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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7 (cont.)

Psalm 7, continued

Last week’s study on Psalm 7 covered verses 2-10 [1-9]; here again is the structure of the Psalm as I have outlined it:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

As indicated above, the main section—the call for YHWH to deliver justice and vindicate the Psalmist—is made up of three strophes, the first of which (vv. 7-10) I examined in the previous study. Here is my translation of these verses, the poetic structure I identified as a pair of tricolons (vv. 7, 8-9a, three lines each [= 6]), along with three bicola (vv. 9b-10, six lines, with 3+2 meter):

7Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!
8-9a(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples!
9b-10Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

It is a powerful portrait of YHWH as Judge of all humankind; what follows in verses 11-17 [10-16] is a precatory description of His Judgment/Justice. By this is meant that the apparent references to past (and present) action by God reflects the wish of the Psalmist for what should happen. In this regard, the perfect-tense forms of verbs in vv. 13ff I would understand to be precative perfects—i.e. the Psalmist’s expressing his hope and expectation of what will happen, in terms of what has (already) happened.

Verses 11-14 [10-13]

There are 4 bicola (8 lines) in this section, with mixed meter—the second and fourth are 3+3, while the third is 4+3; the first bicolon, as we have it, appears to be 2+2. The verbal forms in the first 2 bicola (4 lines, vv. 11-12) are participles, while those in the last 2 bicola (vv. 13-14) are perfect/imperfect forms. This may roughly be understood as expressing:

    • 1 and 2: Actions of YHWH in terms of his (eternal) character—participles
    • 3 and 4: Specific actions by which He delivers Judgment—perfect/imperfect forms

In the initial line we immediately encounter a textual problem. The MT reads:

<yh!ýa$Álu^ yN]g]m*
“My protection is upon the Mightiest”

This seems to make little sense, as the Psalmist is stating that his shield/protection is upon [lu^] God [Elohim]. Therefore, many commentators are inclined to emend the text, perhaps adding an appropriate suffix to the preposition: yl^u*, “upon me”, i.e. “The Mightiest is my shield upon me”. Dahood (pp. 45-46) opts for a different solution, reading the word lu^ as a divine title, from hlu, meaning “(Most) High, Highest”, similar to /oyl=u# (cf. 2 Sam 23:1, etc). In this case, the line would read “My protection is the Mightiest (Most) High”, or “My protection is God (the Most) High”. Another possibility would be to understand the preposition lu^ as indicating proximity—i.e. beside, alongside—whereby the line could then mean something like “My protection (is from) alongside the Mightiest”; this appears to be how the Septuagint understands the Hebrew. When there are such ambiguities (from our vantage point) in the Psalms, often the context of the poetic parallelism may be the surest guide to interpretation. Let us then consider the 2 couplets (4 lines) of vv. 11-12 together:

{line 1 left untranslated}
making safe (the one)s straight of heart;
(the) Mightiest (is the One) judging (the) just,
(and the) Mighty (One) denouncing (the wicked) each day.

The parallel titles <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”) and la@ (“Mighty [One]”) in lines 3-4 give credence to the idea that there is a corresponding pair of titles in line 1: lu^ (“[Most] High”) and <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”). This would seem to be the best way of reading the inner parallelism of the components of lines 1-2 as well:

    • my protection (yN]g]m*)
      • (the One who is) Mightiest (Most) High (<yh!ýa$ lu^)
    • making (me) safe (u^yv!om)
      • (the ones who are) straight of heart (bl@ yr@v=y])

The 1st and 3rd components are mem (m)-preformative nouns referring to safety/protection, while the 2nd and 4th components are construct pairs describing the character/attributes of God and the righteous respectively. Thus, am inclined to read line 1 much as Dahood does:

My protection is (the) Mightiest (Most) High,
making safe the (the one)s straight of heart;

The second couplet is rather more straightforward, with a formal parallelism that utilizes a pair of related divine titles (<yh!ýa$ / la@, “Mightiest” / “Mighty [One]”), along with a pair of descriptive participles indicating, it would seem, two different aspects of YHWH’s actions and role as Judge:

    • fp@ov (šô½¢‰), “judging”, in the sense of establishing justice for the righteous/righteous person (qyd!x*)
    • <u@z) (zœ±¢m), which I render “denouncing” above. The precise significance of the verb <u^z` is quite difficult to convey accurately in English; the basic meaning relates to speaking out angrily against someone, in opposition to them, sometimes with the more technical connotation of a denunciation or curse. The judicial context here suggests the denunciation of the wicked and their (false) accusations, etc. Thus, establishing justice for the righteous (i.e. loyal, innocent) person also entails the denunciation of charges (and/or crimes perpetrated) against them.

