Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 105 (Part 1)

Psalm 105

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (vv. 1-11, 25-26, 28-31, 33-35, 37-39, 41-42, 44-45); 4QPse (vv. 1-3, 23-25, 36-45)

This lengthy Psalm, much like the earlier Psalm 78 (study) and the following Psalm 106, presents an essential account of Israelite history, in verse form. The history serves a didactic (teaching) purpose, with the goal of exhorting the Israelite people to remain faithful to the covenant with YHWH. Indeed the theme of the covenant (and covenant loyalty) is particularly prominent in this work.

Because of the length and purpose of this Psalm, it is to be expected that the poetry would tend to be relatively simple and prosaic (prosodic) in character. The meter is 3+3 throughout, only on occasion departing from a 3-beat couplet format. Structurally, the seven-strophe division established by A. R. Ceresco (“A Poetic Analysis of Psalm 105…” Biblica 64 [1983], pp. 20-46) is sound and worth following as a guide (as other commentators generally do, cf. Allen, pp. 55-6; Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 65-9).

The Psalm is somewhat difficult to date. The apparent use of vv. 1-15 in 1 Chronicles (16:8-22) does suggest that at least a portion of the composition was in existence by the post-exilic period. Nor can any cultic or liturgical setting be determined with any certainty. The occasion of a covenant renewal ceremony has been suggested, but the hypothesis remains entirely speculative, in spite of the fact that it would fit the thematic emphasis on the covenant throughout the Psalm.

Psalm 105 is extensively preserved in two Qumran manuscripts—11QPsa and 4QPse. There are numerous textual variants in these manuscripts, though most are quite minor. The more notable of these are mentioned in the exegesis.

Strophe 1 (Introduction): Vv. 1-6

Verse 1

“Give praise to YHWH, call out with His name!
Make known His dealings among the peoples!”

The Psalm begins with a call to worship YHWH, giving praise (and thanks) to Him. The verb hd*y` (II) implies an audible (and public) confession to God. The people are to speak out to YHWH, addressing Him by name; the idiom of the verb ar*q* (“call [out]”) + the preposition B= (“in, with, by”) indicates a ritual invocation of the name of YHWH. This utilization of the name-motif alludes to the theme of covenant loyalty that will be established in the following verses. To know the name of God, and to call on it, implies a devout bond of relation between the people and their God.

The second line extends this sense of devotion, to the idea of proclaiming to the surrounding nations all that YHWH has done for His people. The noun hl*yl!u& (from the verb ll^u* I) denotes how YHWH has dealt with His people, on a regular basis, throughout their history. An account of this is entirely what the historical summary in the Psalm provides.

The couplet is also found, verbatim, in Isaiah 12:4. This may mean that the author of the Isaian oracle knew Psalm 105, or simply that the couplet represents a traditional call to worship, which could be used in a variety of settings. The Qumran manuscript 11QPsa expands this traditional opening, by including the words “…for He (is) good, for His devotion (endures) to the distant (future)”, found at the opening of Psalm 106 (cf. also 107:1; 118:1, 29).

This couplet has a 4+3 meter (rather than the regular 3+3), though this is not particularly reflected in my translation above.

Verse 2

“Sing to Him, make music to Him!
Compose on all His wondrous deeds.”

The praise to YHWH, and the account of His dealings with Israel, is to take a musical form, as is appropriate for the occasion. Indeed, the Psalm itself achieves this very purpose. The verb j^yc! implies an act of conversing or narrating, which, in a musical setting (such as we have here), can mean compose, but also covers the idea of performance—viz., a musical-poetic recitation of YHWH’s “wondrous deeds”. Allen (p. 50) gives a fittingly idiomatic English translation: “make all His wonders your theme”.

Verse 3

“Shout with joy by (the) name of His holiness,
(and) let (your) heart be glad, seekers of YHWH!”

The invocation of YHWH’s name should thus be a song of praise, indicated here by the use of the verb ll^h* II, denoting a cheerful or joyous shout (or song). It is to be sung with a glad heart, by all those who are devoted to YHWH (“seekers of YHWH”). Instead of “seekers of YHWH”, the Qumran manuscript 11QPsa (followed by the LXX of 1 Chron 16:10b), reads “seekers of His delight [wnwxr]”, that is, those seeking what pleases YHWH.

Verse 4

“Search out YHWH and His strength,
(and may you) seek His face continually.”

This couplet builds upon the Psalmist’s address, at the end of v. 3, to “(those) seeking [vb vq^B*] YHWH”. The same verb (vq^B*) is used here, along with the parallel vr^D* (“search for, search out”). The righteous and devoted follower of YHWH will seek out His presence at all times (“continually,” dym!T*). This is expressed according to the descriptive attributes of YHWH’s strength (zu)) and His face (<yn]P*). When YHWH turns (vb hn`P*) His face toward His people, and exercises His power on their behalf, then His presence is particularly manifest. The historical summary records key instances when YHWH, in His devotion for His people, acted on their behalf, manifesting His mighty and glorious presence.

Dahood (III, p. 52) explains the adverb dym!T* as a substantive, part of a construct chain: dym!T* wyn`P*, “His face of perpetuity”, “His perpetual face [i.e. presence]”. Thus, by this line of interpretation, dymt refers, not to the righteous act of seeking YHWH, but to the eternal (and ever-faithful) character of YHWH Himself.

The LXX apparently reads the verbal imperative Wzu (“be strong…!”), instead of the suffixed noun ozu (“His strength”) in the first line; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 63 [note].

