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 83 (Part 2)

Psalm 83, continued

Part 2: Verses 10-19 [9-18]

After the description of the hostile nations in Part 1 (cf. the previous study), with which the Psalmist gives forth a national lament and plea to YHWH, the tone in Part 2 shifts to a prayer for deliverance, asking God to bring judgment upon the nations. This is an early example of the Prophetic theme of the day of YHWH’s collective judgment against all the nations of earth. The concept of a collective judgment is an extension and development of the nation-oracle genre, in which the prophet delivers an oracle of judgment against a particular nation or people. Another example of this development is the Isaian ‘Apocalypse’ (chapters 24-27) that follows the collection of nation-oracles in chaps. 13-23.

Verse 10-11 [9-10]

“Do to them as (you did to) Midyan, as (to) Sîsera,
(and) as (to) Yabîn at (the) wadi Qîšôn,
(who) were destroyed at (the) Spring of Dôr,
(and) became manure for (the) ground!”

In calling for YHWH to bring judgment on the nations, the Psalmist turns to past historical examples when God delivered his people from oppression and attack. Obviously, these examples indicate that YHWH acted to achieve a military victory for Israel, and, most likely, the Psalmist envisions the judgment on the nations coming in a similar manner. The victory over Midian presumably alludes to the episodes described in Judges 6-7, while those over Sisera and Jabin are narrated in Judges 4-5. There were two different kings of the Canaanite city-state Hazor with the name Jabin (for the other, cf. Joshua 11).

I take verse 11 as a continuation of the example in v. 10, and read the perfect verb forms as past tense narrative verbs. However, Dahood (II, p. 275f) treats the verbs as precative perfects, understanding the couplet to express a separate (or additional) imprecation against the nations—i.e., “Let them be destroyed…, may they become…”.

If verse 11 is truly a continuation of the thought in v. 10, then the (plural) subject of the verbs is almost certainly the pair of leaders Jabin and Sisera, who were defeated near the wadi Qîšôn (Kishon), cf. Judg 4:7, 13ff; 5:21. The location of the “Spring of Dor” (En-Dor, rad) /yu@) in the first line is problematic. There is no mention of this site in Judges 4-5, and, though it is in the general area indicated, it is located some distance north of the Kishon. It may reflect a detail in the historical tradition that has otherwise been lost. Kraus (p. 160) would emend the text to dr)j& /yu@ (“Spring of Harod,” En-Harod), the location of the battle against the Midianites (Judg 7:1). Dahood (II, p. 275f) takes an entirely different approach, which, while alleviating the geographic difficulties, creates certain implausibilities of its own.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“Set their nobles (to be) like ±Oreb and like Ze°eb,
and like Zebaµ and like ‚almunna all their princes,
who said, ‘Let us seize for ourselves
(the) abodes of (the) mighty (one)s!'”

This pair of couplets picks up from the initial mention of Midian in v. 10a, referring to the Gideon narratives in Judges 6-8. The four Midianite leaders mentioned here were among those defeated and killed by Gideon, according to Judg 7:25ff and 8:5-21. Their declaration in v. 13 reflects the wicked and violent ambitions of the foreign rulers, who seek to take possession (vb vr^y`) of the land of Israel. The noun ha*n` is a general term denoting a dwelling or abode, whether human or animal; it can refer to a human home/house, but also to pasture-land for herds, etc. The expression <yh!l)a$ toan+ could be translate “abodes of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God, Elohim]”; in any case, the author is doubtless playing on the double meaning of <yh!l)a$ (“mighty ones” / “Mightiest”), cf. the first word of v. 14. Dahood (II, p. 276) is probably correct in emphasizing the term’s principal significance here as a superlative, viz., the best/finest lands, etc.

Verse 14 [13]

“O Mightiest, set them (to be) like the rolling (brush),
like stubble (blown) before (the) face of (the) wind;”

Here, the defeat of the nations is expressed via images from nature. The noun lG~l=G~ denotes something that rolls or is rolling; here it probably refers a rolling tumbleweed (or similar brush) that is blown about by the wind. Describing them as stubble (vq^) suggests an even more feeble and helpless condition in the face of YHWH’s judgment.

Verse 15 [14]

“(just) as fire burns (through) a forest,
and as (its) flame consumes (the) hills—”

Syntactically, this couplet continues the thought from v. 14, shifting the imagery, from a windstorm to that of a fire that burns through (and burns up) the forests and wooded hills. The verb ru^B* denotes the actual burning of something, while fj^l* refers to something being consumed (i.e., burned up) by fire.

Verse 16 [15]

“so may you pursue them with your windstorm,
and with your tempest terrify them!”

I view this couplet syntactically as the principal clause that completes the thought of vv. 14-16. It calls on YHWH to strike the nations, driving them off (lit. pursuing [vb [d^r*] them) in fear/alarm (vb lh^B*). Two different nouns signifying a powerful storm are used—ru^s^ and hp*Ws. This is part of an ancient poetic storm-theophany tradition, describing the manifest presence of YHWH through the imagery and phenomena of the storm. This reflects YHWH’s control over the forces of nature, but particularly the celestial phenomena related to the rains and the waters above the heavens (cf. my earlier article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”). The forces of nature fight under YHWH’s command and control, on behalf of His people Israel. The most famous example of this tradition is the event and the Reed Sea (Exodus 14-15), but it is also present in the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:4-5, 20-21); cf. above on the mention of Sisera and Jabin in v. 10.

The verb forms are jussive imperfects, with the force of imperatives.

Verse 17 [16]

“Fill (all) their faces (with) dishonor,
and let them seek your name, YHWH.”

This couplet is problematic, as the apparent wish for the nations to seek the name of YHWH seems rather out of place. Dahood’s clever solution (II, p. 277) is worth mentioning. He divides and vocalizes the text in the second line differently from the MT, reading the first two words as ;m=v!W vQ@b^w], with the second w-conjunction having emphatic force: “and let your name (indeed) seek (vengeance)”.

However, if the MT is correct, then a different explanation must be sought. Thematically, it would seem that the two lines of verse 17 represent a seminal form of a juxtaposition that is developed more fully in vv. 18-19. The first line refers to the judgment/punishment of the nations, and corresponds to v. 18; the second line, corresponding to v. 19, refers to the nations’ acknowledgment of YHWH as the one true God and Sovereign over the earth.

Verse 18 [17]

“May they be put to shame and alarmed even to (the end)—
indeed, may they be disgraced and may they perish!”

As noted above, this couplet corresponds with the first line of v. 17. The two verbs denoting the experience of shame/disgrace, vWB and rp^j*, essentially carry the same meaning as the idiom in v. 17 (of one’s face being filled with disgrace [/olq*]), and are parallel here. Also parallel is the phrase “let them be alarmed until (the) end” and the verbal form “let them perish” (vb db^a*). The line 1 phrase uses the verb lh^B* (“be alarmed, frightened, disturbed”), as earlier in v. 16 (cf. above), along with the qualifying expression du^ yd@u&. This prepositional expression is difficult to translate; loosely it means something like “for perpetuity”, connoting something going on continually, and yet the parallel with the verb db^a* (“perish”) suggests an end. The intensity of the double du construction is best understood as referring to a severe and prolonged state of fear and suffering that accompanies the nations’ destruction.

