Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 99

Psalm 99

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsk (vv. 1-2, 5); 4QPsv (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 5-6)

Like other Psalms in the collection Pss 93-100, Psalm 99 praises YHWH as King. The universality of His Kingship is likewise emphasized. Other thematic links and common vocabulary are shared by these Psalms; in the case of Psalm 99, one may note, in particular, the connections with Psalms 97 (see the earlier study) and 98 (previous study). For a relatively detailed examination of these links, see the analysis by Howard, pp. 157-9, 161-2, 164-5.

This Psalm has a strophic structure, comprised of three strophes, each of which concludes with a declaration of YHWH’s holiness (“Holy [is] He!” in strophes 1 and 2). The strophes are similar in form, but are far from consistent in rhythm. Verses 6-7 represent an interlude, drawing upon Israelite history, and establish the thematic transition to the final strophe. The meter is irregular throughout, and it is impossible to say whether the Psalm, in an earlier form, had more consistent rhythm in its strophes.

As with other Psalms in this collection, a pre-exilic date (in the monarchic period) seems likely. As Howard notes (p. 192), the use of zu) as a substantive (Divine) title (“Strong/Mighty [One]”, v. 4) occurs in early poetry (Exod 15:2; cf. Psalm 29:1), which suggests the possibility that Psalm 99 was composed at a relatively earlier point (in the monarchic period) than others in the collection.

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsk includes a heading, which designates the Psalm as a “musical composition” (romz+m!), as in Psalm 98 MT; it also (probably) included the attribution dw]d*l= (“belonging to David”), as the the letter d can be read prior to romzm.

First Strophe: verses 1-3

Verse 1

“YHWH is king—let (the) peoples tremble!
Seated (upon the) kerû»s—let the earth stagger!”

The theme of YHWH’s kingship is established in this initial (4-beat, 4+4) couplet. Again, as in other Psalms of this collection (see above), YHWH is presented as King over all creation—all of the earth and its inhabitants. We find often, as here, a call for the nations to worship YHWH, acknowledging Him as King. There is a clear parallelism between each half-line:

    • “YHWH reigns as King [vb El^m*]”
    • “being seated (on the) kerubs”

The “kerubs” (plur. <yb!WrK=) refer to the winged creatures on the golden chest (ark) of the covenant, which was situated in the Temple sanctuary, functioning as the symbolic/ritual ‘throne’ of YHWH. Thus, even though He is King over the entire universe (ruling from heaven), he is also ‘enthroned’ on earth in the Temple sanctuary.

The response of humankind to YHWH’s Kingship is indicated in the second half-line:

    • “let (the) peoples quake/tremble [vb zg~r*]”
    • “let the earth wobble/stagger [vb fWn]”

All peoples everywhere—and even all of creation itself—should shake and tremble before YHWH as King. There may be an allusion here to the eschatological notion that the nations will come to Jerusalem (and the Temple) to pay homage to YHWH (cf. Micah 4:1-3 [par Isa 2:2-4], etc).

The verb fWn occurs only here in the Old Testament. It is doubtless similar in meaning to Ugaritic n‰‰ (ffn), “wobble, totter”; as Dahood (II, p. 368) notes, weak verbs that share the same two base consonants (in this case, fn) typically have a common/similar meaning.

Verse 2

“(Indeed,) YHWH in ‚iyyôn is great—
raised high (is) He over all (the) peoples!”

This second couplet (3-beat, 3+3) emphasizes the greatness and majesty of YHWH, as he reigns (as King) from His throne in Jerusalem (Zion). The verbs ld^G` (“be great”) and <Wr (“be high”) are used. The implicit idea in verse 1, of YHWH’s reign extending over all the nations (and peoples) of earth, is expressed more clearly here. I treat the initial w-conjunction in the second line as emphatic, and, for poetic concision, I have essentially transferred it to the start of the first line in my translation (above).

Verse 3

“Let them praise your name,
O Great and Fearsome (One)!
Holy (indeed is) He!”

