Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 1)

Psalm 71

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-14)

This relatively lengthy composition has, on the whole, the character of a psalm of lament, in which the Psalmist (or the protagonist) prays/pleads to YHWH for deliverance from his adversaries. As such, it has numerous features in common with many of the Psalms we have studied thus far.

This Psalm is irregular, both in terms of its meter, and its thematic structure. It has been characterized as a pastiche, or collage, of traditional Psalm and hymnic elements. Indeed, verses 1-3 are quite similar to the opening lines of Psalm 31 (vv. 2-4a), and may be an indication of an existing source poem that was incorporated into the present composition.

The length, irregularity, and composite character of this Psalm all suggest a relatively late date; many commentators (e.g., Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 194) would assign it to the (early) post-exilic period. There is no heading for this Psalm at all in the Masoretic text; however, the LXX contains a superscription indicating that it is a Davidic composition, written “for the sons of Yonadab and the first (one)s having been led away at spearpoint [i.e. taken captive]”. Apart from the anachronistic reference to David, this heading does, indeed, suggest an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

I would divide Psalm 71 broadly into two parts: vv. 1-13 and 14-24. There is a certain parallelism to this structure, as each part begins with an expression of hope/trust in YHWH (vv. 1, 14), and concludes with an imprecatory prayer-wish that the Psalmist’s adversaries would end in humiliation and disgrace (vv. 13, 24). Other smaller structural units, such as may plausibly be discerned, will be discussed along the way.

Much of this Psalm survives, largely intact, in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, and contains several significant variant readings, which will be mentioned in the notes. Interestingly, in this manuscript Psalm 71 follows Ps 38, rather than Ps 70.

Part 1: Verses 1-13

Verses 1-2

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame into (the) distant (future)!
In your justice, rescue me and help me escape,
stretch out your ear to me and save me!”

The opening couplet (v. 1) is identical with the first two lines of Psalm 31:2 [1] (on which, cf. the earlier study), while the second couplet (v. 2) is very close to 31:3 [2] + the first three words of v. 4 [3]. Metrically, we have a 3+2 couplet followed by a longer 3-beat (3+3) couplet. This differs slightly from the meter and structure of Ps 31.

There is parallelism between the couplets, particularly in first and third lines:

    • In you, YHWH
      • I have sought protection
    • In your justice
      • …help me to escape

The verb hs*j* in line 1 denotes the act of seeking or finding shelter (from a rainstorm, etc), and occurs often in the Psalms. The context implies the presence of danger, and the Psalmist is turning to YHWH for protection. The root flp signifies, in a similar sense, escaping from danger, which one does by taking refuge in God; the Piel stem here indicates a causative aspect, i.e. causing, or helping, someone escape. The preceding verb, lx^n`, in the Hiphil stem, has much the same meaning (“snatch out [of danger]”). The noun hq*d*x= is usually translated “justice, righteousness”, but frequently connotes faithfulness or loyalty, especially when a covenant context is in view, as it frequently is in the Psalms. YHWH’s loyalty and fidelity to the covenant bond means that He will give protection to His faithful followers who call on Him in their time of need.

Dahood (II, p. 172; I, p. 187) would read the noun <l*ou in the second line as a divine title (“Ancient/Eternal [One]”) with the prefixed preposition as a vocative lamed (l=). This would result in a clearer parallel couplet in the first two lines:

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame, O Ancient (One)!”

I find the suggestion interesting, but not entirely convincing; I translate <lwul above in the more customary manner, as a qualitative temporal phrase: “(in)to (the) distant (future)” (i.e., for ever, eternally).

In Ps 31, the corresponding final line of v. 2 here is presented instead as a short 3+2 couplet:

“Stretch (out) your ear to me,
(and) rescue me quickly!”

It has the form yn]l@yX!h^ (“snatch me away,” i.e., “rescue me”), as in 71:2a (cf. above), instead of yn]u@yv!oh (“save me,” “keep me safe”). The Qumran MS 4QPsa of 71:2b follows Ps 31 in reading ynlyxh at this point. Also, in v. 2a, 4QPsa differs from the MT in that it has two imperatives, rather than an imperfect (with imperative force) + imperative.

Verse 3

“Be for me (my) Rock, a dwelling-place,
for coming (in) always,
as you ordered, to keep me safe,
for you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high.”

These lines correspond to Ps 31:4-5a (the first three lines of a pair of couplets):

“Be for me (my) Rock, a strong place,
a house place(d) up high, to rescue me!
For (indeed) you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high,

The first line, in each Psalm, is essentially identical, differing only between the noun zoum* (Ps 32) and /oum* (Ps 71). The noun zoum* literally means “place of strength, strong place”, while /oum* refers to a dwelling-place (usu. for animals in the wild). However, Dahood (II, p. 172) would derive /wum here from a separate root /wu, cognate to Arabic ±¹na (“to aid, give help”). I am tempted to follow this suggestion, as it would very much fit the imagery in context, referring to YHWH as a place of safety and protection.

The MT of 71:3, as it stands, is awkward, both syntactically and rhythmically, and it is possible that the text is corrupt. It is an irregular 3+4+3 tricolon; however, in my translation above, I have chosen to parse it as a 3+2+2+3 quatrain. There is a clear parallelism to the framing lines (1 & 4):

“Be for me (my) Rock, a (safe) dwelling-place,
for you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high.”

