Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 1

Psalm 22

Psalm 22 is a lengthy lament, which I would divide into three main sections:

    • Vv. 2-11 [1-10]—A lament to God by the Psalmist in regard to his suffering and the deplorable situation he faces
    • Vv. 12-23 [11-22]—This situation is described in terms of attacks by his adversaries
    • Vv. 24-32 [23-31]—Praise to YHWH for his power and goodness, anticipating that God will bring deliverance

The meter is irregular, with 3+3 couplets dominating; however, 4+4 couplets are found, especially in the concluding praise section, along with 2 beat tricola (2+2+2). In an ancient poem of this length and complexity, it is not surprising to find many metrical irregularities and inconsistencies; some of these, at least, may be intentional and part of the original composition, without necessarily reflecting textual corruption.

The superscription indicates that this is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David. It also provides the specific musical direction (in the MT) rj^V^h^ tl#Y#a^ lu^, which would mean “upon (the) hind/doe of the dawn”, though there is some uncertainty regarding the form tlya, which the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus) and Targums apparently understood as tWly`a$ (“strength, help”), as in verse 20 [19]. The expression then could mean something like “strength/help that comes with the dawn”, the implication being that the Psalmist is facing a ‘dark night of the soul’, but that the sunrise of deliverance from YHWH is coming. In the context of the musical direction, it may refer to a particular melody or style, the preposition lu^ (“upon”) indicating that the poem is to be performed according to that musical standard. It may be comparable to the many ‘parody’ works by medieval and Renaissance composers, based on previously existing melodies and compositions.

This Psalm is especially significant for Christians, due to its use in the Passion narrative of the (Synoptic) Gospels, with details from the poem effectively being enacted (fulfilled) in the narrative. In the Synoptic tradition (Mark-Matthew), Jesus quotes the opening line while fastened to the stake (Mk 15:34 par), and it may have been that historical tradition which prompted early believers to turn to the Psalm, where they recognized certain parallels with the events of his death. The Gospel writers clearly were aware of these details, and take care to highlight them, though the Psalm is cited directly only at Jn 19:24. In addition to the words uttered by Jesus, three elements of the Psalm were seen as related to the circumstances of his death:

Section 1: Psalm 22:2-11

Verse 2 [1]

“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me,
(be)ing far removed from my (cry for) help, (the) words of my groaning?”

This opening 4+4 couplet establishes the Psalm as a lament, in which the protagonist cries to God in the midst of his suffering. It is an example of synthetic parallelism, with the second line building upon the first. The verb bz~u* (“leave, [set] loose, abandon”) in line 1 is picked up by qojr* in line 2, which I parse as a verbal noun (from qj^r*, “be far [removed], distant”). Not only does the Psalmist feel that God has left him, but He has gone far away. The parallel suffixed nouns yt!u*Wvy+ (“my [cry for] help”) and yt!g`a&v^ (“my groaning”) in the second line further add to the intensity of the scene. The root ga^v* more properly denotes roaring—i.e., a roaring cry of suffering and distress. On the use of v. 2a in the Passion narrative, cf. above and the special note at the end of this study.

Verse 3 [2]

“My Mightiest (One)—
I call by day and you do not answer (me),
and by night, and (there is) no calm for me.”

The initial address to God (“my Mightiest”, yh^ýa$), if original, rather distorts the meter of the verse, though it does provide a fitting parallel to the opening of v. 2 (“my Mighty [One]”, yl!a@, repeated). To preserve the clarity of the couplet, I have rendered the initial address as a partial line which adds a moment of tension and suspense to the rhythm of the two couplets of vv. 2-3 [1-2] when read together. The parallelism of the couplet here is obvious, being more conceptual than formal. The noun hY`m!Wd can specifically mean “silence”, emphasizing that the Psalmist cries out continually (and is not silent), or it could indicate that there is no calm or stillness for him (i.e. no rest or respite from his suffering); the latter sense is to be preferred.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“And (yet) you are sitting (in the) holy (place),
the shining (splendor) of Yisrael!
In you our Fathers trusted (for safety)—
they trusted, and you made escape (for) them;
to you they cried out and were rescued,
in you they trusted and were not disgraced!”

These three couplets provide a contrast with the Psalmist’s situation. Since YHWH rescued and delivered the people of Israel in times past, why will he not deliver the protagonist now? In some ways, this anticipates the praise section in vv. 24-32, but here the recollection of past action of God on behalf of his people only serves as a bitter irony. There is a hint of rebuke in the opening couplet, contrasting the Psalmist’s deplorable condition on earth with YHWH sitting in splendor on his throne in heaven; it could perhaps be rendered “…and yet, there you are, sitting in the holy place!” The contrast between God and the human condition is further developed, most vividly in the verses that follow.

The threefold use of the verb jf^B* in vv. 5-6 may seem overly repetitive, but effectively makes a theological point: God will deliver those who trust in him. The root jfb often connotes trusting in someone for safety and protection, and is occasionally rendered “seek refuge [in]” —i.e. God as a place of protection. In spite of this threefold affirmation, implying that the Psalmist, too, is trusting in YHWH, there is as yet no deliverance from suffering.

The rhythm of these lines is terser than the couplets of vv. 2-3, the verbal repetition giving a staccato-like quality to the strophe, with a pair of 3+2 bicola followed by a 3+3 couplet (v. 6).

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

“And (here) I (am) a worm, and not a man,
(the) scorn of mankind, and contempt of (all) people!
All (those) seeing me bring derision to(ward) me,
they let out (laughter) with (the) lip and wag (their) head:
‘He circled (with joy) to YHWH, so let Him (now) bring escape!
let Him rescue him, (seeing) that he finds delight in Him!'”

The contrast of the Divine and human condition is a frequent theme in Old Testament poetry, the human side often expressed by the parallel “man…son of man”. Here, however, the contrast is made even more graphically—the Psalmist’s condition is that of a worm, something even less than a man! By this is meant, primarily, the disgrace that he experiences from the rest of humankind (or, so it seems to him). The first couplet, a 3+3 bicolon with rhythmic tension in the second line, provides a synthetic parallelism, where the idea of being a “worm” is defined specifically in terms of the scorn (hP*r=j#) and contempt (hz)B=) he experiences from other people.

Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, to be sure, it is interesting to consider just what it is which brings about such treatment by the people at large. The only evidence provided here is that the protagonist has been struck by severe misfortune, which seems to run contrary to his faithful devotion to YHWH. In other words, if he has been faithful and loyal to YHWH (i.e. trusting in Him, cf. above), then how is it that he is now trapped in such a deplorable situation? This is a natural religious sentiment, felt my many devout persons at various times, and was a frequent theme in the ancient Wisdom literature (indeed, it runs throughout the entire book of Job). His sense of disgrace is only heightened all the more by the mockery he receives from the faithless in society. This is presented most vividly in vv. 8-9 [7-8], including a representative taunt expressed by the populace; this taunt, clearly reflected in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 15:29-32), as noted above, occurs in the climactic couplet of v. 9, with both synonymous and chiastic parallelism:

    • The Psalmist circles (with joy) unto YHWH
      • so let God bring escape for him
      • and let (God) deliver him
    • since he finds delight in (YHWH)

The Masoretic pointing of the first verb (lG)) suggests that it is a form of the root ll^G` (“roll”); equally possible is derivation from lyG] (“circle around”), in which case it should probably be vocalized lG`. The meaning would not change much, though the derivation from lyG], with its connotation of rejoicing (i.e. circling with joy), seems to fit better the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“(Yet it is) that you brought me forth from (her) belly,
making me trust (in safety) upon (the) breasts of my mother;
upon you was I (then) thrown out from (the) loving (womb)—
from (the) belly of my mother you are my Mighty (One)!”

The vulnerability of the human condition is again emphasized here, with the basic image of childbirth. The child is thrust harshly out into the world, away from the loving care (symbolized by the natural motifs of the “breasts” and “womb/bosom”) of its mother. Yet the Psalmist counts himself among those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who, removed from the state of childhood (trusting in the mother), come to trust wholly on God (YHWH) instead. The same verb jf^B* is used here in verse 10, echoing its earlier threefold usage in v. 5-6 (cf. above).

Thus, this section of the Psalm, in spite of its character as a lament, closes with an affirmation of trust in YHWH. It is a trust that remains, despite the suffering and misfortune that may be experienced, at the lowest point of the human condition; this test of faith and trust in God is a golden strand that runs through the Psalm, leading into the final praise-section of vv. 24-32. In this regard, Psalm 22 has a stronger wisdom emphasis that many of the Psalms we have recently studied; the royal theology and covenant-background is less prominent, though it does come more into view in the second section of the Psalm, as we shall see in the next study.

Psalm 22:2[1] in the Synoptic Passion Narrative

As mentioned above, most Christians are familiar with this Psalm through certain details of the Passion narrative in the (Synoptic) Gospels; most notably, in the Markan narrative (followed by Matthew), Jesus quotes the first line (v. 2a) of the Psalm as he is fastened to the stake. The Synoptic tradition preserves this in transliterated form, though with some confusion regarding whether it is a transliteration of the Aramaic or the Hebrew. This confusion runs through the manuscripts, to the point that there is no way of being sure whether, at the historical level, Jesus would have made such an utterance in Aramaic or Hebrew. Typically, however, such (Aramaic) transliterations preserved in the Gospels are seen, on objective grounds, as a mark of historical authenticity.

Generally, it would seem that the transliteration preserves an Aramaic form, with the most common difference involving a modification of the initial address to God to reflect the Hebrew. The Hebrew of Psalm 22:1 (cf. above) reads:

yn]T*b=z~u& hm*l* yl!a@ yl!@a@
°E~lî °E~lî l¹mâ ±¦za»t¹nî
“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me?”

The best form of the Markan reading (in Mk 15:34), as presented in the Nestle-Aland critical text (unaccented), would seem to be:

elwi elwi lema sabaxqani
which transliterates the Aramaic
yn]T^q=b^v= am*l= yh!l*a$ yh!l*a$
°E_lohî °E_lohî l®mâ° š®»aqtanî

In Mark, this is subsequently translated as:

o( qeo/$ mou o( qeo/$ mou ei)$ ti/ e)gkate/pile/$ me;
“My God, my God, unto what [i.e. why] have you left me down in (this place) [i.e. left me behind]?”

The verb form e)gkte/pile$ follows the LXX translation, and is a more or less accurate rendering of the Hebrew verb bz~u* (“leave [behind], abandon”). Matthew’s translation uses the vocative address qee/ mou… (“O my God…”), but otherwise is closer to the LXX. Matthew’s Greek transliteration similarly differs by having the opening address in Hebrew (hli hli = yl!a@ yl!a@), while the rest is Aramaic, making it a composite (bilingual) citation, such as would be fitting for a popular adaption of Scripture among the largely Aramaic-speaking population of the time. Of many such examples of this bilingualism, one need only note the shifting between Hebrew and Aramaic (apparently without any comment) in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Daniel.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 21

Psalm 21

Thematically, Psalm 20 and 21 belong together, with each having as its background the Israelite/Judean king and his army in time of war. An important aspect of the ancient Near Eastern covenant idea, in terms of political agreements, is that the binding agreement (tyr!B=) involves treaty terms for (military) assistance and protection. In agreements between equal parties, this means mutual protection; however, in the case of suzerain-vassal treaties, the emphasis is on the protection and aid provided by the sovereign, or superior party. From the standpoint of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, the king is a vassal of YHWH, and, insofar as he remains faithful and loyal to the covenant, he receives Divine aid and protection in time of need.

This royal theology underlies many of the Psalms, including these two (20 and 21) in particular, dealing with situations involving the need for military action and warfare. The setting of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study) is a communal prayer to YHWH for assistance that will bring victory for the king and his army. In Psalm 21, this has shifted to a declaration of praise and thanksgiving for the victory provided by YHWH.

The structure of Psalm 21 is similar to that of Psalm 20, and may be divided into two parts:

    • Vv. 3-8—the blessings given to the king by YHWH, reflecting the covenant bond between the two
    • Vv. 9-13—the aid given to the king, specifically, that allows him to be victorious in battle

These stanzas are bracketed by couplets of praise to YHWH (vv. 2, 14). The two parts have a joining transition point in vv. 8-9 which contrasts the faithfulness/loyalty of the king, binding him to YHWH, against the wickedness of his enemies/opponents and their helplessness before God.

The meter in the first half tends to be 4+4, while 3+3 in the second, though there are certain irregularities throughout. The superscription, with minimal musical information and direction, is the same as that of Ps 20 (and many other of the Psalms). Sadly, neither Psalm 20 nor 21 are preserved among the Dead Sea Scroll Psalms manuscripts.

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your strength the king finds joy,
and in your salvation, how great(ly) he spins (for joy)!”

