Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 2)

Psalm 86, continued

Part 2: Verses 8-13

(For Part 1, see the previous study.)

Verse 8

“There is none like you among the Mighty (one)s,
my Lord, and there is no(thing) like your works!”

This second section of the Psalm shifts from a prayer to a hymn in praise of YHWH. The focus in the initial verse is the familiar theme of the incomparability of YHWH—His uniqueness and superiority over every other god or divine being. This reflects the qualified monotheism of Israelite religion in the period of the Judges and the (early) Kingdom period. YHWH’s incomparability is expressed, in each line, by the use of the negative particle /y]a^, which typically has a privative force, indicating absence or lack. This particle tends to function as a substantive verbal element (or as an adverb), with the meaning “there is no…”.

I have presented the verse as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, but it might be more accurate to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which better brings out the chiastic parallelism:

    • “There is no one like you
      • among the Mighty (one)s, my Lord,
    • and there is no(thing) like your works”
Verse 9

“All (the) nations that you have made
shall come and shall bow down
before your face, O my Lord,
and shall give weight to your name.”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a slightly irregular (3+2+2+2) quatrain; dividing it into a quatrain with primarily 2-beat lines fits the rhythm/meter of the Psalm as a whole.

The nations are here regarded as among the great “works” of YHWH (“that you have made”). His supremacy lies principally in the fact that He is the supreme Creator—who created all of humankind, the nations and their people. For this reason, all the nations should recognize and acknowledge Him as the Mightiest and Greatest One; worship of YHWH should not be limited to the Israelite people alone. The verse speaks of a future time with the nations will come and bow down before YHWH. This is an important theme in the Prophetic writings of the exilic and post-exilic periods. In these prophetic poems and oracles, it is envisioned that representatives of the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the (restored) Israelite/Judean kingdom; in the process, they will acknowledge and worship Israel’s God, YHWH. See, for example, Isaian passages such as 2:1-4 (par Mic 4:1-5); 42:1-6ff; 49:6-7, 22-23; 56:6-8; 60:3-16; 66:12ff, 18-21; the close of the book of Zechariah (14:16-21) contains an especially notable prophecy on this theme.

In the final line, the verb db^K* (Piel, “give weight, make heavy”) is used in its typical figurative sense of “give honor”, i.e., considering (someone) worthy or of value. The nations will give honor to YHWH’s name, which implies a ritual or symbolic honoring of YHWH Himself. On the relation of a person’s name to the person, in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the introduction to my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Dahood (II, p. 294) gives an interesting alternative reading of this verse, treating the relative particle rv#a& as conditional, and thus rendering the first line as a conditional clause: “When you act, the nations will come…”.

Verse 10

“For great you (are indeed),
and a worker of wonders—
you, O Mightiest—you alone!”

The Psalmist takes over the worship of YHWH now, in the present, acknowledging His greatness (adj. lodG`). There is emphatic force to the initial particle yK!, and it would be possible (but not necessary) to translate the line as “how great you (are)”. YHWH’s works (v. 8) include creation (i.e., of humankind and the nations, v. 9), but also the wonders (toal*p=n]) He has performed—specifically, on behalf of His people during their history. Through these supernatural and miraculous deeds, YHWH also shows Himself to be incomparable, and far superior to all other deities (“you alone”, ;D#b^l=).

Metrically, I take this verse to be an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon. If one were to combine verses 9 and 10 together, there would be a sequence of five 2-beat lines bracketed by a pair of 3-beat lines. Thematically and poetically, it would be possible to combine the verses in this way.

Verse 11

“Direct me, O YHWH, in your way,
(that) I may walk in firmness for you only,
(with) my heart fearing your name.”

Embedded in this hymnic section, is a separate prayer-request by the Psalmist to YHWH. He asks God to “direct” him on the path. The verb hr*y` denotes throwing or shooting (an arrow, etc), often in the symbolic or figurative sense of showing a direction; in association with the ethical-religious motif of a path (in which one must ‘walk’), this idea of pointing a direction essentially means “instruct, teach”. Such a meaning of the verb is embedded in the derived noun hr*oT (i.e., “instruction”).

The Psalmist wishes to walk in “firmness” (tm#a#) on the path—that is, firmly, with a sure step, showing himself faithful and trustworthy as a follower of YHWH. The noun tm#a# can also connote truthfulness. I have chosen to vocalize djy in line 2 as the adverb dj^y~, rather than the MT dj@y~ (imperative of the verb dj^y`). I translate it as “alone, only”, parallel with dbl in v. 10—that is, the Psalmist wishes to be faithful to YHWH alone, even as he acknowledges that YHWH alone is the Mightiest One. However, it would also be possible to translate the adverb here as “altogether” (i.e., completely).

As I interpret the verse, metrically it is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 12

“I will throw you, my Lord (and) Mightiest,
(praise) with all of my heart,
and will give your name weight for ever!”

I view verse 12 as being dependent upon the Psalmist’s request in v. 11—i.e., “Instruct me…(and then) I will throw you praise…”; however, for poetic concision I have omitted a glossed “then” from the beginning of the first line. There is a parallelism between the opening verbs of vv. 11 and 12: both (hr*y`, hd*y`) essentially mean “throw” —as YHWH “throws” direction to the Psalmist (i.e., instructs him), then he, in turn, will “throw” praise to YHWH. For a musician-composer, praise in song is an especially appropriate means by which to show one’s gratitude. On the idiom of “giving weight” (vb db^K*) to God’s name, cf. above on verse 9; as the nations will all come to worship and honor YHWH’s name in the future, so the Psalmist, being among the righteous/faithful ones of Israel, does so now in the present.

The final word <l*oul= is a prepositional expression that literally means “into/unto (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here more conventionally, as “forever”. Metrically, this verse, again, is irregular, being a 3+2+3 tricolon; it is also possible to read it as an extended 4+3 bicolon, which would represent more precisely the poetic parallelism in the verse. Eliminating either yn]d)a& (“my Lord”) or yh^l)a$ (“my Mighty [One]”, i.e., my God) from the first line would tighten the rhythm, and would make a couplet format more tenable.

Verse 13

“For (indeed) your goodness is great over me,
and you shall snatch me from Še’ôl below!”

The first line of verse 13 echoes that of v. 10 (cf. above), as the Psalmist declares that YHWH’s goodness (ds#j#) is great (lodG`), even as earlier he declared that YHWH Himself was great. The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of a covenant-bond, it frequently connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”, and so it does regularly throughout the Psalms. YHWH is loyal to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people, and, when they are faithful and loyal as well, He is obligated (as the Sovereign) to provide blessings and protection.

This protection includes deliverance from danger and threat of death, whether by human adversary or illness/disease, etc. The danger to the Psalmist here is described in terms of being pulled down into Še’ôl (loav=), a term used frequently in the Psalms (and on which cf. my earlier note). The verb lx^n` (“snatch away,” i.e., out of danger) also occurs often in the Psalms.

This allusion to danger provides a transition to the final section of the Psalm, which returns to the prayer-petition emphasis of section 1, but with a stronger tone of lament.

Metrically, this verse is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Part 3: Verses 14-17

Verse 14

“O Mightiest, boiling (one)s stand against me,
and a meeting of terrible (one)s seeks my Soul—
indeed, they do not set you in front of them!”

Typical of the lament-sections of the Psalms is this opening reference to a group of nameless adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. While the specific motif may be widespread, the adjectives used to describe the adversaries here are less common. The first, dz@, literally means “boiling (over),” in a negative sense—whether boiling over with rage, or with pride, etc; it occurs 8 times in the Psalms (out of 13 in the OT), but 6 of these are in Ps 119; the only other occurrence is in 19:14 [13]. The second adjective, Jyr!u*, means “terrible, terrifying”, often implying the threat or possibility of violence. Elsewhere in the Psalms, this adjective occurs only in 37:35 and 54:5 [4].

The final line identifies these opponents as unquestionably wicked—they do not set YHWH “in front of them”, as their God and Sovereign. This distinguishes the wicked from the righteous, and is main the reason why the wicked desire to attack and harm the righteous.

Verse 15

“But you, my Lord, (are)
Mighty of love and favor,
long in (your) nostrils,
and Great of goodness and trust.”

This verse is a tight 2-beat quatrain—or, we might say, a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, with an introductory line. The introductory line addresses YHWH: “But you, my Lord…”. The remaining three lines describe the attributes and characteristics of YHWH. Lines two and four are parallel, framing the description:

    • “Mighty of | love | and favor”
    • “Great of | goodness | and trust”

The parallel terms la@ and br^ can either be viewed as construct adjectives (“mighty of…”, “great of…”), or as comparable substantives functioning as Divine titles (“Mighty [One] of…”, “Great [One] of…”). Both approaches are entirely valid. The term <Wjr* denotes the possession and/or exhibiting of a deep love; it is comparable to the parallel noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness, devotion”). There is a similar parallel between /WNj^ (“[showing] favor”) and tm#a# (“firmness,” spec. the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness). All of these terms essentially allude to YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant-bond with His people, and to the blessings which He provides. For poetic concision (required by the short 2-beat lines), I have simplified and shortened these terms in the translation above.

The third line (and the central line of the tricolon) contains a distinctive Hebrew idiom. The expression is “long of nostrils” (<y]P^a^ Er#a#), referring to the nostrils (their burning, flaring) as a symbolic expression of anger. Thus to be long in one’s nostrils is the opposite of being “short” in them—that is, one is not quick to anger. The expression connotes the idea of patience, and is often translated (not inappropriately) as “longsuffering”; many translations render the expression as “slow to anger”.

The sequence of phrases and attributes here in v. 15 echoes the famous proclamation in Exodus 34:6 (cf. also Num 14:18; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:3; Jonah 4:2; Nehemiah 9:17).

Verse 16

“(So) turn to me and show me favor!
Give (now) strength to your servant,
and give safety to (the) son of your trust!”

Since YHWH is Mighty in showing favor (/WNj^, v. 15), the Psalmist, in his time of need, calls on YHWH now to show him favor (vb /n~j*). The related call for God to “turn” (vb hn`P*) to the Psalmist is another way of asking Him to hear and answer his prayer (cf. on vv. 1, 6 in the previous study). The prayer would be answered if/when YHWH protects and rescues the Psalmist from his enemies, and from the danger that threatens him (v. 13, cf. above). Here, this protection is described by the parallel actions of “give strength” (vb /t^n` + zu)) and “give safety/salvation” (vb uv^y` Hiphil). In protecting/rescuing the Psalmist, the “strength” that YHWH gives is His own (“your strength”).

Again, it is important to remember of the covenantal context of the language in this petition. The Psalmist can request (and expect) Divine protection, because he has been faithful to the covenant-bond, and so YHWH (as Sovereign) is obligated to provide protection. The Psalmist’s loyalty is here indicated by the parallel expressions “your servant” and “son of your firmness” (i.e., your faithful son). Almost certainly, the MT is incorrect in the vocalization of the final word ;t#m*a& (“your maidservant [?]”); it should be vocalized ;T#m!a& (“your firmness”, cf. Dahood, II, p. 296), echoing the use of tm#a# in verse 11 (cf. above) and the final line of v. 15. As previous noted, tm#a# connotes faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness; for poetic concision, I have translated it above in the line as “trust” (“son of your trust,” i.e., your trustworthy son).

Verse 17

“Make with me a sign of (your) good (favor),
and let (those) hating me see (it) and be shamed!
(Oh,) that you, YHWH,
would help me and comfort me!”

The Psalmist here further asks that there be some “sign” (toa) that accompanies the act of rescue by YHWH—a clear indication that it was YHWH who did this good thing (hb*of), and that the reason why the Psalmist was delivered was that he was shown favor by God. Upon seeing this sign, the Psalmist’s enemies will come to shame (vb vWB).

The Psalm concludes with a terse renewed plea by the Psalmist, calling on YHWH to give him help (vb rz~u*) and comfort (vb <j^n`). It is best to treat these perfect verb forms as precative perfects, expressing the Psalmist wish (and expectation) for what will happen. In this regard, the yK! particle should be read as emphatic and exclamatory—i.e., “Oh, that…!”.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 1)

Psalm 86

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsa (vv. 5-6, 8); 4QPse (vv. 10-11); 11QPsd (vv. 11-14)

This Psalm reflects the character and tone of many of the lamentprayer Psalms we have examined. Indeed, the superscription simply designates it as a hL*p!T=, which typically refers to a petition or prayer made to God, asking him to intervene on the supplicant’s behalf. The usual term romz+m!, indicating that the Psalm is a musical composition, is absent. This could mean that Psalm 86 represents a non-musical poem-text, which one could (and presumably did) set to music.

There is a rather clear three-part structure to the poem. The first part (vv. 1-7) is a general prayer to YHWH, framed by specific requests for God to hear/answer the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 1, 6f). In the middle section (vv. 2-5), the author bases his appeal on YHWH’s goodness and loyalty to the covenant; God’s faithfulness (to the covenant-bond) is the basis for His providing the protection that the protagonist needs.