Verse 19 [18]

“And let them know that you, your name (is) YHWH,
you alone are (the) Highest (One) over all the earth!”

The Psalm closes with this elongated 4-beat (4+4) couplet, developing the theme from the second line of v. 17 (cf. above). The judgment of the nations will cause them (i.e., the nations) to know that YHWH is the supreme God and Sovereign over all Creation. I take hwhy ;m=v! (lit. “your name YHWH”) as a phrase modifying the pronoun hT*a^ (“you”)—i.e., “you, (whose) name (is) YHWH”; that is, the God of Israel, whose name is YHWH.

How does this couplet relate to v. 18? There are three possibilities:

      • Both couplets refer to the nations that are judged (and destroyed); in their punishment, they are forced to acknowledge YHWH as the Mightiest (One), the supreme God.
      • The verses refer to two different groups of nations—those who are judged/destroyed, and those which remain; the ones remaining recognize Israel’s God, YHWH, as the true God.
      • The same nations are referenced in both verses; while they are judged and punished as nations, not all the people are destroyed, and the survivors acknowledge YHWH as God (compare Zech 14:16ff).

The last approach seems to make the best sense of vv. 18-19, and also of the juxtaposed lines in v. 17, where the more positive motif of people seeking (vb vq^B*) YHWH is present.

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 83 (Part 1)

Psalm 83

Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-19)

This Psalm is the last of the Asaph-collection, Pss 73-83); on Asaph, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50. It generally follows the pattern of many Psalms of lament. The first part contains a lament to YHWH, referring to the threats and oppression posed by hostile/wicked enemies, while the second part shifts to a prayer for deliverance, including a call for God to bring judgment upon the Psalmist’s enemies. In many of the Psalms, the author/protagonist essentially represents the people as a whole (esp. the righteous among them); here in Psalm 83, however, the people of Israel, collectively, are more clearly in view. The Psalm is, in fact, a national lament and prayer for deliverance.

There is a clear two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker serves as a structural indicator. In the first part (vv. 2-9), the threat posed to Israel by the nations is laid out, including a list of the many surrounding nations, presented as though they were all engaged in a coalition to attack Israel. As Dahood notes (II, p. 273), this likely does not refer to any specific historical episode or situation; rather, the list of nations represents those peoples and kingdoms which have shown themselves hostile to Israel throughout its history (this historical sweep is indicated in the second part, vv. 10, 12). The list climaxes with Assyria, which suggests a pre-exilic date for the Psalm (its original composition), presumably sometime in the 8th century (or late 9th century)

In the second part (vv. 10-19), the Psalmist calls on YHWH to bring judgment upon the nations. If a pre-exilic 8th century date for the Psalm is correct (cf. above), then this would make Ps 83 an early example of (or precursor to) the Prophetic oracles and poems which have as their theme the collective judgment on the nations. These passages represent a development of the nation-oracle genre in the Prophets, in which judgment is announced on a specific nation in each oracle. Isaiah 13-23 is the most notable collection of such nation/judgment-oracles, and the collection concludes with the Isaian ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27, where the judgment theme is extended, with an eschatological emphasis, to cover the entire earth (and all the nations). Psalm 83 is not too far removed, both in time and spirit, from these Isaian oracles.

With only a couple of exceptions, this Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The heading refers to the Psalm as both a musical composition (the regular term romz+m!) and a song (ryv!). Since a poem set to music is, by definition, a “song”, it is not entirely clear why only some of the Psalms have this specific designation, or whether the term is meant to make a particular distinction. Two other Asaph-Psalms (75, 76) are marked the same way, as also are Pss 45-46, 48, 65-68, and a number of others.

Like the prior Psalm (82), Ps 83 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive, virtually complete in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. The text of this MS is very close to the Masoretic Text, there being only a handful of minor variants attested.

Part 1: Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“O Mightiest, (may there) not (be) ceasing for you—
do not be silent, and do not keep still, Mighty (One)!”

The translation of the first line of this opening couplet follows the MT, but the peculiarity of the syntax raises the possibility that the LXX (and other ancient versions) preserve an underlying Hebrew text that is closer to the original, and that the MT ought to be emended slightly. Dahood (II, p. 273) makes a strong case for redividing and repointing the text (D), as follows:

    • MT: El* ym!D( la^ <yh!l)a$
      D: El* ym@D) la@ ym! yh@l)a$

The first line then becomes a question (comparable to that in Ps 77:14[13]):

“My Mighty (One), who is a mighty (one) like unto you?”

The LXX seems to reflect a similar Hebrew text here: o( qeo/$ ti/$ o(moiwqh/setai/ soi (“My God, who shall be likened to you?”).

Instead of the proposed participle ym@D) (“being like”), from the verb hm*D* I, the MT reads the noun ym!D( from the root hmD II (“cease, cut off”). This noun is rare, occurring elsewhere in just two places (in Isaiah, 38:10; 62:6-7). In the first Isaiah reference, the context is the cutting short of one’s life; literally, the phrase is “in the cutting off [ym!D(] of my days”. The dual reference in Isa 62:6-7 appears to be close in sense to the MT of verse 2a here; the fundamental meaning of ym!D( (“ceasing”) is understood in terms of ceasing from activity (and speech), i.e., being quiet. The syntax in Isa 62:6 is almost identical with Ps 83:2a, with the phrase being:

“…(let there) not (be) ceasing [i.e. rest/quiet] for you”
<k#l* ym!D( la^

However one parses the first line of the couplet, the second line makes clear the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, with parallel jussives (translated as imperatives), using the verbs vr^j* II (“be silent”) and fq^v* (“be quiet”). The Psalmist is asking God not to be silent/quiet—in other words, to answer his prayer.

Verse 3 [2]

“For, see, (those) hostile to you make a clamor,
and (the one)s hating you lift up (their) head!”

The contrast is between YHWH keeping silent and the enemies of YHWH making a loud noise (vb hm*h*); the implication is that it is only because of God’s apparent silence and inactivity on behalf of His people, that their enemies are able to act with such violent boldness and aggression. The Psalmist refers to the enemies of Israel as God’s own enemies; the theological basis for this identification has to do with the specific covenant bond between YHWH and His people, but also with the fact that the other nations reject YHWH and worship other deities instead.

There is clear synonymous parallelism in this couplet. Participles of the verbs by~a* (“be hostile”) and an`c* (“hate”) are used to characterize the nations as hostile adversaries who hate Israel (and thus also hate YHWH, Israel’s God). Their specific actions are also parallel: hm`h* (“make a [loud] noise, clamor”) and the expression “lift [the] head” (with the verb ac*n`). The latter expression indicates the boldness of the opponents.