In this opening (4+4) couplet, praising YHWH for the blessings shown to the king, the nouns zu) (“strength, might”) and hu*Wvy+ (“salvation, protection”) must be understood in terms of the assistance provided by God in time of war (cf. above). YHWH’s “strength” is what ultimately gives the king victory in battle—it is a Divine protection which keeps him safe from death and defeat. Compare this couplet with the closing praise in verse 14 [13] (cf. below).

Verses 3-8 [2-7]

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“(The) longing of his heart you have given to him,
and (for the) desire of his lips you have held nothing back; Selah
for you put blessings of goodness in front of him,
you set onto his head a circle [i.e. crown/wreath] of pure (gold).”

Throughout these two Psalms the king represents the people as a whole, and the community identifies itself with the anointed ruler as the faithful one(s) of YHWH. Thus the prayer of the people (in Ps 20) blends into the prayer of the king (for victory in battle). This couplet confirms that the prayer—both of king and people—has been answered. The synonymous parallelism is clear, with the second line intensifying the theme of the first. The noun tv#r#a& in line 2 occurs only here in the Old Testament, from an unused root (vr^a*) that is, however, attested in other Semitic languages (such as Ugaritic). Both the context here, and the cognate usage, indicate that the meaning is something like “desire, wish, request”.

The lone occurrence of the musical indicator hl*s# (selah) after this couplet is difficult to explain. Under the basic assumption that it is meant primarily as a pause in singing/reciting the text, it may be intended to preserve the integrity of the couplet, in light of the conjunction (yK!) that begins the next line.

The encircling wreath (tr#f#u&) of gold signifies the honor that comes from victory in battle—a victory won through YHWH’s own strength. There may be an alliterative parallel intended between tr#f#u& (±¦‰ere¾) and the earlier tv#r#a& (°¦reše¾) in verse 3.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“(Year)s of life he asked from you, and you gave to him—
length of days (for the) distant (future and) until (the end);
great (is) his weight (achieved) in [i.e. through] your salvation,
(great the) honor and splendor you have placed upon him!”

These two couplets, with slight irregularities of meter, expound two different aspects of the honor given to king by YHWH:

    • the opportunity to live a long and full life, i.e. saved from death in battle; long life being especially valued as an ideal in ancient times, and here expressed two ways:
      • the plural noun <yY]j^ which signifies a (long) life; spec. the years of a person’s life(time), but perhaps also in an intensive or emphatic sense (i.e. full life)
      • “length of days”, the length(ing) of days being a common Semitic idiom for old age and a long life
    • the value and worth (lit. “weight”, dobK*) of his person is enhanced, marked by an honorific improvement of his appearance, using the alliterative expression rd*h*w+ doh (hô¼ w®h¹¼¹r, roughly “honor and splendor”)
Verse 7-8 [6-7]

“(So it is) that you set blessings for him until (the end),
you have made him look with joy at your face;
(for it is) that the king is (one) trusting in YHWH,
and in (the) kindness of the Highest there is no slipping (away)!”

The blessings of a long life of honor and splendor here climax with the idea of a future blessing that involves a beatific vision of God (i.e. to look upon His “face”). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 133) in reading the verb hd*j* as = hz`j* (“look/gaze at, behold”), which better fits the context of the line; it would be thus explained as a (Canaanite) dialectical form involving the familiar interchange of the consonants d/z (Heb d/z).

The final couplet emphasizes again the (covenant) loyalty of the king, characterizing him as one “trusting” in YHWH, using a participle form of a verb (jf^B*) which can specifically connote the idea of seeking protection. This loyalty is reciprocated by God’s own, showing goodness/kindness (ds#j#) and favor to the faithful vassal. The covenant bond is indicated by the closing phrase, “there is no slipping (away)” (foMy] lB^), reading the Niphal verb form in a reflexive sense—i.e., there is no falling away from the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 9-14 [8-13]

As noted above, a 3+3 meter dominates the second part of the Psalm, which describes God’s blessings to the king in terms of the aid/assistance given to him in time of battle.

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“Your hand found (its way) to all your enemies,
your right (hand) found (its way to the one)s hating you;
you set them as a fire-stove at the time your face (appears)—
with His nostril(s) He engulfs them, and (His) fire devours them.”

The mixing of 2nd and 3rd person forms is a bit confusing, but hardly unusual in Old Testament poetry. It is all the more natural here, given the close connection between the king’s military action and the strength of YHWH Himself that fights for the king (cf. above). More difficult is the extended/irregular meter of verse 10, suggesting that there may be one or more (secondary) accretions to the couplet. I tentatively emend the text to read as a 4+4 couplet, by omitting the first of the two occurrences of va@ (“fire”), in line 1, and the divine name hwhy in line 2. The addition of the name may be an explanatory gloss to clarify the identity of the 2nd person markers (i.e., “…your face, YHWH” ). It is perhaps best to understand YHWH as the subject throughout, referring to His actions on the king’s behalf.

The judgment of God on His enemies (= the king/Israel’s enemies) is expressed by the idiom of the face, according to the traditional religious idea that to see YHWH’s face means death for a human being. This fiery destruction from God’s “face” natural blends together with the common idiom for God’s anger—i.e., burning from the nostrils (as of an angry, snorting bull).

Verse 11 [10]

“Their fruit you made to perish from (the) earth,
and their seed from (among the) sons of man.”

This couplet suggests something more than the defeat of a nation or people in battle, though it may allude to the idea of a defeat so total that it would virtually deprive an entire generation of its young men. More likely is the notion that the military defeat of Israel/Judah’s enemies reflects a wider sense of their (ultimate) destruction that has been determined by God. The nouns “fruit” and “seed” of course are used figuratively for the children/offspring of a people.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“(For it was) that they stretched out evil upon you,
they wove an (evil) plan, (but) were not able (to complete it);
(so it is) that you set them (to the) shoulder,
you fixed your (bow)strings upon their faces.”

There is a clear parallel  between the enemies of God “stretching” out evil strands upon (lu*) Him, and God, in turn, aiming His bowstrings upon (lu*) their faces. It is typical of the thematic imagery found in the Psalms (and other Old Testament poetry) in they way that the evil intent of the wicked is turned back upon them, so that they are essentially destroyed by the very thing they sought to accomplish. We have already encountered a number of examples of this sort in the Psalms we have studied thus far. The precise meaning of the idiom in the first line of v. 13 [12] is not entirely clear; I have rendered it quite literally: “that you set them (to the) shoulder”. It could indicate a person turning his back (to flee), or, perhaps, of bending/falling down in defeat (or submission). In any case, the defeat of God’s enemies—meaning also the defeat of Israel’s enemies—is clear.

VERSE 14 [13]

“May you rise up (high), YHWH, in your strength,
and we shall sing and make music in your might!”

This closing couplet is parallel to the opening couplet of the Psalm (v. 2 [1], cf. above), emphasizing both the strength (zu)) of YHWH that brought victory for the king, and also the praise of the people who rejoice together in that victory. The noun hr*WbG+ (“strength, might, vigor”) in the second line is virtually synonymous with zu) in the first. It alludes to the youthful vigor of warriors, only, for the Israelite/Judean army of the king faithful to YHWH, the normal strength of young men has been enhanced by the divine power of YHWH Himself. This is reflected in verse 8 [7] of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study), with the contrast between those nations who trust in their (ordinary) military strength (of horses and chariots, etc), and those who rely instead on the person and presence (the “Name”) of YHWH the true God. Even for later Israelites, Jews, and Christians, for whom the original military setting of this Psalm has long disappeared, it is a contrast that all faithful believers can still appreciate.

References marked “Dahood” above (and throughout these studies) are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 20

Psalm 20

This Psalm (and the one following) have, as its original setting and background, the royal Israelite/Judean army, led by its king, preparing to go to war. I agree with earlier commentators (Gunkel, Dahood, et al) who identified this context, and the wording and imagery throughout the composition would seem to confirm that it is correct. The Psalm functions as a prayer to God for victory in battle, and may well reflect a specific ritual setting, involving sacrificial offerings made prior to going out to battle. It is not necessary, however, to insist that the Psalm was originally composed for performance in such a setting.

The religious and theological dimension of warfare, expressed in this Psalm, will doubtless seem foreign to modern western readers; indeed, many Christians today may find the association rather repellent, in light of our modern view of the medieval Crusades, Islamic jihad, and other forms of “holy war”. However, in the ancient Near East, the divine role in warfare simply reflected an understanding of the control exercised by deities (or the Deity) over all areas of daily life. The success of an army meant that its gods (or God) favored it, with the deities of the victorious nation effectively gaining victory over those of the defeated people. In the context of Israelite Yahwism, a victory in battle for Israel served as proof that their God (YHWH) was superior to those of the other nations.

The language of the Psalm was such that, over time, the concepts of salvation and victory, trust in the name of God, etc, could be given a wider and more general application to the people of Israel. However, like many of the Psalms, the royal background must be kept clearly in view and central to any proper interpretation. The original context is that of the king and his army, as he responds to the various conflicts with his enemies and opponents. While these “enemies” may be treated generically and symbolically at many points in the Psalms, the poems were also composed within the background of real socio-political conflicts and real battles. It was not the classic “holy war” of the earlier Israelite confederacy, but the basic idea remained, filtered through a strong (Judean) royal theology, regarding the king (from the line of David) and his relationship to YHWH.

Structurally, the Psalm divides into two parts:

    • Vv. 2-6—a prayer for God’s help and support, for the king (and his army)
    • Vv. 7-10—a declaration of victory, indicating that the prayer has been (i.e. will be) answered

Rhythmically, a 4-beat meter dominates in the first part (2+2, but 4+4 in the opening couplet), though not without some tension and irregularity, which may be a way of expressing musically the “distress” that the king faces. In the second part, it is a 3+3 meter, again with certain irregular points of tension that build, only to resolve in the final two couplets.

The musical direction in the superscription simply indicates that this Psalm is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Part 1: Verses 2-6

Verse 2 [1]

“May YHWH answer you (to bring victory) in (the) day of distress,
(the) name of the Mightiest (One) of Ya’aqob set you (safe) on high!”

This 4+4 couplet establishes the theme and setting of the Psalm, which, as noted above, would seem to be a time of conflict for the king (and nation), requiring an act of war. In several Old Testament passages, the verb hn`u* connotes the idea of engaging in violent conflict, to force an opponent into submission, etc (e.g., Num 24:24); in such instances, it is root hn`u* III in the Piel stem. Here, apparently, in line 1 the root is hn`u* I (“answer, respond”), implying the hope that YHWH will answer the prayer and respond to king’s need (in battle). The verb bg~c* in the second line, in the Piel stem, refers to putting something (or someone) in a high place, where they will be safe.

The concept of the “name”, especially that of the deity, was extremely complex in ancient Near Eastern thought. A person’s name embodied the character and nature of the person. Thus, to speak of God’s name, was to refer to God Himself–His nature, power, and presence. Moreover, at times, the “name” of God was understood as functioning as a distinct hypostasis, or active manifestation. Here the “name” (<v@) of the Mighty One (“Mightiest”, <yh!l)a$, i.e. God) of Jacob (Israel) protects the people of Israel, and their king. For more on significance of names and naming in the Old Testament, cf. my earlier Christmas series “And you shall call His name…”, especially the articles on the names of God.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

“May He send your help from (His) holy place,
and give you (His) support from ‚iyyôn;
may He remember all your gifts (to Him),
and receive the fat (of) your rising (offering)s. Selah
May He give (to) you according to your heart,
and fulfill (for you) all of your plan(s);
may we shout (for joy) in your salvation,
and in (the) name of our Mightiest display (the banner)!
May YHWH fulfill all your petitions (to Him)!”

After the 4+4 bicolon of verse 2, a series of four 2+2 couplets follow, interrupted by a pause (hl*s#, selah), perhaps to indicate that the four couplets should not be run together, but to function as two distinct strophes. The first strophe establishes the religious context of the prayer, and of the mobilization for war (on this last point, cf. above). The “help” (rz#u@) YHWH will send to the king comes from His “holy place” (vd@q))—that is, the sanctuary of the Temple, in the temple-palace complex on the ancient fortified hill-top locale (Zion) of Jerusalem. Moreover, this response is predicated upon the faithfulness of the king (and his priests and people) in fulfilling the ritual obligations of the covenant: the “gifts” and sacrificial offerings to God. Possibly, a specific sacrificial ritual, prior to going out to war, and overseen by the king, is in view.

The second strophe, or pair of couplets, brings out this relationship of the king and his people (including his army). The first couplet offers a prayer that God will allow the king to fulfill everything that he plans (presumably in terms of conducting the war); and that, as a result, the people will be able to shout together in confidence that victory (salvation) is assured. The verb lg~D* is often used in the technical sense of displaying (i.e. carrying/raising) a banner or (military) standard.

