Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10

Psalm 9-10

As nearly all commentators recognize, Psalms 9 and 10 likely were originally a single composition. This is seen primarily from the fact that there is a single acrostic (i.e. the first letter of each line/strophe in alphabetic order) pattern running through them. The Greek Septuagint, followed by the Latin Vulgate tradition, treats them as a single Psalm, resulting in the number of the Psalms being offset (by one) between the Greek/Latin and the Hebrew. The use of the acrostic technique in poetry seems wholly artificial and contrived to most readers today; however, the number of surviving acrostics in the Old Testament—seven other Psalms (25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145), as well as Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations 1-4—is evidence of its popularity. Apart from any artistic concerns, the device served as an aid to memory, especially for lengthier compositions. Undoubtedly the most famous acrostic is Psalm 119, with the alphabetic structure being indicated in many modern English Bibles. The alphabetic arrangement of the Lamentations was preserved in Roman Catholic liturgical tradition (the settings for Holy Week). The acrostic structure of Ps 9-10 is incomplete (discussed in the notes below), suggesting that the text may be corrupt (esp. in the first half of Ps 10); however, any attempt at reconstruction, to restore a complete acrostic, is highly speculative and scarcely worth the effort.

This Psalm is another Davidic composition following the superscription pattern we have encountered thus far throughout Pss 2-8. The specific musical direction (indicated by the preposition lu^ “upon…”), like most in the Psalms, remains obscure to us today. It clearly relates to performance tradition, but beyond this, it is often unclear whether it refers to (a) instrumentation, (b) musical mode/key, (c) melody, or something else entirely. Here the direction is /B@l^ tWml=u^ (±almû¾ lab¢n), the meaning of which is quite uncertain (cf. also in Psalm 46). The pattern of these directions suggests that twmlu be parsed as tWm-lu^ (“upon [the] death [?] of…”), which scarcely seems intelligible. One plausible suggestion is that the preposition has dropped out, and that the text originally read toml*u&-lu^, indicating, perhaps, that the composition was to be sung by female voices (hm*l=u^ fundamentally referring to a young woman who has recently become mature). The significance of the following /B@l^ (“for a son” [?]) would still be unclear; a direction for male treble voices is possible.

As would be expected for a composition of this length and (textual) complexity, the meter in the Psalm as we have it is inconsistent, and there are a number of questions regarding the division of lines and strophes, especially where the acrostic pattern appears to have been disrupted. I will indicate this Hebrew alphabetic pattern throughout the notes. Generally a new letter is introduced for each pair of bicola (4 lines). I tentatively divide the composition, as it has come down to us, into two main parts (9:2-17 [1-16], and 10:1-18), with an ‘interlude’ at 9:18-21 [17-20]. The first part has a more confident tone, the second more in character of a lament, with urgency in the Psalmist’s prayer for YHWH to act.

Part 1: Psalm 9:2-17 [1-16]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]a

a I will give out [hd#oa] (praise), YHWH, with all my heart,
I will (re)count all your wondrous (deed)s;
I will rejoice and rise up (with joy) in you,
I will make music (to) your name, Most High!

This initial strophe is one of praise to YHWH, as in the opening of Psalm 8 (cf. the study last week); however, the composition overall is not a hymn of praise, but rather a prayer (with lament characteristics), drawing upon the same themes of the justice/judgment of YHWH, in the context of the Psalmist’s opponents/adversaries, that we saw, especially, in Psalm 7 (cf. the study). This comes immediately into view in the following couplets.

Verses 4-5 [3-4]b

b (For) with the turning [bWvB=] (back) of my enemies behind (me),
they (shall) have fallen and been destroyed from your face.
(O) that you (will) have made judgment and ruled (for) me—
you (who) have sat on the covered (seat) judging (with) justice!