The third component refers to different aspects of YHWH’s justice again: (a) it is on behalf of the righteous (qyd!x*), and (b) it is constant/consistent, being delivered “on every day” (<oyÁlk*B=). Here are the three components presented in order for both lines:

<yh!ýa$ [“Mightiest”]
(divine title)
fp@ov [“judging”]
(aspect of justice)
qyd!x* [“just”]
(who it is on behalf of)
la@ [“Mighty One”]
(divine title)
<u@z) [“denouncing”]
(aspect of justice)
<oy-lk*B= [“each day”]
(when it is done)

As in the first line of couplet 1 (v. 11), discussed above, the first line of couplet 3 (v. 13) is also problematic, and considered to be corrupt by many commentators. The MT, as the Masoretes have parsed/pointed it, reads:

vofl=y] oBr=j^ bWvy` al)Á<a!
“if he does not turn (then?) he hammers [i.e. sharpens] his sword”

According to this syntax, the subject of the first verb (bWvy`, “he turns”) appears to be a human being (the wicked?), while the subject of the second is YHWH (vofl=y], “he hammers/sharpens”). But this rather depends on reading the <a!-statement as a conditional clause, “if he does not return [i.e. repent], then…”. However, the <a! particle, especially in the context of an oath (cf. my discussion on vv. 4-6 [3-5] last week), can be used to introduce a curse or imprecation formula, with al)Á<a! as an emphatic negative declaration (or wish). In this case, the line would read: “O that He [i.e. YHWH] would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it!”

Dahood (v. 46) suggests a repointing of al as al@ (l¢°, instead of al) lœ°), reading it as a form of the Semitic root l°y, “be strong”, and thus as a title/epithet for YHWH, i.e., “the Strong (One)”, in the sense of one who prevails or is victorious. The verb bWv would be understood in the sense of “(re)turn, turn (again)”, with the line read something like “O that the Strong/Victorious (One) would turn (again and) sharpen his sword…”. It is an interesting solution, but I do not quite find it convincing.

Given this reading of the line above, couplets 3 and 4 (vv. 13-14) would then be translated as follows:

O that He would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it,
bend (down) his bow and set it firm (for shooting);
and (O) that He would set firm His ‘tools of death’,
(and) make his arrows (in)to burning (shafts)!

Here YHWH’s justice is described in terms of military imagery, as weapons of attack—sword, bow, arrows, fire. These lines can be interpreted chiastically—

    • Preparing/sharpening weapons (sword)
      • Setting his weapons (bow) firmly [verb /WK] in place
      • Setting firm [same vb /WK] his weapons (“tools of death”)
    • Making his weapons to be fiery/burning (arrows)

as well as according to the clear synonymous parallelism that is present:

    • Not turning (back) his sword, but sharpening it
      • bending (down) his bow, and setting it firmly in place
    • Making firm his (weapons as) “tools of death”
      • making his arrows into “burning (shafts)”

Some would interpret the participle <yql=d) as referring to the wicked, etc, at whom God’s arrows of justice are aimed, i.e. “(in)to the (one)s burning hot after [i.e. persecuting] (the righteous)”. I do not believe this is correct; the imagery of the couplets is more consistent it is taken as referring simply to YHWH preparing his weapons. I also agree fully with commentators who repoint the opening particle of v. 14 as the precative particle Wl (, “O that…!”) rather than ol (, preposition + suffix); the former provides a perfect match with the opening al)-<a! of verse 13.

Verses 15-17 [14-16]

In the final strophe of vv. 7-17, there is a shift from YHWH in his (ancient) character and role as Judge, toward a description of His Judgment, especially as it is directed against the wicked. This was prepared for by the military imagery in vv. 13-14, of God preparing his weapons for use (see above). Overall, these lines in vv. 15-17 are more straightforward and consistent than those previous, with a 3+3 bicolon format throughout.

See—! he twists and is pregnant with trouble,
(he is in) labor, and gives birth to deceit;
he bore a pit and dug (deep) into it,
and (then) fell in(to) the sunken (grave) he made;
his labor turned (back) on his (own) head,
and upon his (very) scalp his malice came down!

