Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 5

Psalm 5

The superscription to this Psalm follows the same pattern as that of Psalm 4, suggesting that the word hl*yj!n+ refers to a musical instrument, possibly a pipe (flute) or reed instrument, based on the root llj (cf. 1 Kings 1:40; 1 Sam 10:5, etc); unfortunately, as the word occurs only here in the Old Testament, there is no way to be certain. The Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon format; however, this is not consistent throughout (at least in the text as it has come down to us), and there are metrical questions in vv. 3b-4 and 5, in particular. Scholars have different opinions as to the legitimacy of textual emendation aimed at achieving/restoring a consistent meter.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

The first two bicola (vv. 2-3a) are straightforward, and establish a prayer-setting for the Psalm, similar in many ways to that of Psalm 4 (see the previous study):

“Give ear to my words, YHWH,
l(isten) close to my utterance;
attend to my cry (for help),
my King and Mighty One!

By any account, the lines in vv. 3b-4 seem to use a different meter, and commentators divide them in different ways; perhaps the most consistent result is that suggested by Dahood (pp. 28-29), requiring no real emendation, but only the slight modification of reading YHWH at the end of v. 3 rather than the beginning of v. 4. This yields two 3 beat (3+3) lines followed by two 2 beat (2+2) lines:

“For to you I make (my) petition, YHWH,
(that by) daybreak you would hear my voice–
(by) daybreak I will arrange (it),
to you I look for (an answer)!”

Conceptually and formally, these represent parallel sections (or strophes), in spite of the metrical differences. The idea seems to be of a nighttime vigil or session of prayer, with the protagonist speaking (and crying) out to God. In the morning, literally at the ‘crack’ of dawn, the Psalmist anticipates a response from YHWH. It is likely that the terse statements in v. 4b make use of the verbs Er^u* and hp*x* in something of a technical sense. The first verb (Er^u*) carries the basic idea of putting things in order, arranging them; Dahood suggests a legal/judicial context of setting forth one’s case (or defense), i.e. before God as Judge (cf. Psalm 50:21; Job 33:5; 37:19). The second verb (hp*x*, root hpx I) has the basic meaning of looking for something, keeping watch, etc; the context here very much indicates the idea of looking/waiting for a response from YHWH, even though there are few such examples of the verb being used this way.

Verses 5-7 [4-6]

The thematic focus in these lines shifts to a contrast between righteous and wicked, pure and impure, such as we have already seen in the previous Psalms (3 and 4). There is perhaps less of an emphasis here on the idea of covenant loyalty to YHWH, but wickedness defined by worship of false/pagan deities (other than YHWH) remains clearly in view. The text as we have it would seem to be comprised of two 3+3 bicola alternating with 3+2 bicola, though some commentators have suggested emendation (e.g., omitting the word la@ from verse 5) to make the meter consistent. There are various sorts of parallelism in these lines, as one can see in the translation:

“For no Mighty One delights (in) wickedness,
(and) alongside you evil does not stay.
(Those) shouting cannot stand up
in front of your eyes.
You hate all (the one)s making trouble,
(and) you shall destroy (the one)s speaking a lie!
A man of blood(y deed)s and corruption
YHWH treats with disgust!”

