Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 12

Psalm 12

This week we examine Psalm 12, another prayer-composition with the character of a lament, such as we have seen in a number of those studied thus far (cf. the previous studies on Pss 9-10 and 11). Here the meter and structure is more consistent, with 4-beat (4+4) bicola in vv. 2-7a, followed by 3-beat (3+3) couplets in the closing vv. 7b-9. In spite of a certain tension in vv. 6-7, the rhythm is generally maintained, and there are relatively few obvious textual difficulties. The musical direction in the heading is tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (“upon the eighth[?]”), as in Psalm 6 (cf. the earlier study); the precise meaning of most such directions in the Psalter remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performance tradition.

There is a fairly simple outline of the Psalm, according to a four-part structure, each part generally corresponding to a bicolon pair (4-lines); the third part climaxes with an extra couplet, transitioning to the 3-beat meter of the fourth part:

    • Plea for YHWH to help the righteous—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • A call for YHWH to act (as Judge) against the wicked—vv. 4-5 [3-4]
    • YHWH’s declaration that He will act, with a comment of the Psalmist—vv. 6-7 [5-6]
    • Concluding strophe expressing assurance that YHWH will act—vv. 8-9 [7-8]

The Psalmist utilizes the common themes of the suffering of the righteous/innocent at the hands of the wicked, along with the judicial (and covenant) setting of YHWH as sovereign whose role it is to establish justice.

Strophe 1: Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Deliver (me), YHWH, for the good (man) has come to an end,
(and all) firmness has disappeared from the sons of men!
Empty (words) they speak, a man with his (close) companion,
(their) smooth lips speak with (one) heart and (then) a(nother) heart.”

The substantive adjective dys!j* often refers to one who is loyal (i.e. “good”), both from a social and religious standpoint; such language reflects the binding-agreement (covenant) concept which pervades the theology and thought-world of the Psalms. This loyalty is expressed also by the root /ma (often paired with dsj); here the form <yn]Wma$ is best understood as an intensive (and abstract) plural adjective, which I translated here as “(all) firmness”, this “firmness” reflecting that of a faithful and loyal friend. The disappearance of such faithfulness and loyalty among people who should be (or claim to be) close companions (noun hu*r*), is a sign of the overall condition of society. The parallel use of the verbs rmg` and ss^P* (or perhaps the related sp^a*), reinforces the idea that loyalty is no longer to be found among human beings. It is possible that there is a play on words with the adjective ql*j*. This is usually thought to derive from the root (qlj, µlq) indicating smoothness (parallel to aw+v*, “emptiness”), and when used of lips, tongue, etc, often signifies false or deceptive speech; however, there is a separate[?] Semitic root (Ugaritic —lq) which has the basic meaning “be lost, ruined, ‘dead'”, and so the destructive character of this speech may be emphasized here as well (cf. Dahood, p. 73). Still, the overall idea seems to be that of false and empty words, among those whose speech should reflect the bond of friendship and loyalty; this duplicitous behavior and ‘double-dealing’ is expressed by the idiom “with a heart and a(nother) heart”, i.e. with two hearts or minds.

Strophe 2: Verses 4-5 [3-4]

“Cut off, YHWH, all (these) lips of (deadly) smoothness,
(every) tongue speaking (such) twisted (word)s!
(Those) who say, ‘By our tongue we are made strong,
our lips (are) our (streng)th!—who (else) is Lord for us?'”

This second strophe follows the pattern of the first, with an imperative address to YHWH: “Deliver (me), YHWH…!”, “Cut off, YHWH…!” However, while the basic form and subject matter is the same, the thrust of this part is quite different, shifting from a plea for help to a more forceful call for God to act. The behavior of the wicked ones is described differently as well. In the prior strophe the emphasis was on false and double dealing, treating bonds of loyalty as empty words; here, the words that are actually spoken reflect an attitude that shows no real fear of God, but instead evince worldly ambition and self-centered desire. The expression from the previous couplet, “lips of smoothness”, now takes a sharper turn with the parallel “tongue speaking twisted (word)s [told)G+]”. The adjective ld*G` is typically translated “great”, but here it may be derived from a (presumed) separate root ldg indicating something twisted, or woven together. This image, involving the wordplay with the (more common) root meaning “strong, great” is an effective way of transitioning from their deceptive speech to the impious boasting that characterizes their essential attitude. That boast, as such, is described in the second couplet (v. 5), however the a precise rendering of the phrasing is a bit difficult. The couplet begins with the relative particle rv#a&, something not altogether uncommon in Hebrew poetry; since the first couplet has the speech of the wicked as the subject (“lips, tongue”), the relative particle serves to shift the focus to the person who so speaks this way. Again the parallelism features both “lips” and “tongue”, the actual parallel being embedded in a syntax that it somewhat awkward, perhaps intentionally so; we may illustrate this as a chiasm:

    • (These are the ones) [i.e. the false/wicked] who say… (5a)
      • ‘By our tongue we are made strong (5b)
      • our lips (are) our (streng)th!’ (5c)
    • …’Who is Lord for [i.e. over] us?’ (5d)

These persons trust in their own skill and cleverness, symbolized by their speech, rather than YHWH, as the source of their strength. The last line is particularly difficult, especially as involving the word WnT*a!, usually understood as the particle ta@ with a 1st person plural suffix. If so, it is likely that ta here should be read in its earlier/original sense as a substantive noun, meaning something like “essence, substance”, which I translate loosely above as “strength”. Dahood (pp. 73-4) prefers to derive it from the root tta, as the derived noun ta@, rare in the Old Testament, indicating a cutting tool or weapon(?)—”our lips (are) our weapon”.

