Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 3)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-24 (cont.)

Here is a reminder of the thematic outline of Part 2:

    • 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

For a discussion of verses 14-16, see the previous study.

Verse 17

“Mightiest, you have taught me from my youth,
and until now I have presented your wondrous (deed)s.”

In verses 14-16 (the opening lines of the second division), the Psalmist announces his praise of YHWH, in expectation that God will answer his plea for help. As in vv. 5-9ff, the protagonist affirms his lifelong devotion to YHWH, from his earliest youth (vv. 5-8) until his old age in the present (vv. 9ff). Here in verse 17, the focus is on his youth; the Psalmist’s faithfulness is shown both by the way that he has received God’s instruction (“you have taught [vb dm^l*] me”), and has extended this instruction to others. The latter aspect is described in terms of the Psalmist presenting to people (lit. putting in front of them [vb dg~n`]) an account of the “wonderful (deed)s” performed by YHWH. This verbal noun (al*P* Niphal participle) emphasizes action—i.e., wonderful things done by God. Such things include saving the righteous from their hostile adversaries. For the Psalmist, a presentation of YHWH’s wonders naturally takes the form of a poetic and musical composition.

Verse 18

“And (so) even until (my) old age and white (hair),
may you not abandon me, Mightiest,
until I should present your arm to (the) circle,
(and) your might to every (one who) shall come.”

As in vv. 9ff (cf. above), the focus turns to the Psalmist’s old age, which includes both the present and the years to come. The noun hn`q=z] indicates old age more generally, while hb*yc@ expresses the same through the vivid allusion to a person’s gray (or white) hair. It is in a person’s old age that one might naturally feel that God has abandoned him/her, as one is more prone to physical ailments and suffering, as well as being vulnerable to exploitation and attack from the wicked.

The second couplet follows the second line of v. 17, emphasizing how the Psalmist intends to continue putting an account of YHWH’s mighty deeds in front of people (again the verb dg~n` is used). God’s deeds are described here through a pair of singular nouns—u^orz+ (“arm”) and h*rWbG+ (“strength, might”)—i.e., things done by YHWH’s strong (and outstretched) arm (cf. Exod 15:16 for this ancient poetic idiom).

The noun roD is typically translated “generation”, but has the more fundamental meaning of “a circle”, i.e., a circle of people present in a particular time and place. Dahood (II, p. 175) would explain roD here as a specific reference to the public assembly (of the righteous), the congregation in which the Psalmist declares his praise of YHWH. However, the final line would seem to allude to the idea of a group of people alive at a particular time (i.e., ‘generation’).

Verse 19

“And your righteousness, Mightiest, (is) unto (the) height(s),
(the) great (thing)s which you have done,
(O) Mightiest—who is like you?”

The great deeds of YHWH also reflect His hq*d*x=. This noun has the basic meaning of “rightness”, usually translated “righteousness”; however, in the context of the covenant, it also can connote faithfulness and loyalty, much like the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”). YHWH’s righteousness (and loyalty) extends to the “high place(s)” (<orm*), which is another way of referring to it specifically as a Divine (and eternal) characteristic. Throughout the Psalms, YHWH’s covenantal protection of the righteous is regularly expressed through the image of secure location situated on a high place.

Verse 20

“Though you made us see (time)s of distress,
(thing)s great and evil (for us),
you return (and) restore our life;
and (so,) from (the) depths of the earth,
you shall return (and) bring me up!”

I treat verse 20 as consisting of a pair of 3+2 couplets, with an additional line in the first couplet (for dramatic effect) producing a 3+2+2 tricolon. The written MT (kethib) has first person plural suffixes on the verbs in the tricolon (i.e., “made us see…”) , but are marked as to be read (qere) as first person singular (i.e., “made me see…”). The singular suffix is probably to be preferred, as being more consistent with the context of v. 20 as a whole; however, the plural is arguably the more difficult reading, and should perhaps be preferred on that basis. The communal worship setting, alluded to in this part of the Psalm, may have influenced a scribal/redactional modification to the plural. On the other hand, the “mighty deeds” of YHWH, declared by the Psalmist, certainly would have included the many things done for Israel throughout the people’s history, thus making a communal reference appropriate in context.