Verse 4 [3]

“Against your people they act cunningly (in) concert,
and take counsel against your treasured (one)s.”

The combination of motifs in vv. 3-4, with the hostile nations first making a loud clamor, and then the people taking counsel with one another against God, is reminiscent of the famous lines in Psalm 2:1-2 (cf. the earlier study). In that earlier Psalm, the nations’ hostility is directly equally against God and His “anointed one” (i.e., the king); here it is against God and His people as a whole. The verb Ju^y` (“advise, plan, [take] counsel”) in the second line is parallel with the expression “act cunningly (in) concert” in the first. The verb <r^u* (I) denotes being careful, shrewd, etc; the word “cunning” captures the characteristic of a crafty adversary.

The verb /p^x* means “hide”, sometimes in the sense of hiding treasure, and thus can also mean (more abstractly), “to treasure”. Here the passive participle of the verb (lit. “hidden [one]s”) should probably be understood as “treasured [one]s” —i.e., God’s people as His treasure (cp. Exod 19:5; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 135:4; Mal 3:17, etc). Dahood (II, p. 274), following some of the ancient versions, vocalizes iynwpx as a singular noun, ;yn]Wpx=, “your treasure”.

Verse 5 [4]

“They say, ‘Come and let us make them cease from (being) a nation,
and (then the) name of Yisrael shall not be remembered any more!'”

The intention of the hostile nations, as they plan and conspire together, is expressed here. Their desire, as the Psalmist puts it, clearly is to wipe out Israel as a nation.*

* There is a tragic modern expression of this same sentiment at work, even as I am writing these notes, with the attacks on the state of Israel (and its people) by surrounding hostile nations and groups—Oct 7-8, 2023.

The basic meaning of verb dj^K* is something like “make disappear”, i.e., disappear from being a nation; I have translated this somewhat conventionally as “make them cease from (being) a nation”, in order to utilize a bit of conceptual wordplay with verse 2 (cf. above). YHWH has “ceased” from acting on behalf of His people, and so they are in danger of “ceasing” from being a nation any longer. This reflects the urgency of the Psalmist’s prayer: YHWH needs to respond, so as to help and protect His people in their moment of existential need.

Verse 6 [5]

“Indeed, they take counsel together (with) one heart,
(and) against you they cut a binding agreement:”

The second line of this couplet has the prepositional expression “against you” (;yl#u*) in first (emphatic) position. I take the Psalmist to be expounding the enemies’ words from the previous verse: i.e., “in saying this, they are actually taking counsel against you”. In this regard, the particle yK! at the beginning of the first line should also be understood as emphatic (translated “indeed…”). The second point of development is that the nations’ agreement with their heart (i.e., intention, purpose, desire) to act against Israel (and against YHWH) is given formal expression through a binding agreement (tyr!B=) that they have “cut” (vb tr^K*) with one another. This wicked ‘covenant’ between the nations is, of course, meant to be contrasted with the binding agreement (tyrB=) that was cut between YHWH and His people Israel.

I punctuate the end of verse 6 with a colon, taking the Psalmist to be indicating that the binding agreement made against Israel (and YHWH) includes the nations listed in vv. 7-9. All of these nations, at various points in Israel’s history, have been hostile adversaries.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“(The) tents of ‘Edôm and (the) Yišma’eli,
Mo’ab and (the) Hagri’i,
Gebal and ‘Ammôn and ‘Amalek,
(the) Pelešet with (the) settlers of ‚ôr.”

This list includes many of the nations/peoples surrounding the kingdom of Israel; they all were enemies, at different times, during the pre-exilic period. It is not necessary to assume that there was ever an actual agreement between all of these nations, at the same time, against Israel. The motif is poetic, and also prophetic, in that it anticipates the (later) prophetic theme of the day of YHWH’s judgment against all the nations (collectively). Here, these nations are listed together because they all have in common the characteristic of being (during their history) hostile opponents of Israel.

By scribal error (metathesis), the Dead Sea manuscript MasPsa reads “gods of [yhla] Edom” instead of “tents of [ylha] Edom”. The people of Edom and the Ishmaelites are neighbors to the south (and southeast) of Israel, while the people of Moab and the Hagrites, as well as the people of Ammon, populated the Transjordan regions to the east. The association of Amalek with Ammon (and the Transjordan) may reflect the historical tradition of the alliance of Ammon and Amalek with Moab (king Eglon) to attack Israel (Judges 3:12-14); the Amalekites also seem to have had a presence further north and to the west, at times serving as raiders and mercenaries against Israel. The Philistines (Pelešet) and the city-state of Tyr (‚ôr) represent the western and northern boundaries of the Israelite kingdom.

Of the nations and peoples in this list, only “Gebal” (lb*G+) is problematic. Its position here, being included with the Transjordan nations, makes it unlikely that the reference is to the Phoenician Gbl (Byblos). A more probable identification is with the region Gibal/Jebal SE of the Dead Sea, located in the hilly Edomite territory of Seir; Josephus (Antiquities 2.6) refers to Gobolitis as forming part of Idumea.

Verse 9 [8]

“Also ‘Aššûr has become joined with them,
and is (the strong) arm of (the) sons of Lôt.”

The list of hostile nations, and the first part of the Psalm, concludes with this mention of Assyria (‘Aššûr), connecting it specifically with the nations of Moab and Ammon (the “sons of Lot”, cf. the tradition in Gen 19:36-38; Deut 2:9). The implication is that Assyria is only involved in conflict with Israel through Moab and Ammon as proxies. Perhaps the allusion is to Moab’s status as an Assyrian vassal state following the conquests by Tiglath-Pileser III (mid-late 8th century). In any case, within the dramatic scenario portrayed in the Psalm, Assyrian military might provides Moab/Ammon with a strong “arm” with which to attack Israel.

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).

Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:44-53

1 Kings 8:44-53

Solomon’s Prayer in 1 Kings 8 concludes with two contrasting situations for the people (and the kingdom) involving warfare. The situations each begin with the particle yK! followed by an introductory verb:

    • “When [yK!] your people goes out [ax@y@] against its enemy…” (v. 44)
    • “When [yK!] they do wrong [Waf=j#y#] to you [i.e. sin against you] … and you give them (over) to (the) face of (the) enemy…” (v. 46)

In each instance, the people go out to battle a foreign enemy. In the first instance (vv. 44-45), it is assumed that the people, as a whole, have been faithful/loyal to the covenant with YHWH (and its Torah); as a result, the expectation is that, when they pray to YHWH (in the direction of the Temple), He will hear their prayer and answer them (that is, give victory to them).