The holiness of God (la@, Mighty [One]) is set against the wickedness (uv^r#) and evil (ur^) of much of humankind. In Psalm 4, the wickedness of certain segments of the society—prominent men—was in view; here the scope seems to have widened and become more general. Nor is the worship of false deities the primary target, though it would still seem to be a strong point of emphasis. The very expression la@ aý (“no Mighty [One]”, i.e. “no God”) is an allusion to false religion and idolatry, which, according to the covenantal theology and standards of Israelite monotheism, leads to greater wickedness. For this negating expression, describing other ‘deities’ as “no God”, cf. the key references in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:17, 21; also Jer 5:7); similarly, evil can be referred to as “no good” (bof aý, Ps 36:5; cp. Isa 16:6; Prov 15:7, Dahood, p. 30). Moreover, words such as “lie” (bz*K*) and “corruption” (hm*r=m!) can serve as euphemisms for false religion and idolatry. Dahood goes so far to suggest that here <ym!D* is not the common plural of <D* (“blood”), but a plural noun derived from hm*D* (“be like, resemble”), meaning “images, likenesses” (cp. the noun /y)m=D! in Psalm 17:12). I do not find this especially convincing, though a certain wordplay between <D* and hm*D* is certainly possible, perhaps even likely. Idolatry and acts of violence were seen as marks of extreme wickedness, and would often be mentioned together; a particularly relevant example is Psalm 26:9-10. The expression “man/men of blood” is also found in Psalm 139:19-20. The plural <ym!D* (lit. “bloods”) in such instances presumably means “(act)s of blood(shed)”, i.e. acts of violence, which would not necessarily involve the actual shedding of blood.

The point of all this in the Psalm is that YHWH, the true Mighty One, is holy and detests such wickedness. By calling on YHWH to act in His holiness to destroy those who act wickedly, the Psalmist demonstrates his loyalty and aligns himself on the side of the true God. Most likely, this is to be understood as part of what the Psalmist is setting before YHWH (v. 4), as evidence of his loyalty; as such, it is part of the prayer offered in vv. 2-4, with the expectation that YHWH will answer it.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

Based on the Psalmist’s demonstration of loyalty, aligning himself with the holiness of YHWH, he now proclaims that he is deserving of entering into God’s holy place—i.e. the place of His Presence, described two ways: (1) from the ritual standpoint of the Temple precincts and sanctuary, and (2) figuratively as a land/place embodying Divine justice and righteousness (hq*d*x=). Apparent metrical inconsistency has led some commentators to suggest that something is missing at the end of verse 9; this may be resolved, in part, if hwhy (YHWH) is read at the end of v. 8 rather than the beginning of v. 9 (Dahood, p. 33, and see on v. 3-4 above). For the sake of my translation, I have tentatively adopted this division:

“And I, in the vast(ness) of your kindness,
I (will) come into your House—
I will bow down to(ward) your holy Palace,
in (the) fear of you, YHWH.
Lead me in(to) your righteous (land),
in answer to (those) watching me,
(and) make straight your paths before me.”

A pair of terms characterizes the two aspects of the place of YHWH’s Presence mentioned above:

    • The Ritual aspect:
      (1) tyB@, “house” (“your House”), i.e. the Temple as the “house of God”; here, probably, the Temple precincts are meant
      (2) lk^yh@, “palace”, in the expression “palace of your holiness”, i.e. “your holy Palace”; most likely this refers to the actual Sanctuary (Holy Place)
    • The Figurative (religious/ethical) aspect:
      (1) ds#j#, “goodness, kindness”, which can also connote “loyalty”, etc.; in connection, the noun br) (“many, multitude”) should be understood in the sense of “vastness”, i.e. a vast domain.
      (2) hq*d*x=, “justice, righteousness”, also with connotations of faithfulness, loyalty; as indicated above, this should be read in the figurative sense of “righteous land”, a straight and level place, i.e. vast and open.

Most commentators assume that the participle rr@ov, “watching” should be taken in a hostile sense, as of enemies or adversaries. Given the general context of these Davidic Psalms, with their frequent references to surrounding adversaries, this seems likely; what follows in vv. 10ff gives added support to the idea.