In the second part of the Psalm (vv. 8-13), the focus shifts to a YHWH-hymn, in which the author praises YHWH, drawing upon several strands of poetic, prophetic, and wisdom tradition. The poem concludes (vv. 14-17) with another appeal to YHWH, this time more specifically as a petition with lament-features, similar to those we find throughout the Psalms. Typically, the lament section occurs at the beginning of the Psalm, not the end, so the order here is essentially reversed.

The superscription attributes Psalm 86 to David, and there are certain details and elements of the poem which do suggest that the protagonist is a king. As we have seen, many Psalms evince a royal background, to a greater or lesser degree. This does not necessarily mean that the particular Psalm originates from the monarchic (pre-exilic) period, since Psalms of later composition could still draw from older lines of poetic tradition rooted in the royal theology, and utilize the type-figure of the king who stands as the protagonist, representing the people before God. It has been suggested that Psalm 86 intentionally was meant to serve as a kind of summary of earlier Davidic Psalms, echoing, in particular, the poems placed at the close of the earlier Davidic Psalter-collections (e.g., 40-41, 69-71, 72; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 369f).

The meter of Psalm 86 appears to be irregular and mixed. Specific details will be given in the notes below.

Part 1: Verses 1-7

Verse 1

“Stretch (out), O YHWH, your ear (and) answer me,
for pressed (down) and needy (am) I.”

The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH is expressed in traditional (and typical) language. In the first line he calls on God to “stretch out” (vb hf*n`) His ear, an idiom for hearing/listening, and to answer the prayer. In the second line, the protagonist identifies himself by the traditional pair of adjectives yn]u* (“pressed [down]”, i.e., oppressed/afflicted, and in a low state) and /oyb=a# (“needy,” implying a low and poor condition). These are characteristics of the righteous, and often their use assumes hostility toward the righteous and persecution (by the wicked). For other occurrences of this pair, see 35:10; 37:14; 40:18 [17]; 70:6 [5]; 72:12; 74:21; 109:16, 22; 140:13 [12].

It is worth mentioning the alliteration in verse 1, particularly in the second line; to highlight this, I give the relevant portion here with an accompanying transliteration:

yn]a* /oyb=a# yn]u* yK! yn]n@u&
±¦n¢nî kî ±¹nî °e»yôn °¹nî

Metrically, this verse is a 4+3 couplet.

Verse 2

“May you guard my soul,
for (one) devoted (am) I;
may you save your servant,
O you my Mighty (One),
coming to You for refuge!”

The meter of this verse can be seen as problematic, especially if one attempts to treat it as a couplet. I choose to read it, without emendation, as a series of 2-beat lines—a 2+2 bicolon, followed by a 2+2+2 tricolon. The units are parallel, in that each is governed by an imperative in the first line:

    • hr*m=v*— “may you guard my soul”
    • uv^oh— “may you save your servant…”

These actions reflect the essence of the Psalmist’s prayer. Also, in each unit, there is an expression of the basis for his appeal to YHWH—namely, his faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant. Such loyalty would mean that the protagonist (the vassal) is due the protection that YHWH (the Sovereign) is obligated to provide. By calling himself God’s servant, this loyalty is implied; and it is made explicit in the first couplet by the claim “I am devoted [dys!j*]”. The adjective dys!j*, like the related noun ds#j#, denotes showing goodness/kindness to a person; as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of the covenant, it also connotes faithfulness, loyalty and devotion. The adjective typically carries this meaning in the Psalms; I have translated it here as “devoted”.

The last line of the tricolon also indicates the Psalmist’s loyalty. He describes himself as one “coming to you for refuge”. The substantive participle j^f@oBh^ is used (“the [one] seeking refuge”). The verb jf^B* occurs frequently in the Psalms (46 times, out of 120 in the OT), part of the vocabulary referring to the righteous person seeking/finding refuge under the protection that YHWH provides. The prepositional expression ;yl#a@ (“to you”) emphasizes that the Psalmist is coming to YHWH for protection, seeking refuge in Him. The phrase also implies the idea of trusting in YHWH—viz., he comes to YHWH for protection because he trusts in Him—and is a further indication of the Psalmist’s faithfulness.

Verse 3

“May you show me favor, my Lord,
for (it is) to you (that) I call out,
(indeed) all the day (long)!”

I view this verse as another 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, matching that of verse 2b (cf. above). Again there is an imperative in the first line (“may you show favor…”, vb /n~j*), comprising the Psalmist’s request, along with an expression of his faithfulness/loyalty to God. The second line matches the third line of the previous tricolon:

    • “coming to you [;yl#a@] for refuge”
    • “(it is) to you [;yl@a@] (that) I call out”

Again, the Psalmist trusts in YHWH (as his Lord/God), which is why he comes to Him and prays (“calls out,” vb ar*q*) to Him. The protagonist’s trust and faithfulness is also indicated by the claim that he does this continually (“all the day [long]”).

Verse 4

“Make glad (the) soul of your servant,
for (it is) to you, my Lord,
(that) I lift up my soul.”

The tricolon format of verse 4 matches that of verse 3, though the meter differs slightly (3+2+2). Again, the Psalmist’s request is reflected by the opening imperative in the first line (“[may you] make glad…”, vb jm^c*); in other words, his soul will be made glad when God answers his prayer and acts on his behalf. Note the further parallelism between vv. 3-4:

    • “…my lord,
      for (it is) to you (that) I call out”
    • for (it is) to you, my lord,
      (that) I lift up my soul”

There is also a certain chiasmus to verse 4 involving the motif of “my soul”:

    • “make glad (the) soul of your servant
      • for (it is) to you, my Lord
    • (that) I lift up my soul”
Verse 5

“Indeed, you, my Lord,
(are) good and forgiving,
and abundant in devotion,
to all (those) calling on you.”

It is possible to parse this verse as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, however it seems better to continue with the 2-beat line format of the previous verses and to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain. The unit breaks from the series of imperatives in vv. 1-4; the Psalmist pauses his petition to declare and affirm the goodness (adj. bof) and loyalty (ds#j#) of YHWH. As noted above, the noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”, but also carries the meaning “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion,” especially in a covenantal context. In keeping with the translation of the adjective dys!j* as “devoted” above (v. 2), I translate ds#j# here as “devotion”.

The Psalmist adds the idea of YHWH showing mercy by forgiving (jls) the sins of those who are faithful/loyal to Him. It is thus hoped by the protagonist that YHWH will overlook any sins he may have committed; as one of the righteous, the Psalmist would have confessed and acknowledged any sin, and taken the (ritual) steps needed to atone for any (unintentional) misdeeds. The righteous/faithful ones, among whom the Psalmist identifies himself (as a representative), are characterized as those “calling out” to YHWH in trust and hope.

Verse 6

“Turn your ear, O YHWH, to my prayer,
and hear (the) voice of my (plea)s for favor.”

This couplet echoes the initial line of verse 1 (cf. above), calling on YHWH to ‘bend’ His ear to the Psalmist’s prayer and hear/answer it. The use of the verb /z~a* (Hiphil, “give/turn [one’s] ear”) matches the idiom “stretch out the ear” (vb hf*n` + /z#a)) in v. 1. This call for YHWH to hear the Psalmist’s petition thus frames the prayer. The verb translated “hear,” bv^q* (Hiphil), would perhaps be more properly rendered “attend to” or “pay attention to”.

Verse 7

“In (the) day of my distress, I call to you—
(O) that you would answer me!”

As verse 6 matches the first line of verse 1, so verse 7 thematically matches the second line:

“for I (am) pressed (down) and needy”

The adjective yn]u* in verse 1 means “pressed (down)”, but could also be rendered “hard-pressed”, which would perhaps be a closer fit to the distress (hr*x*) the Psalmist mentions here. Both terms convey the idea of pressure or stress that a person experiences. The Psalmist’s distress (“day of my distress”), which is indicated here as being the occasion and reason for his prayer to YHWH, will be developed as a principal theme in the third and final part of the Psalm.

The final line could be translated “for you (are sure to) answer me”, treating the perfect tense of the verb /n~u* as a gnomic perfect—i.e., something that God is sure to do, as a reflection of His (eternal) character. However, it seems better to translate the verb as a precative perfect, as an expression of the Psalmist wish and hope (and expectation) for what will happen; cf. Dahood, II, p. 294. In such an instance, the particle yK! would be emphatic, not causal, with a similar precative force (“O, that…!”).

The remainder of the Psalm (Parts 2 and 3, vv. 8-17) will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80

Psalm 80

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another lament-Psalm (cf. the previous study on Ps 79), in which the Psalmist, representing the people (the righteous/faithful ones), prays to YHWH for deliverance. Dahood (II, p. 255) describes this Psalm as belonging “to the last days of the Northern Kingdom,” and this is almost certainly correct. From the opening verses, it is clear that the focus is on the northern territories. They have apparently been ravaged, but not yet completely conquered. The aftermath of the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.) would provide an appropriate setting. Readers of a certain traditional-conservative mindset may find such an historical context troubling, since it would seem to imply that the Psalmist’s prayer was not answered by YHWH—at least as regards the fate of the Northern Kingdom. However, this in no way invalidates the prayer as an expression of faith and hope. The righteous will be protected by YHWH, even in exile, and their descendants will eventually be restored to the Land.

The structure of Psalm 80 is defined by the repeated refrain, calling on YHWH to “return” (vb bWv Hiphil stem) to His people and save them. It seems better to view the refrain as representing the opening call for each stanza. I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Vv. 2-3—Invocation to YHWH on behalf of the northern tribes
    • Vv. 4-7—Stanza 1: Lament to YHWH
    • Vv. 8-14—Stanza 2: Illustration of the Vine
    • Vv. 15-19—Stanza 3: Prayer to YHWH
    • Verse 20—Concluding refrain

This is the eighth in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50. The meter of Psalm 80 is irregular, but tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format.

The musical direction in the heading matches that of Psalm 60 (cf. the earlier study), as a poem sung to an existing melody—the melody in this case being <yN]v^ov, “lilies” (cf. also Pss 45 and 69). The poem is also designated as an tWdu@, usually translated “testimony,” but properly referring to words that are to be repeated. In Ps 60, the indication is that there is a didactic purpose to the poem, which is “to be taught” (dM@l^l=), much like the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32; however, such a purpose is not as clear here for Ps 80. Perhaps the idea is that, even after the original historical context of the poem had passed, it was still useful for instruction, as a lesson for the people.

Invocation: Verses 2-3

Verses 2-3a [1-2a]

“O Shepherd of Yisrael, give ear,
(you) leading Yôsep like the flock;
sitting (between) the kerûbs, shine forth
before (the) face of Eprayim, [Binyamin] and Menašše!

These are the first two of the three couplets that open the Psalm, functioning as an invocation to YHWH, with the Psalmist calling on God to hear (lit. “give ear” to it) and answer his prayer. The needed response involves an action on behalf of the Israelite people, to save and protect them; this is described in terms of YHWH “shining (forth)” (vb up^y`, Hiphil stem). The theme of YHWH as a herder, guiding and protecting his people (as a flock/herd), was featured in the three previous Psalms (77:20; 78:52-53, 70-71; 79:13); it is a traditional motif, best known from Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). It is through YHWH’s manifest presence among the people, symbolized by his sitting on/above the Golden Chest (Ark) as his ‘throne’ (with its winged kerubs), that He guides Israel.

The northern focus is indicated by the pairing of Israel and “Joseph” = the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The Psalmist’s prayer represents the northern tribes (i.e., the northern kingdom), pleading to YHWH on their behalf. The ravaging threat of the Assyrian military is presumably in view; as noted above, historical setting of the Psalm may be the aftermath of the campaigns by Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.).

The 3-beat meter would be preserved by omitting “Benjamin” from the final line, which is otherwise too long; this would also provide a cleaner parallel with “Joseph” in the first couplet. As there is no textual basis for omitting “Benjamin”, I have retained it in brackets above.

Verse 3b [2b]

“May you rouse your strength,
and come to (bring) salvation for us!”

This couplet is also irregular (2+3), and provides a more direct plea to YHWH for salvation. The call is for God to “awaken” (vb rWu I), i.e., to rouse Himself from ‘sleep’ (i.e., inaction). The implication is that He should act on behalf of His people, using His great might/strength. This means providing a military defense (and victory) that will save the Northern Kingdom from the Assyrians.

Stanza 1: Verses 4-7 [3-6]

Verse 4 [3]

“O Mightiest, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!

As noted above, this refrain begins each of the three stanzas (see vv. 8, 15), being repeated again in the final verse (v. 20). The wording varies slightly in each instance; thus, one should not be too quick to fill out the first line here (i.e., “Mighty [One] of the armies”), even though this would produce a more consistent 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The 2+3 meter of the verse as it stands (in the MT) matches that of the previous v. 3b.