Rhythmically, the initial couplet (v. 1) has four beats, the second (v. 2) three beats, and the third (v. 3) here 2 beats (2+2). The couplets thus increasingly narrow their focus, becoming terser and more direct. Here, the call (for all people) to praise YHWH is essentially repeated from v. 1. Praising the name of YHWH means praising YHWH Himself. However, there may be a specific allusion to the idea that YHWH is present in the Temple sanctuary particularly through His name. This is a key Deuteronomic theme (Deut 12:5ff; 26:2, etc), found extensively, for example, throughout Solomon’s prayer (at the Temple dedication) in 1 Kings 8 (vv. 16-20, 29, 33, 35, 42-44, 48), a passage which I have discussed in a recent series of notes.

The adjectives lodG` (“great”) and ar*on (“fearsome”, or “(to) be feared”) are best understood here as descriptive epithets of YHWH, though they could just as well be applied to His name (cf. Deut 28:58).

The strophe ends with the two-beat refrain, “Holy (is) He!” (aWh vodq*). In context, this declaration could also apply to YHWH’s name (i.e., “Holy it [is]!”).

Second Strophe: Verses 4-5

Verse 4a

“Indeed, (the) Strong (One is) King! He loves justice!
You make (it) firm (with) straight (judgment)s.”

The first couplet of the second strophe has, apparently, an irregular 4+3 meter (cp. 4+4 in strophe 1). The thematic focus is on the judgment rendered by YHWH as King (and thus, also as Judge). By His straight (i.e., fair, even) decisions, He establishes justice throughout. Here, the noun fP*v=m! means both “judgment” and “justice”. The sudden shift from third person (line 1) to second person (line 2) address may seem a bit strange and off-putting, but it is not all that uncommon in the Psalms.

I follow Howard (p. 85f) and other commentators in reading zu) (“strength”) as a Divine title (i.e., “Strong [One]”); the sense could be adverbial, i.e., the One who rules with strength. The initial w-conjunction of the first line, opening the strophe as it does, should be taken as emphatic.

Verse 4b

“Justice and righteousness in Ya’aqob
(indeed) you make (stand)!”

Again, this (second) couplet has irregular meter (3+2, cp. 3+3 in strophe 1). It follows upon the first (v. 4a), expounding the justice which YHWH, as King, “makes firm” on earth. In particular, He establishes justice (and righteousness) in Israel (“Jacob”), among His people. This refers to the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel, and His faithfulness and loyalty to that bond.

It is conceivable that a word has dropped out from the second line of v. 4b, as the short line t*yc!u* hTa^ (“you do/make”) reads somewhat oddly. Unfortunately, the three fragmentary Qumran manuscripts which contain this Psalm do not preserve verse 4, so there is no way to confirm the MT at this point.

Verse 5

“Lift high YHWH our Mighty (One),
and bow before (the) stool of His feet!
Holy (indeed is) He!”

The third strophe is a 3-beat couplet (as in strophe 1), calling on people to give praise and worship to YHWH. Here, the focus is specifically on the people of Israel (cf. verse 4), who are to worship YHWH as their King and God. The motif of the “stool [<d)h&] for His feet” probably alludes to the Ark (as YHWH’s ‘throne’) located in the Temple sanctuary (see v. 1b, above). Thus, a Temple worship setting is implied, and could indicate a ritual (liturgical) setting for the Psalm.

Transitional Verses (6-7)

Verse 6a

“Moše and Aharon (were) among His priests,
and Šemû’el among (those) calling His name.”

These transitional verses refer, in a general and summary way, to Israelite religious history—in particular, to those priestly/prophetic leaders who served YHWH. Moses and Aaron (in the Exodus period) are paired with Samuel (period of the Judges).

Verse 6b

“(They were) calling to YHWH,
and He answered them.”

This short two-beat (2+2) couplet follows the three-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6a. It summarizes the dynamic relationship between YHWH and the faithful priestly/prophetic leaders: they call to YHWH, and He answers them.