The prepositional phrase that opens the bicolon in v. 4, “with (the) turning [bWvB=] of my enemies”, could be seen as continuing the thought of v. 3 (Dahood, p. 53, 55), however it seems preferable to regard it as establishing the setting for what follows. It begins a precatory section, describing, in this Prayer-composition of the Psalmist, what he wishes YHWH will do. As such, I would tend to agree with commentators who read the perfect-tense verb forms as precatory perfects—stating what the author wishes would happen, in terms of what YHWH has already done. This comes out most clearly in the second bicolon (v. 5), for which I read the initial yK! particle as emphatic, heightening the entreaty: “O, that you (would) have…”. It is important to understand how these lines relate in the mind of the Psalmist:

    • The turning back of his enemies behind him—God’s action realized in terms of a life situation (line 1)
      • The concrete manifestation of this—the falling/failing and death/destruction of the persons hostile to him (line 2)
        • yK! “O, that…” – the petition of the Psalmist
      • This reflects God judging and ruling on his behalf (judicial setting) (line 3)
    • And, because God rules (over all) as Judge, His judgment (i.e. what happens to the enemies) is right and just [qdx] (line 4)

The verb bv^y` (“sit”) here implies YHWH sitting on the ruling seat (i.e. throne), as both King and Judge, over the entire world. The “face” of God signifies his manifest Presence and Power—here also in the specific context of facing God in his role as Judge.

Verses 6-7 [5-6]g

g (O, that) you (shall) have called out [T*r=u^G`] (against the) nations (and) destroyed (the) wicked,
their name you have rubbed (out) for the distant (future) and until (the end).
The enemy, (that) they (would) be finished—dried (out ruin)s lasting for (all time)—
and (even) the guarded (place)s you have torn up (so that) memory of them is destroyed!

These two couplets continue the same theme (and the Psalmist’ request), but framed in a global, cosmic sense, reflecting YHWH’s rule over all people (all the “nations”). Here the “nations” (<y]og) are treated as synonymous with the “wicked” (collectively, uv*r*). The verb ru^g`, a bit difficult to translate in English, essentially refers to preventing someone from acting, often by means of a forceful word or command; it is generally synonymous with bWv (“turn”) in v. 4, YHWH stopping the Psalmist’s enemies and turning them back, away from him. It is a manifestation of YHWH ruling as Judge, executing judgment on the Psalmist’s behalf; this is also so of the verb db^a* (“[make] perish, ruin, destroy”, also used in v. 4), which is here parallel with ru^g`—the divine Judgment involves the death/destruction of these enemies, an idea that is most difficult, even repellent, to modern day Christians. Moreover, in these lines the permanence of this judgment—not just death for those persons involved, but perpetual ruin and disgrace, their very memory being “rubbed out”—is most clearly expressed. The idea of future permanence of this judgment is conveyed through several expressions, each of which closes a line:

    • “for the distant [<l*ou] (future)” and “until [du^] (the end)” (line 2)
    • “for(ever) lasting” [jx^n#l*] (line 3)
    • “their memory [rk#z@]” will perish (line 4)

All of this ultimately reflects the power and authority YHWH possesses—His rulings as Judge last forever. As an interesting side note, I have translated the plural noun <yr!u* here literally as “guarded (place)s”, which, in most instances, generally means “cities”, i.e. walled/fortified towns, sometimes guarded with watchtowers, etc. The emphasis here, I believe, is that even the fortified, guarded sites of the wicked are to be destroyed, left as desolate ruins, as part of YHWH’s judgment. However, Dahood (p. 55f) reads the plural in a different sense, as “watchers, protectors”, i.e. referring to the ‘gods’ of these people (the nations), drawing upon a use of this root attested, for example, in Aramaic and Syriac—ryu! = “watcher, (one) watching, guarding”, specifically a heavenly being or ‘Angel’ (cf. Daniel 4:10, 20). I do not find this very convincing, in terms of the immediate context and imagery in the line, though I agree that there may be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay involved here.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]h