The call is for YHWH to “return” (vb bWv) to His people. The use of the Hiphil (causative) stem could be understood in the transitive sense of “make us return”, i.e., “restore us”, in which case it would be possible to read the Psalm as post-dating the fall of the Northern Kingdom. In the initial invocation (cf. above), this returning is described through the idiom of YHWH fulfilling His role as Herdsman of His people, guiding and protecting them (from all threats). The idiom of YHWH “shining” forth (here, lit. “giving light”, roa Hiphil) also was introduced in the invocation (vb up^y` Hiphil). The motif of God’s “face” implies His protective presence, but also the manifestation of His anger—viz., against the enemies of His people (who are also His enemies).

Verse 5 [4]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies—
until when will you smoke (in anger)
at the prayer of your people?”

This verse is slightly irregular, and I treat it here as a 3+2+2 tricolon. The full expression “YHWH Mighty (One) of (the) armies” here perhaps explains the shortened form in v. 4 (cf. above), so as to avoid cumbersome repetition. The “armies” (toab*x=) refers to the heavenly/celestial entities, which YHWH created, and which do His bidding. They function as soldiers under His command, who fight on behalf of His people Israel. For references in the tradition of the celestial bodies (and other forces of nature) fighting for Israel, see, e.g., Josh 10:10-11; Judg 5:20-21; the storm-theophany applied to YHWH, has a strong militaristic emphasis, and is part of the same broad tradition (frequently in the Psalms, 18:10-14; 77:17-18; 144:5-6, etc). The more common expression is “YHWH of (the) armies”, which may preserve the original verbal force of the Divine name, i.e., “(the One) causing the (heavenly) armies to be” (i.e., creating them); cf. Cross, pp. 68-71.

In the refrain of v. 4, the implication is that YHWH’s anger (i.e., His “face”) should burn against Israel’s enemies, rather than against His own people. But here in verse 5 it is clear that, at least recently, His anger has been “smoking” (vb /v^u*) against Israel, presumably alluding to attacks by the Assyrians on the Northern Kingdom. Instead of smoking against their prayers, the Psalmist asks that God would answer their prayers (in favor of them), and burn/smoke with anger against Israel’s enemies.

Verse 6 [5]

“You have made them eat (the) bread of tear(s),
and made them drink tears three (times over).”

The suffering of the people is clear from this couplet, utilizing the traditional ancient Near Eastern motif of eating/drinking tears (cf. Psalm 42:4[3]; 102:10[9]) as a expression of extreme sorrow; this motif occurs, for example, in the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet VI, col. 1, lines 9-10, “she is sated with weeping, drinks tears like wine”). The final word vyl!v* presumably means “three (times over), threefold” (or possibly “three times [a day]”); however, Dahood (II, p. 257) suggests that the word may be related to Ugaritic ¾l¾, thus referring to a bronze/copper bowl or container (i.e., drinking a bowl full of tears).

Verse 7 [6]

“You have set us as strife for (those) dwelling by us,
and (those who) are hostile to us mock at us.”

The noun /odm* typically denotes some kind of fighting or strife, which fits the parallelism of Israel’s neighbors (“[those] dwelling [near]”) being hostile (vb by~a*); for a different explanation of /wdm, cf. Dahood, II, p. 257. Presumably, the mocking of Israel by her neighbors is a response to the Assyrian attacks, which have ravaged the Northern Kingdom and greatly reduced its status. Those hostile to the Israelites would naturally take advantage of the situation to mock and belittle them still further.

According to the MT, the suffixes in v. 6 are 3rd person plural, while those here in v. 7 are 1st person plural. This shift, it would seem, reflects the Psalmist’s identification with the people, functioning as their representative in prayer to YHWH. Most commentators follow the minority reading of the MSS (along with the LXX), Wnl* (“at us”) rather than the majority text oml* (“at them”).

The remainder of the Psalm (Stanzas 2 and 3) will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 79

Psalm 79

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is a lament-Psalm, similar in tone to Ps 74 (on which, cf. the earlier study). The setting is the Exilic period, as is clear from the reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in v. 1. Verses 2-3 are apparently quoted in 1 Maccabees 7:17, being applied to the context of an event that took place during the Maccabean wars; however, the Babylonian conquest of the late-7th/early-6th century almost certainly provides the original setting for the Psalm. One might propose a date in the first half (or first quarter) of the 6th century, when the destruction of Jerusalem was still fresh in memory.

There would seem to be three-part structure for this Psalm (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 302f):

    • Vv. 1-4—A lament over the fate of Jerusalem, focusing on the wicked acts of destruction by the “nations”
    • Vv. 5-9—A plea to YHWH, calling on God to act, helping His people and bringing judgment against the nations
    • Vv. 6-10—A imprecatory request for the destruction of the nations that attacked Israel/Judah, along with the restoration of God’s people—reversing the situation described in section 1.

This is the seventh in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

The meter of Psalm 79 is quite irregular; mention will be made of the meter for each verse below.

Part 1: Verses 1-4

Verse 1

“(The) nations have come within your inheritance!
They have defiled (the) palace of your holiness,
(and) they have set Yerušalaim to ruins!”

The Psalm opens with a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon that well expresses the reason for the Psalmist’s lament. The “nations” presumably is a comprehensive way of referring to the invading Babylonians (and their allies). The noun hl*j&n~ refers to an inherited property or allotment of territory; here the reference is to the land of Israel—specifically the Judean territory and the city of Jerusalem—as YHWH’s own possession (cf. the recent note on Psalm 78:68-69). By describing the land this way, the Psalmist no doubt wishes to spur YHWH to action—so as to defend His property.

The invaders have destroyed the city of Jerusalem (lit. set it to ruins [<yY]u!]) and have destroyed the Temple (lit. palace of [YHWH’s] holiness) in the process; in so doing, they have defiled (vb am*f*) the Temple, desecrating its holiness. Compare the description in Ps 74:2-3ff.

Verse 2

“They gave (the) withered bodies of your servants
(as) food for (the) flying (birds) of the heavens,
(the) flesh of your devoted (one)s for (the) beasts of (the) earth.”

The slaughter of the people of the city is described in this verse. The specific reference is to the faithful ones among the people, whose death, in particular, should move YHWH and prompt Him to take action. Their loyalty is indicated by the adjective dys!j* (“good,” spec. in the sense of faithful/loyal), by which is meant that they are YHWH’s good servants—i.e., they are faithful to the covenant and to the Torah regulations (the terms of the covenant). The dead bodies are left as carrion for the birds and wild animals to feed on.

This verse, like v. 1, is a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 3

“They poured forth their blood like the(y would) water,
all around Yerušalaim,
and with no (one) burying (them)!”

The death of the people (spec. YHWH’s faithful servants among them) was bloody, with the blood pouring (and spraying) out like water all over the city. The final line repeats the idea expressed in v. 2—viz., that the bodies of the dead were left unburied, as food for the birds and beasts. For the dead to be treated this way, without proper burial, was a sign of abject dishonor.

This verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon (cp. vv. 1-2), with the shorter second and third lines producing a sharp rhythmic shift. It expresses, in poetic terms, the violence and disgrace being described by the Psalmist in this verse.

Verse 4

“We have become an object of scorn for (those) dwelling near us,
(of) derision and mocking for (those) round about us!”

The opening (lament) section of the Psalm closes with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; following the tricola of vv. 1-3, the rhythmic shift has a dramatic, climactic feel, which fits the sense of the verse. The Psalmist is no longer talking about events of the past, but of the condition of YHWH’s faithful servants in the present. As noted above, this almost certainly relates to the setting of the Psalm in the period of the Exile (in the 6th century).

The surrounding nations now have reason to mock and taunt God’s people; the implication is that their trust in YHWH is foolish and misplaced—i.e., look what has happened to these people! The Psalmist uses three nouns with overlapping meaning for this idea of scornful, derisive taunting: hP*r=j#, gu^l^, and sl#q#, which I translate above as “scorn,” “derision,” and “mocking,” respectively.

Part 2: Verses 5-9

Verse 5

“Until when, O YHWH?
Will you be angry to the end?
Shall your jealous (rage) burn like fire?”

The dual-particle expression hm*-du^ typically functions as an interrogative, as it does here; it means “until what..?”, i.e. “until what (time/moment)…?”, which, for poetic concision, is best rendered in English as “until when…?”. The same despairing question is essentially asked at the beginning of Psalm 74 (v. 1), which has the same historical context for its lament—viz., the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The question is intended to spur God to action: how long will He let His city (and holy Temple) remain destroyed, defiled, and unavenged?

The destruction of Jerusalem was naturally seen as a sign of YHWH’s anger against the people (for their sin and unfaithfulness); the burning of the city serves as a graphic demonstration of God’s burning anger/rage. In the ancient Near East, military conquest was viewed as a means by which the deity would act out his/her rage, bringing judgment upon a people and their land. Even though the Babylonians, on one level, functioned as YHWH’s servants in this regard, enacting the judgment against Judah/Jerusalem, they are themselves to be judged for their wicked and brutal acts of violence and desecration (cf. above, and beginning with v. 6 below). YHWH’s anger is described as a jealous rage, with His jealousy (ha*n+q!) for His people (and His covenant-bond with them) featuring as a regular theme in the Scriptures, most frequently in the Prophets (ha*n+q! occurs relatively often in Isaiah and Ezekiel).

The meter of this verse is that of an irregular (2+2+3) tricolon. The terseness of the opening lines fits the sense of despairing impatience expressed by the Psalmist.

Verse 6

“Pour out your burning (anger)
onto the nations
that do not know you,
and upon (the) kingdoms
that do not call on your name!”

Metrically, this verse is highly irregular; it is perhaps best divided into five short lines, the first four of which have two beats. The obvious parallelism—

    • onto the nations
      | that do not know you
    • upon the kingdoms
      | that do not call on your name

argues strongly against Dahood’s suggestion (II, p. 251) that la should be read as la@ (“Mighty [One],” i.e., God) vocative, rather than the preposition la# as vocalized by the MT (“[un]to,” or here “onto”).

The Psalmist asks that the anger which has burned against God’s own people should now be turned against the nations—specifically those which attacked Israel/Judah, and took advantage of the people’s misfortune. These nations are not God’s people—they neither know Him nor call on His name, worshiping other (false) deities instead. And yet these are the ones who invaded Jerusalem and desecrated YHWH’s holy temple!

Verse 7

“For they have devoured Ya’aqob
and devastated his abode!”

This irregular (3+2) couplet further explains the reasons why the nations (spec. the Babylonian conquerors and their allies/supporters) should now face the brunt of YHWH’s anger: it is because of their cruelty in “devouring” (lit. eating [up]) God’s people (called Jacob [= Israel]) and destroying the land (lit. their habitation/abode [hw#n`]).

Verse 8

“Do not keep in mind against us
(the) crooked deeds of (those) before;
O swift (One), let your mercy come before us,
for we have been brought so very low!”

The basic idea in lines 1 & 3 is that of God keeping a record of the people’s sins/crimes. That is the connotation here of the verb rk^z` (“remember, keep in mind, bring to mind”). Dahood (II, p. 252) is doubtless correct in explaining rhm (which he vocalizes rh!m* [= ryh!m*] instead of MT rh@m*) as a shorthand for the expression ryh!m* rp@os in Ps 45:2[1]. YHWH is functioning as a recording scribe whose ‘pen’ (i.e. ability) is “swift” (that is, skillful). Dahood mentions an Egyptian papyrus (Anastasi I, 18:4), where mahir, apparently as a Semitic loanword, clearly designates the activity of a scribe. It is possible to retain this association and imagery, even if the MT rh@m* (“swiftly”) is followed; the third line would then read:

“let your mercy swiftly come before us”

In any case, the Psalmist’s request is that the faithful/loyal ones today should not continue to be punished for the sins of those who came before (<yn]v)ar!). This has been taken as an indicator that the Psalm was written a good many years after the Babylonian conquest (and Exile) took place, putting the date of composition more properly in the post-Exilic period. The people of the Psalmist’s generation have been brought low (vb ll^D*) by the judgment that occurred in the past, and he asks that this situation not be allowed to continue. His request thus hints at the restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to the land.

Verse 9

“Give us help, O Mighty (One) of our salvation,
over (the) word of weight of your name,
and snatch us (up) and wipe over our sins,
for (the) sake of your (great) name!”

The second part of the Psalm concludes with a pair of 3+2 couplets (slightly irregular in rhythm), in which the Psalmist fully calls on YHWH to deliver His people from their current situation (in exile). In the first couplet (line 1), the request is for God to “give help” (vb rz`u*); in the second couplet (line 1), two verbs are used in tandem:

    • lx^n` (Hiphil stem), which literally means “snatch away”; when YHWH is the subject, and His people (spec. the righteous ones) the object, this verb is used in the positive sense of snatching someone out of danger; here the context suggests that YHWH would snatch His people away from the nations where they are currently dispersed (and often under threat, cf. v. 11 below).
    • rp^K* (Piel stem), with preposition lu^, meaning “wipe/rub over”, i.e. erase; it is specifically the people’s sins that are to be wiped away; in light of verse 8a (cf. above), this could be a reference to YHWH no longer holding the sins of a prior generation against His faithful/loyal ones today.