The final couplet serves a climax to the first part of the Psalm, emphasizing again the prayer context. It is framed in terms of the petitions that the king himself will make to God, presumably prior to (and during) the course of the battle.

Part 2: Verses 7-10

Verse 7 [6]

“Now I know that YHWH brings salvation (for) His anointed—
He (has) responded from (the) heavens of His holy (place),
(bring)ing salvation with (the great) strength of His right (hand)!”

The opening of this part of the Psalm parallels the couplet in verse 2 (cf. above), building upon the war-prayer setting. It is a declaration that God has answered the prayer, and will bring victory (“salvation”). The beat of the opening is irregular—almost, but not quite a 3+3 couplet; I have rendered it above as a single line. A proper 3+3 couplet follows, expounding the idea in the opening line. I tentatively regard the plural form torb%g+ (“strengths, mighty [deed]s”) as an intensive plural, perhaps to convey the sense that YHWH’s aid from heaven will function much like the warriors (“mighty ones”, <yr!oBG]) of an earthly army. On the king as the “anointed one” (j^yv!m*) of God, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 2.

Verse 8 [7]

“Th(e)se with the ride [i.e. chariot], and th(o)se with the horses—
(but) we bring to mind (our trust) in the name of our Mightiest!”

The sequence of 3+3 couplets is interrupted by this 4+4 bicolon, the precise sense of which is difficult to determine. It appears to incorporate a proverbial slogan, perhaps reflecting the ancient “holy war” tradition of the Israelite confederacy. The main idea appears to be that the Israelite army does not simply rely upon superior military strength (i.e. chariots and horses) for victory, but upon the support of YHWH their God. It seems likely that the actual name YHWH (the tetragrammaton hwhy) may be a secondary addition; many commentators omit it as disruptive to the rhythm, and its absence is indicated in the A text of the Greek LXX.

More problematic is the final verb form ryK!z+n~, which would be parsed as a Hiphil imperfect of the verb rk^z`, essentially meaning “bring to mind”. According to this, the line would read: “but we bring to mind with/by the name of our Mightiest”. The parallel with Isa 48:1 suggests that the idea here involves an affirmation of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH, making an oath or confession of loyalty by His name. This special sense of invoking God’s name, with its magical-religious attributes, is also indicated in Isa 26:13; 62:6, and Amos 6:10. By contrast, Dahood (p. 129), derives ryK!z+n~ from a separate root, a denominative verb based on rk*z` (“male”), i.e. “to be male”; as such, the form would be parallel to ryB!g+n~ (from rb#G#, “strong/vigorous [young] man”), cf. Psalm 12:5. In context, the meaning would then be “we will be strong/victorious (in battle)”. It is an intriguing interpretation, but the use such a denominative verb rk^z` (II) elsewhere in the Old Testament is extremely slight and uncertain (but see Exod 34:19).

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“They—they bend down and fall,
but we—we rise and take our (stand) again;
YHWH brings salvation (to) him, the king,
He answers us in (the) day we call (to Him).”

The contrast between Israel and the other nations (spec. their opponents) is continued from verse 8 in the first couplet. Those who trust in chariots and horses are bent to the ground and fall (in defeat), while those who rely on YHWH’s strength, invoking His name in allegiance to Him, rise to stand victorious in battle. The specific verb forms in the final couplet are unclear; the Masoretic pointing indicates an imperative, following by a jussive, i.e. “YHWH, (may you) bring salvation…may He answer us…”. However, it may be better (and more consistent) to read the first verb form as = ouyv!oh (“He brings/brought salvation [for] him”, i.e. for the king). Both the prayer setting (with an answer to prayer), and the unified juxtaposition of king and people (army), are integral to the entire sense and structure of the Psalm.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 19 (continued)

Psalm 19, continued

The first portion of this Psalm (vv. 2-7 [1-6], discussed in the previous study) presented the natural world as a manifestation of God’s power and presence as Creator. The very processes and operations within nature bear witness, “speaking” of YHWH, even as God Himself “spoke” it into existence. As a theme we might call this “nature as the word of God”. In the second half of the Psalm, we find a parallel theme: “the Torah as the word of God”. It is not necessary to limit the use of the word hr*oT (tôrâ) here to the Law Code preserved in the Pentateuch, though certainly that would be paramount. Rather, it refers to the “word of God” expressed within the religious and ethical sphere, in contrast to the natural world.

Psalm 19:8-15 [7-14]

Verses 8-10 [7-9]

“(The) hr*oT  of YHWH (is) complete, returning [i.e. restoring] (the) soul;
(the) tWdu@ of YHWH (is) firm, making wise (the) open (mind);
(the) <yd!WQP! of YHWH (are) straight, making glad (the) heart;
(the) hw`x=m! of YHWH (is) clear, enlightening (the) eyes;
(the) <ha*r=m!> of  YHWH (is) pure, standing until (the end);
(the) <yf!P=v=m! of YHWH (are) truth–(all as) one they are just!”

These verses consist of a series of six parallel couplets, each of which follows a basic pattern, with a 3+2 meter. The pattern is set by the first couplet in v. 8a. The initial 3-beat line is a statement regarding the hr*oT (tôrâ) of YHWH; the second (2-beat) line modifies the first, with a participial phrase which states what the hr*oT does—i.e., its effective energy and power, with its effect on the one faithful and loyal to it. The following couplets are strophic variations, using different words and descriptive phrases to expound and elaborate the opening couplet. As the principal nouns are a bit difficult to translate literally, with precision, in a poetic setting like this, I have left them untranslated above; now let us consider them here, each one in turn:

  • hr*oT (tôrâ)—typically translated “law”, this noun is more properly rendered “instruction”, literally something “thrown” across, for the purpose of teaching/training someone. In Israelite and Jewish tradition, it is the primary term for the collection of teaching, recorded in Scripture, that expresses what God requires of His people (i.e. the terms of His covenant with them).
  • tWdu@ (±¢¼û¾)—derived from the root dwu, it refers essentially to something that is repeated, often in the specific sense of giving/bearing witness (i.e. repeating what a person has seen or heard). It may be understood here specifically in terms of the recorded hr*oT as preserving a witness and testimony to what YHWH has said to His people.
  • <yd!Q%P! (piqq¥¼îm)—plural of the noun dWQP!, which, like the root dqp in general, is notoriously difficult to translate. The basic meaning has to do with a person exercising oversight and supervision over a situation, and what he/she might require (others to do) in response. A flat English translation of the plural here might be “requirements” —i.e. the things YHWH requires of His people. Also implicit is the idea of the hr*oT as part of God’s supervision over Israel.
  • hw`x=m! (miƒwâ)—usually translated “command”, though perhaps more accurate is the idea of a charge or duty placed on someone by a superior. Here the singular noun is comprehensive—i.e., all that YHWH requires a person to do.
  • ha*r=m! (mir°â)—the Masoretic text here reads ha*r=y] (“fear”), which seems out of place, and may well represent a textual corruption; unfortunately, there is no help from the Qumran scrolls since this portion of Ps 19 is not preserved in the only surviving MS. I have tentatively followed Dahood  (p. 123f) in emending the text (slightly) to ha*r=m!, on the basis of the Ugaritic root mr° (“command”)—i.e., the command of YHWH (as Lord/Sovereign). Another possibility, based on the parallel in Ps 119:38, would be hr*m=a! (“word, utterance”), with the same general sense (cf. Kraus, p. 268).
  • <yf!P=v=m! (mišp®‰îm)— “judgments”, specifically in the sense of the rulings made by YHWH as King (and supreme Judge).

In the first four couplets, the effect of the Torah, etc, of YHWH, indicated in the second line, is upon a specific part (or aspect) of the human person, symbolizing primarily our consciousness and awareness:

    • vp#n# (“soul”)—that is, the life and being of the person as a whole, which the Torah, itself being complete (<ym!T*), is able to restore (lit. “return”) to completeness.
    • yt!P#, which I render rather literally as “open (mind)”; Dahood (p. 123) would identify it as a rare noun tP) (cf. Isa 3:17), related to Akkadian p¥tu (“forehead, face”). The mind (or face?) that is open (or turned) to God’s Instruction will be embued with the Wisdom of God.
    • bl@ (“heart”), in ancient Near Eastern thought, commonly located as the place of the mind/intellect, where decisions are made; the requirements made by YHWH in the Torah, being right and “straight” are appealing to one’s heart/mind and “make it glad”.
    • <y]n`yu@ (“eyes”)—an association with light (and enlightenment) is natural and obvious; through the eyes one “sees” what is right and true, as it conforms with the requirements (or “commands”) of YHWH in the Torah.

The focus of the last two couplets shifts a bit, from the effect of the Torah on the righteous person to a more general statement regarding its overall character: (1) it endures, lasting (“standing”) forever (“until [the end]”), and (2) they are all true and right/just, together forming a single unified whole (dj^y~).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“The(se) being delightful (more) than gold,
and (even) much more than pure (gold),
and (also) sweet, (more) than (the) sticky (honey),
even (the) dripping (honey) of the flowing (comb),
(so) also your servant is made to shine by them,
(and) in guarding them (there is) much (from its) heel!”

A pair of short, proverbial 2+2 couplets are followed by a single 3+3 couplet, which brings the entirety of vv. 8-12 to a dramatic climax. The plurals here (“these, them” in translation) refer to all the 6 nouns mentioned in vv. 8-10—hr*oT and its synonyms–the entire Instruction of YHWH, taken together (cf. verse 10b above). The proverbial comparisons in verse 11 are simple: more delightful than gold, sweeter than honey. But more than the enjoyment God’s Torah brings, is the defining effect it has on a person’s entire character and being. This is expressed two different ways:

    • the verb rh^z` (“shine”), continuing the sun/light imagery from earlier in the Psalm; the light of God’s own word and presence illuminates the righteous person, causing him/her to shine. There is almost certainly an intentional bit of wordplay here, since there is similar root rh^z` (II), often used in the passive Niphal stem (as here), which means “teach”. I.e. being taught by God’s Torah = being made to shine.
    • an idiom involving the noun bq#u@, which essentially refers to a “footprint” (lit. a mark by the heel), i.e. something that is imprinted on the surface. The Hebrew idiom signifies something that is left behind, often in the generic sense of an end result. By “guarding” the Torah of YHWH, His word is ‘imprinted’ on the person, and, in turn, there is something ‘left behind’, i.e. the reward/result of the person’s faithful devotion to YHWH.
Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Going astray, who can discern it?
Clear me from (my inclination)s to turn (aside)!
(So) also hold your servant (away) from (the) arrogant (one)s,
(that) they would not rule o(ver) me!
Then shall I be complete,
and will be clear (from so) much rebellion!”

Verse 13[12] is another proverbial 2+2 couplet, reflecting the influence of Wisdom traditions, seen frequently in the Psalms. The wording is a bit difficult, especially the parsing of the verb of the second line. The parallelism suggests a passive-reflexive form of the root rWs (“turn [aside]”), rather than the simple passive of rts (“hide”); however, the idea of “hidden (faults/sins)” would be applicable as well. The structure and meter of v. 14[13] is irregular, the tension indicating a climactic point for the second half of the Psalm—a prayer by the Psalmist that YHWH would help him to remain faithful and loyal, in terms of “guarding” the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 12b).

The final, uneven couplet intentionally echoes the wording of that earlier line (cf. above), however difficult it may be translate accurately in English. The uP^v=m!, variously rendered “transgression”, “rebellion”, properly refers to the breaking of the (covenant) bond between YHWH and His people. In terms of the royal theology expressed in many Psalms, this idea extends specifically to the bond between YHWH (as Sovereign) and the Israelite/Judean king (as vassal). To break such a bond is fundamentally an act of rebellion.

The context here suggests that the “rebellion” (i.e. breaking of the bond) should be understood strictly in a religious sense—that is, in terms of the ‘idolatry’ (i.e. religious syncretism) present in Israelite/Judean society. The deities of the surrounding (Canaanite) culture are dz@ (literally, “bubbling, boiling”), meaning that they have been given (or give themselves) an inflated sense of worth, compared with the true God of Israel (El-Yahweh); cf. Exodus 18:11 etc. The word can more generally connote “arrogance”, “presumption”, etc, and, as such, can be applied to both the religious and social-ethical sphere—the two aspects being interrelated. As the Torah became more central to the Israelite religious identity, a failure to guard and preserve its teachings was viewed as tantamount to idolatry.