Verse 5

“Keep in mind His wonderful (deed)s that He has done—
His (mighty) signs, and (the) judgments of His mouth—”

The continual seeking of YHWH, in loyalty and devotion to Him, includes always keeping in mind (vb rk^z`) all the “wonderful things” (cf. verse 2) He has done for His people. These include supernatural acts, resulting in “signs/portents” (tp@om plur.) on earth, but also the words spoken, by which YHWH declares His will, speaking with the authority of the supreme King (and Judge) of the universe. With regard to the latter, the “judgments of His mouth”, the “Ten Words”, and all the precepts and regulations, etc, of the Torah, are certainly to be included.

Verse 6

“you seed of Abraham His servant,
sons of Ya‘aqob, His chosen (one)s!”

This final couplet identifies the addressees, those “seeking YHWH”, as belonging to the people of Israel (Jacob), and the descendants of Abraham. It provides a transition to the beginning of the historical summary in verse 7.

The Qumran manuscript 11QPsa has “…His servants…His chosen (one)”, reversing the singular/plural of the nouns from what is in the MT. Dahood (III, p. 53) argues that the final w– of MT wyr*yj!B= should be separated and joined instead to the beginning of the first word of v. 7 (aWhw), “For He…”, or as an emphatic, “Indeed, He…”. The fact that verse 7 in 11QPsa begins with a yK! particle does, at least, support the poetic validity of this suggestion. Dahood further claims that the two nouns should be read as singular forms (i.e., “His servant”, “His chosen one”), utilizing different forms (w– & y-) of the third person singular suffix.

Strophe 2: Verses 7-11

Verse 7

“He (is) YHWH, our Mightiest (One)—
in all the earth, His judgments (rule)!”

The historical summary begins with a fundamental theological affirmation that YHWH is Israel’s God (“Mightiest [One]”, <yh!l)a$). At the same time, it is affirmed that YHWH is the Sovereign—King and Judge—over the entire cosmos (specifically, the lower half, the earth, were humans dwell). This was already alluded to earlier in verse 5 (see above), with the expression “the judgments of His mouth”.

Verse 8

“He remembers His agreement into the distant (future),
(the) word He ordained, for a thousand cycles,”

The two fundamental theological principles expressed in verse 7—viz., YHWH as Israel’s God, and His ruling authority over the earth—are combined here. In so doing, the Psalmist introduces decisively the important theme of the “binding agreement” (tyr!B=, i.e. ‘covenant’) that YHWH has established with His people Israel. For poetic concision, I have translated tyr!B= in line 1 simply as “agreement”. The same is referred to, in the second line, as “(the) word [rb*D*] He ordained”. The verb hw`x* properly means “(give an) order”, and, in this sense, it could refer to the various commands, precepts, and regulations of the Torah (beginning with the “Ten Words”), which serve as the terms of the binding agreement. However, in the context of the establishment of the binding agreement, it seems best to translated hw`x* here as “ordain”.

The faithfulness and devotion of YHWH is expressed by the long-lasting and enduring character of His agreement. The traditional parallelism of <l*ou (indicating the distant [future]) with roD (“circle, cycle”) brings out emphatically this temporal aspect. Here the singular roD should probably be understood in a collective sense (“cycles [of time]”); however, the word can also refer to the people living in a particular period of time (in which case, it is typically translated “generation”).

Verse 9

“which He cut (in the beginning) with Abraham,
and (confirmed by) His sevenfold (oath) to Yiṣḥaq.”

Syntactically, verse 9 continues from v. 8, as a single sentence. The binding agreement (referenced in v. 8), was initially cut with Abraham, and then confirmed (by oath) to Isaac. For the Abraham traditions dealing with this covenant, see my earlier studies on Genesis 15 and 17 (Parts 1 and 2 of “The People of God: The Covenant”). It is never stated (in the Genesis narratives) that YHWH swore an oath to Isaac; rather, he confirmed to Isaac the oath He swore (vb ub^v*) to Abraham (Gen 26:1-5 [v. 3]). A binding agreement is literally “cut” (vb tr^K*); on the significance of this idiomatic language, see the aforementioned study on Gen 15. The precise etymology of the verb ub^v* remains uncertain; however, the apparent connection with the number seven (ub^v#) suggests that the significance has to with a seven-fold binding power of the oath (or something along these lines).

Verse 10

“Then He made it stand for Ya‘aqob as cut in (stone),
for Yisrael an agreement (into the) distant (future),”

The further confirmation of the covenant to Jacob is narrated in Genesis 28 (vv. 13-15), connected with his famous dream at Beth-El (“House of God”). It may be the stone at Bethel (vv. 18-21) that is being alluded to with the motif of the binding agreement being established as something “engraved” or “cut in” (qj)), i.e., something ‘cut in stone’. Certainly, the idea of permanence—or at least the characteristic of long-lasting—is being emphasized here. The temporal aspect is expressed in the second line, by the regular idiomatic use of <l*ou, denoting something that lasts or endures into the distant future.

Ultimately, the covenant with Abraham applied to His future descendants (through Isaac and Jacob)—the people of Israel. This covenant is central to the initial formation of Israel as a people (see Exodus 2:24-25; Deut 7:8-9), the events of which are narrated in the remainder of the historical summary.

Verse 11

‘To you I will give (the) land of Kena‘an
(as the) rope of your inheritance.'”

Inheriting the land of Canaan is central to the covenant YHWH made with Abraham (15:7-8, 18ff; 17:8), and confirmed to Isaac (26:3) and Jacob (28:13ff). The realization of this promise then runs as a theme throughout the Exodus and Conquest narratives, as also in the summary of Israelite history here in the Psalm.

Land was measured and/or divided by means of a rope or cord (lb#j#), used conventionally for the allotted portion of land that a person (or people) comes to possess and inherit (cf. Psalm 78:55; Josh 17:5, etc).

The remainder of the Psalm will be discussed in Parts 2 and 3 of this study.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2011).



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