In the second instance (vv. 46-50), when the people have sinned against YHWH, transgressing against the covenant (as a people/nation), then they will be defeated by the enemy in battle. As is typical in the Old Testament, such a military defeat against God’s people is viewed as a manifestation of Divine judgment. The wording here makes it clear that defeat comes from YHWH’s initiative: “…you give them (over) to (the) face of (the) enemy”. The same basic situation was described briefly in vv. 33-34, along with an allusion to the exile of the population; the theme of exile is given much greater prominence here:

“…to (the) face of (the) enemy, and they take them captive (as) their captives to (the) land of the enemy, (whether it is) far or near” (v. 46b)

The dual-use of the verb hb*v* (“take captive”) is emphatic, emphasizing the captivity of the defeated people, being exiled off to a foreign land. Many commentators feel that this emphasis on exile is an indication of a Exilic date for the Prayer; at the very least, it does seem likely that the reality of exile played a role in the literary shaping of the Prayer (in the context of Kings) as it has come down to us. However, this need not mean that the Babylonian Captivity (of Judah) had already taken place when the Prayer was composed (and/or edited). If the reign of Josiah is the primary setting for the book of Kings (and the editing of the Deuteronomic history as a whole), then the Judean kingdom would still have been intact (along with Jerusalem and the Temple), but the reality of exile would have been experienced through the earlier Assyrian conquests (including the conquest/exile of the Northern Israelite Kingdom).

In any case, the prospect of exile for a defeated population would have been natural enough at any time in the ancient Near East. It is not necessary to make any definitive judgment regarding the background and composition of the book of Kings (or the Prayer in particular), in order for this passage (and the situation it describes) to be relevant for the audience. As in vv. 33-34, here the promise is that, if the people genuinely repent, confess their sins, and pray to YHWH, then He will forgive their sins and eventually restore them to their land (vv. 47-50).

Again, a sign of their faith and devotion is that, when they pray to YHWH, they pray in the direction of the Temple:

“And (if) they return to you with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and they make prayer to you (on the) path (to) [i.e., in the direction of] their land that you gave to their fathers, (and) to the city that you chose, and the house that I have built for your name…” (v. 48)

The Temple as the unifying focal point of prayer for the people has been emphasized throughout vv. 31-50, being specifically mentioned in each of the examples given. As I have noted, the importance of this symbolism lies in the idea that YHWH’s name resides in the Temple. Even though God actually dwells in heaven (where He hears the prayer), the prayer itself is made in the direction of the Temple, as a symbolic point on earth where God’s people can direct their worship and devotion to Him.

The presence of God’s name also indicates ownership and possession. That is to say, it is an indication that the Temple belongs to YHWH; the Temple is the focal point at the center, but the sign of ownership radiates outward, encompassing the city of Jerusalem, the territory of Judah, and the entire land/kingdom of Israel (along with its people). All of it belongs to YHWH, even as Israel is God’s own people. This is the theological point emphasized in the concluding verses 51-53:

“For your people, they indeed are your inheritance, which you brought forth from (the) land of Egypt, from (the) midst of (the) pot for (smelting) iron, (so that) your eyes (are) to be open (to the) request for favor by your servant, and (to the) request by your people Yisrael, to listen to them in every (moment) they call to you. For you separated them for yourself, for an inheritance, from all (the) people of the earth, just as you spoke (it) by (the) hand of Moshe your servant in your bringing forth our fathers from Egypt, my Lord YHWH.”

The Prayer closes much as it began, with a reference to the Exodus (v. 16). This defining moment in the history of Israel, essentially marking the beginning of their ‘birth’ as God’s people, frames the Prayer. It provides the backdrop for the choice of Jerusalem and the centralization of worship focused on the Temple building. The name of YHWH that resides in the Temple properly symbolizes the covenant bond between YHWH and His people—they are His people (belonging to Him), and He is their God.

The same essential symbolism applies, even when the concept of being God’s people has shifted and expanded to include all believers in Christ. The idea of the unifying presence of God’s name, as an abiding sign of the covenant bond, continues for us today as believers. In the next study, we will begin to explore this line of interpretation further, even as we examine the concluding verses of 1 Kings 8, looking again at the Prayer in its narrative context.

Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:33-40

1 Kings 8:33-40

Verses 31-32 (discussed in the previous note) dealt with the ritual role of the Temple, in the context of a specific socio-cultural situation. In verses 33-40 that follow, there is a return to the principal theme (and point of emphasis) in the chap. 8 Prayer of Solomon: the Temple as a unifying focal point for the prayers of the people. The idea is that the Israelite people, from every part of the kingdom, should be unified in their focus on the Temple, as the conceptual and symbolic location for the presence of YHWH (specifically, His name). In the vv. 31-32 example, the individuals involved are expected to travel to the Temple precincts in Jerusalem; however, in the examples of vv. 33-40, one simply may look toward (la#) the Temple, praying in the direction of the actual site in Jerusalem.

It is assumed that, while people may respond as individuals, in the face of dangers and crises facing the nation, ultimately the action will be collective—i.e., the entire nation unified in its prayer to YHWH, directing its petition to the place where God’s name symbolically resides.

Three different situations of crisis are given as examples, utilizing a formal pattern (with some variation). The first situation (vv. 33-34) will serve to delineate the elements of the process of the people’s prayer:

“In your people Yisrael being struck before the face of (the) hostile (one), (in) that [i.e. because] they have done wrong to you, and (if) they (then) turn back to you and throw (praise to) your name, and they make prayer and a request for favor to you in this house, then you shall hear (it) in (the) heavens and shall grant forgiveness for (the) wrong of your people Yisrael, and you shall return them to the land that you gave to their fathers.”

The condition is introduced by a construct phrase that is governed by a preposition and verbal noun (infinitive). Literally, it reads “In (the) being struck of your people…”; however, the passive (Niphal stem) verb makes this especially awkward in English, and I alleviate this somewhat above (“In your people being struck…”, i.e. “When your people are struck…”). Clearly, this refers to a military attack by an enemy nation; the verbal noun by@oa literally means “(one) being/acting hostile”, i.e. one who is hostile.

The context of verse 34 implies that the land (and its people) have been conquered by the enemy; this may simply allow for the most extreme example of being “struck” (vb [g~n`) by an enemy nation. However, the idea that the people who would pray are far away (in exile) gives added weight to the principle that, even when the people are dispersed over a great geographic distance, they are still unified in thought and purpose when they pray in the direction of the Temple. The use of the preposition B=, in the expression “in this house” (hZ#h^ ty]B^B^), can be misleading in this regard, since it might suggest that the prayer is to be made within the Temple precincts (as with the example in vv. 31-32). While individuals might, indeed, make prayer at the Temple itself, the real point of emphasis is on praying “in the direction of” the Temple; the preposition B= would then function like la# (“to, toward”). Principally, it is YHWH’s symbolic presence—His name—that resides in the Temple.

The people’s response implies repentance and a return to faithfulness. The verb bWv (“turn (back), return”) is frequently used in this religious-ethical sense. By turning back to God, one also turns away from sin. It is clearly indicated, in this example, that Israel’s defeat is a consequence of the people’s sin. For consistency with vv. 31-32 (cf. the previous study), I have translated the verb af*j* as “do wrong”. In vv. 31-32, a person does wrong to another person; however, here the wrong is done to YHWH, i.e., the sin is against God, implying a violation of the covenant.