Verse 15 [14]

“May (the) utterances of my mouth be for (your) pleasure,
and (even the) murmurings of my heart (be)fore your face,
YHWH, my Rock and my Redeemer!”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon that serves as a doxology to the Psalm. It is also an extension of the prayer in vv. 13-14, and relates primarily to the focus on the Torah of God in vv. 8ff. Properly, a line praising YHWH has been added to what otherwise would stand as a unified couplet. The parallelism of this couplet has two interlocking strands:

    • Synonymous:
      “utterances of my mouth” / “murmurings of my heart”
    • Synthetic:
      “for (your) pleasure” => “before your face”

The faithfulness and loyalty of righteous extends from what a person says (vb rm^a*) out loud, to what they ‘say’ (“murmur”, root hg`h*) deep in their heart. That is, even their innermost thoughts conform to the word and will of God. Moreover, the guarding/preservation of YHWH’s teaching, done because it corresponds with what is pleasing to Him, allows the faithful one to come and stand before the very presence of God (i.e. his “face”). The latter line also recognizes the very point made in vv. 2-7 (and in other Psalms): that YHWH’s presence is everywhere, and all that we do in the world takes place “before His face”.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993); English translation of Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th edition, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 19

Psalm 19

This Psalm is a hymn to YHWH, and, like the previous Ps 18, may represent a combination of two distinct compositions. It can be divided into three sections:

    • vv. 2-7 [1-6], which may be characterized as a nature-hymn, in praise of YHWH as Creator
    • vv. 8-12 [7-11], which extols the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH
    • vv. 13-15 [12-14]: a prayer by the Psalmist, that he would live according to the word and will of God

Many commentators would recognize a 2-part division, with two poems—A and B—joined together. Poem A (vv. 2-7 [1-6]) is thought to be considerably older than Poem B, but both make use of a common set of motifs, reflected in the Genesis Creation account, of creation through the word of God. This “word” is manifest in nature no less than in the written documents of the Torah. The binding image between the two parts of the Psalm is that of the sun (vv. 6-7), to which the Torah may be compared as a source of light for humankind.

The superscription to the Psalm simply indicates that is a musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Psalm 19:2-7 [1-6]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“The heavens are giving account of (the) weight of (the) Mighty (One),
and the work of His hands the stamped-out (surface) is putting (up) front;
(from) day to day (there) pours forth (what is) said,
and (from) night to night (there is) declared (what is) known.”

These first two couplets are 4-beat (4+4) bicola. I have preserved much of the word order, as a way of illustrating how the parallelism of Hebrew poetry can be expressed in different ways. The first couplet is a chiasm, establishing the sphere of the universe (or at least, the upper hemisphere) as constituting the expanse (and boundary) of the created world:

    • the heavens (<y]m^V*h^)
      • are giving account (<yr!P=s^m=)
        • (the) weight of the Mighty One (la@ dobK=)
        • (the) work of His hands (wyd*y` hc@u&m^)
      • is putting up front (dyG]m^)
    • the stamped-out [surface] (u^yq!r*h*)

The “heavens” (dual <y]m^v*) represent the entire expanse of the upper hemisphere (of the universe), while the “stamped-out (surface)” is the firm ‘shell’ of the hemisphere that separates the heavens from the waters above. Cf. Gen 1:2, 6-8 for the simple Old Testament expression of this ancient Near Eastern view of the universe (cosmology). The term u^yq!r* literally refers to a surface that has been stamped (or hammered) out. Also parallel are the verbs rp^s* (“count, record”) and dg~n` (Hiphil “put before, set in front, set above”), which refer to something that is continually made known (the regular/continuous aspect indicated here by the use of participles). The central pair in the chiasmus explains what is made known—namely, the weight or worth (dobK*) of YHWH himself, which is made evident through “the work of his hands” (i.e. creation).

The second couplet has a simpler structure, with a precise synonymous parallelism. The main parallel is between “speech” (rm#a), i.e. what is said) and “knowledge” (tu^D^, what is known). The creation, which itself was made through the spoken word of God (Gen 1, etc), speaks in turn of its Creator. This takes place all the time, every moment, from “day to day” and “night to night”.

Verses 4-5ab [3-4]

“There is no(thing) said, and there are no words—
their voice cannot be heard;
(yet) in all the earth their gathering-call goes forth,
and, at the end of what (the earth) contains, their (word)s in response.”

This pair of 4+3 couplets expounds the point made in vv. 2-3—that is, how the universe can “speak” and declare (make known) the truth of its Creator, El-Yahweh. The world cannot actually speak (as a person would), yet it still has a wordless “voice” (loq) that can declare this truth everywhere and at all times. The negative point is stated in the first couplet, using the particle of absence (/ya@, “there is no…”) twice in line 1, and then a separate particle indicating failure/inability (yl!B=) in line 2. The corresponding positive statement is in the second couplet (v. 5ab). The parallel between “the earth” and lb@t@ is similar to that between “the heavens” and u^yq!r* in verse 2 (cf. above). Both indicate the boundary, and the extent/expanse, of the hemisphere of the universe. The noun lb@t@ is actually quite difficult to translate in English. The root lby has the basic meaning of “bring, carry, transport”, but the derived noun lb@t@, insofar as it relates to the inhabited earth/world, seems to refer to what the earth contains—i.e., all that lives and moves on/in it. I have attempted to convey this in the translation above, though not without some awkwardness. The “voice” of creation is manifest by the very life that exists dynamically in nature—it calls things to gather together, and they come, answering in response.

Verses 5c-7 [4c-6]

“For (the) sun He set a tent in them,
and he (is) as a bridegroom going forth from his covering,
he rejoices as a strong youth to run (along) his path;
from the end of the heavens (is) his going forth,
and his coming round (again) unto their ends—
there is no turning (away) from his pavilion.”

The structure and rhythm of these closing lines is curious. The two couplets of vv. 6-7ab (4+4 and 3+3, respectively) are flanked by single lines at the beginning and end. This would indicate an inclusio, suggesting that the first and last lines (5c, 7c) are parallel. For this reason, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 123) in reading the final word wtmjm as “from his pavilion [tm^j@]”, rather than MT (“from his heat [hM*j^]”). The word —mt (“tent, pavilion”) is known in Ugaritic (cf. Kirta I. col. iii. line 55), as well as in Arabic and other cognate languages. Less certain is the parsing of rT*s=n] as a reflexive t-infixed conjugation of the root rWs (“turn [away/aside]”), though that would seem to fit the context. The MT reads the verb as a simple Niphal form of rts (“hide, conceal”). Unfortunately, there is little help to be had from a comparative study of the Qumran texts, as Ps 19 is preserved in just one small fragmentary MS (11QPsc).

The focus on the sun (vm#v#) is quite natural, as the most visible (and sensible) manifestation of the creative power. The life-giving power of the sun is readily apparent, as is the extent to which human beings (and all living creatures) are dependent on it. Within the ancient Near Eastern milieu, it was in Egypt that we see the greatest emphasis on the creative power of the sun (Re), and as the manifestation of the deity as Creator (Re-Atum). However, such solar-imagery was equally applicable to El-Yahweh as the Creator; commentators have repeated noted the similarities, for example, between Psalm 104 and the hymn to the Aten (the creative power manifest in the disc/orb of the sun) from the Amarna period in Egypt.

Next week’s study will explore the remainder of the Psalm (vv. 8-15 [7-14]), the putative second poem praising the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 4

Psalm 18:32-51

Psalm 18:32-46 [31-45]

Verses 32-46 [31-45] mark a clear section of the Psalm, and, according to many critical commentators, represent the bulk of an original poem that was combined (with vv. 1-31) to comprise the current work as we have it (in Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22). The theme throughout is that of the military victory that YHWH brings to the faithful ruler. Certainly this the line of imagery is rooted in the ancient Israelite/Judean royal theology, though we must cautious about reading specific historical circumstances into the text. The military/victory theme provides a suitable complement to the deliverance theme in the first half of the Psalm (esp. verses 4-20).

Verse 32 [31]

“For who (is the) Mighty (One) apart from YHWH?
Who (is the) Rock apart from our Mightiest (One)?”

The initial couplet extols YHWH as the Mighty One (la@, i.e. ‘God’). It is not a statement of absolute monotheism, but confirms that the only true (and proper) God for the people of Israel is El-Yahweh—that is, YHWH identified as the “Mighty One”, the ancient Semitic Creator Deity (‘El). On this qualified monotheism in the Israelite religion of the late-2nd and early-1st millennium, see, for example, the Song of Moses (Deut 32:3, 8-12, 15, 17-18, 30-31, 36ff). Cf. especially Deut 32:31, where the same divine appellative “Rock” (rWx) is used precisely to make this distinction that (only) YHWH is Israel’s God, greater and mightier than all others. A literal rendering here of la@ and <yh!ýa$ as “Mighty” and “Mightiest” is especially useful in preparing the way for the strength/victory motifs that follow.

Verse 33 [32]

“The Mighty (One is) my place of security,
and the (One) giving strength (of arms)—
(the) path of His (power is) complete!”

Verse 33 [32], in the text as we have it, would seem to be a 2+2+2 tricolon. Given the parallels between vv. 33-35 and Habakkuk 3:19, it is possible that a traditional 3-beat tricolon has been expanded (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 30). In the first line, Ps reads yn]r@Z+a^m=h^ (“the one girding me”), while 2 Sam has yZ]Wum* (“my place of security”); the latter is more concise and a more suitable parallel for the second line. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114, along with Freedman) in reading the MT /T@y] (“he gives”) as = participle /t@y) (“[the] one giving”); 2 Sam mistakenly reads the verb rty for /ty. I also understand yK!R=d^ in line 3 as preserving a y– 3rd person masculine suffix (“His way”); cp. the standard 3rd person o– suffix (oKr=d^) in 2 Sam. The royal theological background here also supports the connotation “domain, dominion” for ird, which I render above as “path (of power)”.  The corresponding line in Hab 3:19a is: “YHWH my Lord (is) my strength” (yl!yj@ yn`d)a& hwhy).

Verses 34-35 [33-34]

“Making my feet like (those of) a deer,
He lets me stand upon His high places;
teaching my hand(s) for battle,
He brings down (the) bronze bow (in) my arms.”

Following the relative difficulties in v. 33, verses 34-35 have a clearer sense, a pair of 3+3 couplets that expound the strength that YHWH gives to the Psalmist. The rhythm and idiom is a bit awkward, due to a mixing of motifs; the main difficulty is in the last line, where the precise sense of the image is unclear. Overall, the imagery relates to physical strength and prowess, used to represent military ability and leadership in battle. In the first couplet, the focus is on the feet—in terms of speed and leaping ability (the deer [lY`a^] makes for a natural comparison). The second couplet has the parallel idea of the hands (or arms)—there is no corresponding motif from nature, but a clear interpretation in terms of military skill. As the second line of the first couplet contains the idea of ascent, it seems likely that the verb tj^n` in the parallel line of the second couplet specifically denotes descent. The image seems to be that of a divinely-touched bow (tv#q#) descending (from heaven) into the Psalmist’s arms. The word hv*Wjn+ presumably means “bronze” (cp. Job 20:24); however, there are several distinct roots vjn in Hebrew, and Dahood (p. 115) would derive hvjn here from the root signifying enchantment (i.e. divination, etc)—i.e., an enchanted bow. Perhaps some such wordplay is involved, as there is also between vjn and tjn. In any case, the divinely-touched bow symbolizes military skill that is inspired/guided by YHWH.

The corresponding couplet in Hab 3:19b-c is:

“He sets my feet (to be) like a deer,
He makes me tread upon His high places”

As in the Psalm, it is best to read the y– of yt^omB* as preserving the 3rd person suffix (“His high places”), frequent in older poetry and easily confused with the standard 1st-person suffix (i.e., “my high places”).

Verses 36-37 [35-36]

“You have given to me (the) protection [i.e. shield] of your salvation,
[your right hand holds me up]
and your conquering (power) has increased m(y ability);
you have made wide my steps beneath me,
and (so) my ankles did not slip (out from under).”

Ps 18 has an additional line in the first couplet (in square brackets above), and the irregular meter also indicates likely corruption in the text; the shorter reading in 2 Sam is probably to be preferred. The imagery of military strength and prowess is continued from the prior couplets, only here the idea of victory and success (in battle) is included. The ‘shield’ of YHWH’s protection saves the Psalmist, and his own ability to conquer (root wnu/hnu) similarly comes from YHWH, bringing an increase (vb hbr) in his skill/strength. Similarly, God gives to him secure footing and strong support on the ground.

Verses 38-39 [37-38]

“I pursued my enemies and reached them,
and I did not return until I finished them;
I struck them and they were not able to rise,
they fell (dead there) under my feet!”

Here the Psalmist’s victory in battle is described, with a pair of 3+3 couplets that exhibit a more dramatic synthetic parallelism (the second line building upon the first). In both couplets, the text of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam 22, which reads “I destroyed them” instead of “I reached them” and “I finished them” (repeating the same verb from the end of the first couplet) instead of “I struck them”.