This is a marvelous example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, and how it can be used to build tension and incorporate different sorts of images within this poetic structure. The sudden shift in focus (and subject) is indicated by the opening interjection “see!” (hN@h!); the subject of the verbs in vv. 15-17, though never specifically stated, is clearly now the wicked person, rather than YHWH. The imagery in the first couplet (v. 15) is that of a woman giving birth, indicated by the three verbs used: (1) lb^j*, “twist, turn”, as of a pregnant woman writhing in pain; (2) hr*h* “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; and (3) dl^y`, “give birth (to)”. This image is applied to a person who makes trouble (/w#a*), i.e. trouble-maker; he toils and is in labor (lm*u*) at this, and eventually gives birth to rq#v#, the basic meaning of which is “deceit”, probably in the covenantal sense of “disloyalty”, but also, most certainly, in the legal context of “false” accusations or charges. For an interesting parallel in the New Testament, involving evil and giving birth, cf. James 1:14-15.

The imagery in the second couplet (v. 16) moves to that of a person digging a (deep) pit or hole. This represents a different kind of labor—note that the noun lm*u* is used again down in v. 17. There is likely a bit of alliterative wordplay intended between the verb hr*K* (k¹râ), “dig, bore (a hole)” and hr*h* (h¹râ), “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; I have tried to retain something of this through the ambiguity of the English “bore” above—i.e. “bore a hole”, “bore a child”. The progression of this labor follows a similar progression as that of a person giving birth; note how this builds through the verbs used:

    • hr*K*—in the basic sense of digging a hole into the ground
    • rp^j*—which here connotes a person digging deep down to the point of at least partially going down into it himself, i.e. “dig, delve (down)”; the verb sometimes carries the meaning of “search (into)”.
    • lp^n`—the person quite literally falls into the hole that he/she dug.

This of course reflects a sort of grim irony, expressed elsewhere in the Psalms (cf. on 5:10[9]), etc, whereby the punishment waiting for the wicked matches his/her own character. The imagery of the final couplet (v. 17) carries out this basic idea—of evil (falseness, disloyalty, etc) thrown out (as accusations, etc) by the wicked ending up landing back down on them (like the flight of a boomerang). It is almost comical now the way that the person’s labor (lm*u*), acting treacherously and deceitfully against the righteous, simply lands down on their own head (using the parallel nouns var), “head” and dq)d=q*, “scalp, skull-top, arch, crown [of the head]”). The noun sm*j* often connotes violent action specifically, but here it probably refers more to the person’s hostile intent, which I render above as “malice”. It is a harsh word, and one that reveals the true character and nature of the wicked person—not only deceptive and disloyalty, but genuinely hostile and malicious.

Verse 18 [17]

The final couplet serves as the conclusion of the Psalm, as a statement of thanks to YHWH, and anticipating His justice:

I will hold out (praise) to YHWH according to His justice,
and (indeed) make music to the name of [YHWH] (the Most) High!

I bracket the second occurrence of YHWH, recognizing the possibility, along with a number of textual critics, that the name should be omitted on metrical/rhythmic grounds. Certainly the names hwhy (YHWH) and /oylu# (“Highest, [Most] High”) make a natural parallel; at the same time, it is also possible that the compound /oylu hwhy  (“YHWH [the] Most High”) could also serve as a fitting parallel to <yh!ýa$ lu^ (“[the] Mightiest [i.e. God] Most High”) in verse 11 (cf. above). At any rate, /oylu# would essentially be equivalent to lu^ as a divine title.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7

Psalm 7

This composition in the Psalter is unique in the use of the word /oyG`v! (šigg¹yôn) in the heading to describe it, a musical (or poetic) term whose meaning is unknown to us. It may be related to a primitive root gv (ggv, hgv) which has the basic meaning “stray, go astray”; others would connect it with ugv (Akkad. šegû) which refers to a kind of howling like that of animals, and could possibly indicate some sort of lament. Also uncertain is the significance of the notice “upon the words of Kûš the ‘son of the right-hand’ [i.e. Benjaminite]”; possibly this refers to an accusation made against David (cf. on vv. 4-6 [3-5] below), relating to a tradition otherwise unknown to us.

This Psalm is the longest and most complex of those we have encountered thus far. Not surprisingly, it has a mixed meter with a number of apparent half-lines (cola) which make coordinating the meter and structure difficult; the closing section (vv. 14-18) is more consistent with a strict 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format. Most of the metrical difficulties are in the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9). Tentatively, I offer the following outline:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

The Psalmist’s opening petition—the Psalm itself functioning largely as a prayer—is delivered with a pair of bicola (i.e. 4 lines) that generally utilizes the common 3+3 metrical format, though the first bicolon is actually 4+3 (ever so slightly), due perhaps to the inclusion of the divine name YHWH in the initial line. The presence of the divine name often creates metrical tension in ancient Hebrew poetry, and could, at times, be a sign of secondary adaptation. Here are the lines:

YHWH, my Mighty One, with you I have sought protection—
save me from all (the one)s pursuing me and rescue me,
lest he rip (at) my soul like a lion,
tearing (it) apart (with) no one (to) rescue!