In the acrostic pattern, there is no strophe present for the letter d, skipping from g to h. Possibly a portion has been lost; however, in the only relevant Dead Sea manuscript (11Psc), a corresponding d-strophe is also absent, the text generally matching that of the MT. If a strophe has dropped out, it must have occurred by the first century B.C. The apparent confusion surrounding the final word of v. 7, hmh, which, it would seem, properly begins the couplet of v. 8, suggests that the text here may well be corrupt.

h Behold [hmh], YHWH has sat (ruling) from the distant (past),
He set firm His covered (seat) for judgment,
and He judges the productive land with justice,
and rules for the tribes (of earth) with straight (decision)s.

Metrical considerations, along with the acrostic pattern of the Psalm, would seem to require that the last word in MT verse 7, hM*h@, begin the couplet of v. 8; in which case, a slight emendation and/or repointing of the text is likely needed, though the proper solution remains unclear. Dahood (p. 56), on the basis of Ugaritic evidence, posits an interjection (<h, hmh) similar to hN`h!, “see, look, behold!” Kraus (p. 190) would repoint hmh as hm#h), “roaring”, but it seems inappropriate to apply the verb to God in this way; it may, indeed, be the underlying Hebrew read by the Greek Version (met’ h&xou, “with [a] noise”), but the LXX relates it to the end of v. 7 (referring to the destruction of the wicked), not the beginning of v. 8. For lack of any better solution, I tentatively follow Dahood, or, at least, I assume a Hebrew equivalent of hmh => hN`h!; in any event, such a reading fits the tenor of the strophe, which depicts YHWH ruling, from His heavenly throne, since the most distant past. The word <l*ou can refer to either the distant past or distant future; in verse 6, the latter was meant, here it seems better to understand it in the former sense. Both aspects, taken together, connote the idea of “eternity”, God’s “eternal” rule in Heaven. The noun lb@T@ is difficult to translate in English; basically, it refers to the productive parts of the land (i.e. fertile, able to bring forth produce), and thus the areas (of the earth) that are inhabited by human beings, though occasionally it can signify the world as a whole (as understood in the ancient Near East). In any case, here it is the entire inhabited earth that is in view—YHWH rules as King and Judge over all human beings everywhere.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]w

w And (indeed) is [yh!yw]] YHWH a high place (of refuge) for (those being) crushed,
a (safe) high place for times (when they are) in distress;
and they shall be secure in you, (the one)s knowing your name,
for you do not abandon (those) seeking (refuge in) you, YHWH.

The primary image in this strophe is of YHWH himself as a citadel—the fortified city. Ancient Near Eastern cities were rather small in terms of area, comprised primarily of the temple and palace complexes where ruler (and his family, etc) dwelt. They were walled, fortified spaces, set on a hill, or otherwise elevated as a result of being built upon successive occupation levels. Most of the population did not reside within the city walls, being farmers and herders, but would seek refuge there in times of “distress” (warfare, invasion, etc). The specific word used here is bG`c=m!, literally a high, elevated place. It draws upon the idea of YHWH seated high up (above the heavens) on his throne; those faithful and loyal to Him will seek refuge in the place where He is. This proximity to YHWH is defined, in ancient religious-cultural terms, as “knowing [vb ud^y`] His name”. On the significance of this idiom, cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season series “And you shall call his name…” (esp. the articles on the Names of God). The promise is that God will not abandon or forsake the one who remains loyal to Him, meaning, in the context of the Psalm, that God will answer his prayer. The verb jf^B*, which I translate above as “be secure (in)”, could also be rendered generally as “trust (in)”; as for the verb vr^D* (“seek [out], search [for]”), I have likewise translated with the idea of God as a place of security and refuge in mind (“seek [refuge in]”).

Verses 12-13 [11-12]z

z Make music [Wrm=z~] to YHWH, (to the One) sitting (over) ‚iyyôn,
put His deeds (out) front, (there) among the peoples;
for (He is) seeking (out the one)s wailing, He remembers them,
He does not forget the cry of (the one)s being beaten down.