The imagery involves the typical setting of a secure (fortified) site on an elevated and difficult to reach location. The summit of a rocky hill or promontory is envisioned as the ideal locale for a protected refuge. The image plays on the idea of YHWH as a Rock of strength and protection; indeed, the noun rWx is used frequently as a divine appellation or title, and it is possible that here the prefixed lamed (l=) has vocative force (cf. Dahood, p. 187). In any event, this couplet (3+3), with its vivid imagery, illustrates the protection which the Psalmist requests from YHWH (see above).

The idea that the text of v. 3 is corrupt may find confirmation in the Qumran MS 4QPsa. The framing lines are intact and match the MT; however, the middle line(s) are broken (with a gap in the text) and seemingly unintelligible.

Verse 4

“My Mighty (One), help me escape from (the) hand of (the) wicked,
from (the) palm of (the one) being crooked and violent.”

Here in verse 4, the Psalmist’s request for God’s protection relates specifically to the danger posed by wicked and violent people. The same verb fl^P* (“escape”) was used in v. 2 (cf. above); the sense of the Piel is “help/allow to escape”. The second line expands the meaning of the first, particularly with regard to the parallel expressions:

    • “(the) hand of the wicked
    • “(the) palm of the crooked and violent

The wicked (uv*r*) person is characterized as “being crooked” (vb lw~u*) and “being violent” (vb sm^j*).

Verse 5

“For you (are) my hope, my Lord,
YHWH, my protection from my youth.”

Again, the Psalmist refers to YHWH as a place of protection (jf*b=m!), following the thought and imagery from the previous verses. The root jfb occurs frequently in the Psalms; however, the noun jf*b=m! is relatively rare (40:5; 65:6). The claim that the Psalmist has trusted in YHWH from his youth implicitly characterizes him as righteous, with longstanding devotion and covenant-loyalty to God.

Verse 6

“Upon you I have leaned (even) from (the) belly,
from (the) cords of my mother you severed me—
with you (is) my praise continually!”

The idea that the Psalmist has trusted in YHWH since his youth is developed here, going back to the very time of his birth. He claims to have leaned upon God even from the moment he emerged from his mother’s belly; the Niphal of Em^s* (“lean [upon]”) should be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., prop up oneself, support oneself.

There is a textual issue in the second line, even though the basic meaning is clear enough: coming from his mother’s intestines (plur. of hu#m@) is parallel to coming from her belly (/f#B#). However, the verbal noun yz]oG (“cutting [off]”) in the MT is problematic, for two reasons: (1) the Qumran MS 4QPsa has the similar sounding yZ]Wu (“my strength”), and (2) Ps 22:10 [9], in a similar context, has yj!oG (“bringing forth”). It almost seems like yz]oG is a conflation of the two readings. Yet, either yjoG or yz]oG is plausible enough in context; God either “brought forth” the Psalmist from his mother’s insides, or He “severed” him from those ‘cords’ (i.e., cutting the umbilical cord, etc).

Verse 7

“As a target I have been for many (people),
but you (remain) my shelter of strength.”

The focus here shifts again to the danger posed by the Psalmist’s wicked adversaries (“many [people]”). The noun tp@om refers to something that stands out or is conspicuous; my translation “target” is based on Job 17:6, where the word tp#T) occurs, in a context suggesting that a person is the target of mocking and the ‘butt’ of jokes. There is good reason to think that the two words are byforms, and essentially synonymous (cf. Dahood, II, p. 173). The Psalmist is the target of accusations and slanderous attacks by his enemies.

The noun hs#j&m^ essentially has the same meaning as jf*b=m! in v. 5: both mean “place of shelter/protection. The roots hs*j* and jf^B* both occur frequently in the Psalms, related to the important theme of YHWH as a source of protection for the righteous.

Verse 8

“My mouth is filled (with) praising you,
(and) adorning you all the day (long).”

The couplet builds upon the theme of praise introduced in the third line of v. 6 (cf. above), and expresses much the same idea: “with you (is) my praise continually”. Here the Psalmist states that his mouth is filled with praise of God, and that he glorifies Him “all the day (long)”. The parallel forms ;t#L*h!T= and ;T#r=a^p=T! are suffixed nouns, but in my translation I have focused on the verbal aspect of the roots llh and rap. The verb ra^P*, in the Piel stem, means “beautify, adorn” —that is, in a religious context, of adorning (exalting and glorifying) God with praise.

The sudden shifts to a praise motif—here and in v. 6—are good examples of how the traditional Psalm elements are blended together in this composition. Typically, the lament, prayer/petition, and praise portions of Psalms are emphasized in specific and distinct sections. This is not so much the case here in Ps 71.

It is possible to delineate vv. 1-3 and 4-8 as units within the first part of the Psalm (vv. 1-13). Treating vv. 1-3 as a distinct unit is supported by the parallel version of these lines in Ps 31 (cf. the discussion above). As for vv. 4-8, they may be seen as parallel with the following vv. 9-13, reflecting two periods of the Psalmist’s life, in terms of his devotion to YHWH:

    • He has trusted in YHWH from his youth (to the present)—vv. 4-8
    • and now asks that God not abandon him in his old age—vv. 9-13

Verses 9-13 will be discussed in the next 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).
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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