It was common in ancient Near Eastern thought to consider military defeats, especially when they involved the destruction of cities and the exile of populations, etc, as a manifestation of divine judgment. The ancient Israelites were no different, and, indeed, the Old Testament typically explains Israel’s defeats in this way. It is an especially prominent theme in the Deuteronomic history, particularly as recorded and presented in the books of Kings. Idolatrous worship of deities other than YHWH is the principal violation of the covenant that brings about catastrophic judgment on the nation.

If the people, collectively, repent of their sin, turn back to YHWH, praising His name and focusing their prayers in the direction of the Temple (where His name dwells), then the expectation is that God will hear and answer their prayers, and will (eventually) restore any exiled populations back to the land. The sin will be forgiven (vb jl^s*), and the covenant bond between YHWH and His people will be restored.

In verses 35-36, a different kind of national crisis is referenced: an extended lack of rain (drought). This is introduced in the same way as the condition in v. 33, with a construct phrase using the preposition B= and a verbal noun (infinitive):

“In (the) closing up of (the) heavens, and there is (thus) no rain, because they have done wrong to you…”

The syntax overall is very similar to the earlier passage; it continues:

“…and (if) they pray to(ward) this standing place [i.e. where the Temple stands], and throw (praise to) your name, and turn back from their wrong (so) that you would answer them, then you shall hear (in) the heavens and shall forgive (the) wrong of your servants, even your people Yisrael…”

There is some variation in wording, but the formula here in the Prayer definitely follows the pattern from vv. 33-34. The expected response by YHWH, however, is given in a more expanded form:

“…(so) that you might instruct them (in) the good way in which they must walk; and you shall give (then the) rain upon your land that you gave to your people for an inheritance.”

Clearly, the drought, like the military defeat/conquest of the people, is viewed as the consequence of sin against YHWH (i.e., violation of the covenant). In the ancient world, for agricultural and pastoral societies, a lack of rain could be just as devastating (and life-threatening) as a military attack. Repentance from sin, accompanied by faithful worship and prayer to YHWH, will bring about a return of the needed rains.

In addition to the restoration of the pre-sin condition (i.e., abundance of rain), mention is made of the idea that YHWH would give instruction/direction (vb hr*y`) to His people, once they have repented, so that they would be able to remain faithful to the covenant in the future. This particular promise underwent development in the later Prophetic writings (of the exilic and post-exilic period), being specifically tied to the role of God’s Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration. The Instruction (Torah) will come to be written on the heart of the people, so that they might fulfill the covenant without needing to be taught or disciplined (as in the past) any longer. For a list of the key Prophetic passages, with links to detailed notes, cf. the introduction to the recent series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”.

The final example (vv. 37-40) involves a famine (lit. “hunger,” bu*r*) in the land. Drought and famine are often closely related; however, life-threatening hunger can be caused by other circumstances, such as a military attack/siege, forced migration, displacement of populations, the shifting of rivers, and so forth. Verse37 actually mentions some of the agricultural conditions that can lead to failed crops (and thus hunger/famine): pestilence/disease, blight, mildew, locust (using two different terms, hB#r=a^ and lys!j*), and the siege (of a city) by a foreign enemy. This suffering from famine/hunger is broadened to include the idea of any “touch” (of disease) or “sickness/weakness” (the terms ug~n# and hl*j&m^, respectively).

Again, prayer to YHWH, directed toward the Temple, will bring forgiveness, and (it is implied) a restoration of healthy conditions. This example does differ from the previous two, as it implies that certain individuals or communities may experience suffering that others do not (v. 38). However, the expectation is that, for anyone who repents and prays earnestly to YHWH in this manner, the prayer will be answered (v. 39). This focus on the individual provides an important counterbalance to the collective/national emphasis in vv. 33-36:

“Indeed, you shall give to (each) man according to his ways, (in) that you know his heart—for you alone know (the) heart of every (one) of (the) sons of man” (v. 39b)

As in verse 36 (see above), Solomon’s prayer here also includes the hope that the Israelite people would learn from any such discipline, however painful, so as to remain faithful to YHWH (and the covenant) into the future:

“…so that they might fear you all the days that they live upon (the) face of the land that you gave to our fathers.” (v. 40)

Next week, as we continue our study on the Prayer (looking at vv. 41-45), we shall begin drawing some exegetical conclusions, based on our analysis thus far, which can be applied to the life-situation of Christian believers today.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80 (Part 2)

Psalm 80, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

Each of the stanzas of Psalm 80 begin with a similar refrain; here in verse 8 we have a slight expansion of the refrain in verse 4 (cf. the previous study). Some commentators would emend v. 4 to read “Mighty [One] of the armies”, as here in v. 8. For the expression “YHWH of the armies”(toab*x= hwhy), see the note on v. 5 in the previous study. As Creator, YHWH has command of the armies of heaven—the divine beings and the heavenly/celestial phenomena they inhabit/control; these armies fight on behalf of His people Israel, when God so wills it.

Verse 9 [8]

“A vine you did pull out from Egypt;
you drove out (the) nations and planted her.”

This second stanza summarizes the chief event(s) of the formative Israelite history—the Exodus and the conquest/settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan. This is done via the illustration of a vine to represent the nation of Israela proverbial motif that came to be well-established in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:22; Judg 9:12-13; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Hos 10:1; Joel 1:7; Jer 2:21; 12:10; Ezek 15:1ff; 17; 19:10-14). The Exodus is clearly referenced here within the illustration: YHWH pulls the vine out (vb us^n`) of the ground in Egypt, uprooting it, and planting it in a new land. In order to plant the vine in this land (of Canaan), the peoples (nations) living there were driven out (vb uf^n`). There is both conceptual and alliterative (assonance) wordplay between the verbs us^n` (n¹sa±, “pull out”) and uf^n` (n¹‰a±, “plant [in]”). The idiom of YHWH planting Israel in the land of Promise can be found already in the Song of Sea (Exod 15:17).

I translate literally the feminine morphology and suffixes connected with the vine (/p#G#), treated in the Psalm as a grammatically feminine noun.

Verse 10 [9]

“You (work)ed (its) face before her face,
and made her roots take (deep) root,
and she filled (the entire) land.”

This verse breaks from the general 3+3 metrical pattern, reading as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The settlement of Israel in the Promised Land is described here in terms of the vine-motif. The ground is turned (vb hn`P*), i.e., tilled, prepared for the planting. I have translated this as working the “face” of the land (i.e. the ground, soil), so as to preserve the etymological wordplay between the verb hn`P* (“turn, face”) and the prepositional expression h*yn#p*l= (“before her face”). There is comparable wordplay in the second line, between the verb vr^v* (“[take] root”) and the suffixed noun h*yv#r*v* (“her roots”). Once the vine took root, it began to grow abundantly (as grape-vines tend to do), spreading out and filling the land. This refers to the continual conquest and settlement of the land by the Israelite people, and to their flourishing there. Eventually, of course the confederate nation would grow into a great kingdom (and regional empire), reaching its peak during the reign of Solomon.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The) hills were covered by her shade,
and (by) her branches (the) mighty cedars.”