Each bicolon ends with a form of the verb lx^n` (“take/snatch away”) in the Hiphil, emphasizing the need for deliverance, for YHWH to rescue the Psalmist in his time of trouble (a frequent motif in the Psalms, as we have seen). The second occurrence is verbal noun (participle) form which I have rendered like an infinitive in an attempt to preserve the rhythmic sense of the line. The shift from plural (“the ones pursuing”) to singular (“lest he rip…”) is not all that uncommon, especially when dealing with opponents of the protagonist in the Psalms; they can be described as many or as one, collectively or individually—the description can be quite fluid. In part, I think, this is meant to reflect the lack of firmness and integrity in the wicked, in contrast to the Psalmist, who remains firm (and unified) in his loyalty to YHWH.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

The petition gives way to an oath in these lines, drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. The force of such binding agreements was magical-religious, and involved an oath. First, the parties of the agreement would call upon God (or the gods) as witness; second, this meant that, by way of certain ritual formula, divine judgment would be brought down upon one who violated the agreement. The idea of the covenant between YHWH and the people Israel was unique in this regard, since God was not a witness, but a participant in the agreement—as the superior (suzerain) to whom Israel and its rulers were the subordinate (vassal). In agreeing to the terms of the covenant, Israel took an oath to uphold it, including the curse/punishment which would come upon them if/when it was ever violated. Here the oath is more generalized, in terms of common morality and the normal functioning of society, but it still reflects the righteousness and covenant loyalty of the Psalmist.

He approaches YHWH, his sovereign, confirming his innocence by way of an oath. It begins as a 4+3 bicolon precisely parallel to the opening of the petition (v. 2): “YHWH, my Mighty One…”. He has sought protection (vb hs^j*) with YHWH as his Lord and protector (under the covenant); the oath is taken in this very context. According to the text as we have it, the first line reads: “YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this [taz)]”. It is not clear what “this” is, which has led some commentators to emend the text. Dahood (p. 42) suggests that here taz) is a substantive meaning something like “insult”, but whose etymology “is not immediately evident”; he cites other such examples in Ps 44:18[17]; 74:18[17], and Job 2:11. While this is a convenient solution, the basis for it seems extremely slight. Some would relate “this” to the “words of Kuš” in the superscription, i.e. presumably as an accusation made against the Psalmist (David), of which we do not know the precise content, though it may be implied in the lines that follow. Indeed, more properly the pronoun (“this”) refers to the following two “if”-statements. This conditional statement (protasis, “if…”) of the oath, taken together, in vv. 4-5 is:

YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this,
if there really is guilt in my palm(s),
if I have dealt (in) evil (with) my sound (ally),
and pulled away (in) empty (word)s (to make him) my foe,

The last line is difficult to translate, but there is a clear contrast (and formal parallel) between ym!l=ov and yr!r=ox, as also between ur* and <q*yr@. The words in the first pair are themselves difficult to translate, though the sense is clear enough. Both are verbal noun (participle) forms with a first person singular suffix (“my…”). The first verb is <l^v* from the root <lv and denominative of the noun <olv* in the sense of a (covenant) agreement that establishes peace, security, and friendship between two parties. The second verb, rr^x* indicates just the opposite—hostility, rivalry, opposition. By acting with evil (ur*) toward one who was supposed to be a firm ally, it would render their bond as merely “empty [words]” (<q*yr@), creating hostility when there should have been peace. This would seem to be the substance of the accusation against the Psalmist—an act of treachery and disloyalty. Verse 6 provides the result for the condition (apodosis, “…then”) of the oath—it is a three-fold declaration, comprised of three lines (tricolon):

(then) let (the) enemy pursue and reach my soul,
and let him trample my life to (the) earth,
and make my (very) weight dwell in (the) dust!