Verse 7

“In a standing (mass) of cloud He spoke to them;
they guarded His repeated (command)s,
and (the) engraved (law) He gave to them.”

This long prosaic couplet (4-beat, 4+4) I have extended in translation as three lines (4+2+2). It again summarizes the dynamic for the faithful ones of God’s people, in their covenantal relationship to YHWH. Moses and Samuel, as leaders, represent the people. Their faithfulness (and covenant loyalty) serve as the ideal pattern and example for the people to follow. YHWH gave His commands (i.e., the Torah regulations) to Moses (and thus to the people) out of the cloud. The faithful ones guarded (vb rm^v*) His commands, and took care to obey them. The noun qj) denotes something engraved or inscribed, usually in the sense of an authoritative, governing rule or statute; the term here alludes the theme of YHWH’s kingship.

I have translated the plural of hd*u@ according to its fundamental meaning of “something repeated”. YHWH’s commands are to be repeated, in terms of obedience to them (their fulfillment, etc), but also in the sense of repeating them (and their importance) for subsequent generations.

Third Strophe: Verses 8-9

Verse 8

“(Yes,) YHWH, our Mighty (One), you answered them—
a Mighty (One) lifting (guilt) you were for them,
and (as the) avenging (Most) High dealt with them.”

The historical setting established in the transitional vv. 6-7 (above) leads into the third (and final) strophe. The structure and rhythm differs from the the first two strophes, reflecting the prosaic (and didactic) tone of the transitional lines. Instead of a pair of couplets, we have here an irregular (4+3+3) tricolon. The first line picks up from verse 7.

The theme of YHWH’s Kingship has been translated into the idiom of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. In this binding agreement, YHWH is the Sovereign, and the people His servants. They are obligated to serve Him faithfully, by following the terms of the agreement (i.e., the Torah precepts and regulations, v. 7). YHWH would respond to them based on whether or not they fulfilled their covenant obligations. If they fulfilled them faithfully, then YHWH would be a merciful and forgiving Sovereign, one who “lifts” (vb ac*n`) away sin and guilt, and who “lifts” His people, carrying them with His (Divine) protection and blessing. This is expressed in line 2.

However, if they were unfaithful and refused to follow the terms of the covenant, then YHWH would become an avenging (vb <q^n`) Ruler, dealing (root llu) with His people as their disobedience deserves. This negative side is the focus of line 3. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 369), in treating lu as a Divine title (“High [One], [Most] High”); this establishes a clear parallel between the lines:

“Mighty [One] lifting…” | “High [One] avenging…”

The final word is problematic. The MT reads “their dealing”; in such a context, the noun hl*yl!a& usually has a decidedly negative connotation, i.e. “evil dealing” —that is, wicked/improper behavior and treatment of others. However, it is probably better to view the suffix here as reflecting a dative of (dis)advantage (cf. Dahood, II, p. 370), and with the noun retaining the verbal force of its root (with YHWH as the subject)—viz., “(His) dealing with them”, meaning God dealt with them harshly, as their disobedience deserved.

Verse 9

“Lift (up) high YHWH our Mighty (One),
and bow before (the) hill of His holiness!”
For Holy (indeed is) YHWH our Mighty (One)!”

The final couplet corresponds with that of the earlier two strophes; it is particularly close to the second strophe (see verse 5, above). Indeed, it is almost identical, only, instead of bowing down before the “stool of His feet”, the people are directed to bow before “the hill of His holiness” (i.e., His holy hill). The Temple ‘mount’ of Zion is certainly intended in both instances, referring to the location of the Temple and its sanctuary, where YHWH is ‘enthroned’ and reigns as King.

The final refrain is given in an expanded form. Instead of “Holy (is) He!”, we have the fuller phrase “Holy (is) YHWH our Mighty (One)!”. The longer phrase, with its honorific expansion, allows the Psalm to end on a dramatic, climactic note.

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 “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

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