was added to the end of the psalm; this last portion certainly comes from an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

In terms of analyzing the structure of this lengthy Psalm, it seems best to keep things relatively simple, following a broad 3-part division that, I think, can be discerned rather clearly:

    • Part 1: Lament to YHWH (vv. 2-13)
    • Part 2: Prayer to YHWH (vv. 14-30)
    • Part 3: Praise to YHWH (vv. 31-37)

Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates; however, this is far from consistent. As one might expect, in a poem of such length and complexity, the meter varies considerably. Notable rhythmic departures from the 3+3 pattern will be mentioned in the notes.

The short heading to the Psalm simply marks this as another Davidic composition (“[belonging] to David”). The musical direction indicates that the lyric of the poem should be performed to the melody “Lilies” (<yN]v*ov); the same direction occurs in Psalm 45 (cf. also Ps 60:1; 80:1).

It should be mentioned that a significant portion of this Psalm, though fragmentary, survives in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, covering vv. 1-19. This includes an interesting number of variant readings, compared with the Masoretic text. Some of these will be touched upon in the next study.

Part 1: Verses 2-13 [1-12]

Verse 2 [1]

“Save me, O Mightiest,
for there have come
waters up to (my) neck!”

The initial verse, which I read as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, presents, in sharp and vivid detail, the danger facing the protagonist of this Psalm. There are a number of instances (always in poetry) where the word vp#n#, usually translated “soul”, should be understood in the concrete physical sense of “neck, throat”; this is certainly one such instance. The image (symbolic of mortal peril) is of the Psalmist in water up to his neck, and the implication is that the waters are still coming. In other words, he is in danger of being submerged, and drowning.

Verse 3 [2]

“I have sunk in mire of (the) deep (sea),
and there is no place to stand;
I have come in(to the) depths of (the) waters,
and (the) swirling (flood) engulfs me!”

This verse expands the imagery in v. 2, expressed through a pair of 3+2 couplets. The first line in each couplet depicts a similar idea:

    • I have sunk in the mire of the deep (sea)
    • I have come in(to) the depths of the waters

Two different words are used to express the idea of deep water, watery depths: hl*Wxm= and qm*u&m^; both words essentially mean “deep place”. The noun /w@y` adds the motif of “mud, mire” to the portrait of the surging and swirling (lbv) waters.

The second line of each couplet is also parallel. The idea of having no “place to stand” (dm*u(m*) is followed by the more dramatic image of the waters “engulfing”(vb [f^v*) the Psalmist.

Verse 4 [3]

“I am exhausted by my crying,
my throat is (all) parched,
(and) my eyes are finished,
from waiting for my Mighty (One).”

Following the idea of being submerged by water, in vv. 2-3, the image now shifts to one of being dried out. The Psalmist’s throat (/orG`, cf. the parallel with vp#n# in v. 2, above) is literally “burned” (vb rr^j*), best understood in the sense of being “parched,” i.e., dry (and scorched) as in the desert. His throat is parched from all his “crying (out)” to God; this constant outcry has exhausted (vb ug~y`) him, and weakened him so that his eyes fail (lit. are finished). The parallelism in these couplets is chiastic:

    • I am exhausted crying out (to God)
      • my throat is burnt
      • my eyes are finished
    • (I have been) waiting for my God

That is, the Psalmist has been waiting for YHWH to answer his cry for help. Dahood (II, p. 156f) would read the prefixed –l on yh*l)al@ as a vocative— “…from waiting, O my Mighty (One)”. This is certainly possible; it would preserve the direct address to God throughout.

Metrically, in this verse we have a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The terse rhythm captures the urgency of the situation.

Verse 5 [4]

“Many (more) than (the) hairs of my head
(are those) hating me for nothing,
strong (those) putting an end to me,
my enemies (acting with) deceit.
That which I did not strip away,
must I then return (it)?”

Here it becomes clear that the imagery of being engulfed by deadly waters was figurative of the danger facing the Psalmist. In its place is the familiar idiom of the danger posed by hostile enemies and opponents, expressed through the regular verbal nouns (in the plural), “(one)s hating” (vb an@c*) and “(one)s being hostile” (vb by~a*). Their force is characterized by the verbs (in emphatic position) “be many” (bb^r*) and “be strong/mighty” (<x^u*). They are more numerous than the hairs on the Psalmist’s head (note the use of the preposition /m! [“from”] in the comparative sense, “[more] than”). In light of this expression, some commentators would emend the MT of the third line slightly, reading yt!M*x^m! (“from my locks[?]”) instead of yt^ym!x=m^ (“putting an to me”, vb tm^x*). This would create a parallelism with the first line:

    • “they are more numerous than the hairs of my head” /
      “they are more mighty than the locks (of) my (hair)”

For the possible meaning of hM*x^ as “lock(s of hair),” cf. the context of its use in Isa 47:2; Song 4:1, 3; 6:7.

The meter of v. 5 (as it stands) is irregular: a 3+2 couplet, followed by a 2+2 couplet. An additional 2-beat couplet seems to express the nature of the enemies’ action:

“That which I did not strip away
must I then return (it)”

Apparently the protagonist is accused of theft, expressed in terms of violent robbery, using the verb lz~G` (“pluck off, strip away, take [by force]”). The idea of having to return what he did not steal suggests the possibility of a legal action.