Three comprehensive terms are used to represent the (whole) person of the Psalmist in its deepest sense:

    • vp#n#—refers to the life-breath or essence of the person, usually rendered as “soul” (here yv!p=n~, “my soul”)
    • <yY]j^—a plural noun referring to the physical life, span of life, etc., of a person (here yY`j^, “my life”)
    • dobK*—”weight”, often in the basic sense of “worth, value”, figuratively as “honor”, etc (here yd!obk=, “my weight/worth”)
      [some commentators read ydbk here as yd!b@k=, “my liver”, in the sense of “my inner(most) organ(s)”]

The purpose of this oath is to confirm—by magical-ritual means—the Psalmist’s innocence; from the religious standpoint of the Psalm, it is meant to demonstrate his loyalty to YHWH. He declares, indeed, that he has remained loyal, and would not have acted in such a disloyal way as he is accused of doing. That he is willing to take on the curse of the oath is an implicit proof that he is innocent. This oath section ends with a hl*s# (Selah) mark, frequent in the Psalms, and the exact significance of which remains uncertain. Here it can be used a structural indicator, marking a break before the next major section.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

As indicated in the outline above, verses 7-17 are to be divided into three sections, or strophes. They make up a call to YHWH, for him to act as judge and declare justice for the Psalmist, vindicating him in the accusation against him. The call proper is contained in vv. 7-10, structurally (metrically) one of the most difficult portions of the Psalm. It is a challenge to divide this portion accurately into lines and couplets. As with verse 6, it seems most natural to view vv. 7-9a as utilizing a tricolon (three-line) format. The first tricolon (v. 7) is:

Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!

The three imperatives are intended to stir YHWH to action, which is the emphasis of these lines. The last verb (hwx, perfect form t*yW]x!) is a bit difficult to render; I take it as a precative perfect, reflecting the expectation of the Psalmist, in the sense that YHWH has the power to command (i.e. make) judgment and deliver justice. In the second tricolon (vv. 8-9a), He is seen as acting, and the imagery shifts to the assembling of the tribunal:

(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes [<yM!a%] surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples [<yM!u^]!

This triad marvelously moves from the congregation of Israel (line 1) to an image of all the peoples [of the world] (line 3); in between is the comprehensive, unifying motif of YHWH seated high above on His throne (line 2). The verb form hb*Wv in the second line is best understood as deriving from bvy (“sit, dwell”) rather than bwv (“turn, return”). In the following lines, vv. 9b-10, this triadic structure expands to include a set of three bicola (6 lines), it seems, following a 3+2 meter. With the tribunal in place, the Psalmist now asks YHWH to make judgment on his behalf:

Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

The initial verb (fp^v*, “judge”) is different from that in the prior line (/yD!, “[act as] judge”), and connotes the establishment of justice in the case at hand. The root qdx plays an important role in these lines, with the noun qd#x# in v. 9b (line 1), and the adjective qyd!x* twice in v. 10 (parallel lines 4 and 6). This key root is central to the idea of the covenant, and, as a consequence, to Israelite religious thought and theology as a whole. It has a relatively wide semantic range, but fundamentally refers to something that is right, straight, and according to a standard (measure). The noun qd#x# is often translated “righteousness” or “justice”, much as the similar noun dikaiosu/nh in Greek (indeed, the diakaio- word-group is close in meaning to Hebrew qdx); perhaps “right-ness” or “just-ness” would capture the meaning better, but there is no such corresponding word in English. In the context of the ancient binding agreement (covenant), it also denotes faithfulness and loyalty. In a judicial setting, the idea certainly is that of determining justice, making things right—and, of course, whether a person (and his/her behavior, cause, etc) is just and right. The loyal servant of YHWH possesses a “right-ness/just-ness” that mirrors that of God Himself (note the clear parallel in lines 4 & 6).

The last word in line 2 (MT yl*u*) has caused some difficulty, leading commentators occasionally to emend (or repoint) the text. Dahood (p. 45) suggests that it should be read as yl!u@, as a divine name, i.e. “(YHWH the) Most High”. However, the parallelism in the bicolon is perhaps better preserved by the (Masoretic) pointing—as the preposition lu^ with first person singular suffix—marking an absent, but implied, verb. Note:

    • judge me [yn]f@p=v*]
      • according to my right-ness [yq!d=x!K=], and
      • according to my completeness [yM!t%K=]
    • (decide) over me [yl*u*]

The parallelism in the second bicolon is antithetic, marking the precise contrast—between righteous and wicked, loyal and disloyal—that lies at the heart of the judgment scene. God is able to make a proper determination, since he is the one “examining [vb /j^B*] hearts and kidneys”—both of these inner organs were use to represent (and locate) the mind (thoughts, intention, desire, etc) of a person; in our idiom we would say “examining hearts and minds”. The significance of the characterization of YHWH as “just” (qyd!x*, cf. above) is two-fold: (a) it means that he is able to establish true and proper justice, and (b) it marks the “just” person as one who is, and remains, loyal to YHWH.

[The remainder of the Psalm (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) will be discussed in the next study.]