This verse (returning to a 3+3 meter), expounds the final line of v. 10, and the idea that the vine spread out to fill the land. The vine grew so tall and great that its “branches” (tendrils) covered and cast shade over even the cedar trees on the hills. The construct expression “cedars of might” (la@ yz@r=a^) simply means “mighty cedars”. Conceivably, the reference to the “hills” here may allude to Israelite settlement of the hill-country.

Verse 12 [11]

“She sent forth her tendrils unto (the) Sea,
and to (the) River her (many) young shoots.”

The extent of the vine is here described a different way, clearly alluding to the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom at its greatest extent (under Solomon), reaching from the (Mediterranean) Sea in the west to the (Euphrates) River in the east. Like [n`u* in verse 11, the noun ryx!q* means “branch”; however, the extent of the vine’s spread should probably be understood in terms of the fresh grape-bearing tendrils at the end of the branches, parallel with tq#n#oy (“suckling”, i.e., [young] shoot) in the second line. The vine’s growth is so prodigious that there is an abundance of fresh tendrils spreading out in every direction.

Verse 13 [12]

“For what (reason then) did you burst her hedges,
(so) that all (those) passing by (the) way may pluck her?”

The motif of the vine’s great size and growth has here shifted to the idea of it being protected behind “hedges” (<yr!d@G+). It is not clear whether this refers to the Divine protection provided by YHWH, or to the nation’s own kingdom structures and defenses. In either case, YHWH has allowed the hedges to be “burst/broken through” (vb Jr^P*); the specific action-reference may be to YHWH breaking down the protective hedges. The destruction of the hedges allows anyone passing by to “pluck” the fruit from the vine. This use of the verb hr*a*, along with the feminine aspect of the vine-language (i.e., “pluck her [fruit]”), is suggestive of aggressive/violent sexual activity. Indeed, the implication is that the passers-by are acting with hostility and violence toward the vine (Israel). The conquests (by the Assyrians, etc) are being foreshadowed through this language.

Verse 14 [13]

“(The) boar from (the) forest cuts her to pieces,
and (the) moving (things) of (the) field feed on her!”

The idea of military conquest is more clearly alluded to in this climactic couplet. The “wild boar” from the “forest” could refer to any foreign invader; but probably the Assyrian conquests (of the northern territories) in the second half of the 8th century are specifically in view (cf. the discussion on the historical setting of the Psalm, in the previous study). The odd verb form hN`m*s=r=k^y+ probably should be related to the root <sk (“cut/tear off, shear”, cp. Akkadian kas¹mu, “cut to pieces”), as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 259). Once the vine has been torn down and cut apart, everything that moves (zyz]), i.e., every living creature, in the field can come and feed on it.

The Masoretes drew special attention to the word ru^Y`m! (“from [the] forest”) by writing the letters ru above the line (the so-called littera suspensa). The precise significance of this is not certain; several possibilities are mentioned in the note by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 309.

Stanza 3: Verses 15-19 [14-18]

Verse 15a [14a]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, please return!”

A shortened version of the refrain begins the third stanza (cf. the note on v. 8 above). Instead of the request “return to us”, the terser “please return”, with the particle of entreaty (an`), is used.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“Look down from (the) heavens and see—
and may you attend to this (your) vine,
and (so) secure what your right hand planted,
and (watch) over (the) son you yourself made strong.”

The call is for YHWH to pay attention to the condition of His ravaged vine—the nation/kingdom of Israel (esp. the northern territories, v. 2)—and so to respond with help and protection in its time of need. The wide-ranging verb dq^P* probably should be understood here in the basic sense of “attending to” something, exercising oversight, etc.

The couplet in verse 16 expounds what YHWH’s care for His vine entails. The initial word should be understood as a form of the verb /n~K* I, related to /WK, meaning “be firm”, parsed as an imperative with a paragogic (energic) h– suffix. The wish is that YHWH would keep His vine secure, preserving it, in the midst of further (and continuing) threats. The reference to a “son” in the second line seems a bit odd, the Psalmist appearing to mix his metaphors. The reference could be to the people of Israel (collectively) as YHWH’s “son”, or to the king as their representative; cf. on verse 18 below.

Verse 17 [16]

“They (who) have burnt her with such a scouring fire,
from (the) rebuke of your face may they perish!”

The Psalmist’s prayer in this verse takes the form of an imprecation against the hostile enemies of Israel, those who threaten to continue ravaging her. As noted above, it is presumably the Assyrian threat against the northern kingdom that is in view. The first stanza made clear that Israel had experienced great suffering and hardship, with military conquest being alluded to here in vv. 13-14 (cf. above). Such action is now made explicit, with mention of the enemy having burnt the vine (i.e. Israel) with fire.

The first word in the MT needs to be repointed as a plural form with an accusative h– feminine suffix (h*p%r*c=, “they have burnt her”, cf. Hossfeld Zenger, p. 310); Dahood (II, p. 260) suggests a plural participle, h*p#r=s). The final word of the first line, in the MT, hj*WsK= is also problematic. It is perhaps best explained as an emphatic –k preformative (= yK!) attached to a verbal noun from the root hj*s* (cp. jWs), meaning “scouring”; here it would refer to a fiery blaze that sweeps things away.

This fire of judgment is expressed in the second line in terms of the burning anger that comes from YHWH’s face. It is a “rebuke” that will destroy the enemies of Israel.

Verse 18 [17]

“May your hand be over (the) man of your right (hand),
over (the) son of (the) man you yourself made strong.”

This verse expounds upon the statement in the second line of verse 16 (cf. above). The Israelite king may well be in view, as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 260). YHWH’s “hand” refers to the protection He provides, as part of His covenant obligation.

Verse 19 [18]

“For (see,) we shall not (ever) turn back from you:
(so) restore us to life, that we may call on your name!”

Here the Psalmist identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of Israel—and identification which, in large part, serves as the basis of his prayer to God for help. Based on the covenant bond, YHWH is obligated to give help and protection to those who remain loyal to Him. The protagonist in the Psalms frequently makes his petition with this idea of covenant loyalty in mind. The imperfect verb form in the first line can be translated a number of ways: (1) as a past tense (“we have not turned away”), (2) as a future tense (“we will not turn away”), or (3) as an emphatic jussive (“we shall not [ever] turn away”). I have opted for the latter, with the initial –w conjunction also as an emphatic, heightening the emphasis.

The verb form of hy`j* (“live,” Piel stem) in the second line also can be understood different ways—i.e., “keep us alive”, “preserve our life”, “restore us to life”. I have chosen the last of these (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 261).