The Psalmist appeals specifically to the name of YHWH, and to its honor (lit. “weight,” dobK*)—that is, to YHWH’s own honor, which is imperiled the longer His faithful/righteous ones continue to live in their lowly state, in exile among the nations. YHWH’s honor requires that His people be restored and raised to an exalted position once more. Cf. the thought expressed in the following verses 10ff.

Part 3: Verses 10-13

Verse 10

“For what (reason) should the nations say,
‘Where (is) their Mighty (One)?’
Let it be known among the nations before our eyes,
an avenging of (the) blood of your servants th(at) they poured out!”

The initial couplet essentially summarizes the mocking taunts by the nations, mentioned in verse 4 (cf. above), and points again to the need for YHWH to act in defense of His honor. Only by avenging (<qn) the cruel violence and desecration wrought by the conquerors can the situation be rectified. Indeed, the Psalmist calls for a reversal of the situation described in Part 1: destructive judgment should come upon the nations, instead of upon God’s people; now it is their blood that will be poured out! (cf. on verse 3, above).

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 3+2 couplet followed by a 3+3 couplet.

Verse 11

“Let come before your face
(the) cry of (the one) bound;
according to (the) greatness of your arm,
let remain (alive the) sons of death.”

The motif in this verse is that of people in bondage (lit. “bound” rys!a*), particularly prisoners who are sentenced to die. The idiom “sons of death” uses the noun /B# (“son”) in the abstract sense of belonging to a group (or category)—here, e.g., those condemned to die. The imagery may be representative of life in exile, which also can entail the specific condition(s) of bondage/slavery, imprisonment, and the prospect of being put to death. Certainly, a sense of oppression against God’s people (spec. the righteous) by the nations is in view.

The verb rt^y` has the basic meaning “be left over, remain”; in the Hiphil stem, the sense is “cause to remain”, which in context clearly refers to remaining alive.

The meter of this verse is irregular; I treat it as a quatrain (2+2+2+3).

Verse 12

“And return to (those) dwelling near us seven-fold into their lap
(for) their scorn, (with) which they scorned you, my Lord!”

The rather more complex syntax of this verse justifies treating it as a longer-lined (4+4) couplet. The Psalmist’s prayer here turns into an imprecation, along the lines indicated above—i.e., a reversal of the situation described in Part 1 (vv. 1-4, cf. above). The scorn heaped on God’s people (and thus on YHWH Himself) by the surrounding nations (v. 4, cf. also v. 10a above) will come back (vb bWv, “turn back, return”) upon them. The Psalmist asks that this judgment should literally fall “into their lap” (<q*yj@-la#). On the motif of a seven-fold revenge, cf. the famous line in the song by Lamech (Gen 4:24).

Verse 13

“But we, your people, and (the) flock of your pasture,
shall throw (praise) to you into (the) distant (future)—
unto circle and circle we shall recount your praise.”

The fate of the nations (according to the Psalmist’s imprecation, v. 12) is here contrasted with that of God’s people. On the shepherding motif—with God as herder, and the people as His flock/herd—cf. the recent notes on Ps 78:52-53ff and 70-72. The promise given to YHWH is that the Psalmist, representing all the faithful/loyal ones of the people, will continually give (lit. throw/cast) praise to God, and will also recount (vb rp^s*) for future generations the reasons for this praise. I translate roD according to its fundamental meaning (“circle, cycle”), though it is typically understood as referring to the people living during a particular circle/cycle of time (i.e., a ‘generation’).

Many Psalms deal with the theme of fulfilling a vow made to YHWH, in response to His (expected) answer to prayer. Given the context of Psalmist as a poet-composer, it is not surprising that this vow-fulfillment is often described in terms of making music and giving praise to God. That is essentially the idea we see here at the close of Psalm 79 as well.

The meter of this final verse is again irregular: a 4+3+4 tricolon.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 77 (Part 1)

Psalm 77

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (v. 1); 11QPsb (vv. 18-21 [17-20])

This Psalm has a definite two-part structure. The first half (vv. 2-11) is a lament, in which the Psalmist makes his suffering and distress known to YHWH. In the second half (vv. 12-21), the author/protagonist shifts to praise of God, focusing on the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (on behalf of His people) in times past. This emphasis, found in a fair number of Psalms, has two functions, at the literary level: (1) it is intended to spur God to act in a similar way in the present, and (2) it provides comfort and encouragement to the people, so that they might trust that once again YHWH will exercise His power on their behalf.

It is possible to outline a more detailed structure to the composition. See, in particular, the analysis by Beat Weber (Psalm 77 und sein Umfeld: Eine poetologische Studie [1995]), followed by Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 273-6), which divides the Psalm into five strophes, with vv. 17-20 representing an older/archaic (cosmological) poem that has been included within the final strophe. I will be noting these divisions below. The turning point of the structure, in any case, is the difficult and ambiguous verse 11.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, which two exceptions: (a) the irregular meter at the beginning (vv. 2-3), and (b) the tricolon format of the cosmological poem in vv. 17-20.

As with all of Pss 7383, this musical composition (romz+m!) is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph (cf. the earlier study on Ps 50). The term /Wtydy+ (or /WtWdy+), which also occurs in the heading to Pss 39 and 62 (cf. the earlier study), is apparently associated with the figure of Yedutun, a priestly (Levitical) musician who served in the Tent/Temple during the reigns of David and Solomon. His descendants continued the line of tradition, and the term here may designate a specific musical style.

PART 1: Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Strophe 1: Verses 2-4
Verse 2 [1]

“My voice to (the) Mightiest—so I cry out;
my voice to (the) Mightiest—so may He give ear to me.”

The lament portion of the Psalm begins with an irregular (3+4) couplet, that may express, poetically, the burden felt by the protagonist. Many commentators and translators would add a verb to fill out the initial phrase in each line—i.e., “my voice (goes out) to the Mightiest”; however, I feel a precise literal rendering (“my voice to the Mightiest”) helps convey a sense of the urgency that the Psalmist feels. My translation treats the w-conjunction as emphatic, giving dramatic effect to each line. The Psalmist’s focus in his prayer (and plea) to YHWH is that God will hear (and answer) him.

Verse 3 [2]

“In (the) day of my distress, I search (for) my Lord;
my hand poured forth in the night,
and did not grow numb,
(yet) my soul refuses to be comforted.”

The meter of this verse is highly irregular; an initial 4-beat line is (apparently) followed by a 3+2+3 tricolon. Kraus (p. 113) suggests that the word hl*y+l^ (“at night”) should be eliminated, as overloading the line; this would lead to a more consistent (4+4+3 tricolon) structure for the verse. However, the day/night contrast is fitting, even though “in the day (of)” here has the more general sense of “in the time when…”. Lines 2-4 expound the Psalmist’s statement from line 1—i.e., how he “searches for” God in the time of his distress. This searching (vb vr^D*) extends all through the night. The idiom of the Psalmist’s hand (“my hand”) being “poured out” (vb rg~D*) may seem a bit odd; probably here “hand” (dy`) simply connotes “strength” —that is, the Psalmist pours out his plea to YHWH with all of the strength he has at his disposal (i.e., in his “hand”). He keeps this up all through the night, and does not slacken (lit. “grow numb,” vb gWP); even so, his soul gains no comfort from his effort.

For a very different way of explaining these lines, cf. Dahood, II, p. 225-6.

Verse 4 [3]

“I set my mind to (the) Mightiest, and I groan;
I go over it (in my mind), and my spirit grows weak.”

This 3-beat (3+3) couplet establishes the metrical pattern for the remainder of the Psalm (vv. 4-16, 21). It develops the idea of the Psalmist “pouring out” all the strength he has in him. He purposely “sets his mind” on YHWH, praying intently to Him. The verb rk^z` is usually translated “remember”, but should properly be understood in its broader meaning of mental activity, i.e., putting one’s mind to something. The verb j^yc! has a comparable meaning, but with the more intensive (and iterative) sense of “going over” something in one’s mind (repeatedly). The idea of the Psalmist’s soul finding no comfort is here paralleled by his spirit becoming weak (vb [f^u* III). For all of his devotion to God, the protagonist feels no ease or help coming from YHWH in his time of distress.

The Selah-pause marker after verse 4 supports the view that vv. 2-4 represent a distinct strophe, or unit, within the Psalm (cf. the introduction above).

Strophe 2: Verses 5-7
Verse 5 [4]

“Watching takes hold of my eyes;
I am thrust (about) and cannot speak.”

The theme from vv. 3-4 (cf. above) of the Psalmist’s restless night continues here. The MT vocalizes the initial word tzja as a second person verbal form (T*z+j^a*, “you take hold [of]”), which, while appropriate to the thematic context of the Psalmist praying to God, is out of place here in the first half of the Psalm. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 227) in reading it as a passive participle, referring to the “watching” (plur.) that “takes hold” of the Psalmist’s eyes. This is probably a roundabout of saying that he cannot sleep; but the root rmv also can indicate an intentional night-time vigil (i.e., “keeping watch”). The feminine noun hr*m%v= occurs only here in the OT, and is typically translated (somewhat dubiously) as “eyelid”.

The verb <u^P* may be denominative from the noun <u^P^ (“foot, step,” cf. Dahood, II, 227). In all the other occurrences (Gen 41:8; Judg 13:25; Dan 2:1, 3), it is used in reference to a person’s “spirit” (j^Wr) being troubled or disturbed; in the Daniel references, the person is unable to sleep, which is presumably the same situation being alluded to here. In this light, Dahood would understand the verb rbd as deriving from the root denoting being back/behind, rather than the one denoting “speak”. He notes the cognate tadabara in Ethiopic (“to lie on one’s  back”), and understands the same meaning here—viz., “I cannot lie down”.

Verse 6 [5]

“I think on (the) days from (times) before,
(the) years of distant (time)s I bring to mind.”

The parallelism of the couplet, along with metrical concerns, would seem to require that the first word of MT verse 7 (hr*K=z+a#, “I bring to mind”) be included with v. 6. The same verb occurred in v. 4 (cf. above). The protagonist is specifically putting his mind on the “days before” and the “distant years” past; this establishes the context that will dominate the second half of the Psalm—viz., the mighty deeds performed by YHWH, on behalf of His people, in times past.

Verse 7 [6]

“(I play) my strings in the night with my heart;
I go over (it), and my spirit searches (it) through.”

By including the first word of MT verse 7 as part of v. 6 (cf. above), both verses now yield consistent 3-beat couplets. Again, the theme of the Psalmist’s restless night-time vigil, from vv. 3-4, is continued here, utilizing some of the same basic imagery, including the verb j^yc! (denoting going over something in one’s mind), and the verb cp^j* (parallel with vr^D*, meaning “search out”). As is fitting for the Psalmist, his meditation takes on a musical form—playing a song on the harp or lyre with his heart. The MT reads a suffixed noun (“my string[s]”, or “my stringed-music”); Dahood would parse this as a form of the related verb (“play/pluck [on strings]”), but the meaning is essentially the same, in either case.

There is no Selah-pause marker in the MT at the end of this strophe, to match those following vv. 4 and 10.

Strophe 3: Verses 8-10
Verse 8 [7]

“Will my Lord reject (us) into (the) distant (future),
and not continue to show (us) favor any more?”

Here, the context established in verse 6, alluding to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (on behalf of His people) in times past, comes to a point with this pained and almost despairing question. Compare the opening of Psalm 74 (cf. the earlier study). This parallel may indicate an exilic setting here for Psalm 77 as well. In any case, the Psalmist’s personal distress is representative of the suffering of the people (collectively). It may even indicate that the fervent prayer and meditation of his night-time vigil is focused on the deliverance of God’s people as a whole. This is certainly the focus that dominates the second half of the Psalm.

The verb jn~z` (“reject, repel”) occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms (10 of the 20 OT occurrences), e.g., 43:2; 44:10, 24; 60:3, 12; 74:1, being a natural part of the vocabulary in the Psalms of lament. Here it is contrasted with the verb hx*r* (“be pleased [with], show favor [to]”).

Verse 9 [8]

“Has His kindness gone away to (the) end?
Has (the) showing (of it) ceased for cycle and cycle?”

The meter of this couplet is slightly irregular (3+4), as in verse 2 (cf. above), and may be an expression, in poetic terms, of the burden felt by the Psalmist. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) is a fundamental term, used frequently in the Psalms, where it almost always connotes the idea of faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant).

In the second line, I treat the noun rm#a) in relation to the rudimentary meaning of the root rma (“show”), rather the more common and conventional meaning “say”, though the latter is certainly possible here—i.e., referring to YHWH’s communication (speaking) with His people. Yet, I do think that the principal idea here is how YHWH shows His goodness/loyalty to His people through mighty and wondrous acts.