Verse 6 [5]

“Mightiest, you (indeed) know of my foolishness,
and my faults, from you they are not concealed.”

After the terse rhythm of vv. 2-5, the meter changes suddenly here, to a longer 4+3 couplet; then, for the remainder of this part of the Psalm, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet pattern becomes regular. The sense of danger and pleading is replaced by a more reasoned petition to YHWH. It expresses the traditional religious idea that a person’s sins and faults are known to God (the All-knowing), and cannot be kept away from Him.

Verse 7 [6]

“May they not be ashamed by me,
(those) looking to you, my Lord,
O YHWH of (the heavenly) armies!
May they not be disgraced by me,
(those) seeking you, Mighty (One)
of Yisrael!”

The repeated prayer by the Psalmist here functions as an affirmation that he would conduct himself in a manner worthy of the righteous/faithful ones. It is an expression of his heart’s desire and intention. He would never willingly do the sort of thing of which his enemies accuse him.

The meter of this verse, as we have it, is truly unusual. It consists of a pair of uneven couplets—2+2 and 2+3; an extra 2-beat line is added to the first couplet, producing a 2-beat tricolon. The couplets are parallel in concept, and could be seen as 2-beat couplets with expanded honorifics applied to YHWH; I have tried to illustrate this with the poetic arrangement of the lines above.

The righteous are characterized as those “looking for” (vb hw`q* I) God and “seeking” (vb vq^B*) Him.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (it is) over you (that) I have carried blame,
(and) humiliation has covered my face.”

The Psalmist expresses here the real reason for the attacks by his wicked adversaries. It is because of (lit. “over”) his righteous devotion to YHWH (“over you”). It is for God’s sake that he is facing blame and disgrace from his accusers.

Verse 9 [8]

“A stranger I have become to my brothers,
and (one) foreign to (the) sons of my mother.”

His righteous conduct and devotion to YHWH has effectively made the Psalmist a stranger to his own people. This idea is expressed through two roots: (1) rWz and (2) rk^n`. I follow Dahood (II, p. 157) in separating the prefixed –m from rzwm, and attaching it (as an enclitic suffix <-) to the last word of the previous verse. This yields a smoother syntax. The first word of v. 9 would then be vocalized rz`w+.

Verse 10 [9]

“Indeed, ardor for your house consumes me,
and (the) scorn of (those) scorning you
has fallen upon me.”

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though this is a bit difficult to capture in translation. The noun hP*r=j# is the same as in v. 8, where I translated it “blame”; here the same idea is expressed through the harsher rendering “scorn” (with the connotation of insult, mockery, contempt). The plural of the noun would be properly captured in English by “insults”. The related verb [r^j* is used side by side with the noun, for emphasis and dramatic effect.

The noun ha*n+q! in line 1 is also a bit tricky to translate. It essentially denotes a strong attractive emotion; the typical translations, “zeal” and “jealousy” are perhaps too precise, and can be misleading. I have translated it above as “ardor,” implying an intense, faithful devotion to the things of God. The “house” could refer specifically to the Temple, or to the more general idea of God’s ‘household’. I translate the initial yK! here as an emphatic particle (“indeed…”). The line is cited in John 2:17, where the context certainly is the Jerusalem Temple (though given a unique Christological interpretation in that passage).

Verse 11 [10]

“When I poured out my soul with fasting,
it even came to be as scorn toward me.”

The idea seems to be that the Psalmist was mocked and abused for his intense religious devotion, expressed in terms of fervent fasting. Since fasting can effect a person’s mood and physical appearance, it may be this that is the brunt of his enemies’ ridicule.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 158) in repointing hkbaw as hk*B)a#w`, from the verb Eb^n` (= Ep^n`), meaning “pour (forth)”; cf. the noun Eb#n# (“spring [of water]”) in Job 28:11; 38:16. This seems to make better sense of the line.

Verse 12 [11]

“And I gave rough cloth for my garment,
and I became for them as a byword.”

This verse essentially expresses the same idea as v. 11. The Psalmist’s religious devotion, so intense as to verge on an extreme asceticism, was a source of mockery to people. The noun lv*m* has a relatively wide range of meaning, and is not easily translated; there is not really an English equivalent. The basic connotation here is that the Psalmist becomes an example of foolishness, the butt of insulting jokes that are spread around. The translation “byword,” though not common in English, perhaps is closest to the mark; however, one should not exclude the idea of the Psalmist becoming a kind of ‘proverbial’ figure, in the sense of being a (comical or pathetic) example of the foolishness of religious devotion.

Verse 13 [12]

“About me they rehearse, (those) sitting (at the) gate,
even songs strummed (by those) feasting on drink.”

The Psalmist as a source of mockery, as an example of silly religious devotion, extends even to devising catchy ditties and songs sung at drinking feasts. The verb j^yc! here should be understood in the sense of “rehearse” —that is, of going over a little song in one’s head. Probably the idea is that mocking songs devised by people “sitting at the gate” eventually come to be sung by boisterous drinkers at feasts. The noun hn`yg]n+ properly denotes a song (or musical composition) performed on a stringed instrument.

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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