Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsa (vv. 5-6, 8); 4QPse (vv. 10-11); 11QPsd (vv. 11-14)
This Psalm reflects the character and tone of many of the lament–prayer Psalms we have examined. Indeed, the superscription simply designates it as a hL*p!T=, which typically refers to a petition or prayer made to God, asking him to intervene on the supplicant’s behalf. The usual term romz+m!, indicating that the Psalm is a musical composition, is absent. This could mean that Psalm 86 represents a non-musical poem-text, which one could (and presumably did) set to music.
There is a rather clear three-part structure to the poem. The first part (vv. 1-7) is a general prayer to YHWH, framed by specific requests for God to hear/answer the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 1, 6f). In the middle section (vv. 2-5), the author bases his appeal on YHWH’s goodness and loyalty to the covenant; God’s faithfulness (to the covenant-bond) is the basis for His providing the protection that the protagonist needs.
In the second part of the Psalm (vv. 8-13), the focus shifts to a YHWH-hymn, in which the author praises YHWH, drawing upon several strands of poetic, prophetic, and wisdom tradition. The poem concludes (vv. 14-17) with another appeal to YHWH, this time more specifically as a petition with lament-features, similar to those we find throughout the Psalms. Typically, the lament section occurs at the beginning of the Psalm, not the end, so the order here is essentially reversed.
The superscription attributes Psalm 86 to David, and there are certain details and elements of the poem which do suggest that the protagonist is a king. As we have seen, many Psalms evince a royal background, to a greater or lesser degree. This does not necessarily mean that the particular Psalm originates from the monarchic (pre-exilic) period, since Psalms of later composition could still draw from older lines of poetic tradition rooted in the royal theology, and utilize the type-figure of the king who stands as the protagonist, representing the people before God. It has been suggested that Psalm 86 intentionally was meant to serve as a kind of summary of earlier Davidic Psalms, echoing, in particular, the poems placed at the close of the earlier Davidic Psalter-collections (e.g., 40-41, 69-71, 72; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 369f).
The meter of Psalm 86 appears to be irregular and mixed. Specific details will be given in the notes below.
Part 1: Verses 1-7
“Stretch (out), O YHWH, your ear (and) answer me,
for pressed (down) and needy (am) I.”
The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH is expressed in traditional (and typical) language. In the first line he calls on God to “stretch out” (vb hf*n`) His ear, an idiom for hearing/listening, and to answer the prayer. In the second line, the protagonist identifies himself by the traditional pair of adjectives yn]u* (“pressed [down]”, i.e., oppressed/afflicted, and in a low state) and /oyb=a# (“needy,” implying a low and poor condition). These are characteristics of the righteous, and often their use assumes hostility toward the righteous and persecution (by the wicked). For other occurrences of this pair, see 35:10; 37:14; 40:18 ; 70:6 ; 72:12; 74:21; 109:16, 22; 140:13 .
It is worth mentioning the alliteration in verse 1, particularly in the second line; to highlight this, I give the relevant portion here with an accompanying transliteration:
yn]a* /oyb=a# yn]u* yK! yn]n@u&
±¦n¢nî kî ±¹nî °e»yôn °¹nî
Metrically, this verse is a 4+3 couplet.
“May you guard my soul,
for (one) devoted (am) I;
may you save your servant,
O you my Mighty (One),
coming to You for refuge!”
The meter of this verse can be seen as problematic, especially if one attempts to treat it as a couplet. I choose to read it, without emendation, as a series of 2-beat lines—a 2+2 bicolon, followed by a 2+2+2 tricolon. The units are parallel, in that each is governed by an imperative in the first line:
- hr*m=v*— “may you guard my soul”
- uv^oh— “may you save your servant…”
These actions reflect the essence of the Psalmist’s prayer. Also, in each unit, there is an expression of the basis for his appeal to YHWH—namely, his faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant. Such loyalty would mean that the protagonist (the vassal) is due the protection that YHWH (the Sovereign) is obligated to provide. By calling himself God’s servant, this loyalty is implied; and it is made explicit in the first couplet by the claim “I am devoted [dys!j*]”. The adjective dys!j*, like the related noun ds#j#, denotes showing goodness/kindness to a person; as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of the covenant, it also connotes faithfulness, loyalty and devotion. The adjective typically carries this meaning in the Psalms; I have translated it here as “devoted”.