Just as YHWH has rescued His people (the righteous/faithful ones) in times past, so He will also do for the Psalmist now in the present. This is the expectation of the protagonist—viz., that God will answer his prayer and deliver him from his adversaries. The reference to the “depths of the earth” alludes to a life-threatening situation—i.e., that the Psalmist faces the danger of death—though this language could also be used to describe the suffering and danger faced by a person more generally.

Verse 21

“You shall increase my greatness,
you shall surround and comfort me.”

Verse 21 is a rather curious (and short) 2-beat couplet. The idea of God increasing the Psalmist’s “greatness” may relate to the idea that his opponents’ attacks are of an accusatory and slanderous nature (cf. vv. 7, 10-11, 13)—that is, an attack on the protagonist’s reputation. In any case, it is not simply a matter of YHWH rescuing the Psalmist from danger, but of truly restoring him (and his reputation) in a public manner. Once restored, the protagonist will be further surrounded (vb bb^s*) by YHWH’s protection. The root <jn has the basic meaning of “breathing deep(ly)”, often in the sense of a sympathetic reaction to a person’s situation; here it probably has the more general meaning of coming close to a person, watching carefully over his/her condition, so as to bring help, comfort, or encouragement. For poetic concision (in a short 2-beat line), I have translated the verb <j^n` conventionally as “(give) comfort”. The imperfect verb tenses, as a continuation of the Psalmist’s plea/prayer to YHWH, have jussive force.

Dahood (II, p. 177) would vocalize ytldg as yt!l*d*G+, identifying it with Ugaritic gdlt, referring to a (female) head of large cattle. The expectation then is that YHWH will increase the Psalmist’s herd(s), specifically to allow for an increase in the sacrificial offerings that he will be able to present to God. The communal worship context, in this instance, assumes a Temple setting (v. 16).

Verse 22

“(Then) indeed I will throw you (praise) with string-instrument(s),
(praise for) your firmness, My Mightiest,
I will sing to you with (the) plucking (of the) harp,
(O) Holy (One) of Yisrael.”

In the concluding verses 22-24, the Psalmist again declares his intention to praise YHWH with music and song. Loosely, verse 22 consists of a pair of 3+2 couplets, though the poetic syntax is a bit awkward and uneven, and difficult to render literally into English. Overall, however, the meaning is clear and straightforward, as also is the parallelism of the couplets. In the first line of each, the Psalmist says that he will sing praise to God on a stringed-instrument—first, quite literally, on a “instrument of skin [i.e., gut/string]”, and second on a ‘harp’ the strings of which one “plucks”.

God is praised specifically for his “firmness” (tm#a#), meaning, principally, His faithfulness (and truthfulness/trustworthiness) to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people. The covenant also informs the use of the Divine title “Holy One [vodq*] of Israel”.

Verse 23

“My lips shall ring out, indeed, (when) I sing to you,
and (also) my soul, which you redeemed.”

The Psalmist will give full-voiced praise to YHWH; indeed, his lips will “ring out” (vb /n~r*), i.e., with a resounding cry. Such praise will come forth from deep within his soul, from the life which God has (or will have) ransomed (vb hd*P*) out of death and danger. Perhaps also the more concrete meaning of vp#n#, as “throat” (rather than “soul”), is intended here; this would make a fitting parallel with “lips” and would add to the idea of giving full-voiced (i.e., full-throated) praise to God.

Verse 24a

“Indeed, my tongue all the day (long)
shall utter (word of) your righteousness.”

This short couplet continues (and concludes) the Psalmist’s declaration of praise to YHWH. From the specific idea of (full-voiced) singing, in public, the sense shifts to a quieter scene of the protagonist muttering/murmuring (vb hg`h*) praise of God’s righteousness (hq*d*x=, cf. above) all throughout the day, even when by himself in private moments. For the righteous ones, such as the Psalmist, praise of God is a continuous and ongoing activity that is not limited to public times of communal worship.

Verse 24b

“(Oh,) that they may be put to shame,
that they may be humiliated,
(those) seeking evil for me!”

As in the First Part of the Psalm (cf. verse 13), the Second Part concludes with an imprecatory (curse) wish by the Psalmist for his wicked adversaries. He asks (God) that they be put to shame (vb voB) and humiliated (vb rp@j*), very much the same sentiments expressed in v. 13. Both parts end with the same words, referring to the Psalmist’s enemies by the expression “(those) seeking my evil [i.e. evil/harm for me]” (yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m!).

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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