With this strophe, the Psalm shifts from a petition within a judicial setting to that of a personal appeal or lament by the Psalmist. The exhortation to praise in verse 12 is parallel, in certain respects, to that which opens the Psalm (v. 2). In the second bicolon, God’s faithful ones are described as those who suffer, weeping/wailing/groaning (vb <md) and having been beaten down (vb hnu)—the latter verb denoting a position of lowness and affliction, not necessarily as a result of violent action. As in the prior strophe, the Psalmist expresses confidence that YHWH will not abandon his people when they are in distress. It is interesting how this personal appeal blends so deftly together with an appeal on behalf of the people—i.e. Israel, the faithful among them. The localization of Zion places God’s rule directly in relation to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Israel/Judah.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]j

j Show favor to me [yn]n@n+j*], YHWH, see my beatings down by (the one)s hating me,
(and) raise me up from (the) gates of Death!
In response, I would (re)count all (the) shouts (of praise) for you,
in the gates of Daughter ‚iyyôn will I go round with (news of) your help!

Again, in this strophe the personal merges with the idea of the people (the righteous) as a whole. It is safe to say, I think, that in this Psalm, more than any other we have yet examined, the Psalmist represents the people—the righteous ones loyal to YHWH—and stands for them. Rather than referring to a specific situation of distress for an individual—whether an historical figure (i.e. David) or literary protagonist—it is that of the people generally that is in view. This perhaps explains why the idea of the Psalmist’s enemies/opponents now shifts so decidedly toward the “nations” and the “wicked” in a more general, universal sense. At any event, the suffering of the righteous is still expressed in terms of the Psalmist’s own, in the first bicolon (v. 14). The plea for YHWH to rescue him and “raise” him up from the point of death is presented most vividly, using mythological-poetic imagery to describe death and the grave as a great kingdom (with gates) ruled by a king (Death, personified). On this motif, cf. the discussion on Psalm 6 and also the separate article on “Sheol”. The basic idiom “gates of Death” is preserved in the Greek of the New Testament as “gates of the Unseen [a%|dh$, hád¢s] (realm [i.e. of the dead])” in Jesus’ famous declaration to Peter (Matt 16:18). There is an intentional parallel to “gates of Death” with “gates of Daughter Zion” in the second bicolon (v. 15); the latter is a personification of Jerusalem, as the place where God’s people dwell (and thus opposite of the realm of death and the wicked). The Psalmist promises that, if delivered from his distress, he will spread the praise of YHWH, and news of the help given by Him, throughout all of Jerusalem—that is, to all of God’s people.

Verses 16-17 [15-16]f

f (O, that) they (would) be sunk [Wub=f*], (the) nations, in the ruin they made,
this trap hid to possess (others will) have captured their (own) feet!
(Yes) YHWH (shall) be (made) known (by) the judgment He makes—
with (the) works of his (own) palms is the wicked (one) struck down!

The final strophe of this part shifts to an imprecation (perfect vb. forms again read as precative perfects) against the “nations” (plural) who, as a whole, are synonymous with the “wicked” (singular). YHWH’s judgment against the wicked is notable in that it draws upon humankind’s own evil intent, described three ways:

    • “the ruin [i.e. with connotations of death/decay] they made”, possibly meant to convey the idea of digging a grave
    • “this trap hid to possess (others)”, probably to be understood as an ensnaring net
    • “the works of his (own) palms”, here “palms” being a more concrete and visceral synonym for “hands”

The wicked are buried, ensnared, and/or struck down by their own devices. This is a popular motif in the Psalms and wisdom literature, one which we have already encountered in Ps 5:10-11 [9-10] and 7:15-17 [14-16].

The remaining ‘interlude’ of 9:18-21 [17-20] and the second part (Psalm 10) will be discussed next week, along with a summary discussion of the composition as a whole.

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), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).