Strophe 3: Verses 6-7 [5-6]

“From the breast of the oppressed, from the groaning of the (one)s in need—
Now I will stand up!’ says YHWH,
‘I will place in safety he (who) pants for it [i.e. for help].’
—(and) the sayings of YHWH are pure sayings,
(like) silver melted (down) in a rising (fire),
refined from (the) earth (even) seven (time)s.”

At the heart of this strophe is the declaration by YHWH, announcing that he will now act on behalf of those who are in need, those oppressed (“pressed/beaten down”) by the wicked. It is not entirely certain whether this declaration properly begins with the second line or extends to include the first; I prefer to read the first line as a dramatic setting for YHWH’s announcement. The noun dv) here is typically understood as coming from ddv, meaning “violence, assault, destruction”; however, it is here perhaps better identified with the word meaning “breast” (with the form dv), as in Isa 60:16). This keeps the parallelism of the line consistent, with a subjective genitive relationship for the substantive plurals “(one)s beaten down [i.e. oppressed]” and “(one)s in need”. The breast is essentially the source of the “groaning, crying” (hq*n`a&), and, admittedly, yields a female image, perhaps intentionally drawing upon the traditional motif of the woman (i.e. widow, pregnant mother, etc) as a poignant symbol of human suffering.

YHWH’s announcement that he will act on behalf of the oppressed is sudden and dramatic: “Now I will stand up!”. The nature of this action, described in the third line, is clear enough (“I will set/place [him] in safety”), but the syntactical relationship of this phrase with the remainder of the line is rather ambiguous. The final two words are ol j^yp!y`, literally “he breathes for him/it”, but which could be read two different ways in context: (1) “he [i.e. the wicked] breathes/blow after him [i.e. the oppressed]”, or (2) “he [i.e the oppressed] breathes/pants [i.e. longs] for it”, that is for help from YHWH. The latter seems better to fit the overall sense of the strophe—it is the suffering of the oppressed that is primarily in view, not the action of the wicked.

The “sayings” (torm=a!) of YHWH carry important nuances here, namely that of a promise—i.e., that what YHWH says he intends to do will be done—and also, as a demonstration of his justice and care for the righteous; this latter connotation perhaps stems from the earlier/original meaning of rma, “make visible, show”. This is essentially a comment by the Psalmist regarding YHWH’s declaration, affirming that God will indeed act to bring justice and deliverance to the righteous who are oppressed. The final line of the second couplet also serves to introduce a third couplet (3+3 meter) which further expounds the assurance that YHWH will act. It utilizes a familiar and traditional motif of precious metal (“silver”) refined and purified in fire. However, the actual wording used to express this image is a bit difficult, and it is possible that the text may be corrupt at this point.

The difficulty lies in the two words at the end of line 5 and the beginning of line 6. The noun lyl!u& occurs only here in the Old Testament; the context suggests it should mean something like “furnace”, but the derivation is quite unclear. It may be better to read it in light of the root hlu (“go up, rise”), frequently used of fire (including sacrificial offerings), in which case the form would presumably be yl!u& (“rising”), with the final lamed (l) an instance of dittography. The word Jr#a*l* at the beginning of the next line has also proven problematic; however, the preposition l= has a relatively wide range of meaning, and I read it here in the sense of “from the earth”, perhaps in the sense that the “earth” represents the impurities which are burned away in the refining process.

Strophe 4: Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“You, YHWH, (shall) guard them,
you watch (over) him from this cycle into (the) distant (future);
(for) all around (the) wicked (one)s walk about,
(and) they dig {ruins} for the sons of men.”

Following the last two lines in strophe 3, these couplets continue the 3-beat (3+3) meter. The first bicolon is clear enough, as the Psalmist gives further assurance that YHWH will both guard and keep watch over the righteous for all time (“into the distant [future]”, <l*oul=). The protection is said to be “from this cycle” (Wz roDh^), the noun roD referring to the current Age (“life-cycle”), or “generation”, emphasizing the general wickedness and faithlessness of the current time. This is characterized by the rather ominous statement “all around [i.e. surrounding us] the wicked ones walk about”.

Unfortunately, the final line of the Psalm is quite difficult, and any attempt at translation must be hypothetical. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer no help, since the verse is scarcely preserved in the two MSS containing Psalm 12. The noun tWLz% occurs only here in the Old Testament; it presumably derives from the root llz (II), generally indicating something that is worthless. The prior word (MT <r%K=) is practically unintelligible in context. I am inclined, perhaps, to view it as a third-person plural form of the verb hr*K* (“dig”, WrK* “they dug, they dig”) with an enclitic < to fill out the rhythm of the line. But how this verb would relate to the noun tWLz% is still unclear; I tentatively translate it above as “ruins”, possibly in the sense that they dig (i.e. take furtive, hostile action) so as to bring people to ruin. If we retain the Masoretic pointing of <r%K=, as a form of the verb <Wr (“be high, rise, raise”) with the prefixed preposition K=, then the last two lines could conceivably be translated something like:

“all around (the) wicked (one)s walk about,
(even) as worthless (thing)s are raised up for the sons of men.”

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