The last line of the tricolon also indicates the Psalmist’s loyalty. He describes himself as one “coming to you for refuge”. The substantive participle j^f@oBh^ is used (“the [one] seeking refuge”). The verb jf^B* occurs frequently in the Psalms (46 times, out of 120 in the OT), part of the vocabulary referring to the righteous person seeking/finding refuge under the protection that YHWH provides. The prepositional expression ;yl#a@ (“to you”) emphasizes that the Psalmist is coming to YHWH for protection, seeking refuge in Him. The phrase also implies the idea of trusting in YHWH—viz., he comes to YHWH for protection because he trusts in Him—and is a further indication of the Psalmist’s faithfulness.
“May you show me favor, my Lord,
for (it is) to you (that) I call out,
(indeed) all the day (long)!”
I view this verse as another 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, matching that of verse 2b (cf. above). Again there is an imperative in the first line (“may you show favor…”, vb /n~j*), comprising the Psalmist’s request, along with an expression of his faithfulness/loyalty to God. The second line matches the third line of the previous tricolon:
- “coming to you [;yl#a@] for refuge”
- “(it is) to you [;yl@a@] (that) I call out”
Again, the Psalmist trusts in YHWH (as his Lord/God), which is why he comes to Him and prays (“calls out,” vb ar*q*) to Him. The protagonist’s trust and faithfulness is also indicated by the claim that he does this continually (“all the day [long]”).
“Make glad (the) soul of your servant,
for (it is) to you, my Lord,
(that) I lift up my soul.”
The tricolon format of verse 4 matches that of verse 3, though the meter differs slightly (3+2+2). Again, the Psalmist’s request is reflected by the opening imperative in the first line (“[may you] make glad…”, vb jm^c*); in other words, his soul will be made glad when God answers his prayer and acts on his behalf. Note the further parallelism between vv. 3-4:
- “…my lord,
for (it is) to you (that) I call out”
- for (it is) to you, my lord,
(that) I lift up my soul”
- “…my lord,
There is also a certain chiasmus to verse 4 involving the motif of “my soul”:
- “make glad (the) soul of your servant
- for (it is) to you, my Lord
- (that) I lift up my soul”
- “make glad (the) soul of your servant
“Indeed, you, my Lord,
(are) good and forgiving,
and abundant in devotion,
to all (those) calling on you.”
It is possible to parse this verse as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, however it seems better to continue with the 2-beat line format of the previous verses and to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain. The unit breaks from the series of imperatives in vv. 1-4; the Psalmist pauses his petition to declare and affirm the goodness (adj. bof) and loyalty (ds#j#) of YHWH. As noted above, the noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”, but also carries the meaning “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion,” especially in a covenantal context. In keeping with the translation of the adjective dys!j* as “devoted” above (v. 2), I translate ds#j# here as “devotion”.
The Psalmist adds the idea of YHWH showing mercy by forgiving (jls) the sins of those who are faithful/loyal to Him. It is thus hoped by the protagonist that YHWH will overlook any sins he may have committed; as one of the righteous, the Psalmist would have confessed and acknowledged any sin, and taken the (ritual) steps needed to atone for any (unintentional) misdeeds. The righteous/faithful ones, among whom the Psalmist identifies himself (as a representative), are characterized as those “calling out” to YHWH in trust and hope.
“Turn your ear, O YHWH, to my prayer,
and hear (the) voice of my (plea)s for favor.”
This couplet echoes the initial line of verse 1 (cf. above), calling on YHWH to ‘bend’ His ear to the Psalmist’s prayer and hear/answer it. The use of the verb /z~a* (Hiphil, “give/turn [one’s] ear”) matches the idiom “stretch out the ear” (vb hf*n` + /z#a)) in v. 1. This call for YHWH to hear the Psalmist’s petition thus frames the prayer. The verb translated “hear,” bv^q* (Hiphil), would perhaps be more properly rendered “attend to” or “pay attention to”.
“In (the) day of my distress, I call to you—
(O) that you would answer me!”
“for I (am) pressed (down) and needy”
The adjective yn]u* in verse 1 means “pressed (down)”, but could also be rendered “hard-pressed”, which would perhaps be a closer fit to the distress (hr*x*) the Psalmist mentions here. Both terms convey the idea of pressure or stress that a person experiences. The Psalmist’s distress (“day of my distress”), which is indicated here as being the occasion and reason for his prayer to YHWH, will be developed as a principal theme in the third and final part of the Psalm.
The final line could be translated “for you (are sure to) answer me”, treating the perfect tense of the verb /n~u* as a gnomic perfect—i.e., something that God is sure to do, as a reflection of His (eternal) character. However, it seems better to translate the verb as a precative perfect, as an expression of the Psalmist wish and hope (and expectation) for what will happen; cf. Dahood, II, p. 294. In such an instance, the particle yK! would be emphatic, not causal, with a similar precative force (“O, that…!”).
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).