Verses 40-41 [39-40]

“You girded me (with) strength for (the) battle,
you bent (the one)s rising on me (to be) beneath me;
you gave my enemies to me (by the) neck,
the (one)s hating me—and I put and end to them!”

The slightly irregular rhythm of these couplets may be intentional, for dramatic effect, bringing a climax to the idea of the Psalmist’s victory over his enemies. The second couplet seems to build on the imagery of the first—the victorious warrior standing on the neck of his defeated enemy. I follow the reading of 2 Sam in the position of the w-conjunction in the last line, occurring before the final verb; again this adds to the dramatic effect.

Verses 42-43 [41-42]

“They called for help, and there was no (one) saving (them),
(even) upon YHWH, and He did not answer them;
I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path,
(and) like the mud outside I stamped them (down)!”

The defeat of the Psalmist’s enemies is complete in these two couplets, the second of which shows signs of corruption in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam. The Qumran Samuel manuscript 4QSama seems to preserve something close to the original reading of v. 43 [42]; in any case, it allows us to reconstruct it. As indicated above, the first line is:

I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path [jr^a)]

In Ps 18, jra seems to have been confused with jwr (“wind”), with the word yn@P= (“face of”) perhaps added to fill out the idiom (i.e. dust strewn about in the face of the wind). By contrast, in 2 Sam, jra was apparently misread as Jra (“earth”). The final verb of the second line in 2 Sam is <q@yr!a& (“I poured them out”), which appears to be a misreading of <u@q*r=a# (“I pounded/stamped them”), found also in Ps 18 but conflated with the synonymous <Q@d!a& (“I crushed them”).

Verses 44-46 [43-45]

“You delivered me from (the) arrows of (the) people,
and set me as (the) head of nations;
people I have not known shall serve me,
at (the) hearing of (their) ear they are made to hear me;
sons of an alien (people) submit themselves before me,
and are restrained by (the bond)s enclosing their (necks)!”

These closing lines of the poem of victory are most difficult, both textually and metrically, and in terms of sense. The precise imagery, for example, in the first couplet is hard to determine. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 117) in reading MT yb@yr! (“strivings/conflicts[?] of”) as = yB@r^ (“arrows [of]”), from the root bbr II; another possibility is oBr! (“multitudes”) from bbr I. Either of those two options seems better to fit the military imagery of the poem. Equally problematic is the second line of the couplet, where Ps has the verb <yc! (“you set me to [be] head”), while 2 Sam has rm^v* (“you guarded me as[?] head”). Dahood suggests that rm^v* is original, and that var) is not “head”, but a separate word (var)) meaning “poison”; this would yield a synonymous parallel:

“You delivered me from (the) arrows[?] of (the) people,
and guarded me against (the) poison of (the) nations”

However, it seems that a synthetic parallelism is more appropriate to these verses—i.e., God delivers the Psalmist, and so sets him as head over nations, that is, as a victorious sovereign over vassal kings. This would be fully in keeping with the underlying royal theology of the Psalm.

The textual difficulties in the last two couplets are even more acute. I follow McCarter (pp. 461-2), in reconstructing vv. 45-46 primarily on the basis of the shorter text in 4QSama. On this basis, it would seem that both Ps 18 and 2 Sam (MT) contain an extra (conflate) line: “sons of an alien (people) shrink [before me]” = “sons of an alien (people) cringe (?) before me”. The latter is preferred as the reading of v. 46a, though the exact meaning of the verb sj^k* is a bit difficult to determine. As this verb is used in the Old Testament, it seems to have the basic meaning “fail, fall short”, though on a few occasions it (or a separate root sjk) is used in the context of a defeated enemy, much as it is here (cf. Deut 33:29, also Ps 66:3; 81:15). Perhaps the idea in these instances is of a person showing weakness, either in the sense of submitting to the victorious party or cringing, etc, before them; both options are attested in the translations.

The final line, punctuating the poem, has its own complications. The verb rg~j* fundamentally means “surround”, sometimes in the sense of “restrain”, which almost certainly is the meaning here; Ps 18 incorrectly reads gr^j* (“tremble”) instead of rg~j*. The last word, a suffixed plural form of tr#G#s=m! (from rg~s*, “shut [up], close”), refers to something that encloses a person, possibly meant here in terms of a neck-collar that binds the prisoners of war (cf. verse 41 for the emphasis on the enemy’s neck). This is how I have chosen to render the line above (cf. McCarter, p. 472).

Psalm 18:47-51 [46-50]

The final portion of the Psalm is a brief hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH, similar in some respects to the concluding section of the first half (vv. 21-31), emphasizing the justice, etc, of YHWH.

Verses 47-49 [46-48]

“(By the) life of YHWH—blessed (be) my Rock,
and lifted high (the) Mightiest (One) of my salvation,
the Mighty (One), the (one) giving vengeance for me,
and (the one) bringing down peoples under me,
bringing me out from my enemies, and from (the one)s rising (against) me—
you lift me high up from (such a) man,
you snatch me (away) from (the) violent (one)s!”

After two couplets praising YHWH, the third opens up into a tricolon punctuated (in v. 49b) by a pair of two-beat lines extolling the deliverance and victory that God gives to the Psalmist. This again is part of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, focused specifically on the Davidic line (cf. below). The rendering of uv*y# and hm*q*n+ by “salvation” and “vengeance”, respectively, can be rather misleading; here they need to be construed more narrowly in terms of military victory, and the vindication of the king’s rule, rather than in the more general moral and religious sense. However, the message certainly could be (and was) applied to the people of God more generally, especially as the Psalm came to circulate and be used in a worship setting. The emphasis on deliverance in v. 49 returns to the main theme in the first half of the Psalm.

Verses 50-51 [49-50]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] will I throw you (praise), O YHWH,
and make music to your name among the nations,
(the One who) makes salvation great (for) His king,
and acts (with) loyalty to His Anointed,
to Dawîd and his seed unto (the) distant (future)!”

The final two couplets form a doxology, bringing the Psalm to a close. Whatever we me say about the date or composition of the main portions (poems) of the Psalm, almost certainly this doxology was added when they were brought together into a single poetic work. The last line, with its reference to David, confirms the Davidic association of the Psalm (cf. the superscription and the location in 1-2 Samuel), and, most likely, the early Judean milieu, during which time the complete poem could be copied and transmitted (along with certain scribal errors and adaptations), before its inclusion within Samuel and the Psalter, respectively.

The noun ds#j# (“goodness”) is the key term for the idea of covenant loyalty throughout the Psalm—i.e., as the Psalmist is faithful/loyal to YHWH (as his Sovereign), so God will respond in kind, rescuing him in his time of distress and giving him victory over his enemies.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965). “McCarter” refers to P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 9 (1984).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 3

Psalm 18:21-31

Verses 21-31 [20-30], function as a distinct unit within the Psalm. Many commentators would view it as the closing portion of the first half—or the first of the two original poems that make up Ps 18 / 2 Sam 22—and this would seem to be correct (cf. below). It is also possible to view these verses as intermediary, forming a bridge between the poem of deliverance (discussed in Parts 1 and 2) and what follows in verses 32-46, as a hymn giving thanks for (military) victory. The worthiness of the Psalmist is emphasized in vv. 21-31, from two thematic standpoints: (1) a judicial setting, stressing action that is in accord with justice, and (2) the idea of covenant loyalty, i.e. between a vassal and his sovereign. Both of these aspects are frequent in the Psalms, and reflect, to varying degrees, their royal theological (and ritual) background. The royal background is especially strong in the discernibly older poems, including those (such as Psalm 18) which may genuinely go back to the time of David.

Verses 21-25

It is possible again to divide verses 21-31 [20-30] into two parts, with vv. 21-25 [20-24] as they stand forming an inclusio, v. 25 essentially repeating the declaration in v. 21. The middle three couplets (vv. 22-24) most clearly evoke the judicial setting, as the Psalmist demonstrates his claim from verse 21/25.

Verses 21 [20]

“YHWH (has) dealt with me according to my justice,
according to (the) cleanness of my hands he returned (it) to me.”

In the context of the preceding verses, the Psalmist here states the reason why YHWH has heard his cry for help and acted to rescue him. It was because of “my justice” (yq!d=x!), that is, because the Psalmist has acted in a just and upright manner. The parallel in line 2 is the “cleanness [rb)] of my hands”. The basic idea of the root rrb seems to that of a substance (such as metal) that is clean and shining, free from impurities, etc. Clearly it is used here in an ethical sense—i.e., to be free from sin and guilt, with the idiom of “clean hands” being natural (drawn from the idea of ritual purity), and attested variously in the Scriptures, especially within the Wisdom traditions (e.g., Psalm 24:4; 73:13; Job 17:9; 22:30, etc).

Metrically, yq!d=x!K= is to be preferred over yt!q*d=x!K= in 2 Sam 22, which has the more abstract noun hq*d*x= instead of qd#x#. The rhythm of the 3+3 couplet is better preserved here in Ps 18.

Verses 22-24 [21-23]

“For I have guarded the ways of YHWH,
and have not done wrong (against) my Mighty [One];
(in) that all His judgments are th(ere) in front of me,
and His inscribed (decree)s I did not turn (away) from me;
I have been complete(ly straight) with Him,
and guarded myself from (any) crookedness (with) Him.”

In this trio of 3+3 couplets, the Psalmist, as in a judicial setting before YHWH, demonstrates his claim to justice in v. 21. It involves three instances of synonymous parallelism—one in each couplet—by which his loyalty and faithfulness to YHWH is affirmed. Here, we are dealing more properly with the idea of covenant loyalty, and this is expressed three ways, corresponding to the three couplets.

The first couplet generally refers to the “ways of YHWH”, a kind of blanket reference to God as a sovereign exercising authority over a vast domain (the Er#d# can refer fundamentally to a territory). The Psalmist, as a subordinate (vassal), declares his faithfulness with the dual-aspect motif of “guarding” (vb rm^v*, repeated in v. 24b) the covenant bond, along with avoiding the opposite (i.e. doing wrong against his sovereign). The syntax of the second line is a bit uncertain, as the MT reads yh*ýa$m@ yT!u=v^r* aýw+ (“and I have not done wrong from my Mighty [One]”). However, the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) after the verb uv^r* is somewhat awkward and unexpected. Cross and Freedman (p. 27) propose that the text be emended to an original þm ytuvp, reading the verb uv^P* instead of the more general uv^r*. This is an attractive solution, as the verb uv^P*, which can distinctly connote the breaking of a covenant relationship, even to the point of a rebellion/revolt, can also be used with the preposition /m! (cf. 2 Kings 8:20, 22), i.e., “break (away) from”, “rebel from (the authority of)”.

In the second couplet, the focus is on the royal decisions and decrees of YHWH. The noun fP*v=m! (“judgment”), preserves the overall judicial context of the passage, but also refers specifically here to the idea of the sovereign as ultimate lawgiver and adjudicator. The noun hQ*j%, provides the parallel, emphasizing the written (authoritative) decrees of the sovereign. For the people of Israel generally, this refers to the decrees and regulations inscribed in the Torah, the written document(s) that preserve the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. The ruler (and the ruling family/dynasty) has his own related binding agreement, as a vassal king under YHWH, the ultimate sovereign. Here the Psalmist’s conduct has to do with not turning (i.e. setting) aside (vb rWs) the very terms of the covenant that are right there in front (dgn) of him; the implication in the first line is that he has kept God’s decrees in front of him, an indication of his faithfulness. The expression “from me” (yn]M#m!) is parallel to “from my Mighty One [i.e. God]” in the first couplet, and would seem to confirm that the prefixed –m there is indeed the preposition (and correct, contra Dahood, p. 111).

The 3+3 meter in the third couplet is less secure, in the text as it stands (the second line has two beats). The longer form of the initial verb in 2 Sam is more likely to be original (with or without the w-conjunction, cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 28). There is also a difference in the preposition in the first line: ol (“to[ward] him” 2 Sam) vs. oMu! (“with him” Psa). There is presumably little difference in meaning, since both would refer to the covenant bond between the Psalmist and YHWH, but the reading in Ps 18 (oMu!) should perhaps be preferred on metrical grounds. While it is possible that a word has dropped out of the second line, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 112) in reading yn]ou&m@ as preserving an archaic 3rd person singular (object) suffix, “perversion/crookedness [i.e. acting crookedly] (with) Him”. This establishes the parallel with the first line—the Psalmist’s complete (<mt) loyalty and integrity means that he never bends or twists, so as to act crookedly toward his Sovereign.