I typically render the noun roD according to the fundamental meaning “circle, cycle”; though here it could be understood in its more conventional sense of an “age” (i.e. cycle of time) or “generation” (the people living in a particular age/cycle). Here the temporal aspect (cycle of time) is primary.

Verse 10 [9]

“Has (the) Mighty (One) forgotten (how) to show favor,
or has He gathered up all His love in (His) anger?”

In the concluding question to this strophe, the Psalmist raises two possibilities: (a) God has forgotten how to show favor (/n~j*, parallel to hx*r* in v. 8), or (b) He has simply gathered together all of his love (toward His people) and anger has taken its place. The noun <j^r^ refers to a deep-seated feeling of love toward another, manifested by caring compassion (like that of a mother for her child). The plural is comprehensive of this loving care and compassion. It is contrasted with the noun [a^, in the general sense of “anger” (i.e. the emotion), rather the more concrete physical idiom of the smoking/flaring of nostrils or the burning of one’s face.

Thematically, verse 11 [10] belongs to the first half of the Psalm; however, poetically, according to the proposed strophic structure, it can be counted as the first couplet of the fourth strophe (vv. 11-13), which I will discuss in the next study (Part 2).

It is possible to treat verse 11 as either another question (continuing those of the previous strophe), or as a declarative statement by the Psalmist. The context (though not necessarily the syntax) suggests another fearful question:

“And I said ‘My sickness—(is) it (due to)
(the) changing right hand of (the) Highest?'”

This will be discussed further in the notes to Strophe 4, in the next study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 74 (Part 1)

Psalm 74

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

Psalm 74 is a lament-Psalm, written from the standpoint of the Israelite (Judean) people and nation as a whole. The first half of the composition (vv. 1-11) is a lament over the destruction of the Temple, and thus is likely to have been written in the 6th century B.C., sometime after the Temple’s destruction (in 586), though it would have been applicable as a hymnic prayer all throughout the Exile and into the post-Exilic period. The second half of the Psalm (vv. 12-23) consists of an appeal to YHWH to redeem and deliver His people.

This is the second of a series of eleven Psalms (7383) associated with the figure of Asaph ([s*a*)—on whom, cf. the previous studies on Pss 25 and 73. The composition is designated as a lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), a term used also in the headings of Pss 32, 42, 44-45, 52-55, 78, 88-89, 142. For a discussion of the possible meaning and significance of this term, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32.

The meter of this Psalm is irregular, but tends to follow a 4-beat (4+4) couplet format.


Verse 1

“For what, O Mightiest, should you be indignant to the end,
(and) your nostril(s) smoke against (the) sheep of your pasture?”

The lament begins, appropriately, with the interrogative expression hm*l*, “for what (reason)…?”, i.e., “why…?” The conquest of Jerusalem, with the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the population, makes it seem that YHWH has rejected His people (Israel/Judah) completely (lit. “to the end,” jx^n#l*). The verb jn~z` has the basic meaning of being repelled or disgusted by something, which a person then casts aside. I have rendered it above as “be indignant (toward something)”, which well suits the burning/fire motif in the second line.

The noun [a^, often translated flatly as “anger,” should be understood here in the concrete anthropomorphic (and zoomorphic) sense of “nostril(s)”. The smoke (vb /v^u*) coming from YHWH’s nostrils is a vivid sign of his anger; it also evokes the burning destruction of the city (and Temple). Often the specific image is of nostrils burning or ‘flaring’, like the snorting of an angry bull.

Frequently, YHWH is depicted as a shepherd, with His people as the sheep, or flock (/ax)). The shepherd-motif connotes the care, protection, and guidance which God gives to His people (cf. especially the famous Psalm 23).

Verse 2

“Remember your assembled (flock) (that) you acquired (long) before;
may you redeem (with the) staff your inheritance, mount ‚iyyôn,
this (mountain) on which you have dwelt.”

To the relatively regular 4-beat (4+4) couplet format (established in v. 1), an additional 3-beat line has been included here in v. 2, forming a tricolon. The shepherd/sheep motif should be understood as continuing in v. 2; thus the general noun hd*u@ (“crowd, assembly, congregation”) reflects the people as an assembled flock. The religious-cultic connotation of hd*u@, however, should not be missed—viz., the Temple precincts as the principal location where the nation gathers (to worship).

The Psalmist calls on YHWH to remember His people, whom He acquired (vb hn`q*, cf. Exod 15:16; Deut 32:6; the verb can also mean “create” [Gen 14:19, 22]) as His own, long before (<d#q#), in the past. It is thus proper that God should redeem (vb la^G`) His people from their servitude (in exile); I follow Dahood (II, p. 200) in reading the perfect form of the verb as a precative perfect, in parallel with the imperative in the first line. God redeems His people, delivering them out of danger, and leading them (back to pasture) with his shepherd’s staff (fb#v@, cf. Ps 23:4).

The redemption of His people entails restoring and re-establishing Jerusalem (spec. the Temple-Palace locale of Zion) as the “mountain” on which He will once again dwell, with the people, as He did in the past.

Verse 3

“Lift high your (foot)steps, to (the) desolate places far off,
all the evil (the) hostile (one) has done in your Holy (Place).”

The theme of Zion as YHWH’s mountain-dwelling—the local (ritual) representation of His cosmic Mountain—introduced at the end of v. 2, continues here, with the call for God to “bring/lift up high” (vb <Wr, Hiphil) His footsteps (i.e. to mount Zion). The noun <u^P^ refers to the beat of footsteps, probably intended to evoke the military imagery of an army of soldiers on the march. Dahood’s quite different explanation of iymup (II, p. 201) is intriguing, but not entirely convincing.

The Temple precincts, as well as the entire locale of the Zion hilltop-site, has been turned into “places of desolation” (toaV%m^) by the conquering forces (i.e. the Babylonian military) that “did evil” (vb uu^r* Hiphil) in the “Holy (Place)”. The use of vd#q) makes clear that the destruction of the Temple is primarily in mind. The noun jx^n#, denoting an end goal (cf. the expression jx^n#l*, “to the end”, in v. 1), should probably be understood here as something seen from a distance, from far off; as YHWH marches to Jerusalem, to redeem the Zion, the “desolate places” of the destroyed city can be seen on His approach.

Verse 4

“(Those) hostile to you roared in the midst of your place of assembly,
setting (up) their signs (as evil) signs.”

Here the participle rr@x) (plur.) is essentially synonymous with by@oa in v. 3 (cf. above); both mean “one being hostile”. The conquering Babylonians are “hostile” to YHWH in two respects: (1) they were hostile to YHWH’s people (and His holy city), attacking it; and (2) they are idolatrous worshipers of other deities. The “place of assembly”, i.e., where the people assemble (to worship God), refers to the “holy (place)” in v. 3—the Temple and its precincts.

The redundancy in the second line, repeating the plural noun tota) (“signs”), have led to commentators toward various emendations of the text (cf. Dahood’s slight emendation that redivides the MT, II, p. 201f). However, it may be that the Psalmist is simply utilizing a bit of wordplay involving the word toa, which, like the corresponding “sign” in English, can refer to an actual physical/material marker, as well as (conceptually) to the significance of something. I take the meaning of the line to be that the conquering army set up their signs (i.e., banners, etc), which served as signs (indicators) of the evil they were doing.

Verses 5-6

“(This) was made known like (those) bringing up
axes in the thicket of (the) wood;
and (so) {they cut down} (all) her doors at once,
with hatchets and hammers they broke (them) down.”

These lines are highly problematic, as virtually all commentators recognize. The verses are likely corrupt, to some extent, especially in the first line of v. 6. As every proposed emendation is both speculative and far from convincing, the best approach is probably to keep as close as possible, however tentatively, to the MT as it has come down to us. Sadly, the Psalm is not preserved among the Qumran manuscripts, so there is no help to be found from that front.

The basic image seems clear enough: the conquering army broke down the Temple building (its doors, etc) like men who cut down trees (with the axe) in a thick forest. I follow the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus; cf. Dahood, II, p. 202) in vocalizing hyjwtp as h*yj#t*P= (“her openings”, i.e. her doors) instead of MT h*yj#WTP! (“her carvings”). The many doors and wooden parts of the Temple were “cut down” (?) and “broken down” (vb <l^h*) with hatchets and hammers, etc.

Verse 7

“They cast your Holy Place in the fire, (burning it) to the earth,
(and so) they profaned (the) dwelling-place of your name.”

After the cutting down of the doors, etc, of the Temple building, the conquering army burnt it to the ground “in the fire”; cf. the allusion to this fiery destruction with the reference in v. 1 to the “smoke” coming from YHWH’s nostrils. The use of the verb ll^j* (II) in the second line echoes the earlier expressed idea of the conquerors as “doing evil” in the Temple sanctuary, and also of their being “hostile” to YHWH. The root llj (II) generally seems to denote a violation of what is sacred—in this instance, desecrating and profaning the holy dwelling-place (/K^v=m!) of God. On the Temple sanctuary as specifically the dwelling-place for YHWH’s name, cf. 2 Sam 7:13; 1 Kings 5:5; 8:16ff, 43ff; 9:3, 7; 2 Kings 23:27; Jer 7:10ff, 30, etc.; on the Deuteronomic origins of this theme, cf. Deut 12:5ff; 14:23-24; 16:2, 6, 11.

Verse 8

“They said in their heart, ‘Let us subdue them as one,
let all (the) assembles of (the) Mighty (One) in the land be burned!'”

This is another difficult couplet, largely due to the difficulty in parsing MT <n`yn] in the first line, and also the form of the verb [r^c* (“burn”) in the second line. They idea seems to be that conquering army has the desire to completely subdue the entire nation, and to destroy every sacred site where people worship (lit. “places of assembly”). This reflects, again, the theme of the Babylonians’ hostility toward both YHWH and His people.

The MT <n`yn] is probably best understood as reflecting a first person plural imperfect (cohortative) form of the verb hn`y` (“oppress”); but cf. Dahood, II, p. 202 for a different approach. I do follow Dahood in vocalizing wprc as a passive form (Wpr*c%), with jussive/precative force, “let them be burned”.

Verse 9

“Signs (among) us we no (longer) see,
there is not any more a spokesman (of YHWH),
and not (among) us (anyone) knowing ‘until wh(en)…'”

There are no longer any great wonders or portents (“signs,” cf. on v. 4b above) among the people, nor is there any ayb!n` (inspired spokesperson or ‘prophet’), i.e., one who speaks as YHWH’s representative, communicating His word and will to the people. There is thus no one who can assure the people how long the exile will last—i.e., when it will end (“until wh[en]”, hm*-du^). All of these things are indications that God is no longer present and active among His (exiled) people, at least not in the way that He once was. It is a restoration of the old way that the Psalmist has in mind when he speaks of YHWH redeeming (v. 2) His people; the restoration entails a return of the people to the land, and a re-establishment of Zion/Jerusalem as the holy city of God.

Verse 10

“Until when, O Mightiest, shall (the) adversary scorn (you)?
Shall (the) hostile (one) despise your name to the end?”

The implicit question (“until wh[en]…?” hm*-du^) at the end of v. 9 is picked up at the beginning of v. 10, more precisely as yt^m*-du^ (“until when…?”). The wicked adversary, the “hostile one” (rx* / by@oa, cf. the same parallel terminology in vv. 3-4), has shown open scorn (vb [r^j*) to YHWH, despising (vb Ja^n`) His name (cf. above on v. 7), particularly in the way that they desecrated and destroyed the Temple. Yet the conquest and destruction was so total, leaving the land desolate, with the people exiled, that one might truly wonder if this situation might indeed last “to the end” (jx^n#l*, cf. verse 1). “Until when (i.e. how long)” will this continue? The very question anticipates the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH in vv. 12-23.

Verse 11

“For what do you turn back (from us) your hand,
(and) your right hand from near your bosom <withold>?”

The lament of vv. 1-11 concludes just as it began (cf. on v. 1 above), with the interrogative hm*l*, “for what (reason)…?” (i.e., “why…?”). The Psalmist asks why YHWH does not give help to his people, acting on their behalf, to restore/redeem them from out of their exile. The dual-image here reflects this idea vividly:

    • God turning back (vb bWv) His hand
    • and of holding back (vb al*K*) His right hand

The parallelism is quite clear, and would seem to require reading the verb al*K*, instead of hl*K* (MT hL@K^) in the second line; this slight emendation of the MT seems justified, and is supported by commentators such as Kraus (p. 96). To this idea of YHWH withholding His hand is added the picturesque detail of keeping it back near His own bosom; we might depict it as keeping His hands folded on His lap.

In the plea that follows in vv. 12-17ff, to be discussed in the next study, the Psalmist hopes to spur God to action on behalf of His people.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 1)

Psalm 71

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-14)

This relatively lengthy composition has, on the whole, the character of a psalm of lament, in which the Psalmist (or the protagonist) prays/pleads to YHWH for deliverance from his adversaries. As such, it has numerous features in common with many of the Psalms we have studied thus far.