Verses 10-13 [9-12]

The Psalm concludes with two strophes contrasting the fate of the wicked and righteous. As noted previously, many Psalms, in the form they have come down to us, were influenced by Wisdom language and traditions, such as are embodied in the introductory Psalm 1. We have already seen how several of these royal/Davidic Psalms (cf. the studies on Pss 2 and 3) close on a Wisdom-themed note. Here, in Psalm 5, we have a strong echo of Psalm 1 with its juxtaposition of the fate of the righteous and the wicked. The wicked are described in vv. 10-11, the righteous in vv. 12-13; in both instances, the prayer context is retained, so that the descriptions are precatory, reflecting the wishes of the Psalmist. The contrasting imagery here is striking: the fate of the wicked is the devouring open mouth of death and the grave, while for the righteous it is a place of safety and refuge surrounded by YHWH Himself. Let us consider first the wicked in vv. 10-11 (four 3+2 bicola):

“For there is no firmness in his mouth,
his insides (are) a yawning (ruin);
a grave (wide) open (is) their throat,
their tongue makes (everything) slippery.
Make them perish, Mightiest, may they fall
from their (own wicked) plans;
in their many terrible (deed)s drive them away,
for they rebelled a(gainst) you!”

The shift from third person singular (“his”) to plural (“their”) may seem odd, but it can be found relatively frequently in the Old Testament, as well as other Near Eastern (Semitic) literature, especially in poetry. Adding to the possible confusion is the preservation in poetry of a final mem (<) as an enclitic particle, which, at times, can be mistaken for a 3rd person plural suffix (“their, them”). Such mem-enclitics, insofar as they exist in Old Testament poetry, probably were preserved purely as a way to extend words and fill out the meter. Here I tentatively follow Dahood in reading the < in the word <B*r=q! as a possible enclitic, which would allow a reading of “his insides” rather than “their insides” and keep the pronoun shift consistent in v. 10a and 10b.

The lines of verse 10 draw upon ancient Canaanite imagery regarding death (twm, personified as a powerful being, Môt); the image of death (and the grave) as possessing an enormous devouring mouth (and a ravenous appetite) is well attested in Ugaritic texts, and is also preserved, to some extent, in the Old Testament (Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5; Prov 30:15f). Consider the pair of specific images the Psalmist uses:

    • Mouth—no firmness
      • Insides [i.e. inside the mouth]—a yawning, gaping ruin
      • Throat—a wide open grave [i.e. place of death]
    • Tongue—slippery

In addition, there seems to be a rich wordplay at work here, which is virtually impossible to capture in translation:

    • br#q# (qereb, “inner, inside[s]”)—rb#q# (qeber, “burial, grave”)
    • br#q#—there is a separate root brq with the basic meaning “be/come near, approach”, and this could allude to the idea that the destruction for the wicked is “coming near”
    • ql^j* (µ¹laq)—this verb means “be/make smooth, slippery”, appropriate in connection with the tongue to indicate deceit, etc; however, there is a separate root (Ugar. —lq) denoting “die, perish”, a meaning which may be attested in Hebrew as well (cf. Ps 36:3; 73:18; Job 31:17; Hos 10:2; Dahood, p. 35). The ability of the tongue to bring destruction is stated famously in James 3:5ff.

An interesting aspect of the fate of the wicked is that, just as they resemble the grave, so they themselves will wind up in the pit of death. For a similar example of such grim irony, cf. Psalm 7:16-17 [15-16].

By contrast, the righteous—i.e. those loyal to YHWH, including the Psalmist—will experience an entirely different fate: instead of being engulfed by death, they will be surrounded by the protecting (life-giving and preserving) Presence of YHWH:

“But they will find joy, all (the one)s trusting in you,
(in)to (the) distant (future) they ring (out);
and you give cover over them,
and they rejoice in you, (the one)s loving your Name.
For you will bless the (one who is) just, YHWH,
like a protective (cove)r you surround him (with) favor.”

Several interlocking strands of motifs are present here, each expressed with multiple terms:

    • rejoicing—verbs jm^x* (have joy, pleasure), /n~r* (cry out [for joy], ring out), and Jl^u* (rejoice, exult)
    • cover/protection—verbs Ek^s* (cover over, overshadow), rf^u* (surround); noun hN`x! (protective [cover])
    • characteristic of the righteous—as the ones “trusting” (vb hs*j*, “seek shelter, refuge”) in YHWH, and “loving” (vb bh@a*) His Name

These function in a positive way, similar to the negative motifs relating to the fate of the wicked in vv. 10-11.

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