Verse 25 [24]

“And (so) YHWH has returned to me according to my justice,
according to the cleanness of my hands in front of His eyes.”

This effectively restates the declaration in v. 21, having been proven and affirmed by the evidence presented in vv. 22-24. The Psalmist’s covenant loyalty has been confirmed before God in this judicial setting. The verb in this regard, in both vv. 21 and 25, is bWv (“[re]turn”)—since the Psalmist has proven himself just, YHWH returns justice to him, based on the covenant bond, acting to rescue and protect him in his time of need.

Verses 26-31

The second portion functions as a hymn of praise to YHWH, for His faithfulness and justice. Even the Psalmist declared it on his own behalf in vv. 21-25, now he affirms the same of His Sovereign. It is thus a fitting conclusion to the first half of the Psalm, and prepares the way for the hymn of victory that follows in vv. 32-46.

Verses 26-27 [25-26]

“With (the) loyal, you (yourself) are loyal,
with (the) complete, you (yourself) are complete;
with (the) pure, you (yourself) are pure,
but with (the) crooked, you (yourself) are twisted!”

These two couplets form a gnomic (proverbial) pair, which affirms the covenant faithfulness of YHWH, in terms of the extent to which the other party (i.e. the vassal) has been faithful. This reflects a perfect kind of justice, since God’s response mirrors that of His human vassal (the lex talionis principle). The first three statements are synonymous, with the goodness (loyalty, ds#j#) of the faithful servant expressed by two other characteristics previously mentioned in vv. 21-25 (cf. above)—complete integrity (<mt) and purity (rb), both of intention and conduct. The fourth line indicates the opposite, the other possibility—i.e., disloyalty and lack of integrity—and the initial w-conjunction should be read in an adversative sense (“but…”). The idea of crookedness, of bending away from covenant loyalty, was previously expressed by the noun /ou*, but here by the adjective vQ@u!, indicating something that has been distorted. Here, too, YHWH responds in kind; if the person is crooked, distorting the covenant bond, then He also will be twisted toward him. The verb used is lt^P*, which can connote the twisting that occurs as one grapples/wrestles with another.

Verse 28 [27]

“For you, you save (the) people bent down,
but (the) eyes raised high you bring (down) low!”

This couplet continues the motifs from v. 27, including the image of bending, here expressed in terms of the result of the crookedness/perversion of the disloyal (wicked), who oppress the populace. Built into this is the same contrast from v. 27—God is faithful to the righteous, but opposes the wicked. In each instance, there is a reversal of fortune—the oppressed are raised (saved/rescued), while those with worldly ambition (“eyes raised high”) are humbled. The reading of this verse in Ps 18 more accurately reflects the original (cf. the discussion in Cross and Freedman, p. 28).

Verses 29-30 [28-29]

“For you are my (shining) light, O YHWH,
my Mighty [One] makes bright my darkness;
for with you I run strong of limb,
and with my Mighty [One] I (can) leap a wall.”

These two 3+3 couplets, like that of v. 28 [27], begin with the particle -yK!. The implication seems to be that the promise of salvation for the faithful is here being applied personally by the Psalmist. I.e., what you do for those loyal to you, YHWH, when they are oppressed, may you do (now) for me. This theme of deliverance, so central to the earlier sections of the Psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2), is here expressed through two different motifs: (1) light to see by, and (2) strength of limb (for battle, etc). The first motif is more general, common to many different religious and wisdom traditions. The reading of Ps 18 in this line appears to be conflate, with the variant readings(?) rn@ and ra) combined (2 Sam has only rn). Both words essentially mean “light”, though rn@ more properly indicates a shining/burning light (or “lamp”). Otherwise, the reading of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam.

The motif in the second couplet involves physical strength, which foreshadows the military imagery in vv. 32-46 (to be discussed in the next study). Somewhat difficult is the exact meaning of the word dwdg; I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114) in relating it to the root dyG, generally denoting strong limbs (i.e. muscles, sinews). Elsewhere, the noun dWdG+, presumably derived from ddg (“cut [through]”), seems to refer to an attacking military force. That may also be the sense here; the parallelism could be: “I rush through an army // I leap over a wall”.

Verse 31 [30]

“The Mighty (One)—His way is complete,
the word of YHWH is (as) pure (metal),
He is protection for the (one)s taking shelter in Him.”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon, the first line of which echoes early poetic language such as in Deut 32:4, while the latter two lines seem to reflect (later) Wisdom tradition (being very close in wording to Prov 30:5). As I have already mentioned several times in these studies, many Psalms, in their closing portions, appear to have been influenced by Wisdom traditions. This was a natural by-product of the adaptation and use of earlier poems for a wider audience, giving to the ritual and royal-theological setting a wisdom application for the people as a whole. A possible explanation for the tricolon form of v. 31 is that an early couplet was modified in light of Prov 30:5 (or a similar Wisdom tradition), the second line being ‘replaced’ by an additional wisdom-couplet which would close the poem (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 29). If so, it would confirm that verse 31 marks the end of the first of two poems that eventually came to make up the Psalm, and may have circulated independently for a time, before being joined with the second poem (vv. 32ff).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 2

Verses 8-20

The core of the first half of Psalm 18, the first poem (vv. 2-31), is the description in verses 8-20 of YHWH’s action, in response to the Psalmist’s cry for help (vv. 5-7, cf. Part 1 of this study). It is the description of a storm-theophany—that is, of God manifesting Himself in the storm. Many deities (or conceptions of deity) in the ancient world are manifest in atmospheric natural phenomena, whether or not they involve the actual personification of the storm itself. Most notable, among the Canaanites, the storm-theophany was associated with the deity Haddu, known commonly by the honorific title “Lord [Ba’al] Haddu”. For the Israelites, of course, this theophany belonged to YHWH, and the similarities with Baal Haddu help to explain the fierce anti-Baal polemic among devoted Yahwists, found in the Old Testament Prophetic traditions. Canaanite Baal was effectively a religious competitor to El-Yahweh in Israel, throughout the late 2nd and early 1st millennium B.C. Psalm 18:8-20 is one of the clearest instances of the ancient storm-theophany applied to El-Yahweh.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“And it shook and trembled, (did) the earth,
and (the) firm (foundation)s of (the) hills quivered,
and shook themselves, that (such) burning came f(rom) Him.
Smoke went up with [i.e. from] His nostril(s),
and fire from his mouth devoured (all things),
glowing (fire)s blazing (forth) from Him!”

This first strophe, made up of a pair of (3+3+3) tricola, describes the disruption of the natural order of things as YHWH approaches, so that even the strongest parts of the earth (the mountains/hills), from their deepest foundations, are shaken and tremble with fear. Three different verbs, indicating shaking/trembling/quivering, are used—vu^G`, vu^r*, and zg~r*—all with a similar sound; this assonance and alliteration is almost impossible to capture in translation. The anger of God, which causes nature to shake with fear, is depicted with the traditional imagery of a burning fire; the smoke and glowing bursts (sparks, burning embers, etc) may also allude to the natural phenomena of fires caused by lightning. The smoke/fire in the nostrils, drawing upon the motif of the angry animal (bull, etc), is a common Old Testament image for the anger of El-YHWH.

The main difference in 2 Samuel 22 here is the expression “firm (foundation)s of the heavens [<y]m^V*h^]” instead of “…of (the) hills [<yr!h*]”.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“And He spread (apart the) heavens and came down,
and (the) storm-cloud (was) under His feet;
and He rode upon (the) kerub and took flight,
and swooped (riding) upon wings of (the) wind.”

This next strophe is a pair of 3+3 couplets, depicting the phenomenon of the dark storm-cloud (lp#r*u&, Ugaritic ²rpl) itself. The image is an inclusio, with the first and fourth lines describing the cloud as it moves through the sky and approaches (descends). The spreading apart (vb hf*n`) of the skies is parallel with the outstretched “wings” of the sky. The Masoretic text in the fourth line reads “wings of the wind [j^Wr]”, but Dahood (p. 107) suggests that the consonantal text jwr should be vocalized instead jw~r#, meaning a “wide space” (as in Gen 32:17; Est 4:14). The basic imagery would not differ that much; the emphasis would be on the spreading of the sky rather than the atmosphere (skies/wind) itself. The correct verb in line 4 is ad#Y@w~ (“and He swooped”), but the MT of 2 Sam 22:11b reads ar*Y@w~ (“and He was seen”), reflecting a scribal mistake of the letter r for d.

In the second and third (inner) lines, YHWH is shown standing/riding upon the storm-cloud, itself personified as a great winged being, a bWrK= (kerub). The derivation of this term remains uncertain, but it clearly is meant to depict a winged being, of divine/heavenly nature, best known from the iconography of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple (esp. the golden box [ark] which served as the ‘throne’ for YHWH). Depiction of the storm as a bird is relatively common in ancient mythology, one of the best examples being the imagery associated with Ninurta in Sumerian religious/cosmological myth. Baal Haddu is similarly depicted as a great bird on a number of occasions, and so also YHWH in the older (poetic) strata of Old Testament tradition (e.g., Deut 32:11; Hab 3:3-4).

In terms of ancient cosmological-mythic conceptions, the idea of the deity riding (or standing) upon the natural phenomenon emphasizes his control over it. This reflects a development in religious thought, going beyond the idea of the deity as represented by the phenomenon itself (or as a personification of it). Clearly, in Israelite religion, YHWH was not simply manifest in the storm, but transcended it, coming down from heaven to ride upon the storm-cloud.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

The rhythm and meter in the MT of vv. 12-13 is irregular and awkward; comparison with 2 Sam 22 suggests that the text is corrupt, in terms of the original poem. Cross and Freedman (p. 25f) provide an interesting reconstruction. Let us consider the first couplet in verse 12, beginning with the MT of the Psalm:

“He set darkness (as) His covering round about Him,
His covered (lair) (the) darkness of waters, clouds of vapors

It is an awkward 4+4 couplet, and the italicized portions are suspect. For one thing, in 2 Sam 22, the first line has only 3 beats, and is more likely to be correct in that regard:

“And He set darkness round about Him” (2 Sam)
wyt*b)yb!s= Ev#j) tv#Y`w~
“He set darkness (as) His covering round about Him” (Ps)
wyt*obyb!s= [ort=s!] Ev#j) tv#y`

The word in brackets (ort=s!, “his covering”) is likely an accretion; however, the initial w-conjunction in 2 Sam is probably secondary as well. Taking this into account, the putative first line of the original would be:

“He set darkness round about Him”

There are several difficulties in the second line. Ps and 2 Sam are largely identical, except that the Ps reads “darkness of water” (<y]m^-tk^v=h#) while 2 Sam has “collection of water” (<y]m^-tr^v=j^). The latter reading is to be preferred, with the noun hr*v=j^ meaning something like a container or “sieve” for gathering water. The final words “clouds of vapors” do not fit the meter of the couplet; in all likelihood, the words belong with the subsequent line, but this creates additional problems that have to be addressed. However, if correct, the original (or close to it) of verse 12 would read:

“He set darkness round about Him,
His cover (is) a collection of water”

This is a streamlined 3+3 couplet, with the noun hK*s% properly indicating the “covering” of YHWH; it can refer to a thatched (woven) structure, or to a more lavish sort of canopy (like a royal pavilion). The main idea is that the dark rain clouds are all around Him.

It is more difficult to make sense of significant differences between Ps and 2 Sam in verse 13, especially if the last words of v. 12 properly belong to that couplet. Here is my attempt at isolating a possible original:

“Clouds of vapors (go) in front of Him,
hail-stone(s) and flashes of fire”
oDg=n# <yq!j*v= yb@u*
va@-yl@j&g~w+ dr*B*

The word Hg~N)m! (“from brightness”) in both Ps and 2 Sam would be explained as a scribal mistake (haplography), while the addition of Wrb=u* wyb*u* may represent a gloss that made its way into the text. In 2 Sam, somehow the word dr*B* (“hail”) came to be mistaken for wru&B*, perhaps under the influence of v. 9. Here then, is how the two couplets might have read originally, taken together:

“He set darkness round about Him,
His cover (is) a collection of water;
clouds of vapors (go) in front of Him,
hail-stone(s) and flashes of fire.”

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“YHWH thundered in the heavens,
the Highest (One) gave (out) His voice;
He sent (out) His arrows and scattered them,
multiplied lightning flashes and set them in motion.”

After the description of the approaching storm cloud, we have depicted the phenomena associated with the storm itself—thunder (v. 14 [13]) and lightning (v. 15 [14]). In the ancient world, the sound of thunder (vb <u^r*, indicating a crashing/rumbling sound) was conceived as the “voice” (loq) of the deity (here El-YHWH). When YHWH “gives” (vb /t^n`) out his voice, there is a terrifying sound of thunder, as in the famous theophany at Sinai (Exod 19:16, 19; 20:18). In verse 15 [14], the related phenomenon of lightning is described—first, figuratively as “arrows” (<yX!j!), and second, more realistically as bright flashes (<yq!r*B=) in the sky. The arrow-motif emphasizes the military aspect of this imagery—the storm being a means (whether literally or figuratively) by which God strikes enemies and evil-doers.