This Psalm is irregular, both in terms of its meter, and its thematic structure. It has been characterized as a pastiche, or collage, of traditional Psalm and hymnic elements. Indeed, verses 1-3 are quite similar to the opening lines of Psalm 31 (vv. 2-4a), and may be an indication of an existing source poem that was incorporated into the present composition.

The length, irregularity, and composite character of this Psalm all suggest a relatively late date; many commentators (e.g., Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 194) would assign it to the (early) post-exilic period. There is no heading for this Psalm at all in the Masoretic text; however, the LXX contains a superscription indicating that it is a Davidic composition, written “for the sons of Yonadab and the first (one)s having been led away at spearpoint [i.e. taken captive]”. Apart from the anachronistic reference to David, this heading does, indeed, suggest an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

I would divide Psalm 71 broadly into two parts: vv. 1-13 and 14-24. There is a certain parallelism to this structure, as each part begins with an expression of hope/trust in YHWH (vv. 1, 14), and concludes with an imprecatory prayer-wish that the Psalmist’s adversaries would end in humiliation and disgrace (vv. 13, 24). Other smaller structural units, such as may plausibly be discerned, will be discussed along the way.

Much of this Psalm survives, largely intact, in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, and contains several significant variant readings, which will be mentioned in the notes. Interestingly, in this manuscript Psalm 71 follows Ps 38, rather than Ps 70.

Part 1: Verses 1-13

Verses 1-2

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame into (the) distant (future)!
In your justice, rescue me and help me escape,
stretch out your ear to me and save me!”

The opening couplet (v. 1) is identical with the first two lines of Psalm 31:2 [1] (on which, cf. the earlier study), while the second couplet (v. 2) is very close to 31:3 [2] + the first three words of v. 4 [3]. Metrically, we have a 3+2 couplet followed by a longer 3-beat (3+3) couplet. This differs slightly from the meter and structure of Ps 31.

There is parallelism between the couplets, particularly in first and third lines:

    • In you, YHWH
      • I have sought protection
    • In your justice
      • …help me to escape

The verb hs*j* in line 1 denotes the act of seeking or finding shelter (from a rainstorm, etc), and occurs often in the Psalms. The context implies the presence of danger, and the Psalmist is turning to YHWH for protection. The root flp signifies, in a similar sense, escaping from danger, which one does by taking refuge in God; the Piel stem here indicates a causative aspect, i.e. causing, or helping, someone escape. The preceding verb, lx^n`, in the Hiphil stem, has much the same meaning (“snatch out [of danger]”). The noun hq*d*x= is usually translated “justice, righteousness”, but frequently connotes faithfulness or loyalty, especially when a covenant context is in view, as it frequently is in the Psalms. YHWH’s loyalty and fidelity to the covenant bond means that He will give protection to His faithful followers who call on Him in their time of need.

Dahood (II, p. 172; I, p. 187) would read the noun <l*ou in the second line as a divine title (“Ancient/Eternal [One]”) with the prefixed preposition as a vocative lamed (l=). This would result in a clearer parallel couplet in the first two lines:

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame, O Ancient (One)!”

I find the suggestion interesting, but not entirely convincing; I translate <lwul above in the more customary manner, as a qualitative temporal phrase: “(in)to (the) distant (future)” (i.e., for ever, eternally).

In Ps 31, the corresponding final line of v. 2 here is presented instead as a short 3+2 couplet:

“Stretch (out) your ear to me,
(and) rescue me quickly!”

It has the form yn]l@yX!h^ (“snatch me away,” i.e., “rescue me”), as in 71:2a (cf. above), instead of yn]u@yv!oh (“save me,” “keep me safe”). The Qumran MS 4QPsa of 71:2b follows Ps 31 in reading ynlyxh at this point. Also, in v. 2a, 4QPsa differs from the MT in that it has two imperatives, rather than an imperfect (with imperative force) + imperative.

Verse 3

“Be for me (my) Rock, a dwelling-place,
for coming (in) always,
as you ordered, to keep me safe,
for you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high.”

These lines correspond to Ps 31:4-5a (the first three lines of a pair of couplets):

“Be for me (my) Rock, a strong place,
a house place(d) up high, to rescue me!
For (indeed) you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high,

The first line, in each Psalm, is essentially identical, differing only between the noun zoum* (Ps 32) and /oum* (Ps 71). The noun zoum* literally means “place of strength, strong place”, while /oum* refers to a dwelling-place (usu. for animals in the wild). However, Dahood (II, p. 172) would derive /wum here from a separate root /wu, cognate to Arabic ±¹na (“to aid, give help”). I am tempted to follow this suggestion, as it would very much fit the imagery in context, referring to YHWH as a place of safety and protection.

The MT of 71:3, as it stands, is awkward, both syntactically and rhythmically, and it is possible that the text is corrupt. It is an irregular 3+4+3 tricolon; however, in my translation above, I have chosen to parse it as a 3+2+2+3 quatrain. There is a clear parallelism to the framing lines (1 & 4):

“Be for me (my) Rock, a (safe) dwelling-place,
for you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high.”

The imagery involves the typical setting of a secure (fortified) site on an elevated and difficult to reach location. The summit of a rocky hill or promontory is envisioned as the ideal locale for a protected refuge. The image plays on the idea of YHWH as a Rock of strength and protection; indeed, the noun rWx is used frequently as a divine appellation or title, and it is possible that here the prefixed lamed (l=) has vocative force (cf. Dahood, p. 187). In any event, this couplet (3+3), with its vivid imagery, illustrates the protection which the Psalmist requests from YHWH (see above).

The idea that the text of v. 3 is corrupt may find confirmation in the Qumran MS 4QPsa. The framing lines are intact and match the MT; however, the middle line(s) are broken (with a gap in the text) and seemingly unintelligible.

Verse 4

“My Mighty (One), help me escape from (the) hand of (the) wicked,
from (the) palm of (the one) being crooked and violent.”

Here in verse 4, the Psalmist’s request for God’s protection relates specifically to the danger posed by wicked and violent people. The same verb fl^P* (“escape”) was used in v. 2 (cf. above); the sense of the Piel is “help/allow to escape”. The second line expands the meaning of the first, particularly with regard to the parallel expressions:

    • “(the) hand of the wicked
    • “(the) palm of the crooked and violent

The wicked (uv*r*) person is characterized as “being crooked” (vb lw~u*) and “being violent” (vb sm^j*).

Verse 5

“For you (are) my hope, my Lord,
YHWH, my protection from my youth.”

Again, the Psalmist refers to YHWH as a place of protection (jf*b=m!), following the thought and imagery from the previous verses. The root jfb occurs frequently in the Psalms; however, the noun jf*b=m! is relatively rare (40:5; 65:6). The claim that the Psalmist has trusted in YHWH from his youth implicitly characterizes him as righteous, with longstanding devotion and covenant-loyalty to God.

Verse 6

“Upon you I have leaned (even) from (the) belly,
from (the) cords of my mother you severed me—
with you (is) my praise continually!”

The idea that the Psalmist has trusted in YHWH since his youth is developed here, going back to the very time of his birth. He claims to have leaned upon God even from the moment he emerged from his mother’s belly; the Niphal of Em^s* (“lean [upon]”) should be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., prop up oneself, support oneself.

There is a textual issue in the second line, even though the basic meaning is clear enough: coming from his mother’s intestines (plur. of hu#m@) is parallel to coming from her belly (/f#B#). However, the verbal noun yz]oG (“cutting [off]”) in the MT is problematic, for two reasons: (1) the Qumran MS 4QPsa has the similar sounding yZ]Wu (“my strength”), and (2) Ps 22:10 [9], in a similar context, has yj!oG (“bringing forth”). It almost seems like yz]oG is a conflation of the two readings. Yet, either yjoG or yz]oG is plausible enough in context; God either “brought forth” the Psalmist from his mother’s insides, or He “severed” him from those ‘cords’ (i.e., cutting the umbilical cord, etc).

Verse 7

“As a target I have been for many (people),
but you (remain) my shelter of strength.”

The focus here shifts again to the danger posed by the Psalmist’s wicked adversaries (“many [people]”). The noun tp@om refers to something that stands out or is conspicuous; my translation “target” is based on Job 17:6, where the word tp#T) occurs, in a context suggesting that a person is the target of mocking and the ‘butt’ of jokes. There is good reason to think that the two words are byforms, and essentially synonymous (cf. Dahood, II, p. 173). The Psalmist is the target of accusations and slanderous attacks by his enemies.

The noun hs#j&m^ essentially has the same meaning as jf*b=m! in v. 5: both mean “place of shelter/protection. The roots hs*j* and jf^B* both occur frequently in the Psalms, related to the important theme of YHWH as a source of protection for the righteous.

Verse 8

“My mouth is filled (with) praising you,
(and) adorning you all the day (long).”

The couplet builds upon the theme of praise introduced in the third line of v. 6 (cf. above), and expresses much the same idea: “with you (is) my praise continually”. Here the Psalmist states that his mouth is filled with praise of God, and that he glorifies Him “all the day (long)”. The parallel forms ;t#L*h!T= and ;T#r=a^p=T! are suffixed nouns, but in my translation I have focused on the verbal aspect of the roots llh and rap. The verb ra^P*, in the Piel stem, means “beautify, adorn” —that is, in a religious context, of adorning (exalting and glorifying) God with praise.

The sudden shifts to a praise motif—here and in v. 6—are good examples of how the traditional Psalm elements are blended together in this composition. Typically, the lament, prayer/petition, and praise portions of Psalms are emphasized in specific and distinct sections. This is not so much the case here in Ps 71.

It is possible to delineate vv. 1-3 and 4-8 as units within the first part of the Psalm (vv. 1-13). Treating vv. 1-3 as a distinct unit is supported by the parallel version of these lines in Ps 31 (cf. the discussion above). As for vv. 4-8, they may be seen as parallel with the following vv. 9-13, reflecting two periods of the Psalmist’s life, in terms of his devotion to YHWH:

    • He has trusted in YHWH from his youth (to the present)—vv. 4-8
    • and now asks that God not abandon him in his old age—vv. 9-13

Verses 9-13 will be discussed in the next study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 70

Psalm 70

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is essentially identical with Psalm 40:14-18 [13-17], discussed in an earlier study. The points of difference are noted below. The existence of Psalm 70 provides confirmation for scholars who hold that vv. 14-18 of Ps 40 originally constituted a separate Psalm. We are apparently dealing with two versions of the same basic poem. On its own, this poem is a lament, containing a plea/prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The meter is irregular.

The superscription simply marks this as another composition “belonging to David”. The precise meaning of the additional direction ryK!z+h^l= is unclear. If parsed as a Hiphil infinitive (of the verb rk^z`), it would mean “to cause to remember, to bring to remembrance”, but whether this relates to the performing tradition, or to the content (and purpose) of the poem, is uncertain. The same expression occurs in the superscription of Ps 38; and note the use of the verb rk^z` in the opening lines of Pss 132 and 137.

Verse 2 [1]

“(Rush, O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away)!
(O) YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

The Psalmist’s plea for help begins with this single couplet. It is nearly identical with Ps 40:14[13], the two differences being: (1) use of <yh!l)a$ in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the first line, and (2) the initial verb (hxr) is missing. The parallel with Ps 40, along with the irregular meter (2+3) of the couplet as it currently stands, strongly suggests that a comparable verb (imperative) has dropped out. In discussing 40:14 (cf. the earlier study), I mentioned that I had followed Dahood (I, p. 247) in vocalizing the initial verb form (hxr) as hx*r% (from the root JWr, “run, rush”), rather than MT hx@r= (from hx*r*, “be pleased [to act]”). The verb JWr makes a more obvious (and fitting) parallel with vwj (“hurry”) in the second line.

If the MT of verse 2 is correct, then it must be regarded as a rhythmically irregular couplet (though with identical numbers of syllables in each line [8+8]); it could be translated as follows:

“(O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away),
YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

Dahood (II, p. 168) would parse yn]l@yX!hl= as a Hiphil imperative form with an emphatic –l; the first line would then read: “(O) Mightiest, snatch me (away)!”. The use of the general title <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm, “Mightiest,” i.e., ‘God’) in place of the Divine name (hwhy) is typical of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms we have been studying.

Verse 3 [2]

“May they feel shame and humiliation,
(those) seeking (after) my soul!
May they be sent backward and be ashamed,
(the one)s (who) delight in my evil!”

Again, this verse is very close to that of Psalm 40 (v. 15 [14]), cf. the earlier study; the second couplet is identical, while there is an extra word at the end of each in the first couplet of Ps 40 (yielding a 3+3 rather than 2+2 couplet):

“May they feel shame and humiliation as one [dj^y~],
(those) seeking my soul to sweep it (away) [Ht*oPs=l!]!”