Conclusion: VERSE 20 [19]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

The introductory refrain found in each stanza (vv. 4, 8, 15) is repeated here, in its fullest form, at the conclusion of the Psalm. It serves as a final call, and prayer to God, for salvation.

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 2)

Psalm 77, continued

PART 2: Verses 12-21 [11-20]

Strophe 4: Verses 11-13
Verse 11 [10]

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

Thematically, verse 11 [10] belongs to the first half of the Psalm (on which, cf. the previous study); however, poetically, according to the five-strophe arrangement (proposed by B. Weber, and followed by Hossfeld-Zenger [pp. 273-6]), it can be counted as the first couplet of the fourth strophe (vv. 11-13).

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 that is how I translate it above.

The root hlj (I) denotes being weak or sick. The Psalmist describes how he became worn-out physically during his night-time vigil (strophe 2, vv. 5-7), during which time he has meditated and prayed fervently to God—with apparently no answer given (strophe 3, vv. 8-10). The moment is also characterized as a “day of distress” (v. 3) for the Psalmist; this can refer to individual suffering, but it is likely that the protagonist also is meant to represent the people as a whole. Thus, the “sickness” he feels also refers to the condition of the people (of Israel/Judah), perhaps alluding to an Exilic setting.

The “right hand” (/ym!y`) is an idiom for strength and power—and, particularly, the ability to act. When applied to YHWH, it typically connotes His ability to save His people from danger and distress; cf. especially in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:6, 12), and similarly in Deut 33:2; note the usage in the Psalms (17:7; 18:36[35]; 20:7[6]; 44:4[3]; 60:7[5]; 78:54, etc. Probably the event at the Reed Sea is being alluded to specifically (cf. below on vv. 17-20).

The Psalmist’s fear is that YHWH’s strong right hand has “changed” (verbal noun from the root hn`v* I). This verb can sometimes connote “growing old”, with the associated attributes of weakness and withering, etc. If God has chosen (for some reason) not to act, that is one thing, but what if He is now unable to deliver His people? This is the unspoken question among the people, spurred by fear, frustration, and despair.

Verse 12 [11]

“I call to mind (the) dealings of YH(WH);
indeed, I bring to mind your wonders from before.”

The Psalmist responds to the question of fear in v. 11—which, again, thematically marks the climax of the first part of the Psalm—with a hymn of praise to YHWH. The shift from speaking of YHWH (line 1), to addressing Him directly (line 2), is transitional, and makes somewhat more sense when v. 11 is read as the beginning of a strophe. The repetition of the verb rk^z` (“bring to mind, remember”) serves this transition; the verb occurred earlier in vv. 4, 7 (cf. the previous study), being something of keyword for the Psalm. The Kethib has a Hiphil (causative) form in line 1, while the Qere ‘corrects’ this as a Qal imperfect (to match the form in line 1); the Kethib reading is to be preferred as the more difficult, and thus more likely to have been modified by scribes. The Hiphil stem is appropriate for the Psalmist, who, through his composition, will cause YHWH’s deeds to be remembered; however, it also fits the dramatic scene, as the composer wishes to spur God to action by making Him remember what He has done for His people in the past.

The noun ll*u&m^ (from the root llu I), denotes a person’s dealing (i.e., how he deals) with another; specifically it refers here to how YHWH has dealt with His people (and their adversaries) in the past. In particular, the Psalmist has in mind the wonderful deeds (“wonder[s]”, collectively al#P#) God has performed—i.e., miracles, such as the event at the Reed Sea, by which He rescued and brought victory for His people. The word Hy` here is typically understood as the shorthand for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH, i.e., YH or Yah); however, Dahood (II, p. 229) would read it as a superlative (suffixed) element, Hy`-, attached to the noun (i.e., “[your] magnificent deeds”).

The expression <d#Q#m!, as in verse 6, indicates that the Psalmist is referring to things YHWH has done in the past—lit., “from (times) before”.

Verse 13 [12]

“So will I make mention of all your deeds,
and will compose on all your dealings.”

I treat the initial w-conjunction as emphatic (“so, indeed”), building upon the prior couplet. The verb hg`h* properly means something like “mutter”, even though it can be understood specifically as uttering something internally, within one’s heart/mind (i.e., “meditate”). The line is often translated that way here (“I meditate on your deeds”); however, the context suggests that the Psalmist is about to speak. I have rendered the verb loosely as “make mention”, building upon the idea of the Psalmist bringing God’s actions to mind (vb rk^z`) in the prior couplet.

The verb j^yc! in the second line can similarly be used both of audible communication and of something that one goes over in the heart/mind. The latter is probably more common, but here I think that audible communication is intended. In any case, the meaning of “going over” a set of words or facts is primary, and would also be appropriate for the Psalmist’s act of composing; I have translated the verb loosely above as “compose”. I.e., the Psalmist expresses here his intention (fulfilled in vv. 17-20) to compose a poem on YHWH’s mighty deeds from times past.

The supplemental character of this couplet is indicated by its shortened meter (3+2, or 2+2).

Strophe 5: Verses 14-16
Verse 14 [13]

“O Mightiest, your path (is) in the holy (place)—
who (is) a mighty (one) great like (the) Mightiest?”

Dahood (II, p. 230) is probably correct in understanding the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”) in the sense of “domain, dominion” (cp. in Ps 1:1 [I, p. 2])—i.e., the territory where the sovereign treads (ird) as representing his domain. YHWH’s domain (as King) is in the “holy (place)”, that is, the heavens high above; the noun vd#q) specifically refers to God’s dwelling—i.e., His holy palace, represented on earth by the Temple-shrine and its sanctuary. In Near Eastern cosmological tradition (cf. below), the Creator/Sovereign dwells on a great mountain that reaches up into the highest heaven.

The second line demonstrates the basic problem with translating both la@ (E~l) and <yh!ýa$ (E_lœhîm) equally (and flatly) as “God”. Here it results in a translation (“Who [is] a god great like God?”) that Dahood (II, p. 230) rightly calls “insipid”. This all changes, however, when one properly retains the distinction between the old singular form la@ (“Mighty [one]”) and the plural <yh!ýa$ (“Mighty [ones]”), treating the latter as an intensive/superlative (or comprehensive) plural (“Mightiest [One]”). Now, the character of the line as a confession of Israelite (Yahwistic) monotheism becomes clear: “Who (is) a mighty (one) [i.e. a god] (who is great) like (the) Mightiest [i.e., our God El-Yahweh]?”

Verse 15 [14]

“You, the Mighty (One) doing wonder(s),
you make known your strength among the peoples!”

Indeed, YHWH is the only true God (Mighty [One], la@), Creator and Sovereign of the universe, unsurpassed in greatness and strength. For poetic concision, I have translated the perfect verb form in the second line “you make known,” but it should properly be rendered “you have made known”. By the wonders YHWH has performed on behalf of His people (in the past), he has made known His strength (zu)) among all the surrounding peoples. The use of a participle (hc@u), “doing”) in the first line indicates that the performance of “wonders” is part of YHWH’s character; He is able to do such things on a regular basis, so there is no reason why He cannot can act again, now, and perform wonders once more on behalf of His people.