The wording of the last line is a bit difficult, and could be read several ways. The final verb (<m^h*) is typically understood in the sense of causing a disturbance or commotion, but I have rendered it above in the more fundamental sense of setting something in motion. Possibly a bit of wordplay is intended—as YHWH sets his lightning bolts in motion, He causes a commotion among His enemies, setting them in motion (they flee/scatter). This same wordplay would involve the third person suffixes on the verbs JWP and <m^h* (“He scattered them”, “He set them in motion”)—they properly refer to YHWH’s lightning bolts, but secondarily they can also allude to the enemies of YHWH who are scattered, etc.

Verse 16 [15]

“And (the) channels of (the) sea were seen,
and the foundations of (the) lb@T@ were uncovered,
from your (powerful) rebuke, YHWH,
from (the) burst of wind of your nostrils.”

The text of 2 Sam seems to confirm the reading “channels of the sea” (<y` yq@yp!a&), and that <ym (“waters”) in the MT of Ps 18 perhaps misreads an enclitic mem (<) at the end of the verb form. The noun lb@T@ in line 2 is difficult to render here; typically it is translated “world”, but literally it refers to something being carried or transported—i.e. the space (of the earth) that ‘carries’ the sea and its channels. The noun qyp!a* in line 1 similarly refers to a container, and the parallelism of the couplet is best seen as a synonymous (and/or synthetic) step-parallelism

    • the channels whereby the sea (and its waves, currents, etc) moves are revealed,
      • then the deeper parts (to the bottom) are uncovered.

On the idea of the “foundations” of the deep being uncovered, and the general idiom, cf. Job 36:30, and the Canaanite Aqhat text VI.48, etc. This sort of imagery was depicted in the traditional scene of the crossing of the reed-sea, in which the storm-winds of YHWH uncovered the bottom of the sea, allowing the Israelites to cross over on solid ground (Exod 14:21-22, etc).

Keeping in mind the military imagery of the storm-theophany (cf. above), we must remember the ancient Near Eastern cosmological tradition of the conquest of the Sea by the (Storm) deity. This traditional imagery was certainly applied to YHWH, though only traces of the association survive, in certain Psalms and archaic poetry of the Old Testament. Cf. my recent article on the subject.

The subjugation of the Sea indicates YHWH’s power and control over the natural forces in the universe. It is described here, in the second couplet of v. 16 [15], dramatically as a great roar (of thunder) and a powerful storm-wind. I read this as a slightly irregular (slanted) 2+2 couplet, again with synonymous parallelism:

    • your roar/rebuke | YHWH
    • the burst/blast (of the) | wind of your nostrils

Like a powerful animal, YHWH roars, and this terrifying cry “rebukes” the Sea. This would seem to involve a play on the root ru^g` which can carry both meanings (roar/rebuke, for the Canaanite evidence cf. Dahood, p. 110). On the depiction of the anger of El-YHWH by the motif of the nostrils of a (snorting) bull, etc, see above on verse 9. There, the image was of a burning fire from the nostrils, here it is a powerful blast of wind.

Verses 17-18 [16-17]

“He sent (down) from (the) high places and took me,
He pulled me (out) from (the) many waters;
He snatched me (away) from my powerful enemy,
and from (the one)s hating me, for they were strong(er) than me!”

Verses 17-18 [16-17] are comprised of a regular pair of 3+3 couplets, though this rhythm is hard to convey in a literal translation. Especially awkward to render is the last line. Based on the theory that lwav in the superscription refers to Sheol (i.e. Death and the grave), rather than “Saul”, supported by the context in vv. 5-6 [4-5], then the “powerful enemy” of the Psalmist is the death (personified) that threatens him, being manifest (literally or figuratively) in his various (human?) enemies (“the ones hating me”). In the first couplet, these “enemies” are represented as “waters”, i.e. a manifestation of the turbulent and chaotic Sea. Thus, in spite of the traditional historical setting of the superscription (as customarily read), we should be cautious about attributing the Psalm to any specific historical event.

What is especially emphasized is the power (zu) and strength (vb Jm^a*) of the Psalmist’s enem(ies), which requires intervention from YHWH in order to rescue him. The military imagery from the earlier couplets is continued here, rendered through the mythological idiom of the storm-theophany (cf. above).

Verses 19-20 [18-19]

“He came near to me in (the) day of my distress,
and YHWH was a place of support [i.e. protection] for me,
and He brought me out (in)to the broad place—
He pulled me (out), for He has delight in me.”

I follow Dahood (p. 110f) in reading the first verb of line 1 as a Piel singular, rather than plural, form (i.e. “He came near to me”). The consonantal text of 2 Sam (ynmdqy) supports this, and it better expresses the overall sense and imagery of these two couplets in context. YHWH comes near to the Psalmist; the verb <dq also can specifically connote the idea of coming in front of someone, i.e. to offer protection, as here. God Himself becomes a place of safety and support, in which (and by which) the Psalmist is brought out into “the broad/wide place” (bj*r=m#). This wide, open space is in direct contrast to the “distress” the Psalmist experienced—i.e. being in a tight space, surrounded by “many waters” that force and press him down. I have to disagree with Dahood (p. 111) who understands bj*r=m# as a poetic term for the ‘nether world’ (i.e. of Death). While there is some support for such a view (cf. Job 38:16-18), it seems to contradict the overall emphasis in vv. 19-20 on the theme of salvation/deliverance—i.e. the place to which God delivers the Psalmist, rather than the place from which he is rescued.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 1

Psalm 18

The 18th Psalm is one of the longest compositions in the Psalter. Its many archaic features, including ancient Canaanite elements, make any critical study of it challenging, as does the fact that the poem has been preserved separately as 2 Samuel 22, and the two versions must be compared. For this reason, it is necessary to divide our study into several parts, to be spread out over different Sundays. The first part will begin with an overview of the composition, and a comparative analysis of the opening verses.

Overview

Psalm 18 is unique in that a second form of it has been preserved independently, at the end of the David narratives in the books of Samuel (2 Sam 22). It would seem that Psalm 18 is closer to the original form of the poem, but this can only be established through a detailed textual comparison. This study will make use of both versions, examining each couplet and strophe in parallel, noting any key differences.

It is sometimes thought that more than one composition is involved, and that different poems were combined; most common is a two-part division into poems vv. 2-31 [1-30] and 32-51 [31-50]. Questions regarding the integrity of such a long and complex Psalm are natural enough, though ultimately speculative. As we consider each section, within the overall contours of the poem, the possibility of its composite character will be discussed.

The meter of the Psalm tends to be 3+3, utilizing the three-beat bicolon format; however, there are exceptions, including the use of 3+3+3 tricola, for example, in vv. 8-9 and 14. Attempts to emend or reconstruct points of difficulty on the basis of supposed metrical consistency are highly questionable, yet certain critical emendations are more plausible than others, and will be discussed.

The extended heading (superscription) is curious, both in form and content. After the initial address to the musical director (presumably, Heb. j^X@n~m=), it reads:

“(belonging) to (the) servant of YHWH, to Dawid, who uttered to YHWH the words of this song, in (the) day (that) YHWH pulled him away from (the) palm(s) of all his enemies and from (the) hand of lwav.”

This is nearly identical to the introduction in 2 Sam 22:1, which begins, appropriately in the context of the narrative, “And Dawid uttered to YHWH the words of this song…”. Otherwise, the only difference is a repeated use of “from the palm(s) of” instead of “from the hand of”. In Samuel, the poem serves to close the cycle of David narratives; thus its association with David is especially strong, perhaps more so than any other composition in the Psalter. The Canaanite elements in the poem certainly suggest an early date that could, on entirely objective grounds, support Davidic authorship. These details will be discussed at the appropriate points throughout our study.

The closing word of the heading, lwav, is pointed by the Masoretes as lWav*, i.e. the proper name (Saul), which could perhaps be translated literally as an abbreviated form of the phrase-name “requested (of God)”, cp. la@yT!l=a^v=. While this would allude to the famous episodes in the David narratives (1 Samuel 18-24), there is serious question as to whether lWav* is the correct pointing of the text. For example, it is odd to juxtapose Saul with “all of his enemies”, since Saul would have been counted as one of those enemies; possibly the w-conjunction has the force of “and even from the hand of Saul”, or “and especially from the hand of Saul”, but this is questionable. More to the point is the fact that the poem itself mentions not lWav* (Saul), but loav= (Sheol), and this makes a more appropriate pairing with “all of his enemies”:

“…in the day (that) YHWH pulled him away from the palm(s) of all his enemies and from the hand of Sheol [i.e. death, the grave].”

Conceivably, there is an intentional play on words (lWav*/loav=), introduced by the author of the heading.

First Part (Poem 1): Verses 2-31 [1-30]

Verses 2-4

The relationship between the two versions in these verses is complex. Vv. 2-4 form an introductory stanza of praise to YHWH. Let us compare them as they stand, beginning with Psalm 18:

“And he said:
I love you, YHWH, my strength!
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and my (only) means of escape,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls), being (worthy) of praise!
I called to YHWH,
and from my enemies I was saved.”

Here is the same relative portion of the 2 Samuel version:

“And he said:
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and (the) means of escape for me,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls) and my place to flee—
the (One) bringing salvation (to) me,
from violence you (have) saved me!
Being (worthy) of praise, I call to YHWH,
and (so) I am saved from my enemies.”

In their landmark study on this Psalm, F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman present the interesting theory that verses 2-4, in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22, are a conflation of two different earlier forms of the introduction (see pp. 21-22 of their study). In each reconstructed form, there are six lines, with a 3+3 bicolon followed by a pair of 2+2 bicola:

Different images and motifs of protection are present in these lines. The primary emphasis is on a protective place (location) high up in the cliffs, blending with the standard ancient Near Eastern idea of the fortified hilltop site. From this wider military application, the imagery moves to the narrower focus of personal protection, over the body, etc, of the one whom YHWH delivers from danger.

Verses 5-7

A different aspect of salvation is described in this stanza, utilizing the ancient mythic-cosmic image of Death (and chaos/destruction) as a great opponent of YHWH, even as death and disorder are the opposite of life and order. I have discussed the meaning and background of the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol) in prior studies as well as a supplemental article; the similar term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al, Belial) was also examined briefly in an earlier article. This emphasis provides a strong argument that lwav in the superscription ought to be read as Sheol (loav=) rather than Saul (lWav*), cf. above.

“The breaking (wave)s of Death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al (engulf)ed me (with) terror;
the twisted (cord)s of She’ol turned around me,
the snares of Death came (right) in front of me.
In th(is) tight (spot) for me, I called to YHWH,
unto my Mightiest [Elohim] I (cri)ed for help;
He heard my voice from His palace,
and my cry for help came in(to) His ears.”

Apart from some minor orthographic differences, we may note the following more substantial textual/versional points:

    • 2 Sam v. 4 begins with the particle yK! (“for”) which probably should be omitted as secondary.
    • The first line of Psa v. 4 has “twisted (cord)s” (yl@b=j#, plural construct), as in line 3, whereas 2 Sam reads “breaking (wave)s” (yr@B=v=m!), which much better suits the imagery of the couplet and is to be preferred.
    • Most commentators agree that the last line in Psa v. 7 is a conflation of two different phrases “came to(ward) His face [i.e. before Him]” and “came in(to) His ears”; the latter is the reading of 2 Sam, and probably is to be preferred. In any case, it would seem that only one of the two would have been present originally.

The remainder of the first part of the Psalm will be examined in next week’s study.

The aforementioned study by Cross and Freedman (“A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”) was originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.



Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 17

Psalm 17

This vivid, passionate Psalm is simply called a “petition” (hL*p!T=) in the heading, and a Davidic composition. Its tone and language are similar to several other of the Psalms we have studied so far, which also had many characteristics of a prayer or appeal to God. The meter of the Psalm is mixed, generally alternating between 4+3, 3+3, and 4+4 couplets. It may roughly be broken into two parts: in vv. 1-5 the Psalmist declares his innocence and loyalty to YHWH, while in vv. 6-15 the prayer turns to a request for protection and for the destruction of the Psalmist’s enemies. As always in these compositions, the ‘enemies’ are a nameless, faceless crowd–not individuals so much as a collective personification of the suffering and affliction felt by the protagonist. It is possible to subdivide vv. 7-15 into at least two tropes or sections (vv. 7-12 and 13-15).