Here we have familiar motif of wicked assailants who attack the righteous protagonist, seeking to do him harm (and even to kill him)—in this sense, of course, “my evil” means “evil done (or intended) against me”. This is a dramatic paradigm we have encountered in dozens of Psalms. It is a general way of referring to the wicked (in contrast to the righteous), and does not require the presence of specific enemies. However, the poetic idiom could certainly be applied to any number of historical situations or practical circumstances.

The desire that such wicked assailants would be “put to shame”, and have their evil plans thwarted (“turned back”), is also a common prayer-wish in these lament-Psalms. This is expressed through three different verbs which share a similar range of meaning: vWB, rp@j*, and <l^K*. These are used repeatedly throughout the Psalms, and often with similar formulations (35:4 is quite close here).

Verse 4 [3]

“May they be devastated upon (the) heel of their shame,
(the one)s saying (to me), ‘Aha, aha!'”

The second line of Ps 40:16[15] contains an additional word (yl!, “to me”, indicated in parentheses above), but is otherwise identical. The shorter second line of v. 4 here results in a tighter couplet, with a more precise 3-beat rhythm, though metrically there is not much difference between the two versions.

The wish of v. 3 [2] is restated here, but even more intensely, as the Psalmist asks that his adversaries be “devastated” (vb <m@v*) on account of their shame. The expression “upon (the) heel of” (bq#u@ lu^) is a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered blandly in English as “on account of”. The sense of their wickedness is captured here through their accusatory taunting of the righteous (cp. 35:21). For a slightly different explanation of bqu (with a different vocalization), cf. Dahood, II, p. 168.

Verse 5 [4]

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!’
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Ps 40:17[16] is identical, accept for the final noun, which in Ps 40 is hu*WvT= rather than the related hu*Wvy+, the two words essentially being byforms with identical meaning.

Just as the Psalmist prays for the wicked to feel shame and humiliation, so he also wishes (conversely) for the righteous to experience joy. The verb pair cWc and jm^c* expresses this joyfulness, even as the pair vWB and rp@j* in v. 3 [2] expresses the shame/humiliation of the wicked. The contrastive parallel (between the righteous and wicked) is quite precise here. The wicked are the ones “seeking [vb vq^B*]” the soul of the righteous, to do it harm; by contrast, the righteous are the ones “seeking” (same verb) after YHWH, to do His will. The wicked utter accusatory taunts (“Aha, aha!”) against the righteous, while the righteous utter praise in honor of YHWH (“Great is YHWH!”).

Structurally, this verse is best understood as a tricolon that has been expanded with two additional short lines. The tricolon is comprised of lines 1-2 and 5 above, producing a fine characterization of the righteous:

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Within this poetic structure, the additional descriptive element has been added:

“(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!'”

To their heart and intention, a confessional aspect is included, whereby the righteous demonstrate their devotion to YHWH through what they say publicly. It implies a worship setting, but even more importantly, it marks the Psalmist as belonging to the gathering of (all the) the righteous.

Verse 6 [5]

“And (yet) I (am) oppressed and needy,
(O) Mightiest, (come) hurry to me!
You (are) my help and my escaping—
(O) YHWH, do not stay behind!”

Compared with the parallel in Ps 40:18[17], there is a more consistent parallelism in the couplets here, taking the form of an urgent plea to YHWH (matching that of v. 2 at the opening of the Psalm). The points of difference are indicated in italics above, as well as, correspondingly, here for Ps 40:

“And (though) I (am) oppressed and needy,
my Lord has regard for me.
You (are) my help and my escaping—
my Mighty (One), do not stay behind!”

The righteous are frequently characterized as poor/needy (/oyb=a#) and oppressed (yn]a*), and this pairing occurs numerous times in the Psalms—35:10; 37:14; 72:4, 12; 74:21; 86:1; 109:16, 22; 140:13; and cf. also on 69:33-34 (in the previous study). The wicked, by contrast, are rich and powerful (at least by worldly standards), and oppress the righteous. This is expressed from the standpoint of social justice, but as an idiom also carries a deeper religious and theological resonance. The righteous, by their very nature, cannot share the success and strength of the wicked in the world; instead, they must trust in YHWH for sustenance and protection.

The protection provided by YHWH is again the subject of the final two lines, as the Psalmist closes his poem with the plea: “O YHWH, do not stay behind!”. The verb rj^a* literally means “stay behind, keep back”, and expresses a situation that is the opposite of what the Psalmist needs. He needs YHWH to come forward to rescue him, to stand in front of him and give the necessary protection. YHWH is both the help and the “way out”, the escape (vb fl^P*) from all that threatens him.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 3)

Psalm 69, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-30 [13-29]

(Verses 14-19 [13-18] were discussed in the previous study)

Verses 20-21 [19-20]

“You, (indeed) you know my scorn—
my shame and disgrace are before you—
(the) scorn (from) all my oppressors,
it has broken my heart  and I am sick.
I looked for but a nod, and there was none,
and for (those) sighing, but I did not find (one).”

In verses 14-19, the Psalmist makes his prayer, his petition, to YHWH for deliverance from his adversaries. Here, the tone of lament from the first part of the Psalm (cf. the prior study) is repeated. The protagonist details his suffering to God, defined primarily in terms of the verbal abuse and taunting from those oppressing him (vb rr^x* II). The primary word here is hP*r=j#, “scorn, reproach,” capturing the sense of verbal abuse, and often connoting the casting of blame upon someone. This abuse leads to the protagonist experiencing shame and disgrace—the nouns tv#B) and hM*l!K= being quite similar in meaning.

The standard verse division (between vv. 20 and 21) is problematic, both metrically and syntactically. Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 172) proposes transferring the words yt!M*l!k=W yT!v=b*W (“[and] my shame and my disgrace”) from line 2 in v. 20 down into v. 21. In my view, the simplest solution is to include the first word of v. 21 (hP*r=j#, “scorn”) as part of the final line of v. 22. This allows (more or less) the three-beat rhythm of the lines to be maintained throughout vv. 21-22. It also heightens the thematic emphasis on abuse/scorn in v. 21, making it clear that this abuse comes from the Psalmist’s adversaries.

YHWH is aware of all this, as the Psalmist points out in his petition— “my shame and my disgrace are in front of [dg#n#] you,” i.e., are right before God’s eyes. It is also known to God what the effect of this abuse has been: it has “broken” (vb rb^v*) the Psalmist’s heart and made him sick (vb vWn), a most vivid way of referring to suffering—both emotional and physical. Beyond this, he has no one to help or give comfort to him in his time of distress. The verb dWn denotes waving/shaking or nodding one’s head, here as a sign of sympathy for the psalmist’s suffering; similarly the verb <j^n` means “breathe (deep),” i.e., “sigh” on behalf of someone.

Verse 22 [21]

“They gave in my food (the bitter) head,
and for my thirst they made me drink sour (wine).”

It is possible that the initial –w conjunction is meant to contrast with the people (the Psalmist’s friends and neighbors) who should have been sympathetic toward him in his time of suffering. In this case, the translation would be: “Instead, they gave…poison…”. On the other hand, these lines may simply be amplifying the description of the abuse given by the Psalmist’s adversaries.

The noun var) literally means “head,” and presumably refers to the ‘head’ of a (particular) plant which is bitter and/or poisonous to the taste. The Psalmist’s adversaries (or would-be friends) further mock and abuse him by putting something harsh and bitter tasting (possibly even poisonous) in his food. The parallel is of giving him sour wine (Jm#j)) to drink. Probably this imagery is meant to be figurative, indicating the cruelty and treachery of the Psalmist’s opponents (or false friends).

Early Christians, quite naturally, came to interpret verse 22 (especially the second line) in terms of the events of Jesus’ Passion—of the sour wine given to him (to drink) while he was dying on the cross (Matt 27:34, 48 par).

Verse 23 [22]

“May their table be before them as a trap,
even for (those) of (their) bond, as a snare!”

The Psalmist’s lamenting plea suddenly turns into an imprecatory outburst, calling on God to visit the opponents’ own wicked intentions back upon them (in judgment). They will be caught in the very sort of treacherous trap they seek to lay for the righteous. The nouns jP^ and vq#om are parallel in meaning—the first word refers to a metal trap, and the second to a noose or snare made of rope/cord.

The plural noun <ym!olv= here is difficult to translate. My interpretation follows the use of <wlv in Psalm 41:11 [10] (cf. the earlier study), with the assumption that it refers to people in covenant-bond with one another, who have close/intimate fellowship at table. In such an environment, one should be able to trust in those at the table, but, based on the Psalmist’s curse-request, even a meeting of supposed friends sharing a common bond will turn into a “trap” for the wicked.

Verse 24 [23]

“Let their eyes be (made) dark from seeing,
and their thighs continually may (they) shake!”

The lex talionis imprecation continues from v. 23. Just as the Psalmist was made sick (to the point of suffering physically) by the opponents’ abuse, so they will be made to suffer in a similar way. Their eyes (i.e. sight) will become dark (vb Ev^j*); the expression “from seeing” (toarm@) is privative—i.e., their eyes will grow dark (i.e. blind) so that they are unable to see.

Verse 25 [24]

“May you pour out upon them your anger,
and may (the) burning of your nostril(s) take them!”

The imprecation by the Psalmist here turns into a direct call on YHWH to bring destructive judgment upon his adversaries. This is expressed in traditional terms, referring the burning anger of God. The noun <u^z~ refers to this anger simply, while, in the second line, the more colorful idiom of God’s burning nostrils (lit. “burning of your nostril[s]”) is used, presumably drawing upon the idea of an angry bull, etc, snorting out a hot wind. The idiom was so common that the noun [a^ came to signify “anger” generally, derived from the more concrete image of burning/flaring nostrils (or the burning anger visible in one’s face).

Verse 26 [25]

“Let their row (of dwellings) be (made) desolate,
(and) in their tents let there not be (anyone) sitting!”

Because of God’s judgment on the wicked, there will literally be no one “sitting” (i.e., dwelling) in the tents; the entire encampment (lit. row [of tents]) will be made desolate (vb <m@v*).

Verse 27 [26]

“For the one whom you struck they have pursued,
and tell about (the) anguish of (he) whom you wounded.”

This is a difficult couplet, in terms of its syntax. The basic sense, however, seems clear enough. The Psalmist’s adversaries are deserving of punishment because they persecuted and mocked (or slandered) a righteous individual who was suffering. Here, the suffering is best understood as a physical illness, brought about by God. The Psalmist acknowledges that it was YHWH who “struck” him with this suffering, ‘piercing’ him (figuratively speaking). This suggests that the reproach (“scorn,” hP*r=j#) by the adversaries (cf. above) may have involved casting blame upon the Psalmist, to the effect that he was deserving of suffering because he committed certain kinds of sins or crimes. Such a focus on the wicked slandering the righteous would be in keeping with descriptions we have seen in earlier Psalms. In this regard, the verb rp^s* (“give account, recount”) here should probably be understood in the negative/pejorative sense of “telling tales” about someone.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 163) in vocalizing hta as ht)a) (direct object marker with 3ms suffix) instead of MT hTa^ (2ms pronoun); the combination rv#a& hta thus means “he who” or “the one who”. The parallelism of the lines would require that ;yl#l*j& involve a similar expression; this is achieved (again following Dahood) by reading a genitive form with an instrumental suffix (i.e., “by you”), viz. “(he) of your piercing”, i.e. “he whom you pierced”.

Verse 28 [27]

“Give crookedness upon their crookedness,
and (so) may they not come in(to) your righteousness.”

Here the Psalmist’s imprecation (beginning in v. 23, cf. above) reaches its harshest point. The first line is a bit difficult to translate. The noun /ou* literally means “crookedness,” indicating a state of being crooked, twisted, perverse, often specifically in an ethical-religious sense. The Psalmist asks God to put (lit. give) further “crookedness” upon the wicked who are already “crooked”. The second line makes clear that this is to be understood in the literal sense of taking a twisted path. The wicked already walk in a twisted/crooked way, but the Psalmist, by his request, wants to ensure that they are unable to find their way into God’s “righteousness”. By this, probably, is meant the way into His righteous dwelling-place (i.e., His blessed abode in Heaven). If verse 26 implies the death of the wicked, here we seem to have the idea of a more permanent perishing, with the wicked unable to have any life after death. This is confirmed by what follows in verse 29.

Verse 29 [28]

“May they be rubbed (out) from (the) account of (the) living,
and with (the) righteous let them not be written!”

The idiom of a “(written) account” (i.e. book or scroll) of the “living” is traditional, referring to an account that God keeps, specifically recording those who are righteous, and thus have a deserving place in the blessed afterlife (cf. Exod 32:32-33; Psalm 56:8; 139:16; Dan 12:1; Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5, etc). The Psalmist asks that his wicked adversaries be “rubbed (out)” (vb hj*m*) from this book. Christians today doubtless will find this sort of imprecatory language and thinking disturbing, but it is very much a part of the ancient Near Eastern worldview.

