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).