Verses 1-5

Each part of the Psalm begins with a direct appeal to God, giving the work the character of a petition (hL*p!T=), as indicated in the heading. The verse 1 petition is comprised of a pair of 2+2 bicola:

“Hear, YHWH (my plea for) justice,
give attention to my cry (for help);
turn (your) hear to my petition,
(from) lips with no deceit (in them).”

To preserve the meter, with the inclusion of the divine name (YHWH) in the first line, the substance of the request is abbreviated. We might otherwise expect yq!d=x! (“my justice”) instead of simple qd#x# (“justice”), with “my justice” best understood as “my plea for justice”, “my request for justice”, justice being a frequent and constant theme in the Psalms, especially those with lament and prayer features. The parallelism in the first couplet is synonymous, while the second is synthetic. However, Dahood (p. 93) would read the MT aýB= (usually understood as preposition B= + a negative particle, “with no”) as a form of the verb alb (= hlb), “wear out”. This would give to the line the meaning “wear out [i.e. consume/destroy] lips of deceit”; then the parallelism of the couplet would be synonymous (and, in a sense, antithetic), contrasting the Psalmist’s prayer with the words of wicked/deceitful men. While this is possible, the parallel with verse 6, as well as the overall tone of vv. 1-5, suggests that the focus of the petition is entirely on the Psalmist, rather than the wicked.

Verses 2-3ab are comprised of a pair of 3+3 bicola in which the Psalmist declares his own loyalty and adherence to justice, and asks YHWH (as Judge) to test him in this regard:

“May my judgment (shin)e forth from (be)fore your face,
may your eyes look (clearly) at (my) straightness (in all thing)s;
you (may) test my heart, examine me (during the) night,
melt me (in the fire)—you will not find my intention (to be evil)!”

Each couplet contains a kind of synthetic parallelism, the second line building upon the first, increasing the dramatic tension. In the first line of each couplet the Psalmist calls on YHWH to test him, and deliver the judgment (fP*v=m!) which will confirm his just and faithful character. In the second line, he predicts how this test will come out for him. The motif of the first couplet involves the clarity and brightness of God’s judgment, since it comes from His very face which shines forth (vb ax*y`, “go out”) light, and His eyes which penetrate the darkness (of night). The Divine Presence thus sees and reveals all things. The second couplet deals with the idea and imagery of testing (metal, etc) with fire, this comes out clearly in line two with the verb [r^x*, which has to do with the smelting/refining of metal; it makes more concrete the testing (vb /j^B*) and examining (dq^P*) mentioned in line one.

Establishing an accurate division of vv. 3-5 into lines is somewhat difficult, the standard versification is problematic, both metrically and in terms of the parallelism of the lines. Moreover, the sense is not entirely clear regardless of how they are divided. Assuming that the MT preserves the text of the Psalm here more or less intact, it would seem that vv. 3c-5 should be taken together as a pair of (4+4?) couplets. In these lines the Psalmist declares more precisely the just nature of his character and conduct:

“My mouth does not cross over toward the deeds of man,
(but) by the word of your lips (do) I keep (myself);
(from the) paths of destruction my steps stay firmly (away),
(and) my footsteps are not shaken (from) within your tracks.”

In each couplet the Psalmist declares that he keeps away from the world and its wickedness (line 1), while at the same time keeping himself close to the ways of God (line 2). The juxtaposition of words (mouth/lips) and deeds in the first couplet is a bit odd, something of a mixed metaphor; probably here hL*u%P= should be understood in the general sense of “activity, behavior”, which would include how a person speaks. Dahood (pp. 94-5) reads the first line a bit differently, with the verb rb^u* in the sense of transgressing (i.e. crossing a boundary), and MT <da not as the common noun signifying humankind (“man”), but as a rare/archaic dual form of dy` (= da*), “hand”, i.e. God’s hand. The line would then read: “My mouth does not cross over against the works of (your) hands”. I do not find that interpretation particularly convincing; moreover, it distorts the parallelism of the couplets, which fits better if “paths of destruction” is juxtaposed with “deeds of man“.

The imagery in the second couplet is clearer—that of a person walking (steps/footsteps) in certain established paths. In the first line the paths are of destruction (Jyr!P*), i.e. broken down, as the result of violence (implied); the Psalmist keeps away from these (the verb Em^T*, “keep firm”, in the sense of keeping firmly away from something). Instead, his feet are kept securely in the tracks (pl. of lG`u=m^) God has laid down. The root lgu seems to indicate a round or circular track, such as the ditch which encircles a fortified site, which would serve as a suitable contrast to a site that had been broken down and destroyed (vb Jrp).

Verses 6-15

I am inclined to divide this second part into three components: (1) an initial petition (v. 6, parallel to that in v. 1), (2) a call for protection from the wicked/enemies (vv. 7-12), and (3) a renewed call to be rescued from the wicked, along with their punishment (vv. 13-15).

Verse 6

“I call on you, for you will answer me, Mighty (One);
stretch (down) your ear to me (and) hear my speaking [i.e. hear me as I speak].”

This is a single 4+4 bicolon which echoes the petition in verse 1 (cf. above). The request assumes that God will answer the Psalmist, a reflection of the covenant bond shared between El-YHWH and those loyal/faithful to him. Quite often in the Psalms this covenant emphasis blends together with idea of God as Judge, delivering justice for His people. That is certainly the case here.

Verses 7-12

In both verse 7 and 13 there is a call on YHWH to act, i.e. in His primary role as Judge—to protect the righteous and punish the wicked. This call marks the beginning of the two main sections in this part of the Psalm. The meter of verse 7 is apparently 3+3:

“May you set forth your goodness, (you the one) bringing salvation,
stopping with your right hand (the one)s standing up (against me)!”

I am inclined to derive <ys!oj from the root <sj (“stop up, muzzle”), along with Dahood (p. 96); this seems to make better sense of the text than reading it as a plural particple of hsj. The parallelism is synthetic—in the first line the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act (in covenant loyalty) to bring salvation, while in the second this act entails, specifically, the stopping of those hostile to the Psalmist (i.e. the wicked).

Verses 8-9 represent a pair of couplets (with mixed meter, 3+3 and 4+4), emphasizing the Psalmist’s request for protection from his enemies:

“May you guard me as (the) center within your eye,
in the shade of your wings you will keep me hidden,
from (the) face of wicked (one)s (who) would ruin me,
my enemies in (the) soul (who) come round against me.”

The main difficulty in these verses is the syntax of the fourth line with the expression vp#n#B= (“in/with [the] soul”); it is best understood as modifying “my enemies” (yb^y+a)), i.e. those seeking the soul of the Psalmist. In English idiom we might say, “my mortal enemies”. Also uncertain is the word tb in line 1. The MT /y]u*-tB^ literally means “daughter of (the) eye”, but it is possible that tB relates instead to tyB@, construct of the noun meaning “house”, or sometimes the place within a house or room. This might accord better with the context—i.e. the center (pupil) within the eye.

Verse 10 is hard to place, being a single couplet (with an irregular 2+3 meter) that, apparently, functions as an aside, an insulting description of the wicked person’s character:

“They are shut up in their (own) fat,
(and) with a rising up (of) their mouth they speak!”

The motif of being “shut up” or enclosed with fat (bl#j#) relates to the idea that the wicked are unable to hear and understand the word of God; instead, they speak arrogantly, proud of themselves. The uneven meter continues in verses 11-12, couplets alternating 3+4 and 4+3; it shows the hostile and violent action of the wicked:

“They observed me (as prey and) now they surround me,
they set their eyes to pulling (me) down in(to the) earth;
their likeness (is) as a lion longing to tear (its prey) apart,
and as a maned (lion) sitting in the hidden (place)s.”

The text of the first line is likely corrupt; yet all attempts at reconstruction are dubious. The context suggests that the initial verb should be derived from the root rWv II, which can be used for an animal lying in wait observing its prey (Hos 13:7), the very image here in verse 12. On the idea of the wicked as a predator (a lion, etc), cf. the imagery in Psalm 10:9ff.

Verses 13-15

In verse 13, the Psalmist again calls on YHWH to act, this time even more forcefully:

“Stand up, YHWH! May you confront his face (and) bring him down!
May you rescue my soul from (the) wicked (with) your sword!”

It is possible that the final word ibrj is not the noun with suffix (MT “your sword”), but a verbal noun with object suffix (“one using weapons [i.e. making war] on you”, “one attacking you”), ;B#r=j) (cf. Dahood, p. 98). The line would then read “May you rescue my soul from (the) wicked (one) attacking you” —the idea presumably being that, by attacking the people of God the wicked are attacking God Himself.

The deliverance of the righteous here entails the defeat and destruction of the wicked, as described in the two couplets of verse 14:

“Your hand bringing death, YHWH, you bring (them) death
from (the) duration (of their) life, their portion among the living!
And (the one)s (who are) your hidden treasure, you fill their belly;
(the) sons are satisfied and set down the remainder for their children.”

The textual situation in these verses is extremely complicated. There is evidence of corruption throughout, and the Masoretic text as we have it is confusing as well as rhythmically awkward. It is not entirely certain whether both couplets describe the fate of the wicked, or only the first; the latter option seems to be preferable. The Masoretic pointing cannot be relied upon and likely reflects an attempt to make sense of a confusing situation. The versions offer little help in clearing this up, and the fragmentary Qumran MSS 8QPs and 11QPsc are not complete enough to offer a distinct alternative to the MT; in any case, the textual confusion may already have been established by the 1st century B.C./A.D.

To begin with we have the repetition of <yt!m=m! in line 1, which the MT pointing reads as “from (the) men”. This makes little sense in context, and a number of commentators would derive it instead from the root twm (“die, bring/cause death”), which is preferable in terms of the scenario of judgment against the wicked. It is possible to read <ytmm as an intensive plural (<yt!omm=, cp. Jer 16:4; Ezek 28:8; Kraus, p. 244). Dahood (pp. 98-9) would parse it as a causative participle with plural suffix (<t*ym!m=); I tentatively follow this approach above. The repetition may simply be a stylistic device for emphasis. If so, there is a similar sort of repetition in line 2— “from the duration (of their) life” / “their portion among the living” —creating a unique parallelism in the couplet.

The second couplet (v. 14b) is even more problematic, with an extremely awkward rhythm and no obvious way to divide the lines; possibly something has dropped out of the text (or been added) to create this difficulty. The Masoretes already recognized a problem in the first word, identifying it as a verbal form with an object or possessive suffix. Even so, the meaning remains obscure. The root /p^x* signifies something that is hidden, sometimes in the sense of a hidden treasure. If it is the fate of the righteous being described in v. 14, then that is likely the connotation here as well. More awkward is the position of the phrase “(the) sons are satsified” (<yn]b* WuB=c=y]); rhythmically it fits with neither what precedes nor what follows, nor does it work to divide the couplet into smaller lines. However, the basic imagery seems relatively clear, establishing a poetic sequence:

    • YHWH fills their bellies
    • (The) sons are satisfied
    • They lay down the remainder (rt#y#) for their children

Thus, in spite of the textual difficulties, the couplets of vv. 13-14 effectively continue the two-fold theme of the Psalm—the deliverance of the righteous and the defeat/punishment of the wicked. Overall this language and imagery reflects the covenant bond between YHWH and His people, which includes the promise of protection and blessing. In the concluding couplet of v. 15, the Psalmist specifically identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of the people of God who are able to receive the covenantal blessings:

“(And) I, in justice, I will look at your face,
in waking I will be satisfied (with) your likeness.”

The physical blessings of v. 14 (i.e. “filling the belly”), we may say, have been transformed into spiritual blessing—understood in terms of a beatific vision of God. Beholding a theophany, i.e. the appearance of God Himself, represented the pinnacle of religious experience for the people of God in Old Testament tradition. Most important in this regard were the traditions involving Moses (cf. especially Exodus 34). In Numbers 12:8 YHWH declares that only Moses is able to behold His hn`WmT= (“likeness, form, shape”), the same noun used here in v. 15b. It seems clear enough that the Judgment scene of the afterlife is in view here, with the parallel between “in justice” (qd#x#B=) and “in waking” (JyQ!h*B=), i.e. waking out of sleep, the ‘sleep’ of death. This is one of the few passages in the Old Testament which indicates belief in a blessed afterlife for the righteous, though allusions to the idea seem to occur rather more frequently than is generally admitted. We have already encountered several instances in the Psalms studied thus far, beginning with the initial Psalm 1. The afterlife Judgment scenario was, in fact, a typical element in ancient Near Eastern Wisdom traditions; as we have seen, such Wisdom traditions are prevalent throughout the Psalms, and played an important role in shaping their outlook.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neuchkirchener Verlag: 1978), translated in English as Psalms 1-59, Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).