Verse 16 [15]

“You redeemed, with your arm, your people,
(the) sons of Ya’aqob and Yôsep.”

The wondrous deeds performed by YHWH in the past served to redeem (vb la^G`) the Israelite people, freeing them from servitude to a foreign nation (e.g., Egypt). Indeed, the Exodus from Egypt is primarily in view, with the specific mention of the “sons of Jacob and Joseph” —i.e., the Israelites who came out of Egypt. This reference sets the stage for the poem in vv. 17-20, with its echoes of the Song of the Sea (Exod 15), alluding to the event at the Reed Sea.

Cosmological Poem: Verses 17-20

This brief poem (or portion of a poem) has been inserted into the fabric of the Psalm. It is presented as the work of the Psalmist, but it may represent an older poem, with similarities in theme and structure to the ancient Song of the Sea (or Song of Moses, Exod 15); cf. also Habakkuk 3:10ff. Of course, the Psalmist could simply have written a poem in an archaic style, imitating older poems (like the Song of the Sea or Psalm 18, 29, etc).

This poem has a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon format, while the rest of the Psalm tends to follow a bicolon (couplet) pattern. The poem’s emphasis is cosmological, referring to the subduing of the primeval waters by YHWH (on which, cf. my article in the Ancient Parallels feature on this site). As in the Song of the Sea, this cosmological motif is applied to the history of Israel—esp. to the Exodus and the event at the Reed Sea. YHWH demonstrates his control over the waters, by separating the waters of the Sea, and allowing His people to cross over and escape from Egypt.

Verse 17 [16]

“The waters saw you, O Mightiest,
the waters saw you and swirled—
even (the) depths shook (with fear)!”

These lines allude to YHWH’s subduing of the primeval waters at the beginning of Creation (Gen 1:2); on this cosmological mythic theme, applied to El-Yawheh in ancient Hebrew poetry, cf. my aforementioned article (“Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”). The primary reference here, however, is to the control and power YHWH has over the waters. The waters themselves recognize this power, and acknowledge YHWH as their Lord, responding with fear at the sight of Him. The verb lWj in the second line has a double meaning; fundamentally, it means that the waters “swirled”, but the verb can also connote “twisting” or “writhing” (i.e., in anguish, etc), which would be more fitting to the theme of the waters showing fear. Cf. Psalm 114:3 and Hab 3:10.

Verse 18 [17]

“(The) dark clouds poured forth waters,
(the) fine clouds gave (forth your) voice—
and your arrows went back and forth.”

The theme of YHWH’s control over the waters continues here, shifting the focus to the rain that comes down out of the clouds, accompanied by the phenomena of the storm: thunder (line 2) and lightning (line 3). The Near Eastern storm-theophany is applied to El-YHWH with some frequency in ancient Hebrew poetry (including a number of Psalms, e.g. 18); the similarities with Canaanite Baal-Haddu in this regard helps to explain the fierce ‘rivalry’ between YHWH and Baal, at the religious level, in early Israelite history.

Thunder is frequently denoted by the word loq (“voice”)—i.e., as the “voice” of God; similarly, bolts of lightning are depicted as God’s “arrows” being shot back and forth. The ancient storm-theophany typically has a militaristic context, and especially so when applied to El-YHWH in the Old Testament. To some extent, as noted above, this motif of God as a warrior reflects the cosmological myth of the Creator defeating (subduing) the chaotic primeval waters, and thus allowing an ordered universe (capable of sustaining life) to be established.

The third line of this tricolon, like that of v. 17, begins with the particle [a^, a primitive adverbial/conjunctive particle with emphatic force (“[so] also, even”); it is typically used in poetry, or in comparable poetic/ritual forms.

Verse 19 [18]

“(The) voice of your thunder in the rolling (cloud)s,
(your) lightning-flashes light up (the) world,
(and so) the earth shakes and quakes!”

The power of the storm, and thus of the storm theophany (as applied to YHWH), is vividly expressed in this third tricolon. Here the “voice” (loq) of YHWH (v. 18) is explicitly identified as thunder (<u^r^). Earlier, it was stated that the waters shook in fear at the sight of YHWH; now the entire earth below shakes/quakes in fear at the awesome power of YHWH that is expressed through the rainstorm.

Verse 20 [19]

“On the sea, <Mightiest,> (is) your path,
and your passage-ways on mighty waters,
and (yet) your heel(print)s are not seen!”

The expression of YHWH’s power/control over the waters culminates here with the idea of his treading upon (B=) the waters. The preposition B= could also be rendered “in”, and this meaning is probably intended, at least secondarily, as an allusion to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, when God led His people “through” (i.e., in) the waters of the Sea. However, it would seem that the principal reference here is to YHWH’s dominion over the waters, illustrated by the path(way)s he walks over/upon them. Yet, in spite of this anthropomorphic imagery, God leaves no “heel-marks” (i.e., footprints) in the surface of the water. His presence is invisible; we can only see the effects of His powerful presence and the control he has over the universe (esp. the rain and storm).

The first line (of the MT) has only two words/beats, in utter contrast to the rest of the poem. It thus seems relatively certain that something has dropped out, and a word is missing. The simplest solution is to propose that an occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” i.e., God) has somehow been omitted.

For more on the use of the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”), in the sense of “domain, dominion”, see the note on verse 14 above.

Conclusion: Verse 21 [20]

“May you lead, like the flock, your people,
by (the) hand of Moshe and Aharon!”

The Psalm concludes with this 3+3 couplet, returning to the regular meter of the composition. In a sense, the couplet follows upon verse 16, resuming the line of thought from strophe 5 (cf. above), after the intervening poem of vv. 17-20. If the verb form is read as a typical indicative perfect, then the couplet simply concludes the recitation of YHWH’s past action on behalf of His people—i.e., “You led your people like a flock…”. However, given the prayer-lament emphasis of the Psalm as a whole, a precative perfect seems more fitting as a conclusion (as Dahood, II, p. 233, suggests). That is, the Psalmist states his heartfelt wish for what YHWH will do, expressing it in terms of something that has already happened. A more literal (but very cumbersome) translation would thus be: “(O, that) you (would) have led your people (again) like a flock…!”.

The wish is that YHWH will lead his people out of bondage/distress, just as He did in the time of the Exodus (“by the hand of Moses and Aaron”). This suggests an Exilic setting for the Psalm—viz., God will lead His people out of the (Assyrian/Babylonian) Exile, essentially repeating what He did in the Exodus from Egypt. This is an important theme, for example, in the Deutero-Isaian poems, where the idea of a new Moses also seems to be implied. This Moses-symbolism, accompanied by an application of the prophecy in Deut 18:15-19, helped shaped the eschatological expectation of the “Prophet-like-Moses” who is to come. For more on the Messianic Prophet figure-types, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

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).