Possibly there is a bit of wordplay here between the noun rp#s@ (“account”) and the related verb rp^s* in v. 27 (cf. above). By ‘telling tales” and giving slanderous accounts of the Psalmist’s suffering, the wicked will end up being blotted out of the account (i.e. book) of life.

Verse 30 [29]

“But I (am) oppressed and in anguish—
may your salvation, Mightiest, set me (up) high!”

The imprecation reached its climax in verse 29, and now the Psalmist returns to the main line of his prayer and petition, again lamenting his current condition. He is apparently experiencing genuine physical and emotional suffering, which has been exacerbated by the abuse of his opponents. The pronoun yn]a& (“I”) with the prefixed conjunction is emphatic and could be translated “But as for me, (I am)…”

Two terms are used to describe the protagonist’s condition. The first is the adjective yn]u* (“oppressed”), an adjective that occurs frequently in the Psalms (29 times, out of 73 OT occurrences). It characterizes the righteous—as people who tend to be poor and oppressed (spec. by the wicked). The second term is a verbal noun (participle), ba@oK, denoting a state of “being in anguish”; the use of a participle suggests that it refers to a present and continuing condition.

In the final line, the Psalmist closes his prayer with an expression of trust in YHWH, using the traditional motif, frequent in the Psalms, of God as a place of safety and protection for the righteous. This is the fundamental significance of the word hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) here. The protagonist expects that God will answer his prayer, and will deliver him from his suffering, and, at the same time, will rescue him from the threats and abuse of his wicked adversaries. It is expected that YHWH will take him to a safe and protected place “up high” —that is the basic meaning of bg~c*, a relatively rare verb which occurs with some frequency in the Psalms (7 out of 20 OT occurrences).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 1)

Psalm 69

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-19 [18])

It is generally acknowledged that this Psalm, in comparison with the previous Ps 68, is in much better textual condition. Despite being comparable in size, the MT of Ps 69 presents far fewer textual and interpretive difficulties. Even so, its length and complexity remain challenging for commentators. In particular, there a number of different theories regarding the composition of the work. It seems likely that some measure of development and expansion took place, by which the current Psalm grew into shape, from a simpler/shorter original composition. The three-stage development posited by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 176) is worth citing as a plausible hypothesis:

    • Stage 1: A pre-exilic psalm of lament, consisting of vv. 2-5, 14c-19, 31; the structure of this Psalm follows a familiar pattern of lament-petition-praise.
    • Stage 2: The primary psalm was expanded, according its three structural elements: lament (vv. 6-14b), petition (vv. 20-30), praise vow (vv. 32-34).
    • Stage 3: The call to praise, mentioning the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem (vv. 35-37), was added to the end of the psalm; this last portion certainly comes from an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

In terms of analyzing the structure of this lengthy Psalm, it seems best to keep things relatively simple, following a broad 3-part division that, I think, can be discerned rather clearly:

    • Part 1: Lament to YHWH (vv. 2-13)
    • Part 2: Prayer to YHWH (vv. 14-30)
    • Part 3: Praise to YHWH (vv. 31-37)

Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates; however, this is far from consistent. As one might expect, in a poem of such length and complexity, the meter varies considerably. Notable rhythmic departures from the 3+3 pattern will be mentioned in the notes.

The short heading to the Psalm simply marks this as another Davidic composition (“[belonging] to David”). The musical direction indicates that the lyric of the poem should be performed to the melody “Lilies” (<yN]v*ov); the same direction occurs in Psalm 45 (cf. also Ps 60:1; 80:1).

It should be mentioned that a significant portion of this Psalm, though fragmentary, survives in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, covering vv. 1-19. This includes an interesting number of variant readings, compared with the Masoretic text. Some of these will be touched upon in the next study.

Part 1: Verses 2-13 [1-12]

Verse 2 [1]

“Save me, O Mightiest,
for there have come
waters up to (my) neck!”

The initial verse, which I read as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, presents, in sharp and vivid detail, the danger facing the protagonist of this Psalm. There are a number of instances (always in poetry) where the word vp#n#, usually translated “soul”, should be understood in the concrete physical sense of “neck, throat”; this is certainly one such instance. The image (symbolic of mortal peril) is of the Psalmist in water up to his neck, and the implication is that the waters are still coming. In other words, he is in danger of being submerged, and drowning.

Verse 3 [2]

“I have sunk in mire of (the) deep (sea),
and there is no place to stand;
I have come in(to the) depths of (the) waters,
and (the) swirling (flood) engulfs me!”

This verse expands the imagery in v. 2, expressed through a pair of 3+2 couplets. The first line in each couplet depicts a similar idea:

    • I have sunk in the mire of the deep (sea)
    • I have come in(to) the depths of the waters

Two different words are used to express the idea of deep water, watery depths: hl*Wxm= and qm*u&m^; both words essentially mean “deep place”. The noun /w@y` adds the motif of “mud, mire” to the portrait of the surging and swirling (lbv) waters.

The second line of each couplet is also parallel. The idea of having no “place to stand” (dm*u(m*) is followed by the more dramatic image of the waters “engulfing”(vb [f^v*) the Psalmist.

Verse 4 [3]

“I am exhausted by my crying,
my throat is (all) parched,
(and) my eyes are finished,
from waiting for my Mighty (One).”

Following the idea of being submerged by water, in vv. 2-3, the image now shifts to one of being dried out. The Psalmist’s throat (/orG`, cf. the parallel with vp#n# in v. 2, above) is literally “burned” (vb rr^j*), best understood in the sense of being “parched,” i.e., dry (and scorched) as in the desert. His throat is parched from all his “crying (out)” to God; this constant outcry has exhausted (vb ug~y`) him, and weakened him so that his eyes fail (lit. are finished). The parallelism in these couplets is chiastic:

    • I am exhausted crying out (to God)
      • my throat is burnt
      • my eyes are finished
    • (I have been) waiting for my God

That is, the Psalmist has been waiting for YHWH to answer his cry for help. Dahood (II, p. 156f) would read the prefixed –l on yh*l)al@ as a vocative— “…from waiting, O my Mighty (One)”. This is certainly possible; it would preserve the direct address to God throughout.

Metrically, in this verse we have a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The terse rhythm captures the urgency of the situation.

Verse 5 [4]

“Many (more) than (the) hairs of my head
(are those) hating me for nothing,
strong (those) putting an end to me,
my enemies (acting with) deceit.
That which I did not strip away,
must I then return (it)?”

Here it becomes clear that the imagery of being engulfed by deadly waters was figurative of the danger facing the Psalmist. In its place is the familiar idiom of the danger posed by hostile enemies and opponents, expressed through the regular verbal nouns (in the plural), “(one)s hating” (vb an@c*) and “(one)s being hostile” (vb by~a*). Their force is characterized by the verbs (in emphatic position) “be many” (bb^r*) and “be strong/mighty” (<x^u*). They are more numerous than the hairs on the Psalmist’s head (note the use of the preposition /m! [“from”] in the comparative sense, “[more] than”). In light of this expression, some commentators would emend the MT of the third line slightly, reading yt!M*x^m! (“from my locks[?]”) instead of yt^ym!x=m^ (“putting an to me”, vb tm^x*). This would create a parallelism with the first line:

    • “they are more numerous than the hairs of my head” /
      “they are more mighty than the locks (of) my (hair)”

For the possible meaning of hM*x^ as “lock(s of hair),” cf. the context of its use in Isa 47:2; Song 4:1, 3; 6:7.

The meter of v. 5 (as it stands) is irregular: a 3+2 couplet, followed by a 2+2 couplet. An additional 2-beat couplet seems to express the nature of the enemies’ action:

“That which I did not strip away
must I then return (it)”

Apparently the protagonist is accused of theft, expressed in terms of violent robbery, using the verb lz~G` (“pluck off, strip away, take [by force]”). The idea of having to return what he did not steal suggests the possibility of a legal action.

Verse 6 [5]

“Mightiest, you (indeed) know of my foolishness,
and my faults, from you they are not concealed.”

After the terse rhythm of vv. 2-5, the meter changes suddenly here, to a longer 4+3 couplet; then, for the remainder of this part of the Psalm, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet pattern becomes regular. The sense of danger and pleading is replaced by a more reasoned petition to YHWH. It expresses the traditional religious idea that a person’s sins and faults are known to God (the All-knowing), and cannot be kept away from Him.

Verse 7 [6]

“May they not be ashamed by me,
(those) looking to you, my Lord,
O YHWH of (the heavenly) armies!
May they not be disgraced by me,
(those) seeking you, Mighty (One)
of Yisrael!”

The repeated prayer by the Psalmist here functions as an affirmation that he would conduct himself in a manner worthy of the righteous/faithful ones. It is an expression of his heart’s desire and intention. He would never willingly do the sort of thing of which his enemies accuse him.

The meter of this verse, as we have it, is truly unusual. It consists of a pair of uneven couplets—2+2 and 2+3; an extra 2-beat line is added to the first couplet, producing a 2-beat tricolon. The couplets are parallel in concept, and could be seen as 2-beat couplets with expanded honorifics applied to YHWH; I have tried to illustrate this with the poetic arrangement of the lines above.

The righteous are characterized as those “looking for” (vb hw`q* I) God and “seeking” (vb vq^B*) Him.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (it is) over you (that) I have carried blame,
(and) humiliation has covered my face.”

The Psalmist expresses here the real reason for the attacks by his wicked adversaries. It is because of (lit. “over”) his righteous devotion to YHWH (“over you”). It is for God’s sake that he is facing blame and disgrace from his accusers.

Verse 9 [8]

“A stranger I have become to my brothers,
and (one) foreign to (the) sons of my mother.”

His righteous conduct and devotion to YHWH has effectively made the Psalmist a stranger to his own people. This idea is expressed through two roots: (1) rWz and (2) rk^n`. I follow Dahood (II, p. 157) in separating the prefixed –m from rzwm, and attaching it (as an enclitic suffix <-) to the last word of the previous verse. This yields a smoother syntax. The first word of v. 9 would then be vocalized rz`w+.

Verse 10 [9]

“Indeed, ardor for your house consumes me,
and (the) scorn of (those) scorning you
has fallen upon me.”

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though this is a bit difficult to capture in translation. The noun hP*r=j# is the same as in v. 8, where I translated it “blame”; here the same idea is expressed through the harsher rendering “scorn” (with the connotation of insult, mockery, contempt). The plural of the noun would be properly captured in English by “insults”. The related verb [r^j* is used side by side with the noun, for emphasis and dramatic effect.

The noun ha*n+q! in line 1 is also a bit tricky to translate. It essentially denotes a strong attractive emotion; the typical translations, “zeal” and “jealousy” are perhaps too precise, and can be misleading. I have translated it above as “ardor,” implying an intense, faithful devotion to the things of God. The “house” could refer specifically to the Temple, or to the more general idea of God’s ‘household’. I translate the initial yK! here as an emphatic particle (“indeed…”). The line is cited in John 2:17, where the context certainly is the Jerusalem Temple (though given a unique Christological interpretation in that passage).

Verse 11 [10]

“When I poured out my soul with fasting,
it even came to be as scorn toward me.”

The idea seems to be that the Psalmist was mocked and abused for his intense religious devotion, expressed in terms of fervent fasting. Since fasting can effect a person’s mood and physical appearance, it may be this that is the brunt of his enemies’ ridicule.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 158) in repointing hkbaw as hk*B)a#w`, from the verb Eb^n` (= Ep^n`), meaning “pour (forth)”; cf. the noun Eb#n# (“spring [of water]”) in Job 28:11; 38:16. This seems to make better sense of the line.

Verse 12 [11]

“And I gave rough cloth for my garment,
and I became for them as a byword.”

This verse essentially expresses the same idea as v. 11. The Psalmist’s religious devotion, so intense as to verge on an extreme asceticism, was a source of mockery to people. The noun lv*m* has a relatively wide range of meaning, and is not easily translated; there is not really an English equivalent. The basic connotation here is that the Psalmist becomes an example of foolishness, the butt of insulting jokes that are spread around. The translation “byword,” though not common in English, perhaps is closest to the mark; however, one should not exclude the idea of the Psalmist becoming a kind of ‘proverbial’ figure, in the sense of being a (comical or pathetic) example of the foolishness of religious devotion.

Verse 13 [12]

“About me they rehearse, (those) sitting (at the) gate,
even songs strummed (by those) feasting on drink.”

The Psalmist as a source of mockery, as an example of silly religious devotion, extends even to devising catchy ditties and songs sung at drinking feasts. The verb j^yc! here should be understood in the sense of “rehearse” —that is, of going over a little song in one’s head. Probably the idea is that mocking songs devised by people “sitting at the gate” eventually come to be sung by boisterous drinkers at feasts. The noun hn`yg]n+ properly denotes a song (or musical composition) performed on a stringed instrument.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).