Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 2)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 1: Verses 1-13 (cont.)

For a discussion of verses 1-8, see the previous study.

Verses 9

“Do not cast me (away) in (the) time of (my) old age;
at (the) ending of my strength, do not leave me!”

In vv. 5-8, the Psalmist refers to how he has been faithful to YHWH since the time of his youth; now he calls on God to remain faithful to him in his old age (hn`q=z]). The three-beat couplet has a chiastic structure:

    • Do not cast me away [vb El^v*]
      • in the time of (my) old age
      • at the ending of my strength
    • do not leave/forsake me [vb bz~u*]
Verses 10-11

“For (those) hostile to me say (things) about me,
and (those) watching my soul, they plan as one,
‘(The) Mightiest has left him,
let us pursue and seize him,
for there is no (one) rescuing him!'”

The tone of lament from the opening verses returns here; the Psalmist laments his current suffering, and calls upon YHWH to rescue him from his hostile adversaries. These wicked people are characterized here by two substantive verbal nouns:

    • by~a*— “(the one)s being hostile to me” [yb~!y+oa]
    • rm^v*— “(the one)s watching my soul” [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)], that is, with evil/hostile intent

Dahood (II, p. 174) explains the verb rm^a* in line 1 as preserving the archaic meaning “see, watch” (as attested in Ugaritic), rather that the common meaning “say”. While this is possible, it would distort the close synonymous parallelism of the couplet:

    • “the ones hostile to me | speak…”
    • “those watching my soul | plan…(saying)”

Verse 10 is an irregular 4-beat couplet; verse 11 is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though it is perhaps better to separate out the initial word (as I have done above [some commentators would omit it]), and to read the verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The terseness of this rhythm reflects the harshness and directness of the opponents’ plotting. They seek to take advantage of the fact that the protagonist, in his old age and suffering, would seem to have lost God’s protection. They can pursue (vb [d^r*) and seize (vb cp^T*) him, because there is no one (else) around to “snatch” (vb lx^n`) him (i.e., rescue him) out of their grasp; the latter verb is used frequently in the Psalms to express the protection and deliverance YHWH provides to those who are (and remain) faithful to him. The opponents think that the Psalmist is no longer under this covenantal protection, but he makes his plea to YHWH on just this basis—that he has remained loyal to God throughout his whole life.

Verse 12

“Mightiest, do not be far away from me!
My Mighty (One), hurry to (give) me help!”

The Psalmist’s plea is expressed here, with a double-address to YHWH; probably the initial <yh!l)a$ should be seen as a substitution for the divine name YHWH (hwhy), such as occurs throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms. The negative “do not be far (away) [vb qj^r*]” is parallel with the positive “hurry [vb vWj]”, i.e., come near to give help. In the translation above, I treat yt!r*z+u#l= as a verbal noun (“to [give] me help”), but it might be more accurately rendered as “to (be) my help” —i.e., YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s help.

Verse 13

“They shall be ashamed, finished,
(the one)s accusing my soul,
shall be wrapped (in) shame and disgrace,
(those) seeking my evil [i.e. harm]”

As it stands, v. 13 is a 2-beat couplet followed by a 3+2 couplet; however, one suspects that a word may be missing from the first line, and that originally there was a pair of 3+2 couplets. In any case, the thought of the verse is clear enough, as is the parallelism of the couplets. Again the wicked are characterized by a pair of substantive verbal nouns:

    • /f^c*— “(the one)s accusing my soul” [yv!p=n~ yn@f=c)]
    • vq^B*— “(the one)s seeking my evil [i.e. harm]” [yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m=]

The imperfect verb forms in lines 1 and 3 (“they shall be…”) have jussive force, and could be translated as an imprecation: “let them be…!” Imprecatory (curse) wishes are frequent in the Psalms, however uncomfortable they may be for us (as Christians) reading them today.

Part 2: Verses 14-24

Verse 14

“But I, continually I will wait, (for you),
and will add (further) upon your praise!”

The Psalmist’s expression of trust here mirrors that in the opening of Part 1 (cf. on verse 1 in the previous study). In spite of his suffering, and the hostile attacks of his opponents, the protagonist continues to trust in YHWH. The verb used here is lj^y`, meaning “wait (for someone/something),” often with a connotation of hopeful expectation. The aspect of continuity is expressed in the first line with the adverb dym!T* (denoting extension); in the second line, the verb ps^y` (“add [to]”) can similarly have the adverbial meaning “continue to do (something)”. The focus of praise is, of course, appropriate as an expression of trust for a musician-composer like the Psalmist.

Verse 15

“My mouth shall recount your righteousness,
all the day (long), your saving (deeds),
though I cannot know (the) count (of them).”

Verse 15 builds upon the thought in v. 14, with a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon. The final two lines expound the first, while the framing (first and third) lines involve a bit of wordplay on the meaning of the root rps (“count, number”). In line 1, the verb rp^s* (in the Piel) means “give account of” or “recount”, in the sense of declaring something, telling of it (e.g., in poem and song). However, the plural noun torp)s= in line 3 refers more concretely to the count or number of something—best understood in terms of the saving deeds performed by YHWH, represented in line 2 by the [collective] singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”). I follow Dahood (II, p. 174) in understanding the yK! particle in line 3 as having concessive force (i.e., “even though…”). The ironic sense of the wordplay is: the Psalmist will recount the saving deeds of YHWH, even though he is not able to count the sheer number of them.

Verse 16

“I shall come with (your) mighty (deed)s, my Lord [YHWH],
I shall cause your righteousness to be remembered, yours alone.”

The exposition of the Psalmist’s praise continues here, with the declaration “I shall come” (vb aoB). The following prepositional expression, torb%g=B!, is somewhat ambiguous. If, as I propose, the singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”) in v. 15 (cf. above) refers collectively to the “saving deeds” performed by YHWH, then the plural torB%g+ would simply mean the “mighty (deed)s” of YHWH. The Psalmist comes “with” (B=) tales in hand (in poem and song) of these mighty deeds. Plausibly, the scenario is of the protagonist entering the sacred place of assembly (Temple precincts, etc) with praise of these deeds, ready to declare them publicly. Dahood (II, p. 175) would understand the noun hr*WbG+ as referring to the “mighty (house)” (i.e., the Temple) of God, noting the Semitic (Canaanite) tendency of using plural forms for the names of buildings.

There is a certain chiastic structure to verses 15-16, taken together:

    • “I shall recount your righteousness
      • (I shall announce) all day your saving (deeds)
      • I shall come with (praise of your) mighty deeds
    • I shall make (people) remember your righteousness

*    *    *    *    *    *

It is possible to view verse 17 as marking the start of a distinct unit within Part 2 of the Psalm. The reference to the youth and old age of the Psalmist (vv. 17-18) certainly parallels the theme of units vv. 5-8 and 9-13 of Part 1 (cf. above). Thematically, I would divide Part 2 as follows:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

Verses 17-24 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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